WOODWORK AND WOOD CARVING
Written by Laurie K. Sommers, Preserve Nordic Heritage Churches Project Manager, 2017-2019
Decorative woodwork is the most important and widespread example of Nordic American folk art found in church settings. Although many churches ordered church furnishings from catalog companies—such as Hallson Icelandic Church’s altar surround from August Klagstad’s company in Minneapolis–a significant number of congregations either commissioned work or used volunteer labor from a fellow church member.
Caption: (Top) altar surround at Hallson Icelandic Church (now at Icelandic State Park in Cavalier, North Dakota), likely from August Klagstad’s catalog (bottom). Photos courtesy of Rod Oppegard and Northeast North Dakota Heritage Association.
Caption: Skilled woodworker Jens Rasmussen was brought from West Denmark, Wisconsin, to craft the altar, pulpit, and communion rail at Immanuel Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church, Kimballton, Iowa. The church’s pastor had also come from West Denmark. Photo by Laurie K. Sommers.
Carvers often came from the immigrant generation. Most males in the rural areas of Nordic Europe learned to make utilitarian wooden objects. Others attended the folk and manual training schools, as well as special carving schools, that proliferated in the region during the nineteenth century. Still others would have apprenticed with carvers in the family or community. Upon emigrating to America, they tended to work in isolation, and, with the exception of a few carvers in the Norwegian acanthus style, their work did not reflect a local or regional folk tradition in their home countries or in America (Henning et al 1978).
Relief Carving: Pulpits, Altars, and Arches
Most Nordic American wood carvers employed relief carving, either with a flat surface or molded like sculpture. In their new homeland, these artisans had to work in different types of wood—primarily oak and walnut—and were introduced to new ideas and motifs.
Swedish immigrant William Carlson (born circa 1855) was the primary carpenter-builder for Center City, Minnesota during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He constructed many of the buildings in what is now the Center City National Register Historic District, including his home church of Chisago Lake Lutheran. Carlson applied his considerable woodworking skill to the church interior, including the altar (see photo in the Folk Arts introductory section) and the elaborate elevated pulpit with hood. He crafted a less detailed pulpit for another National Register-listed church—Augustana Lutheran in Claremont, South Dakota—a congregation founded by Swedes who had come to Dakota Territory from Center City and the Chisago Lake church. Carlson hand carved Augustana’s pulpit in Center City and transported it in pieces a distance of 300 miles for final assembly.
Caption: William Carlson carved this intricate pulpit for his home church, Chisago Lake Lutheran, in Center City, Minnesota. Photo courtesy of the church.
A particularly striking example of flat relief carving comes from the work of Pehr Christiansson/Christianson (1855-1928), a Swedish immigrant farmer who created a magnificent pulpit for his home church, Spruce Hill Lutheran in Alexandria Township, Minnesota. A native of Brantevik, Sweden, Christianson first immigrated to New Jersey during the early 1880s. By 1886, the family had settled on a farm in the Spruce Hill community of rural Douglas, County, Minnesota. The church commissioned Pehr to create the pulpit, although the exact date is unknown. The Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office inventory form for Spruce Hill suggests that it was carved for the first church, a log structure dating to 1881, and later moved to the present building, completed in 1902. A skilled woodcarver, Pehr also created model replicas of the ship in which the family had emigrated from Sweden. His masterpiece, however, was the pulpit, featuring five carved panels illustrating scenes from the Gospel with associated Bible verses in Swedish. Christianson likely used an illustrated Swedish Bible as inspiration for his work. He requested $28 in payment, but the congregation only paid him $18. Either way, it was a bargain! (Douglas County Historical Society n.d., and Find A Grave n.d.)
Photo caption: Pehr Christianson’s pulpit for Spruce Hill Lutheran Church, Alexandria Township, Minnesota. Photo courtesy of Taryn Nelson Flolid.
Photo caption: Detail of Pehr Christianson’s pulpit for Spruce Hill Lutheran Church shows Jesus driving the merchants and moneychangers out of the temple. The text (John 2:16) in translation reads: “And to those who sold the doves he said: Take these things away from here! Do not make my Father’s house a marketplace!” Photos courtesy of Taryn Nelson Flolid.
