Bringing Along Their Hero: Nansen Store

Last Updated by Heather Benson on

For better or worse, South Dakota doesn't often have a touchstone with national events and so when we do, we can't help but capitalize on it.

Google's choice of homepage "doodle" for October 10, 2017 is one that at first glance doesn't have much to do with South Dakota: It features famed Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who celebrates his 156th birthday this year.  But it just so happens that one of South Dakota's oldest country stores is named after this famous Scandinavian: Nansen Store in rural Miner county.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 10.15.23 AM.pngThe Google homepage dedicated to Nansen as seen on October 10, 2017.Google.com

First, a bit about Nansen the Adventurer:

Born in Norway in 1861, Nansen first made his name as a champion skier and ice skater. He parleyed that skiing expertise into leading the first expedition to cross the ice-covered interior of Greenland in 1888. His adventures brought international acclaim when his exploring party reached a latitude of 86° 14' during a North Pole expedition in 1893-1896.  Shortly thereafter, he retired from exploring but the methods and gear he developed became an important part of the success of later cold country explorers.

1024px-Fridtjof_Nansen_LOC_03377u-3.jpgPortrait of Norwegian explorer Fridtjof NansenWikipedia.org

He then made the switch from adventurer to scientist by earning a degree in zoology at the Royal Frederick University in what is now Oslo.  As curator of the Bergen Museum, he helped establish modern theories in neuroscience by studying the central nervous system of marine animals, while at the same time earning his doctorate.  He then switched his interests to oceanography and there too helped pioneer new ideas by developing oceanographic exploration equipment that laid the groundwork for deep ocean explorations today.  It seemed wherever Nansen put his efforts, great things followed.

But it was his work in the realm of international politics that he made his biggest mark.  During the early part of the 20th century, Norway, like many European nations, was struggling through the transition from monarchy to alternative forms of government. Nansen used his position as one of Norway's most well known citizens to help end Norway's union with Sweden and pave the way for full Norwegian independence in 1905.

Postcard-Norway-flag-1905.jpgA postcard celebrating the Norwegian independence in 1905.Wikipedia.org

Following that, Nansen turned his attention to the newly developed League of Nations and and served as the League's High Commissioner for Refugees.  During his tenure, he championed several initiatives including the "Nansen passport" for stateless persons, a certificate that was recognized by over 50 countries. In the winter of 1921-1922, he directed and distributed international aid to Russia during a severe famine there and is credited with saving the lives of an estimated 7,000,000-22,000,000 people.  His workearned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.  

Dupuis-Nansen-Carle-Savio-Quisling.jpgThe Armenia commission of the League of Nations. From left, on the first row are G. Carle, Fridtjof Nansen and C.E. Dupuis. Wikipedia.org

After his death in 1930, the Nansen International Office for Refugees was established to ensure that his work for some of the world's most vulnerable continued.  He has long been considered one of Norway's national heroes and in areas settled by Norwegians, his name can be found everywhere.

Nansen the Store

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 11.16.32 AM.pngNansen Store in Miner County.npr.org

And so it comes as no surprise that some of South Dakota's first Norwegian settlers brought along the name of their hero with them.  The northwest corner of Section 17 in Township 107 in Miner County was settled by Norwegian immigrants in 1889 and the population surrounding the area had a definite Scandinavian air.  The first private owner of the land on which Nansen Store now sits was Agnette Pederson, who emigrated to the US from Norway in 1877. The place name "Nansen" first shows up in historical records in a 1903 plat that notes "Nansen" is on the south side of the section line and a creamery on the north side.

1200px-Map_of_South_Dakota_highlighting_Miner_County.svg.pngThe highlighted county is Miner County, SD.  

In many areas settled by Norwegians, it was common for a community spring up without formally becoming a "town".  In the early 1880s, northeastern Miner County was settled by a large group of Norwegian settlers both directly from Norway and from those who had come to US decades before and moved west from Minnesota and Winconsin.  Attracted by the Homestead Act, they may not have formally created a town but they nevertheless brought a sense of community to the area.  Two churches, the Belleview Lutheran and Berton Baptist, served the locals spiritually and commerce was served by both Nansen and another crossroads community, Berton.  Norwegian settlers were also responsible for creating the all-weather road that ran through Nansen, locally known as the "Norwegian Oil". At one point, Nansen laid claim to a post office, telephone company, creamery, blacksmith and of course, the general store.

