Celebrating Suttons Bay’s Norwegian roots

Christmas in the Lutheran Church in Leland, 1966. Photo courtesy of Leelanau Historical Society / Kim Kelderhouse

By Chris Loud

Sun contributor

Leelanau County’s Scandinavian roots shine bright this time of year. The colder, harder months juxtaposed with holiday spirit, lights, and community togetherness give many locals a chance to honor their Nordic ancestors. That influence is especially palpable through common outdoor activities like sledding, cross-country skiing and saunas, and our holiday stories and decor.

Danes Mimi Wheeler (Empire) and Lena Ball (Leland) typically get together at least once each winter for a traditional Christmas lunch of herring, liver pate, and other fishes and meats on rye bread, washed down with aquavit. Later this winter the Glen Arbor Arts Center plans an exhibit that explores the Nordic concept of hygge(coziness), which often involves candles, good food, and community.

In Suttons Bay and Northport, many of the descendants of the original Norwegian immigrants still live in the area, and proudly carry on the legacy of their ancestors. The true “freshwater Norwegians” in the area break out the nostalgic, if not ill-named foods of their childhood, like head cheese, liver sausage, or dried cod. The names you’ll see on Suttons Bay’s streets and stores, which include Anderson, Johnson, Thoreson, Holton, Garthe, Mork, Clausen, Setterbo, and Bahle, provide surface links to the past. Go beyond the names and you’ll find the stories of life-changing decisions, hard work, neighborly fellowship, and a vision for the future.

A tough journey

From Norway, Louis (Lars) E. Bahle’s voyage to Northport in 1868 was, not surprisingly, rough. Quoted in his obituary printed in December 1933, Lars said of the journey, “I felt our graves were to be there on the ocean.” To top it off, Lars was ill for two months after arriving, possibly from a relatively common “sea fever” suffered by many after a long voyage in this time period, including his own family who arrived later.

After he recovered, Lars Bahle earned his money cutting wood. Northport’s main business at the time was producing cordwood that fueled the steamboats making stops at the harbor. After two years, Lars earned enough money to buy tickets for the rest of his family to make the journey. “Some of the people were sponsored to come to America by existing family and friends that already had arrived and settled here,” said Sue Wollenweber. “The debt was often paid by working for the various sponsors in order to reimburse for their generosity.” Wollenweber is the financial secretary of the Christian Radich Lodge in Suttons Bay, the local chapter of the Sons of Norway, a non-profit fraternal organization.

Lars and his family came to Suttons Bay from Northport in 1871. After owning a large plot of land a mile from town, Lars eventually sold the land, and went all-in on a 24-by-40-foot store in town in 1876. The store is still there, though larger now, and still owned by the Bahle family.


Attraction of Leelanau

Wollenweber explains why Norwegians settled in this area. “The attraction to the area was the possibility of a better life as far as making a living for their families. Life in the Scandinavian countries was not always easy because of the topography and wages that were paid. America offered them a better chance to better themselves and their families. Another reason was the area, as far as the hills and the lakes; it reminded them of their beautiful motherland.”

The inland sea of Lake Michigan called out to many of the early Norwegian settlers, including Captain Esten Bahle—somewhat ironically, considering the hardship his father and family suffered after their arrival from Norway. Born in Suttons Bay in 1881, Esten spent hours as a young boy watching the sailing vessels on the bay. At age 16 he sailed as a wheelsman and lookout. In 1905, he went to work for the Pere Marquette car ferries, and is believed to have set a record at the time with more than 1,000 crossings of Lake Michigan. Another Norwegian seafarer, Captain J.C. Anderson, was born in Norway, and was also considered a master of the sea. He would later purchase the Union Hotel in Suttons Bay in 1879.

On land, the Norwegians thrived as well. “Many of them were farmers and appreciated the richness of the soil in order to plant their various crops, i.e. potatoes, corn, wheat, apples, etc. Cherry farming came into existence at a later date,” said Wollenweber. “They were also involved in the logging and saw mills that played a part in their making a living for their families.”

Other notable Norwegian settlers included Lars J. Gronseth, who came to Suttons Bay in 1886 and opened a shoe store; and Andrew and Julianna Solem, who left Norway in 1872 and in 1880 purchased a farm near Suttons Bay. Native Norwegian Louis (Lars) R. Sogge came to Leelanau County in 1884, worked on a farm, and later purchased an interest in the Leland Lumber Co. In 1899, he opened a general store in Suttons Bay. His daughter later married Otto Bahle, who took over the Bahle’s store.