Danish immigrant Jes Pedersen Smidt (1855-1942) also did magnificent relief carvings on pulpits, although—in contrast with Pehr Christianson—Smidt’s work was more three-dimensional. Smidt came from generations of blacksmiths, but he showed early interest in woodworking and wanted to apprentice as a cabinet maker and joiner. His father had other plans and persuaded Smidt to take up shoemaking. He later attended the Central Husflid (Handicraft) School in Copenhagen, where he learned to produce cottage industry crafts. He returned to teach these skills in his home area of North Selsvig, Denmark.
Denmark at the time was shaped by the growing romantic nationalist movement, which included the introduction of folk high schools designed to foster patriotism and Danish culture–especially folk culture–among young people. The curriculum stressed “education for life” and included study of nature (classes were often held outdoors), history, and science, along with Danish folk singing, dance, sagas, and crafts. The schools were the brainchild of N.F.S. Grundtvig, the influential nineteenth-century Danish theologian, poet, educator, and philosopher whose ideas also shaped the founding of numerous Lutheran churches in Denmark and the U.S. (where Grundtvigian congregations were called “Happy Danes”). Smidt attended the Vinding Folk School during the winter session of 1881-82 (coincidentally, a school also attended by the great Danish American landscape architect, Jens Jensen, who would later found the Clearing, a folk school in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin). By the time Smidt joined his brothers in Clinton, Iowa, during the spring of 1882, he was already a skilled carpenter, cabinet maker, and wood carver.
In Clinton he became friends with F.L. Grundtvig, son of N.S.F., who was pastor of Smidt’s “Happy Dane” church in Clinton. The church connections opened many doors. While working as a woodcarver for Clinton’s Curtis Brothers Factory in order to pay the bills, Smidt began the creative work that would make him one of the most sought-after artisans in the growing Danish American community. Smidt’s initial commissions were carved altar painting frames, first at the church in Elk Horn, Iowa (1883) and next at the Clinton church (1884), neither of which survive. The catalog of his work, compiled by his grandson Edwin Smidt Pedersen, includes an impressive 10 pulpits, 22 altars, 8 altar railings, 13 side chairs for altars, 4 church reading lecterns, and 4 baptismal fonts. His work spanned 8 states, mostly for Danish Lutheran congregations, although the catalog lists one Baptist church (Pederson 2011).
Caption: Jes Smidt at work. Photo courtesy of the family, from Jes Smidt, Immigrant Woodcarver (Pederson 2011).
Caption: Jes Smidt’s pulpit at Luther Memorial Church, Des Moines, Iowa, with detail of the Evangelist Luke. Photos courtesy of the church.
Smidt’s carved altars include massive pieces that combine elements of furniture, relief carving, and sculptural motifs, as with the altar for Immanuel Lutheran, Minneapolis (now housed at the Museum of Danish America in Elkhorn, Iowa) that embeds images of the Four Evangelists. The altar for Our Savior’s in Viborg features relief carvings of scrolls, crosses, and dentils combined with decorative finials, and, at the base, a carved lamb, all surrounding Smidt’s own painting of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
Caption: Jes Smidt’s altar for Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Viborg, South Dakota. Photo courtesy of the church.
Caption: Jes Smidt’s altar with the Four Evangelists, originally created for Immanuel Lutheran in Minneapolis, now in the collections of the Museum of Danish America, Elkhorn, Iowa. Photo by Laurie K. Sommers.
More of the carvers identified during our inventory are Norwegian, due to the greater interest that Norwegian Americans have shown in documenting their material culture through publications, exhibition catalogs, and the like. Norwegian heritage carvers diverged from the traditions of their homeland, where most carved altar pieces were painted. In America, the vast majority are made of varnished natural wood (Henning et al. 1978, 10). One notable exception is the painted Ten Commandments triptych at the Old Hauge Stone Church in Kenyon, Minnesota. The Norwegian text comes from John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son.”
Caption: An old-style painted altar, more typical of those found in nineteenth-century Norway, at the Old Hauge Stone Church in Kenyon, Minnesota. Photo courtesy of Luther Seminary Archives.
