Early Years of the St. Olaf Congregation in Olmsted and Dodge Counties, Minnesota
by Mike Oiseth
A similar version of this article originally appeared in Avisen, the publication of the Norwegian-American branch of the Minnesota Genealogical Society.
Dodge County, Minnesota became home to two branches of my family, one branch arriving in two steps in 1885 and 1888 from Høland, Akershus. Earlier, my father’s maternal grandfather emigrated from the silver mining area near Kongsberg, going to Wisconsin by way of Quebec in 1858 and, with two brothers, moving to Minnesota in 1863.
I’ve learned that the community in which my ancestors settled had its beginnings some ten years before 1863 and has been named the St. Olaf settlement by historians because its nucleus was the St. Olaf Norwegian Lutheran congregation that Rev. Claus L. Clausen organized in 1856. Historian Carlton Qualey refers to an “East St. Olaf settlement” in Olmsted County and a “West St. Olaf settlement” in Dodge County. (The congregation, in 1863, decided to build two churches, sharing one pastor, in order to accommodate parishioners in outlying but connected townships.)
Writer O. M. Norlie ranked, chronologically, the Dodge community as the 76th and Olmsted’s the 77th of all Norwegian settlements in the U.S. Within Minnesota alone, however, Norlie listed them as the 9th and 10th of the settlements, respectively. The main Olmsted County townships involved are Salem and Rock Dell, which adjoin Canisteo and Vernon to the west within Dodge County.
From the 1850’s to 1900 or so, the St. Olaf congregation gave rise to other churches in Rochester, Hayfield, Kasson, and Sargeant Township of Mower County. Within the same geographic area, the Haugeans organized South Zumbro Lutheran Church, Salem Township, in 1867.
Additionally, the East church experienced a split over the doctrine of predestination in the 1880s, as happened in many Norwegian Lutheran churches of the day, and dissenting members organized the Zion congregation, built a church, and created their own cemetery in Rock Dell. When the Norwegian Lutheran Church, the United Lutheran and the Hauge Synod merged in 1917 to form the “Norwegian Lutheran Church of America,” the Zion church members rejoined East St. Olaf.
The Rev. Claus L. Clausen, a Dane, was the second pastor to serve the immigrant Norwegians in all of America (the first was Elling Eielsen). Born in 1820, Clausen was age 23 when he answered the call for a teacher by pioneers in Wisconsin. Soon they wanted him for their pastor, and he was ordained by a German Lutheran. Parishes he served in the early years included Muskego, Koshkonong, and Rock County, Wisconsin. Clausen witnessed the dramatic population growth of that state, saw the availability of good farm land shrink, and its costs rise. The need for new settlement areas increased as children of previously settled Wisconsin farmers matured and needed space of their own, and as a rising stream of new Norwegian immigrants joined the tide of population pushing into America’s frontier areas. By selling their Wisconsin farms at high prices, established farmers could make a good profit, move west, and acquire larger amounts of land. Newcomers to the country were often poor and out of necessity had to move where government land was affordable. Some may have moved for the challenge and excitement.
Clausen took it upon himself to answer the immigrants’ needs. In 1850, he wrote to our territorial governor, Alexander Ramsey, inquiring about opportunities for immigrants. The same year, Clausen and some companions explored Minnesota Territory for attractive settlement sites with affordable land. Then, a year after his 1852 exploratory trip into Iowa, he organized and led some 40 wagonloads of Wisconsin families across the Mississippi to the place where they founded St. Ansgar. After settling at this colony in Mitchell County and taking over as its pastor, Clausen forayed farther west in Iowa as well as northward into Minnesota Territory, ministering to immigrants on the frontier. A map of southern Minnesota and northern Iowa will show that both Dodge and Mower counties lie directly north of Mitchell County, Iowa.
On June 12, 1856 Pastor Clausen visited the settlement in Rock Dell Township, Olmsted County, and conducted a service at which he baptized 15 children and dedicated the cemetery of what became the East St. Olaf Church. This date has also been used as the most likely one for the official organization of the congregation. Names of the early organizers have not been verified and the original minutes of the first church meetings are not to be found among its documents. Official minutes of the Church Council (“Kirkeraad”) of the Norwegian Synod for 13 January 1858 refer to a letter from St. Olaf’s Congregation complaining that the Council had neglected a call for a pastor, as requested through Rev. Clausen. The records also show that Rev. A. C. Preus met with the congregation on October 27, 1858, and the minutes of this session, still intact, refer to the organization of the first congregation two years before.