Christmas memories

Like many cultures, the memories of holiday traditions often go back to food and fun. Here’s an excerpt from “A Norwegian Family—Christmas at Northport” written by Martin A. Melkild in 1986, about his experience growing up in the 1920s and 1930s:

Christmas Dinner on the farm was always a bountiful meal. We all had helped in the harvest and had certain chores we were expected to do. Prior to Christmas, it was time for butchering and the smoking of the hams and slabs of bacon. At this time we also made jars of head cheese and Korv (a potato and liver sausage). Most every Christmas mother would prepare ‘Lute Fiske’. This was prepared from dried cod fish which had been shipped to the local grocery store Anderson, Kehl & Wrisley. They looked like boards before being soaked and cooked, to again become tender and white, and palatable looking! But it was most delicious to us fresh water Norwegians!”

Melkild described a typical winter day with friends and family: “Our entertainment during the winter days and evenings consisted of neighborhood round robbing parties (taking turns). These usually started with sledding. Some brought their homemade skis, having only a loose leather binder at the instep. We more or less would shush the hill, having little knowledge or control over our actions. There was a good sized hill in front of our farm house, called the Loomis Hill after the family who owned the property and lived most of the year in Grand Rapids. The sled run was prepared by packing and watering down with buckets of water, becoming very icy. The ride down the hill was quite scary, as we had little control over those homemade sleds, other than dragging one’s feet. At the base of the hill we crossed the road, passed by the house to end up in the apple orchard. There was little car traffic during the winter months as the county had limited funds for snow plowing. Farm families relied upon the team of horses, cutter or sleigh, in which to get to church and town. Nels Fredrickson was our school bus driver, and in the winter equipped his sleigh with a canvas top. In the evenings prior to the next day’s run, he heated bricks which he placed in gunny sacks amongst the straw, which kept our feet warm on the trip to school.”


Scandinavian coziness

It’s popular these days to use the term hygge (hoo-guh), an untranslatable Danish word with its best English translation being “cozy.” Hygge made the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 “word of the year” shortlist. The New Yorker devoted an entire article to the word, and the article defined hygge as “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders feelings of contentment or well-being.” The word actually derives from a 16th-century Norwegian term, hugga, which can mean “to comfort” or “to console”, and is related to the English word hug. Today, Norwegians use the term koselig (koos-uh-lee), which is another word that doesn’t have a direct translation but is essentially an all-encompassing philosophy to get through the winter, invoking anything that creates a sort of warm and fuzzy feeling.

Martin A. Melkild’s description of the canvas top sleigh and the warm bricks certainly fit into this philosophy, but he finishes his essay with the return indoors after sledding, and a very “koselig” setting is described. “After becoming pretty well exhausted from the sledding and skiing, we then gathered in the living room around the potbelly stove to warm up. Outer clothing was strung about the kitchen range to dry. It was time for homemade candy, popcorn (sometimes with caramel), and apples. Our farm had lots of apples, with names like Maiden Blush, Seak No Further, Ben Davis, and many others unheard on today’s market. We played cards and other games, and sang favorite tunes around the piano until time to go home.”

If you’ve wondered what “hygge” or “koselig” meant, it’s that, and more.

During the holidays, the Sons of Norway chapter in Suttons Bay celebrates every year. “Our lodge hosts a Christmas Dinner at one of the local restaurants in the area each December,” said Wolleweber. “The tables are decorated with Scandinavian decorations and stories of
the traditions of what it was and still is to celebrate Christmas in these countries.”

Today, all you have to do is stroll through Suttons Bay to see the continued Norwegian influence. The Bahle family continues to run the store, a favorite of many during the holiday shopping season. In the summer, the Bahle Farms Golf Course is one of the most picturesque courses in the county. The Bahle family has also owned and operated the Bay Theatre—the only movie theater in Leelanau County—for more than 40 years, but operation of the theater is now in flux leading into 2019.

Meanwhile, Leif Sporck, and his well known tile art gallery, resides in Suttons Bay. He not only sells his tile art across Leelanau County, but also internationally—even in Norway. Stories of his ancestors and his trips to the motherland come free of charge.

Learn more about the Sons of Norway chapter in Suttons Bay by visiting their website: SonsofNorway5.com. Kim Kelderhouse at the Leelanau Historical Society also offers a wealth of information about Norwegian history and beyond. Visit LeelanauHistory.org for stories of the Leelanau’s white settlers, including Martin A Melkild’s “A Norwegian Family—Christmas at Northport.”