These stories can also be heard Sunday mornings around 10 am on WILD 102’s “Look Back in Time” program. Each week’s radio story will be posted here on our website.
Weekly radio stories are researched, compiled, and read by Sheila Winstead, RCHS Board Member.
In 1943, an article was published in the November 25 issue of the Roseau Times-Region with permission of the author, Earl Chapin of Warroad, and by courtesy of the Minneapolis Star-Journal telling about one of the local ladies, who it described as gaining an enviable reputation. Her name was Hild Hildahl, and here is the story that was told.
When Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Make a better mousetrap than your neighbor and the world will make a beaten path to your door,” he was staking his reputation as a philosopher on the intuitive judgement of the common man.
That Emerson was right – in his epigram and in his faith in people has no better proof than in the story of Mrs. O. N. Hildahl, whose home is a simple two-room dwelling set on the edge of a former lake bottom in northernmost Minnesota, seven miles from the village of Roseau and about the same distance from the Canadian border.
Mrs. Hildahl did not always live in northern Minnesota. When she came to this country in 1936 as the bride of a schoolday sweetheart, she left behind her a well-established career as an expert in handicrafts in her native Norway.
For several years she had taught at the Skrubben Husmorskole and Hjemmnes Vels arbeidstue in Kragero, and then had been appointed as a “konsulent” for the Norwegian national association of country women (Husmorforbund).
In this capacity Mrs Hildahl, then Hild Naess, visited groups throughout the entire country, lecturing, instructing, stimulating interest with new ideas, establishing new arbeidsstue.
Then she relinquished her career for a future as an “ordinary” farm housewife in a country whose language she could not speak.
Fortune ran against the immigrants from the beginning. Mr. Hildahl’s land, which had previously produced bumper crops, was flooded seven times in five years. Then on April 9, 1940, the Nazis poured into Norway, and all the word from folks and friends in the homeland was cut off.
Still unfamiliar with the English language, Mrs. Hildahl felt completely isolated. She wanted to do something to keep her mind occupied and at the same time perform some service for invaded Norway.
Her first thought was to make mittens for Norwegian Relief, but as she turned ideas over in her mind, a new one came to her. Once she had taught people to be original. She, too, would be original. The result is the most amazing family in Minnesota.
The first member was a little man not quite four inches high, in grey britches, with red mittens, stocking and tassel cap, with a flowing white beard, pink cheeks and bright blue eyes. He is a “nisse.”
All Norwegians know about the nisse. They are the little men who protect the livestock.
If you beat your horses or fail to water the cattle or in any other way harm or neglect your animals, the nisse will bring all sorts of misfortune down upon your head. Each Christmas Eve it was the custom in old Norway to set a pot of gruel outside for the nisse, who would come with their spoons and eat up every last drop.
Then there was the “Fanten og Kjaerrings.” You’ve probably heard the old phrase, “make soup on a nail.” It comes from a Norwegian folk tale about a rogue of a gypsy who “worked” a gullible housewife for a sumptuous meal by pretending to show her how to make soup from a nail.
Only he had made soup from the same nail five times that week and more and more vegetables and meat had to be added to make the soup taste right.
The story is illustrated in Mrs. Hildahl’s “family.” There is the gypsy with an unkempt gray beard, patched pants, and a filthy blue coat he has worn so long that it has turned green. He holds the nail aloft as he begins his sales talk, and the look of skepticism on the yet unconvinced housewife’s face is astonishing – astonishing because her face is less than half an inch from crown to chin, and she, like all the figures is made from nothing more than yarn, sealing wax and beads.
Then there is the terrifying three-headed troll, told about in the tales of Asbjornson and Moe; the dreaded huldra; Pilar Guri, the Norwegian heroine who warned of the approach of Scottish mercenaries by a blast on her shepherd’s horn; a country wedding in Norwegian costume, with the bride wearing a crown handed down through generations, and a silleman (fiddler) leading the grand march – these to mention only a few.
Mrs. Hildahl’s neighbors immediately recognized that her “family” was an example of exceptional art. The reputation of her “dolls” spread. By word of mouth alone, her work became known throughout the entire country.
Orders for dolls – far more than she could handle – came in from everywhere. In one day she received letters from five different states. One college ordered a hundred “Bridal Pairs.”
Then she began to receive invitations to lecture and display her work. She was guest of honor with Mary Welch, noted woman correspondent, and Miss Welch took one of her dolls back to England to give to King Haakon. Dr. C. J. Hambro, president of the Norwegian parliament, saw her work and sent her a volume of Norwegian folk tales with his greetings inscribed on the fly leaf.
People began to come from far and wide to visit the creator of the famous “doll family.”
And Mrs. Hildahl continues to create, or rather, recreate the folklore and folk customs of her native Norway in yarn and sealing wax.
New individuals and new groups are continually springing from the tips of her talented fingers. The most recent illustrates the story of the boy who made a princess laugh and won a kingdom.
Mrs. Hildahl has work to last her a lifetime. Every doll must be made to perfection, so the work is slow. She is occasionally aided by her husband who is an expert wood carver. He makes little skis and ski poles and other “props” for the dolls.
Mrs. Hildahl has orders for a year ahead. She will never catch up with her work. And all because she “made a better mousetrap than her neighbor.”
Thank you to (www.roseauonline.com) for letting us share our county’s history with your listeners by donating air time, studio time, and production staff every week.