McGivern Meets Stoughton

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

Milwaukee Magazine - - Culture - BY JOHN MCGIVERN

Igrew up in a neigh­bor­hood where most fam­i­lies on our block were sec­on­dor 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, Wis­con-

sin, 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 state-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.

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.

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.

The Nor­we­gian his­tory and pride is still what drives this com­mu­nity and brings peo­ple to visit to­day.

Above: Kof­fee Kup owner Ken Gulseth, McGivern and the garbage omelet Left: Vik­ing troll’s wel­come

John Han­son makes lute­fisk. John McGivern watches.

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