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Renewing gift of friendship 100 years ago: North Dakota gave Norway a Lincoln statue; family and friends return for its centennial

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FARGO — On July 4, 1914, a delegation from North Dakota that included Gov. Louis Hanna brought the people of Norway a gift to celebrate their constitution’s 100th anniversary.

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The gift, a bust of President Abraham Lincoln, was placed on a pedestal in Oslo’s Frogner Park in the name of friendship.

“In the year 1914, Norwegian Americans’ thoughts turn with love and devotion towards their old homeland Norway,” Hanna said at the time.

One hundred years later, descendants of a young boy who joined that delegation recently took a trip to Norway to celebrate the sculpture’s centennial and the special bond it represents between North Dakota and Norway.

“As a child growing up, I remember hearing my grandfather talk about it,” said David W. Skjerven, whose grandfather, William Skjerven, was the 13-year-old boy who carried an American flag during the ceremony in Norway 100 years ago this summer.

When David Skjerven, of Crystal Lake, Ill., realized the 100-year mark was coming up, he thought: “We definitely need to be there.”

Thirty-two Skjerven family members and friends visited Norway around the Fourth of July to participate in a celebration at the statue, which has kept its spot in central Oslo.

Fargo residents Laura Langemo, Mitzi Hager, Elaine Nelson and Judy Edwards and West Fargo resident Kyle Handegard were among those accompanying the Skjervens.

The family brought a letter from Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who credited part of North Dakota’s economic growth to “the hard work and integrity of the Norwegian people’s culture and heritage.”

Dalrymple wrote: “100 years later North Dakota continues to boast a population of 30 percent Norwegian ancestry and continues to be an outstanding state.”

In the years since the statue was introduced to Frogner Park, Norwegians have held yearly parades and ceremonies there on a Sunday close to July 4.

It was one of the few public ceremonies allowed by the Germans during World War II, and served as a silent protest against Nazi occupation, said David Skjerven, who grew up in Park River, N.D.

“The Norwegians seem to honor it and remember it,” Skjerven said of the statue created by North Dakota sculptor Paul Fjelde.

While most North Dakotans may not remember the Lincoln statue they gave, “the Norwegians still seem to know about it,” he said.

Skjerven and the group visited the statue June 29, the Sunday before the Fourth of July, and were greeted by the Norwegian Honor Guard, a band that played patriotic tunes; a member of the Norwegian Parliament; and Julie Furuta-Toy, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Norway. The yearly celebration took place nearby, with hot dogs and hamburgers cooked on grills while live bands played.

William Skjerven, the 13-year-old boy who traveled to Norway 100 years ago with the governor’s delegation, was joined by his parents, Haakon and Elisa. Haakon and his brother became successful North Dakota farmers after leaving their southern Norway farm and moving to Walsh County, N.D.

“It’s so nice to have the exchange across the ocean,” said Elaine Nelson of Fargo, a friend who joined the Skjerven family on this year’s trip.

Nelson, an international director for Sons of Norway, said North Dakota has a special relationship with Norway because of the number of North Dakotans with Norwegian ancestry and because many people travel back and forth between the two countries.

Nelson said the yearly celebrations at the Lincoln statue show the depth of the bond.

In a speech he gave after reading Dalrymple’s words at this year’s celebration in Oslo, David Skjerven said he hoped future generations would continue to celebrate this gift from North Dakota to Norway.

“One hundred years from now, we hope that our great-great-grandchildren will remember the stories of this trip and continue to honor it as a tradition, too,” he said.

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