The most distinctively Norwegian style of altar carving comes from the acanthus tradition, a type of folk carving, adapted from the Baroque acanthus, that has its roots in the region of Gudbrandsdalen but gradually spread throughout the country (Henning et al. 1978, 13). The work of Knut Lie/Lee (1831-1900) is among the earliest documented examples of acanthus-style carving with direct links to Gudbrandsdalen. During 1866, his first summer in America, he carved an acanthus-style altar for the old Coon Valley Church in Coon Valley, Wisconsin. The surviving side panels are modeled after the eighteenth-century altar in his home church in Øyer, Norway, located in the heart of the Gudbrandsdalen region (Nelson 1995, 90-91). His surviving masterwork was carved for Aal Lutheran Church after the family relocated to Hillsboro, North Dakota. Created in 1883-84, Lee’s altar frame for Aal is a rare example of “the more traditional Norwegian treatment of bold decorative wood graining in deep colors” (Henning et al. 1978, 10). The carved motifs are an interesting mix of old world and new: acanthus with its characteristic high relief, cutting, and open work combined with grape clusters and an eagle, the latter more common in American design.
Sadly, Aal Church closed its doors in the summer of 2012, just after celebrating its 140th anniversary. The interior furnishings were auctioned and the building, once home to the state’s oldest congregation, is a vacant shell on the prairie. Happily, however, the Lee altar now has a new home in the chapel of Ave Maria Village in Jamestown, North Dakota.
Caption: Knut Lee’s acanthus-style altar made for Aal Lutheran Church. The detail shows American influences in the eagle and grape cluster motifs. Photos by Rod Oppegard.
Another example of exceptional acanthus-style carving comes from Ole T. Myren (1830-1908) for his home church, Lyster Lutheran, in Nelson, Wisconsin. Myren was a native of Aurdal, Norway, located some 80 miles west of the heart of acanthus-style carving in Gudbrandsdalen. Little is known of his early training, but he was already recognized as an accomplished craftsman prior to coming to the US, with skill in carving, carpentry, and cabinet making. Myren emigrated with family to Wisconsin in 1868 and arrived in Modena, Wisconsin, near Nelson, by 1870. He provided pulpits, altars, and other fixtures to at least three other nearby churches: Trinity Norden near Eleva (circa 1893); Thompson Valley between Modena and Mondovi (burned circa 1975); and Lookout Lutheran, south of Gilmanton (status uncertain). His chest of drawers is in the collection of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. His crowning achievement, however, was the work he did in 1883 for his home church, with acanthus-influenced altar frame, pulpit, pilasters, and arch (Tweet and Myren 2001). Our survey identified only one other (less elaborate) acanthus arch, visible in a historic photo of the stone church sanctuary at Valley Grove Lutheran (Nerstrand, Minnesota), but this no longer exists.
Caption: Ole T. Myren’s acanthus-style carvings for Lyster Lutheran in Nelson, Wisconsin, on the pulpit, altar, pilasters, and arch. Photo by Cyril Myren.
Caption: Detail of Myren’s magnificent acanthus-style arch for Lyster Lutheran, Nelson, Wisconsin. Photo by Cyril Myren.
Caption: Historic photo of an acanthus-style arch (no longer extant) at the Valley Grove Stone Church, Nerstrand, Minnesota. Photo courtesy of Valley Grove Preservation Society.
Interestingly, another noted Norwegian immigrant carver also was a member of Lyster Church late in life, and he and Myren were neighbors. Aslak Lie (1798-1886) is most known for his work in south central Wisconsin’s Dane County, where he was part of group of pioneering Norwegian homesteaders in Springdale Township. A native of Reinli, Valdres, Norway, he worked for 30 years as a blacksmith and cabinet maker in Norway and aided in the 1824 construction of the bell tower for his home church in Bagn. This experience shaped his later work in Wisconsin, where, in 1848, he arrived as a 50-year-old skilled craftsman. At Springdale Lutheran, east of Mt. Horeb, he designed the steeple–based in part on the Bagn Church—and carved the altar. The substantial altarpiece with its Ten Commandments reflects Lie’s skills as a cabinet maker (one of his cupboards is on display at Mt. Horeb Area Historical Society). Non-figurative altarpieces such as this, painted white and gold with black trim, “are a treatment frequently found in Norwegian-American churches of the late nineteenth century” (Henning 1978, 10). The finial motif is replicated in the steeple ornament. Lie also did an altar for nearby East Blue Mounds Lutheran, which no longer exists (Holzhueter 1986). He is notable as one of the few rural immigrant craftsmen whose work has been documented and exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic.
