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Erik Burgess, Published September 18 2012

Fargo’s statue of famous Viking leader gives Norwegian-Americans sense of own history

FARGO – When Gange Rolf first arrived here in 1912, everyone knew his name. In fact, 15,000 people showed up to welcome him to North Dakota.

Now, 100 years later, Rolf, perhaps more commonly known as Rollo, is still here. The statue stands across the street from the Sons of Norway Kringen Lodge downtown.

But his fan base is not quite as big anymore, something local historians were hoping to change with a presentation of gifts to the lodge here Tuesday night.

“Most of the people of Fargo are not even aware probably that there is a French statue standing over in Fargo, or how the heck that thing ever got there,” said Verlyn Anderson, retired director of the Concordia College library and a professor of Scandinavian studies there for 30 years.

Anderson presented to the lodge on Tuesday night a flag from Normandy, France, which was brought to him from a French exchange student last year after the student realized that Fargo is home to a bronze replica of the original stone statue of Rollo found in Rouen, Normandy.

Only three of these statues exist in the world. The other replica is in Alesund, Norway, believed to be Rollo’s birthplace.

“Why they sent it here, I don’t know,” Anderson said. “Maybe they decided they didn’t want the Americans to forget that history.”

Rollo, a Viking conqueror, was a real thorn in the side of the French in the late ninth century, Anderson says, constantly storming the coastline but being bought off with gold.

Finally in 911, France officially gave him the land that Rollo renamed “Normandy,” Old Norse for “the land of the Norsemen.”

“And of course, they’ve been there ever since,” Anderson said.

But how did Rollo end up in Fargo? Fast-forward to 1912: Herman Fjelde, a local physician and lover of the arts, heard a duplicate of the original Rollo statue was to be sent to “the state in the U.S. that has the highest percentage of Norwegian settlers,” Anderson said. “So it was sent here.”

And Fjelde lobbied for it to finally land in Fargo.

“He was very much a promoter of Norwegian culture in the U.S., particularly in the Midwest,” said Fjelde’s great-granddaughter, Claudia Pratt, the former executive director of the Nordic Culture Clubs. “While he was a doctor, his real love was art and history and culture.”

Fargo, she said, was a town on the grow in the early 1900s and looking to cultivate some culture by adding art and historical items to the city.

When the statue arrived, they planted it near the Great Northern Railway Depot, and thousands attended, people Pratt called “the movers and shakers of Fargo.”

Now, 100 years later, Rollo no longer stands near the train tracks. Lodge officials asked the city to move him nearer to the Sons of Norway, Anderson jokes, as a guardian.

“I always say that he’s protecting the Norwegian lodge from the Elim Church, which of course was settled by Swedes,” he said, laughing. “No, no, no, but we have to joke about our heritage.”

Pratt said in the time of her father, the statue acted as a sort of cultural beacon to the many Norwegians in the area, something she believes it continues to do.

“In my mind, Norwegians really wanted to be Norwegians in America when they immigrated over here,” she said. And the statue provided “a sense of pride for being Norwegians in America.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518

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