Welcome to Stoughton, a Norwegian Retreat Right Here in Wisconsin

It’s so Norwegian – and that’s a really good thing!

I grew up in a neighborhood where most families on our block were second- or third-generation immigrants. The few who were born in a country far away made their way to America to settle on Bartlett Avenue on the East Side of Milwaukee, and they raised their kids living what proved to be their American Dream.

The first-generation neighbors were easy to find. They were the ones speaking English that was hard to understand. George Wasilewski spoke with a thick Polish accent, and his wife, Hilda, with an even thicker German accent. The Busalacchis spoke broken English – except on Sunday after Mass, when their house was filled with Italian-speaking friends and relatives from the old country. Mr. O’Donnell spoke with an Irish brogue, and his red-headed kids looked exactly like they should have. The Levy family went to church on Saturdays and sent their kids to Hebrew school, which, to me then, was beyond foreign.

The Nelsons lived around the corner and were the quietest kids on the block. They resided in a single-family bungalow with the most manicured yard, a spotless porch and always freshly painted front steps. The Nelsons were Norwegian Lutherans who flew the flag of Norway and on a certain day in May, would dress in Norwegian clothes and celebrate Norway’s Constitution Day, the country’s national day. Bjorn, Ingrid, Ivan and Nora Nelson would ride their bikes proudly, displaying their Norwegian heritage, and Mrs. Nelson would send over her freshly baked cookies that we would immediately cover in sugar. Even though the Nelsons were second-generation Americans, they seemed very foreign to me. The kids had strange names. Their cookies tasted more like crackers. They flew that red flag with the blue cross for the whole month of May, only to be replaced with the American flag for the whole month of July. They were serious and quiet and kept to themselves. My dad and the other dads called them Norskis, and they took their place in what would turn out to be the memories of my youth.

I couldn’t help thinking about the Nelsons when we spent our week shooting the Stoughton episode. This city of about 13,000 people, some 20 miles southeast of  Madison, was founded by Norwegians and still remains a large Norwegian community. They came in the 1800s to work at the wagon company or in the booming business of tobacco. The men worked in the fields and the woman sorted, tagged, shipped and ran the warehouses. There were more than a dozen tobacco warehouses in Stoughton. In the mid-1800s, Stoughton was one of the most Norwegian settlements in the entire country.

Did you know that Stoughton, Wisconsin, is the town that created the coffee break? I know, I find it hard to believe as well, but that’s what we were told by many people in Stoughton. It seems that all of those women who worked in the tobacco warehouses demanded that they be given a break in the morning and a break in the afternoon, to go home and take care of “women’s work.” While they were home, they drank coffee, I guess. And this break came to be known as the coffee break. I did not make this up. If you don’t believe it, get in line (or go online).

It doesn’t take long to realize this Norwegian heritage is still celebrated, very much alive and important to today’s Stoughton. We came in June, and they were still talking about their annual Syttende Mai (Norwegian for 17th of May, Constitution Day) festival.

We started our week in the middle of town on Main Street at Livsreise (Life’s Journey) Norwegian Heritage Center. This start-of-the-art museum and resource center tells the Norwegian immigration story and helps anyone whose family came from Norway find the specific details of their journey. It is such a great place to begin your visit to Stoughton.

We had the opportunity to meet and spend time with Mr. and Mrs. Stoughton, Marv and Bert Klitzke. They are royalty in Stoughton because they were the King and Queen of the 2016 Syttende Mai celebration. As Marv says, he’s not sure how that happened given the German name of Klitzke, but they loved grand-marshalling the parade in their bunads (Norwegian outfits). I was reminded of the Nelson kids riding their bikes on Bartlett Avenue on May 17th, dressed in those same outfits.