The establishment of St. Olaf’s congregation was one of a number of organizational efforts conducted by Clausen in Mower and Olmsted counties during June of 1856. In Mower County, he coordinated the creation of the Little Cedar congregation in Adams Township then, and the Bear Creek congregation in Frankford Township (on June 22). Along with St. Ansgar, the “Clausen parish” is known to have included Rock Creek, Six Mile Grove, and Red Oak Grove in Mower County until 1871, except when Clausen served as a Civil War chaplain in 1861-62 and in the period serving as a member of the Iowa legislature.
Genealogists should note that the initial parish records for the Dodge-Olmsted St. Olaf congregation include some early baptisms, confirmations and marriages of immigrants residing not only in the southwest Olmsted-southeast Dodge area, but also at Bear Creek, Rochester, and “the Austin settlement.” A copy of the microfilmed records is available at the Olmsted County Historical Society library in Rochester (or it can be ordered from the ELCA Archives in Illinois). Most of the original pages were quite well preserved prior to filming and are fairly legible, though the handwriting can be difficult to interpret.
In August and September of 1857, Rev. Johan Storm Munch, serving a church in Wiota, Lafayette County, Wisconsin (which had also been organized by Clausen) visited southern Minnesota settlements. He traveled to “Norwegian Ridge” (at Spring Grove, Houston Co.) which was then without a pastor, and journeyed on, he later wrote, to “St. Olaf’s Congregation, which had been organized by Clausen (the oldest minister) but still was without a pastor. Many Norwegians were living there.” In fact, one of the residents was Munch’s wife’s brother, Emil Constantz Falck, who acquired a farm there in June, 1857. (Generations of Falck descendants continued to live in the area.)
Munch’s 1903 autobiography, “Vita Mea,” written for his children and included in the book The Strange American Way: The Letters of Caia Munch, goes on to describe what was, at that location, “my busiest day on the whole trip”:
“I started by receiving communicants and registering christenings (in the house where I stayed, I also conducted the services). Then followed in rapid succession communion sermon, homily, christenings, and communion. Then it was dinnertime, and in the same room I then had dinner. Then at it again without any rest, registering confirmants, examining them, confirming them and giving them the Lord’s Supper. And finally a wedding. Then I was really tired — and then a pipe tasted awfully good, for I used to smoke then.”
Following the mission visit, Munch wrote a letter from the Wiota parsonage dated 16 November 1857 to his brother Andreas, in which he tells of two busy days following nights of little rest.
“In the morning, the parishioners came, I had to conduct a long service with nineteen christenings, and did not get my dinner until five o’clock in the afternoon. What further increased the difficulties was the fact that the rain forced all to gather inside the cabin, so that I had no more than two square feet to myself. But, as I said, the Lord was with us, and everything went well.”
“The next day, I had another service, and the third day (Sunday) a big performance in another house, where there was more room. For the sake of comparison (that is, with the work of Norwegian ministers), I shall tell you what I had to perform that day after two wakeful nights: (1) registration for baptism of 21 children, (2) sermon for 21 churchings, (3) communion sermon for 60 communicants, (4) mass, (5) main sermon, (6) christening of 21 children, (7) communion and mass, (8) examination for two hours of 8 young people who wished to be confirmed, (9) confirmation service for 6 of them, (10) communion for the same 6. When I was through, it was six o’clock, and I started at nine o’clock. But the Lord was with me, and it went far better than I would have imagined.”
Munch’s writings include more details and humor about his journey, including descriptions of the steamboats on which he crossed the Mississippi, precarious rides on a “Lumbervogn” (lumber wagon) and his less-than-desirable overnight accommodations on the Minnesota territorial frontier.
A document retained in the St. Olaf church shows that Munch also visited the district again in 1858, delivered a sermon, and baptized children.
