Vi er Norsk

Tucked away in the ‘Wells Fargo Bank building' is an international organization with ties dating back more than 100 years

As hundreds of children strap on their skis to compete in this year's City of Lakes Loppet, few likely will be thinking about the sport's rich Norwegian history.

The sport's ties are hard to miss. The first record of skiing is found on a cave drawing in Norway that is believed to be more than 4,000 years old. &#8220Ski” is a Norwegian word that comes from the Old Norse word &#8220skid,” or length of wood. The world's first nonmilitary skiing competition was held in Norway in 1843. Even the word &#8220loppet” itself is Norwegian for &#8220long journey.”

But the Southwest-based international organization that sponsors the children's race in the Loppet has made a business of promoting Norwegian history and culture. The Sons of Norway, which has its international headquarters at 1455 W. Lake St., quietly maintains an impressive network of services for its more than 60,000 members around the world and sponsors numerous events to foster Norwegian cultural activities.

So it's no surprise that the Sons of Norway sponsors the Minne-Loppet, which will be held Feb. 4 and is free to all children. The race is divided into two lengths - a 0.3-mile &#8220Tiny Tots” race and a 1-mile &#8220Bigger Kids” race - and will begin at 4 p.m. near the Sons of Norway headquarters at Hennepin Avenue and Lake Street in Uptown.

Sons of Norway Event Planner LaDonn Jonsen said the children who compete are usually between 3 and 13 years old, but often even younger children join in.

&#8220Sometimes these really little kids aren't even walking, but they're out there skiing in the event - with a little help from Mom and Dad, of course,” Jonsen said.

That's something even the hardiest of Norwegians - who are jokingly said to be born with skis on their feet - could be proud of. And in the spirit of true Norwegian hospitality, a medal and cider and cookies will be given to each child who finishes the course. The cookies are homemade by Sons of Norway volunteers.

&#8220It's just a really good time and a good experience,” Jonsen said.

‘The world's best-kept secret'

But sponsoring the Minne-Loppet is just the beginning of the wide array of services and activities the Sons of Norway provides. Its mission is to &#8220promote, preserve and cherish a lasting appreciation of the heritage and culture of Norway and other Nordic countries, while growing soundly as a fraternal benefit society and offering maximum benefits to its members,” according to the organization's Web site.

It does that by providing members with language camps and classes; scholarships; handicrafts; cooking and heritage classes; heritage programs; sports programs; travel opportunities; the award-winning Viking magazine, and financial packages that include insurance options. The wealth of programs and services has helped generate 61,634 members and 403 lodges in the United States, Canada and Norway, with 57,989 members in the United States alone. The group's Web site garners an average of 3 million hits each month.

But the Sons of Norway doesn't flaunt itself. Although it's been there since the early 1960s, many Southwest residents thought the large building housing the headquarters belonged to Wells Fargo, which leases the first floor, said Sons of Norway Fraternal Director Eivind Heiberg. CEO John Lund has been working to change that - the Sons of Norway logo now is etched onto many of the building's entrances. Local artist Anna Maria Place also painted 4-foot-by-8-foot wooden sections with rosemaling, a Norwegian decorative painting, and those sections were placed on all sides of the building's roof.

&#8220Right now, it's the world's best-kept secret,” Heiberg said about his group's international headquarters.

But it's a well-kept secret that's also a well-oiled machine. The headquarters provides the materials and does much of the organizing for thousands of activities and events that take place at lodges around the world.

&#8220What we are, as a headquarters, is an idea bank, a place for resources and materials,” Lund said, adding that the heart of the organization is found in the hundreds of lodges spread across the country. &#8220This kind of organization prospers in the local community. It gets lost in big cities.”

Humble beginnings

The organization was founded in Minneapolis during tough economic times in the 1890s, forcing already frugal and pragmatic Norwegian immigrants to become even more so. The original 18 members came together to form an assistance plan based on one in Trondheim, Norway, in which members paid a small fee each week in return for medical care for themselves and their families. The men founded the Sons of Norway - or the Snner av Norge - on Jan. 16, 1895. They had no intention of creating a far-reaching organization that would last so long or provide services beyond the financial crisis.

The organization became a way for members to preserve the literature, music, art and culture they had left behind - and gradually that spirit became one of the sole focuses of the group.

The passion Norwegian-Americans have for preserving centuries-old traditions is one of the reasons the organization remains so successful. But why - of all the immigrant groups that brought unique bits of their culture to the United States - this group remains so fervent is a bit of a mystery.

&#8220I scratch my head about it all the time,” Lund said.

Embracing the culture

Many Norwegian-Americans have a strong interest in the language, and many others have a strong interest in their genealogy. To feed that interest, the Sons of Norway offers a Learn Norwegian page on its Web site where visitors can start with the alphabet and numbers and learn Norwegian in &#8220five minutes a month.” The organization also is in the process of rolling out an online genealogy resource kit and is working to attract younger families by publishing Viking for Kids magazine.

&#8220The concern is that even in small towns, people think it is just a bunch of old people playing cards,” Lund said.

&#8220Our members come from all walks of life, and they have all kinds of different interests. We try to encourage our members to embrace elements of modern Norway.”

For more information about the Sons of Norway, visit www.sofn.com or call 612-827-3611.

For more information about the City of Lakes Loppet, visit www.cityoflakesloppet.com.