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Kultur Hus: Sunburg sisters open 'Norwegian American house of folk culture'

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Willmar,Minnesota 56201
West Central Tribune
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Kultur Hus: Sunburg sisters open 'Norwegian American house of folk culture'
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

For sisters, Jane Norman and Ann E. Black, don't really look alike.

Ann, who is the eldest at 67 and is a self-professed tomboy, has short, dark hair and moves quickly about a room. When she was a girl she drove tractor and helped her dad with farm chores.


Jane, whose long gray hair frequently escapes from a clasp to fringe her smiling cheeks, was the sister who stayed in the house to bake cookies and study. She's 64.

Despite their differences, the two women were surrounded by the arts as they grew up on the family farm south of Sunburg. Raised to appreciate music, language, conversation and handcrafts, the sisters are now inviting others to participate in the fundamentals and joys of cultural activities at the Kultur Hus, which the women opened in September in Sunburg.

Billed as the "Norwegian American house of folk culture," Kultur Hus offers classes in how to speak Norwegian and how to search for ancestors. Classes offered in music, art and needlework include such things as piano, violin, guitar, flute, rosemaling, watercolor painting, knitting, tatting, hardanger, crochet and Norwegian folk dancing.

Hesitant to call it a business, the sisters said deciding to open the Kultur Hus was primarily based on what the women enjoy doing and how they wanted to spend their retirement years. "We want to be able to live with a purpose," said Black. With the arts second nature to the women -- and their Norwegian heritage close behind -- the sisters decided to combine and share those two components of their lives in their hometown of Sunburg, which has a solid reputation for its Norwegian heritage.

That heritage has created quite a buzz in Sunburg recently.

In early December, residents of Sunburg were interviewed by a four-person media crew from Norway (locals call them the "four Norwegians") that is studying different Norwegian language dialects that seem to have been preserved in Sunburg. The town was also visited recently by a man from Oslo, Norway, who's interested in doing a documentary on Sunburg.

The town's Norwegian heritage is shown in true colors Friday afternoons when Norwegian classes are held at the Kultur Hus. Three of the students are elderly men who grew up speaking the language and have a working knowledge of the different dialects. During one class they shared how the word "church" is pronounced in the different dialects.

There are four or five Norwegian dialects spoken in Sunburg, said Gary Erickson, who teaches language classes at the Kultur Hus. The different dialects were brought to this northern Kandiyohi County town by pioneers who haled from different regions of Norway.

Caught in a bit of a time warp, the dialects have been preserved here, he said. "It's Norwegian as it was spoken 125 years ago," he said. The different dialects have been "arrested in time."

Sunburg is well known in Norway as a place to go to hear old Norwegian dialects spoken, said Erickson, who studied Norwegian at the University of Oslo. That's why the "four Norwegians" spent time here recording locals speaking Norwegian. "This is a pocket of classical Norwegian," said Erickson, who has a Bachelor of Arts in Scandinavian studies and, coincidentally, lives on Norway Lake.

Although new to the world of operating a business, Black and Norman are definitely comfortable with Norwegian folk culture.

Every Tuesday morning, before opening the doors of the Kultur Hus, the sisters are at the Sunburg Creamery Café making the day's batch of klub that's the specialty menu item of the day. The Norwegian staple -- a potato and flour dumpling -- is served with ham or bacon and drenched in butter.

It was during one of those klub-making days that the sisters decided they should buy a vacant building that had been a grocery store in their childhood. It had also been a restaurant for many years before closing in 2004. "We didn't want any other building," said Black. "It has a lot of history."

After signing the papers last May, they decided to turn the building into a place for people to learn about, and appreciate, folk culture that was rooted in the Nordic heritage.

In the old kitchen, there's a piano and wonderful acoustics for music lessons. Lessons are also taught in the pantry and a grand piano sits in the main part of the building for additional lessons and recitals. A basket of yarn and knitting needles are on a shelf, ready for the day's lesson and examples of needlework and watercolor paintings, all made by the teachers, are on display. Norwegian dolls and glassware imported from Norway are for sale.

Norman and Black teach many of the classes, but others are brought in for different areas of expertise. The youngest student is 5 years old. The oldest ones are in their 80s.

Following the family history of appreciation and participation, the sisters are also students at the Kultur Hus. They're both studying Norwegian, and Norman is trying to learn how to make the tatting shuttle work without ending up with a ball of knots.

"This is our golf course," said Norman, of the investment of time and money the two have made in the Kultur Hus. It's an investment that won't necessarily be measured in financial returns, but the added richness of a culture and a community.

Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750