What do you think of when you think of Norway? Fjords and Vikings? The Nobel prize, maybe? Cold winters, – definitely. Norway is also known as a place which is livable and where almost everyone has a good standard of living. It wasn’t always that way. In the 19th century, a full one third of the population of Norway – 1 out of every 3 people – left the country and moved to the US.
Almost all of the Norwegians who came to the US came here to improve their economic situation. In the US, they were promised farm land because of the Homestead Act. Most of the Norwegians immigrated to the Midwest. By the turn of the century there were 1,000,000 people living in the US, whose primary language was Norwegian.
One of those Norwegians was Waldemar Ager. Born in Norway in 1869, he arrived in Chicago in 1885. He was a very unique person. He was idealistic and had great dreams. At the same time, he was aware of the tragic side of life.
He moved to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, married a Norwegian woman, and they had 9 children. He began writing novels and short stories which are considered among the best of the literature produced by Norwegian immigrants. He also worked tirelessly as the editor of a Norwegian magazine called Reform. This periodical promoted the cause of women’s suffrage, farm and labor causes, and especially the issue of prohibition.
Ager also dreamed of encouraging a thriving Norwegian-American subculture in the U.S. He hoped that it would support Norwegian language and literature. However, the number of Norwegians immigrating to the US had gone way down. The new immigrants and their children were also beginning to use English, rather than Norwegian, in school and work. As World War I broke out, in l914, the US gradually became more and more anti-German. A movement grew to discourage people of all backgrounds from speaking their primary language if it was one other than English. This was a huge obstacle to Ager’s hopes.
Today, the number of people in the U.S. who are Norwegian is over 4 million! When you consider that there are just over 5 million people in Norway itself, you realize how Norwegians managed to thrive in their new country.
Today, the Waldemar Ager House is a museum. It is open by appointment and for special events.
This is the fourth stop on our Wisconsin Trail!
Rebecca Blake Beech