On October 1st, 1858, the itinerant preacher, A. E. Fridrichsen, visited farm homes in Dodge and Olmsted counties and baptized a number of small children. Anders Emil Fridrichsen, who was born 2 December 1810 in Kristiansand, Vest-Agder, Norway was a colorful figure. Those he served called him “the Leatherbreeches Minister” because he dressed in “shaggy yellow skin pants and boots” for everyday use. Whether he was actually ever ordained is a question that persists. Historian Nora Solum wrote, “No doubt many a Norwegian of the 1859’s and 1860’s lifted an eyebrow at the mention of Anders Emil Fridrichsen, the roving pioneer pastor whose eccentric and unclerical activities in the Middle West made him renowned and remembered among them in legend long after his name was forgotten.” In her essay in Studies and Records, volume XVI (the full text of which is online at the web site of the Norwegian-American Historical Association), Solum tells us that Hjalmar Rued Holand considered Fridrichsen as “one of the strangest candidates for the ministry ever to have come to America. Having received a call from the Four-Mile Prairie colony in Van Zandt County, Texas, in 1854, he arrived in Texas in 1855 and served congregations there until 1857, in the meantime making trips that took him as far as Missouri.” Hjalmar Holand, she says, describes Friderichsen as “never having been in reality a minister, merely a sort of theological candidate from Christiania, where according to legend, he had been a real gay blade and social lion. From Norway he had after a time, ‘on good and sufficient grounds, now forgotten,’ been accommodated with passage on an emigrant ship bound for America.” Sorum says that it was supposedly because Fridrichsen could get none of the pastors or synods in this country to ordain him that “he resigned from his charge in Texas after a couple of years and came northward into the Middle West to become one of the first settlers in Freeborn County, Minnesota. From sod-hut headquarters near Albert Lea he traveled about in the Norwegian pioneer settlements, baptizing children and preaching sermons. He was never particular about the form of his fee, provided it was generous, though his preference was for hides, meat, tallow, young pigs, wool, and socks. He drove around the countryside with a horse and wagon, attracting notice everywhere . . . .”
“When he had a full load of gifts in kind, he would set off for Winona to exchange it all for jingling currency, which he would in turn invest in mortgages at attractive rates. This profitable business he carried on for several years. It is said that when Pastor U. V. Koren once took him to task for his business practices and asked him if he had ever taken more than forty per cent, he replied cheerily that he had even got as much as sixty.”
Solum relates another story about Friderichsen, this one told by the pioneer pastor Ole Paulson:
“Just before we reached Prairie du Chien, a tramp-like man, lugging an ordinary sack of flour, got on the train. When the conductor came to collect his ticket, the man had none, of course. Where was he going? Clinton. The conductor named the fare. At this the tramp began fumbling around in his numerous pockets and found a few pennies here, a few there. In spite of all he dug up, however, he didn’t have enough. The conductor grinned, disgusted, and let him go. The following day an elegantly dressed man wearing a silk hat and carrying a cane walked in to a church meeting. The man looked familiar — still, for a moment, I couldn’t place him. Then it came to me — he was none other than the tramp of yesterday. And who was he? The widely known pastor, the Reverend Mr. Fridrichsen, of course. He had come to the church meeting in the hope of being accepted. He knocked at the doors of all the synods, but none would admit him.”
In 1859, Rev. A. C. Preus made two or three visits from Wisconsin to the St. Olaf congregation, during which he baptized a large number of children. He possibly also conducted confirmation and communion services at this time.
On April 17, 1860, at a meeting of the congregation, the following resolution was adopted: “The congregation calls Rev. N. E. Jensen of Fillmore Co. to serve as its temporary pastor from April this year to May, 1861. The pastor shall conduct services four times during this period, and each time at 3 or 4 different places in the settlement.” Rev. Jensen, located at HIghland Prairie, accepted this call and did visit three times in 1860.
A congregation publication on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the congregation (in 1956) indicated that as early as 1860 “the pioneers of this new settlement — while still living in sod huts and log cabins — contributed more than one thousand dollars for the building of Luther College at Decorah, Iowa.”
Rev. Jensen visited the congregation twice in 1861. “In 1860 and 1861 he baptized 84 children, performed a number of marriages and also conducted confirmation and communion services.” (Seventy-fifth anniversary booklet of East-West St. Olaf church.)
In August of 1861, Rev. Lauritz Steen became the first resident pastor of St. Olaf Congregation.