Lutefisk, a log cabin, and a 50-year legacy

By Betsey Norgard

On a cold, crisp February morning, photographer Stephen Geffre and I follow Jim Pederson ’56 through ankle-deep snow up a slope to a small log cabin that overlooks Swede Lake.

This log cabin, near Star Prairie, Wis., sits on the farm that was homesteaded by Pederson’s great-grandparents in 1872 and that he and his brother, Dwight ’60, now own. They grew up on the farm, moved away to begin their own lives, and now return often with their families and friends.

Our reason for being there is to visit the site of an annual celebration that has occurred on the second Saturday of November for the past 50 years. It’s an afternoon each year when Jim and Elaine Pederson host friends and family in the small log cabin for mulled cider and treats before heading to nearby West Immanuel Lutheran Church for lutefisk dinner. This church dinner is a 75-year tradition that now attracts more than 1,200 people for lutefisk, lefse, meatballs, and more.

THE BEGINNING OF ENDURING FRIENDSHIPS

Jim Pederson says it’s difficult to put a label on this annual gathering. It’s about friendship, legacy, good food, heritage, aging—all of those. Star Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin, who attended last November’s half-century celebration, described it as “an iconic Midwestern living postcard that turned 50 years old Saturday.”

At first it was just an annual trek to the lutefisk dinner, but as years went by and friends began to gather beforehand at the farm, the camaraderie there became as important as the meal that followed. While to the Pedersons the gathering marks the final event of the farm’s social season, many of the attendees consider it the beginning of their holiday festivities.

Pederson really can’t put his finger on just what glue has held so many of them together for so long. The short answer, he says, is that it was a group of Augsburg friends who started coming out to the country for a church dinner.

“The better answer,” he adds, “is that some of us developed friendships that included faculty members who were our mentors and with whom we greatly enjoyed informal times outside the classroom.”

Faculty from the 1950s who became regular attendees include Phil Quanbeck Sr., Paul Sonnack, Joel Torstenson, Ralph and Grace Sulerud, and others. For nearly 20 years, retired history professor Carl and Val Chrislock spent many of their summers at the farm, where Carl did a great deal of writing and where Val tended her flower and vegetable gardens. When there were deaths, spouses and families often continued to participate.

“Many of us were deeply interested in public service of some kind, whether teaching, the ministry, public policy, or politics,” says Pederson. In the 1950s, when academic freedom was restricted and McCarthyism caused colleges to shy away from controversy, he credits Augsburg and the leadership of President Bernhard Christensen for encouraging political expression and organization.

“Augsburg practiced academic freedom while in some institutions it was only preached,” Pederson says. “Political organizations were encouraged on campus. Faculty encouraged students to become involved in political campaigns, and Political Emphasis Week brought speakers from the whole political spectrum.

“It was in this cauldron that lasting friendships developed and continued beyond graduation. While politics was a strong interest of a few, the friendships persisted regardless of the chosen vocation,” Pederson says.

It all started with the five Auggie Norwegian bachelors who, as students, lived together above Larson’s grocery store— Martin Sabo ’59, Jim ’56 and Dwight ’60 Pederson, Harlan Christianson ’57, and Erwin Christenson ’58. In 1959, Jim and Elaine Pederson (who were not yet married) and Harlan and Lori Christianson decided to drive out to Star Prairie for the lutefisk dinner. Elaine was a student nurse at Deaconess Hospital and Augsburg, and this trip became her introduction to the farm, to lutefisk, and to her future Pederson in-laws.

Each year thereafter has brought additional invited friends and families. On November 14, 2009—the 50th anniversary— the count was 67. The group now includes the families and friends of Jim and Elaine and their children, Michelle and Kirk, a 1987 grad; his fiancée Molly; grandchildren Madeline, Emma, and Ginny; and Dwight and his wife, Marion, also a Lutheran Deaconess nurse; daughter Denise; and grandchildren Laura, Thomas, and Helenya.

AUGSBURG STORIES PLAY OUT OVER THE YEARS

Pederson says he’d like to tie the story of the 50-year gatherings to what they learned at Augsburg. “‘Education for Service’ we thought of as just a phrase, but it really did mean a lot to us—whether in ministry, nursing, government, or politics. It played out, and that’s an important part of the story for me.”

The Augsburg-connected stories include the political career of Martin Sabo, which dates back to the days of the five Norwegian bachelors. Pederson, who served as student body president and was active in student political groups, became manager in 1960 for Sabo’s state house endorsement campaign. “And he never lost an election after that,” Pederson comments, about Sabo’s long and distinguished legislative career, marked by his retirement in 2007.

In another Augsburg story, Chrislock, who was a regular at the November gatherings, stayed on the farm while he wrote his 1991 book, Watchdog of Loyalty: The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety during World War I.

Emeriti professors Ralph and Grace Sulerud, close friends of the Chrislocks, enjoyed the old farmstead and lake so much that they now have a house there, just down the hill from the log house. And so, the Augsburg connections continue.

THE MEANING OF PLACE

The Pederson ties date back more than 130 years in the community—to that farm now in its sixth generation and to the church originally chartered by his grandparents and their neighbors. The log house to which people come each November is for him an icon of family and heritage.

In the invitation letter for last November’s gathering, Pederson mentioned a recent book that weaves together themes of story, place, calling, and purpose. Claiming Your Place at the Fire, by Richard Lieder and David Shapiro, challenges those entering “the second half of their life” to consider these themes in finding purpose in what they choose to do during their elder years.

Pederson sees the old farm as the locale where at this annual event these themes of aging and legacy play out. “This is a time where family and friends share life experiences, the happenings of the last year, perhaps recalling mentors from college or elsewhere, many of whom are no longer with us; reminiscing about the good times; the not-so-good times; commiserating over losses or illnesses; sometimes engaging in a bit of gossip. Sometimes it’s small groups huddling to solve the world’s problems.” Collectively, they recall stories, redefine place, renew callings, and reclaim purpose.

“Oh yes, and there’s the country church dinner, the ostensible reason for the gathering,” adds Pederson. “Each year, however, we hear some say they really come for the hour or two they spend together before the big meal, sipping cider Norwegian traditional goodies, and sharing treats they bring.”

THE LOG HOUSE AND LEGACY

Pederson’s log house, the current gathering place, wasn’t part of the original farm. The original log house disappeared long ago, and Pederson had always wanted something like his great-grandfather built in the 1870s. In 1972, he found neighbors wanting to get rid of an old log house on their farm, and he jumped at the opportunity.

An eclectic mix of history and heritage, the one main room of the cabin is barely able to contain the crowd that gathers. Hanging on the walls are the farm’s homestead documents and old photos; some of the furniture is original. Rosemaling and other memorabilia fill the area. A loft offers sleeping space, and an enclosed porch was added for additional room.

In addition to Jim and Dwight, the old farmstead has incorporated the Pedersons’ younger generations. Jim and Elaine’s son, Kirk, has his place on the farm where he and his family enjoy the summer. Their daughter, Michelle, enjoys the solitude and serenity of the farm both in summer and winter.

So, as years go by, and the annual lutefisk group continues, children and grandchildren play greater roles. “In 1959,” Pederson says, “none of us could have predicted that 50 years later we would speak of a remarkable tradition that we hope will continue far into the future.” Last November 14, after some traditional Norwegian folk music and hymns, Elaine Pederson announced, “We hope this carries on for another 50 years—so, younger generation, we’re counting on you.”

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