0B6mdMHpnRAY7eXF3NjRsazhHZDQ.jpgBelleville Lutheran Church, which held its last service in June of 2016. Mitchell Republic

The first official record of Nansen Store comes in 1903. Knut Skaar, a Norwegian immigrant, built the first structure and newspaper reports from 1905 indicate that he had already added on.  The original homesteaders of the parcel, Agnette (nee Pederson) and Gabriel Fjellestad subdivided the lot and sold Knut the needed space. In a 1910 news article, the local paper referred to a "new" store building in Nansen, which was likely the two-and-a-half story addition for which Knut and his wife Caroline took out a mortgage from Peoples State Bank in Howard.

 

The Nansen Store by then took on the archetypical look of American country stores: Wide one-story porch and central double entrance with large display windows.  At one point, it also had the typical false-front at the roofline, which was the common way to designate the commercial function of buildings, but the punishing prairie winds made short work of it in the unprotected location and it soon came down.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 11.17.54 AM.pngKnut, Olga and Caroline Skaar with their new Dodge truck.Tom Wall/NPS.gov

Initially, Knut and his wife had to bring in all store inventory themselves.  This meant a weekly horse-drawn wagon trip to Howard, eight miles distant.  A big upgrade came in 1925 when the couple made their first automobile purchase, a Dodge truck that featured a bed enclosed with wire mesh and tie-up canvas walls.  As time went by, they also made trips to Madison for high demand items and eventually, a delivery truck from Madison, then Sioux Falls made regular trips to keep the store stocked. When the Skaar's bought that first truck, they also had to bring in their own gasoline pump. A hand-cranked pump was installed for both their use and area residents. Each night the pump had to be drained of fuel and then each morning, cranked back up again in order to have fuel at the ready for customers.  

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 11.17.47 AM.pngFront of Nansen Store, late 1940s/early 1950s, showing the old gas pump with glass cylinder.Tom Wall/NPS.gov

Knut and his wife operated the Nansen Store from its inception until their adopted daughter Olga took it over in 1940.  Caroline passed away in 1937, but Knut stayed with the store and his daugther until he passed away at age 85 in 1943. That same year, Olga married local salesman William Wall and the couple worked together to modernize the store.  They became a part of the local group working to bring electrification to the area, at one point closing the store between 4 and 5pm each night so they could travel to neighboring farms to discuss registration with the Rural Electrification Administration (REA).  When electricity finally arrived in the late 1940s, the store immediately installed refridgerators, turned an old coal room into their first indoor bathroom and installed a modern kitchen.  Electricity also allowed them to offer cold beer and ice cream to their customers for the first time.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 11.17.38 AM.pngCard players filling up the back room of Nansen Store, circa late 1950s.Kari O'Dell/NPS.gov

Nansen Store became a center of community life for the area.  Neighbors gathered there to visit, play cards and in later years, listen to WNAX and KSOO on the radio.  In the 1950s, the Walls invested in a television and installed it on top of the juke box in the store's main display area.  In an era when few homes had televisions, the opportunity to watch attracted locals young and old. Baseball, both on TV and on the radio, attracted neighbors to come together to watch and listen but also to play.  Nansen even fielded a baseball team for several decades, first playing on various farm fields and then playing on a diamond constructed just to the south of the store.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 11.17.24 AM.pngNansen Baseball Club, 1936, pictured at the Peterville Ball ParkDonna Meyer/NPS.gov

Olga Wall sold the store to Malvin and Berna Hegdahl (nee Tystad) in 1954, shortly after Bill's death. The Hegdahl's were part of the early Norwegian settlers to the area and continued the community traditions of the store.  In addition, they began renting the upper rooms to hunters for the fall pheasant season, which eventually became a sizable source of income for the couple.  After briefly turning over operation of the store to Mary Malie from 1958 to 1959, the Hegdahls ceased store operations in 1961 but continued renting rooms to hunters until Malvin's death in 1974. Berna sold the building to Bill Feller in 1976, in whose care it remains to this day.

IMG_1726.jpegThe plaque commemorating Nansen Store upon its addition to the National Register of Historic Places.Miner County Historical Societ

In 2013, after extensive renovation and a long application process, Nansen Store was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as a reminder of when community didn't necessarily mean having a town incorporated on a map.

22339645_1550539451658406_4267319160397026329_o.jpgNansen Store today.NPS.gov

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