TOWN OF BLUE MOUNDS – Olav Sigurd Kvaale was convinced he had seen the last of the nomadic building constructed in his homeland with the help of his grandfather in the early 1890s.
But a year after visiting Little Norway, the church’s home for the last 80 years, Kvaale is back in this wooded valley east of Blue Mound State Park with a volunteer contingent of Norwegians who have a love of history and are handy with a pry bar.
The 122-year-old replica of a Christian Norwegian stave church is being readied for what is likely its final journey. Rotten cedar shingles, the limestone foundation, cob webs and bat droppings will remain in the now-closed Norwegian pioneer village. The rest of the structure is slowly being taken apart and carefully labeled so it can be packed up, shipped and rebuilt a fifth and likely final time in Orkdal, Norway, the city of its birth.
The $800,000 effort, paid for through fundraisers, donations and public tax dollars in Norway, will bring to a close a remarkable U.S. run for the Norwegian-designed church built for an exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Kvaale’s grandfather was just 20 years old at the time.
“This building represents our craftsmanship,” Kvaale said last week after a lunch break. “It’s amazing that this should happen. We hope this will be a magnet for the tourists and our community.”
An important part of Norway’s architectural heritage, stave churches date back to the Middle Ages. The wooden churches have corner-posts, or “staves,” and a timber framework with stave walls — wall planks standing on sills.
The visit in 2014 by Kvalle and others sparked an effort to buy the church and bring it back to Norway. In April, officials familiar with stave church construction visited Little Norway where they inspected the building to determine if it could be dismantled, shipped and rebuilt.
In July, Orkdal officials signed an agreement to buy the church and return it to Norway.
The Norwegian delegation that arrived Sept. 3 first estimated it would take six to 10 days to dismantle and pack the building into shipping containers. But after four days of work that began Monday, shingles were still being removed from the roof and the one-foot square sections of parquet floor had not yet been fully packed into labeled mesh bags. Officials now think it will take three to four weeks to complete the carefully orchestrated deconstruction.
“You work very slowly,” said Oddmund Stenset, part of the delegation. “You must control every piece.”
A series of specially made plans that outline the structure serve as an instruction guide for the crew. An ornamental dragon that had been on the roof was labeled “A-1.” A section of teal-colored lattice “V-8,” a bag of flooring “14-C” and “E-29” for a bundle of trim work from the northeast side of the building’s exterior.
Next spring, on a site yet to be determined but likely near Orkdal’s center, the plans will be used to again transform the labeled parts back into a church that, by design, has no pews. If all goes well, the reconstruction south of the Arctic Circle should be completed sometime in June.
“We are preserving a piece of history of how Norway looked at (itself) when they wanted to show the world,” said Kai Roger Magnetun, Orkdal’s cultural director. “This idea of making a stave church as a pre-fab and bringing it to America … there must have been many people who thought this was impossible. But they did it in three months, and they did it with this quality.”
The church was designed by Waldemar Hansteen, who was hired by the builder, Christian Thams, a Norwegian industrialist. The building is based on a stave church in Gol, Norway, and was constructed along a fjord in central Norway, west of Trondheim and north of Oslo. The building was then taken apart and shipped to Chicago for the six-month World’s Fair event. After the fair, the building was again disassembled and moved to the sprawling Wrigley estate along the north shore of Lake Geneva where it was used as a movie house for the wealthy chewing gum family from Chicago.
In 1935, the church was purchased by Isak Dahle, who at the time was creating a Norwegian pioneer village in western Dane County. Through the years, busloads of tourists walked the grounds of Little Norway to experience the Norwegian culture and see one of only eight stave churches in the U.S.
Little Norway opened in 1937 but closed in the fall of 2012 after lagging attendance and increasing costs. In 2014, Dahle’s nephew, Scott Winner and his wife, Jennifer, began selling and donating most of the 7,000 Norwegian artifacts that filled many of the buildings.
Now, the property’s signature structure is being readied for a new home after the Winners sold the building to the Norwegians for $100,000. A ceremony to say farewell to the church last Sunday drew about 200 people to the property before the deconstruction crews began their work.
The Winners can see the church from their bedroom and from the window above the sink in their kitchen, at least for a few more weeks.
“Sunday was a very emotional day for all of us but this is so right, to have them save the building,” Scott Winner said as he stood inside the empty church, its floor partially removed. “When we were in operation, there were 1,200 artifacts in here. You could hardly see the walls.”
The Norwegian volunteer workforce has been spending about 10 hours a day in, on top of and around the historic church. Most are clothed in Fire Hose pants, T-shirts and suspenders from Duluth Trading Co. after the company, with a large presence in downtown Mount Horeb, provided each worker with a $150 clothing allowance.
There have been trips for steak to the Glarner Stube in New Glarus and brat lunches at the Winner home. After a day’s work, the crew enjoys, not locally produced craft beer, but at their request, cans of Budweiser, Miller Lite and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
“We have emotionally bonded with these people,” said Jennifer Winner. “Their heart is totally into this.”
Once the building is fully taken apart, the pieces will be packed into shipping containers and transported to Peoria, Illinois. That’s where the parts will be fumigated for 30 days in an effort to kill ants, termites, Asian beetles and any other critters. The containers will then be trucked to Chicago, placed on a train car and travel by rail to an East Coast port, likely in Virginia, before being loaded on a ship headed to Norway.
“My legacy is that it’s going home to Norway instead of falling down on our property,” Scott Winner said. “I doubt in America there is a church that is this well-traveled.”