Fall 2006: Three decades of Hostfest!
Minot steals the show with country's premier Scandinavian festival
By Candi Helseth,
The countdown has begun for a grand 30th celebration in 2007, but first it’s time for the 29th annual Norsk Høstfest October 10 to 14 in Minot.
Once again named to the American Bus Association’s Top 100 Events in North America, Norsk Høstfest (“høst” means “fall” in Norwegian), began in 1978 with the introduction of a one-night Scandinavian festival. Local groups provided musical entertainment, and four Minot Lutheran churches made Norwegian foods. Today, Norsk Høstfest officially encompasses five nights and four days at the State Fair Center, filling the North Dakota State Fairgrounds with tour buses, recreational vehicles and drive-in traffic.
Its representation has grown to include all five Scandinavian countries – Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. One stage has expanded to seven stages. Local performers have been joined by award-winning entertainers from throughout the United States, Canada, and Scandinavian countries. The Lutheran churches still sell the same popular Norwegian fare – on a much larger scale. Patrons have hundreds of ethnic food choices now, including gourmet cuisine prepared by European chefs.
Høstfest activities stretch through a nine-day period, beginning the weekend prior to the festival’s official opening. Norsk Høstfest Association immerses the community in Scandinavian culture and heritage through its partnerships with area entities such as Minot Public Schools, Minot Symphony Orchestra, and Minot State University. For example, Høstfest in the Schools reaches children in 18 area schools. About 60 entertainers and exhibitors affiliated with the festival present educational instruction intended to instill pride in heritage. Minot Symphony Orchestra features a noted Scandinavian performer – this year, the acclaimed violinist Arve Tellefsen – in concert the weekend preceding the festival. Minot State University participates in a variety of ways. For instance, Norwegian actress Jeanne Bøe will perform this year at the MSU Black Box Theater.
The area’s Scandinavian heritage is reflected year-‘round in the Scandinavian Heritage Park on Broadway. Developed in the early 1990s by the Scandinavian Heritage Association, the park is home to a magnificent Norwegian Gol Stave Church. A Norwegian stabbur (storehouse), a 500-year-old cabin moved to Minot from Norway, an immense Swedish dala horse, Danish windmill, Finnish sauna, the Olympic eternal flame, and flags from all five Scandinavian nations are also in the park. Dotting the landscape are statues of Viking Leif Eriksson, world-famous skiers Sondre Norheim and Casper Oimoen, both Norwegian-Americans, and Denmark’s Hans Christian Andersen. Offices for Norsk Høstfest, Minot Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, and Sons of Norway are located near the park’s main entry in a building patterned after the 1994 Lillehammer Olympic Visitors’ Center in Lillehammer, Norway.
“Høstfest’s overall impact over the years can’t really be measured, but I do think one of the festival’s best measures of success is the respect it’s earned from the Scandinavian countries, particularly Norway,” says Gary Holum, a retired judge who oversees the annual Joint Service Clubs meeting. During Høstfest week, Minot’s service clubs hold a combined meeting where Nordic dignitaries and festival entertainers are recognized.
Holum and his wife, Joan, entertain residents from Skien, Norway, in their home nearly every year. The City of Skien and Minot became Sister Cities more than 20 years ago, the result of initiatives taken by festival and city leaders. Skien sends a delegation to Høstfest every year, and the annual Norsk Høstfest Norway tour in August always includes a stop in Skien.
Long recognized as the largest Scandinavian festival on the North American continent, Norsk Høstfest has become much more than a single event. Its influence and importance to the city of Minot are demonstrated in the words of Lloyd Omdahl, a political scientist and former North Dakota lieutenant governor, whose regular column is carried in many North Dakota newspapers. In a column that ran this summer, Omdahl referred to Høstfest and the North Dakota State Fair as “two top state events in the fourth-largest city,” and suggested that Minot is “unique.”
“Norsk Høstfest…commands an international reputation and draws more than 50,000 visitors from the United States, Canada and Europe,” wrote Omdahl in his coverage, and then concluded his column with these strong words, “Minot seems to have stolen the show.”
Thousands of volunteers stoke the Høstfest engine
How can a festival the size of Norsk Høstfest succeed with a meager staff of only five employees? The answer lies in its dedicated volunteer force, says Pamela Alme Davy, Høstfest executive director.
An estimated 7,000 volunteers are on the Høstfest bandwagon. Their volunteer commitment ranges from a four-hour block of time at the festival – the minimum amount of time required to be considered a volunteer – to hundreds of hours all year long. Some even take vacation time from their jobs to work at the festival.