Caption: Aslak Lie’s altar for Springdale Lutheran, Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin. Photo by Laurie K. Sommers.
Østen Pladson (1846-1914) was the most prolific of the Norwegian American carvers. A native of Nes, Hallingdal, Norway, he developed an interest in wood prior to emigration. After spending ten years in Northwood, Iowa, where he arrived in 1868, the family emigrated to the Red River Valley in the Dakota Territory, settling in Traill County, North Dakota where he worked near the communities of Hatton and Northwood. A gifted cabinet maker and church builder, “over a span of ten years, he constructed the altars, and sometimes the baptismal fonts, pulpits, and railings, for six of the Lutheran churches in the area: Goose River in 1894, Little Forks in 1897, Washington Prairie in 1898, Bethany in 1899, West Union in about 1902, and Bethania in 1903.” He may be responsible for work in 26 more (Teie 2013: 25). Pladson combined acanthus and plant motifs using “turned work, bandsaw work, moldings and fretwork” to create what the authors of the 1978 Vesterheim catalog on Norwegian-American woodcarvers describe as “the Byzantine opulence of Pladson’s church interiors” (Henning et al. 1978, 17). His crowning achievement was the altar frame and railing he built in 1903 for the Norwegian American farming community of Bethania Lutheran Church west of Northwood. In 1992, after the church closed, the building and its furnishings were moved to the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa.
Caption: Perhaps Pladson’s most impressive work is this elaborate altar for Bethania Lutheran in Northwood, North Dakota (now at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa). Photo courtesy of Vesterheim.
Stave Church-Style Carving
Stave church reproductions are modern replicas of the most famous type of Nordic folk architecture. Although medieval stave churches (named for their open frame architecture featuring vertical posts [staves]) were once widespread throughout Nordic Europe, more surviving examples are found in Norway. These sculptural wooden buildings, many with layers of peaked roofs, are the region’s most recognizable form of folk architecture, built by skilled artisans using traditional techniques. The so-called stave church or dragon style of carving, which revived and reinterpreted centuries-old motifs, became an influential expression of Norwegian nationalism at the turn of the last century, as Norway sought independence from Sweden. In the United States, stave church replicas express and revive Norwegian American identity (DuBois, 2018, 23).
One of the most striking examples, and the only one to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is Chapel in the Hills in Rapid City, South Dakota. Built in 1969 from blueprints provided by the Norwegian Department of Antiquities, the church is an exact replica of the Borgund stavkirke, a church in Laerdal, Norway (c. 1150). The chapel incorporates outstanding woodcarvings based on Christian and Old Norse designs, all crafted by master Norwegian woodcarver Erik Fridstrøm (who was brought in especially for this project) and Danish immigrant Helge Christiansen of Rapid City. Fridstrøm, who carved some of the details that could not be done at the building site, ended his career at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. Little is known about Christiansen’s background and training, although Rapid City directories of the time list him as a cabinetmaker. Both men clearly had exceptional skill.
Caption: Carving and woodwork in the stave-church revival style for Chapel in the Hills, Rapid City, South Dakota. Carvers were Erik Fridstrøm, who came from Norway, and local Danish immigrant carver and cabinet maker, Helge Christiansen. The chapel exterior, the interior “stave” construction, and mail portal detail, all photos courtesy of Chapel in the Hills.
Danish Model Ships
Any overview of Nordic American religious wood carving must include the carved wooden ships found in many Danish Lutheran churches. Originally associated with Catholic churches in Europe, the tradition was adopted by the Danes after the Reformation, where, as a sea-faring nation, ships had special significance. The custom continued among Danish immigrants to America. Ship models hanging from the center aisle ceiling of the nave (the ship-like main part of the sanctuary) have become one of the character-defining features of Danish American Lutheran churches. Many are modeled on eighteenth- or nineteenth-century sailing ships. These models have varied symbolism: commemoration of a loved one lost at sea, safe return home, safe journey across the ocean to America, navigating the storms of life with God’s help, and the transition from this world to the next (Museum of Danish American n.d.; Nielson 2016).
Carved ship, Immanuel Lutheran Church, Kimballton, Iowa, maker unknown (possibly Jens Rasmussen who handcrafted the pulpit, altar, and communion railing). Photo by Laurie K. Sommers.