John Hanson makes lutefisk. John McGivern watches. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee PBS

Some of my favorite time spent in Stoughton was with Jim and John Hanson. They are the go-to, know-all brothers when it comes to the Norwegian specialty known as lutefisk. Say lutefisk to anyone and watch the reaction. Either it will be a blank stare because they have no idea what it is, or it will be a look of almost disgust. I’ve yet to find someone licking their chops, wondering where and when they can get their next plate of this thing that John Gurda referred to as Norwegian sushi. His family tradition is to prepare it every Christmas. What actually is lutefisk, you ask? Lutefisk is cod that is air-dried and then put in water for six days. The water is changed daily. Then it’s put in acidic soda, which is really a diluted lye solution. To prepare it for eating, it’s washed and parboiled. It comes out of that parboil looking and feeling a bit gelatinous. Finally it is covered with melted butter and pepper and is ready to be enjoyed … or not. Eating it with Jim and John was my first lutefisk experience, and I loved it! I believe it had to do with the expertise of the Hanson brothers’ preparation – and the amount of melted butter. As Jim Hanson said, “I’d eat hay if it was covered in melted butter.” Enough said …

Speaking of eating, when in Stoughton, stop by the Koffee Kup on Main Street. The Koffee Kup is right downtown and is the go-to community gathering place. Owner Ken Gulseth and I shared the garbage omelet. It was the best! Three eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, mushrooms, green peppers, onions, Swiss and American cheeses, topped with secret-recipe homemade chili. Ken is a funny guy and when asked why he spelled Koffee with a K and Kup with a K, he schooled me in the fact that the K is Norwegian. I didn’t know.

Stoughton’s Main Street is also Highway 51. It runs through town and is the east/west corridor in this part of the state. It’s tricky to shoot our show on Main Street when Main Street is a major truck route for the community. We have to try to time our shooting for when we don’t hear the sound of the trucks. That’s next to impossible, and we spent so much time in Stoughton dodging the sounds that it took us a bit longer than usual. We came back with so many takes that our glorious editor Susanne still talks about the hours of Stoughton footage that couldn’t be used.

There is so much to see in Stoughton, but if you don’t want to, you don’t even have to leave Main Street to see a lot. The beautiful Opera House was built in 1901. It’s been restored and now hosts a season of music and stage performances, and is considered the “crown jewel” of the community. Peter and Ingrid McMasters are fabric artists in their ever-so-cool Main Street shop called Spry Whimsy Fiber Arts. Another Stoughton artist, Mark Lajiness, is owner of Stellations, a studio where he up-cycles mostly old musical instruments that he breaks down and then creates sculptural pieces in which you still see the instruments.

Viking troll’s welcome. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee PBS

Stoughton was one of the first communities we’ve covered with such a specific ethnic bent. I wanted so much to fit in that I asked local rosemaling artist Patty Tofsland to teach me. She said she’s never met a left-handed rosemaler. She still hasn’t! (I never thought of my left-handedness as limiting before, but that must have been the problem …) But I really did try, because I think it’s a beautiful art form.

The Norwegian history and pride is still what drives this community and brings people to visit today. The red flag with the blue cross joyfully reminded me of the Nelsons, as did the perfectly manicured lawns and the freshly painted steps that lined the blocks of homes in this beautiful community. If Norway is on your travel list but not in your budget, take a day trip to Stoughton, another of our incredible Wisconsin towns. ◆

‘McGivern Meets Stoughton’ appears in the September 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning August 28, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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John McGivern is best known for his Emmy-award winning work on PBS, Around the Corner with John McGivern. His one-man-shows, THE EARLY STORIES OF JOHN MCGIVERN, MIDSUMMER NIGHT MCGIVERN AND JOHN MCGIVERN’S HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS tell the stories of being the third born of six kids in a working-class Irish Catholic Family in Milwaukee. John has been the keynote speaker for The Alliance for Children and Families, The State Department on Aging, The Children and Family Service Agency of Wisconsin, The Wisconsin Defense League, Christ Child Association, Foundation for Children with Cancer, Employee Assistant Professional Association and has been fortunate to entertain companies such as Time Warner, Northwestern Mutual, Kohl’s Department Stores, Baird, Acuity, and M&I Financial.