For 24 years, Helen Haaland has worked as a volunteer 30 to 40 hours a week year-‘round in the office. Haaland, who is 81, regularly puts in 10 to 14 hour days during the festival. She handles a variety of skilled tasks that include coordinating ticket sales, selling advertising, recruiting corporate sponsors, working with tour groups, and supervising other volunteers.
“I do anything I can anywhere I can help,” Haaland says. “It’s better to be working anyway than standing around moping about getting old. I’m not the only one who gives a lot of time. There are lots of volunteers like me who give many, many hours. We do it because we enjoy it. I love Høstfest, and I have made so many friends over the years.”
Minot area residents who open their homes to accommodate exhibitors and entertainers list new friendships among their greatest rewards, too. Marcella Johnson has been host to the same guests for 10 years in a row, and has even visited them in their homes in Norway.
While the great majority of volunteers are Minot residents, the volunteer force has been infiltrated in recent years by out-of-state residents. “We began volunteering as ushers in the Great Hall several years ago and it makes Høstfest even more fun,” says Jim Lowe, a Tacoma, Washington, resident who volunteers with his wife, Erna. “We’ve met so many people. When we come back every year, we look forward to seeing all these friends we’ve made. Volunteering adds a whole new dimension.”
“Norsk Høstfest would cease to be without the excellent volunteers and sponsors that contribute to the festival year after year,” claims Davy. “Our volunteers are so committed and loyal. Many of them have been doing their volunteer task for at least 10 or more years. And our sponsors not only contribute funding, but they also encourage their employees to volunteer.”
Norsk Høstfest Association President Chester Reiten, in his 29th year as an unpaid volunteer leader, leads by example. Like Haaland, Reiten says he is having too much fun to quit yet. Besides, he’s already busy planning the 30th anniversary next year.
October brings streams of RVs to North Dakota
You expect to see RVs heading away from North Dakota in October. After all, snowbirds generally head south. So when the highways fill with RVs heading into the state, you can expect that it’s time for Norsk Høstfest.
From as far away as Alaska and Florida and as close as Glenburn, 20 miles from Minot, the recreational vehicles stream into the North Dakota State Fairgrounds. In fact, some Minot residents even move onto the grounds during Høstfest week.
“Høstfest is like a big RV reunion,” says Irene Miller, a former RVer and a 15-year Høstfest volunteer who coordinates RV registration. “A lot of these people only see each other at Høstfest once a year. It’s so fun because they come into the Hospitality Center, and they’re all shouting and embracing each other. If they’re here for the first time and don’t know someone, they’ll have new friends by the time they leave.”
Within the broad spectrum of Høstfest activities, RVers have their own subculture. The RV Hospitality Center opens the weekend prior to the festival, providing a central gathering place to have coffee and doughnuts, compliments of Høstfest, and visit and play cards. RVers can take advantage of discounted tickets to the Y’s Men Rodeo the weekend preceding the festival, attend Sunday RV church services with Preacher Paul, and enjoy the annual RV buffet dinner followed by dancing to a live band. Day trips to nearby attractions are another highlight prior to the festival. Once the festival begins, shuttle buses transport RVers to the festival’s entrance.
“We’re usually the first RV to arrive,” says Lowe.“We come the weekend before and take in everything there is to offer.” Erna Lowe, a native of Norway, initially learned about Høstfest through their Sons of Norway Lodge. They attended for the first time in 1990, and have returned every year. Høstfest surveys indicate that as many as one-half of RVers have attended 10 or more years.
RV amenities are included in the sites located on the grounds, which can accommodate about 1,000 RVs. Several area campsites also fill during Høstfest week. “We’re sold on Høstfest,” says Sharon Swanberg, who with her husband, Dale, attended Høstfest for the first time five years ago. “The entertainment is really good, and it’s such a bargain for your money. You can’t find a better deal entertainment-wise. There is so much variety. You can’t see it all in a day or even two.”
This year the Swanbergs will lead a caravan of five recreational vehicles traveling more than 1,100 miles from Fort St. John, British Columbia, to Minot. Arriving from an even further distance is a Norwegian tour group whose owner is making arrangements to ship a tour bus with Norwegian license plates to New York. The 55-member group will fly from Norway to New York, then board the bus for their cross-country trip to Høstfest.
Despite the festival’s broad-based clientele, Reiten says, “North Dakotans are still our best supporters. A lot of times former North Dakotans will tell us how they planned a return trip to North Dakota to coincide with Høstfest or how they decided to hold a family reunion at Høstfest. It’s that down-to-earth North Dakota friendliness that makes people feel at home here, no matter where they come from. I think that’s one of the things that still make our state – and Høstfest – truly unique.”
Minot writer Candi Helseth has covered Norsk Høstfest and northwest North Dakota for many years.
For ticket information to Norsk Høstfest, visit www.hostfest.com or call 701-852-2368.