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Hawley, Home of the Hjemkomst

Robert Asp and the Hjemkomst:  Building the dream of a lifetime

Soon after Hawley's beginning in 1872, General George Armstrong Custer, on his last trip west by train, stopped in Hawley.  This perhaps earned the city a place in history, but that event, in Hawley's 130 years of existence, pales in comparison with the saga of the building and sailing of the Viking ship, Hjemkomst.  For nearly a decade, the ship and its builder were the biggest thing in Hawley.  In addition to the local interest, there was constant attention by the media with TV coverage by Fargo and Twin City stations as well as national networks and syndicated programs.

It all began in 1971, when a Moorhead junior high school counselor, Bob Asp, was earning some extra money during the summer by reshingling a neighbor's house.  The scaffolding broke and Bob fell to the ground, breaking his leg.  While he was recuperating, his brother, Bjarne, brought him some books on Norwegian history.  Here were the stories of the Vikings and their longboats, the "Dragon Ships."  Before long, the brothers, who were part-time carptenters, began to discuss the construction of these ships.  One thing led to another and after a while, Bob had talked himself into trying to build a Viking ship of his own.

The model he settled upon was the famous "Gokstad" ship that had been excavated from a clay burial mound south of Oslo, Norway.  This vessel was a burial ship dating from about 950 A.D. and is now preserved in a museum in Oslo.

In 1972 (since he was still teaching, his ship project had to be part-time) he began drawing up plans and locating oak trees suitable for the necessary lumber.  He was fortunate enough to find large oak trees along the Red River in Fargo and in the Alvarado and Oslo, Minnesota areas.  He did the majority of the logging by himself and found friendly sawmill operators to turn the logs into lumber.

For obtaining measurements to draw blueprints, he traveled to Chicago where a replica of the Gokstad ship rested in a park.  This ship was built in Norway and sailed by a Norse crew to Chicago in 1892 for the Columbian Exposition celebrating the 400th anniversary of the "discovery" of America by Christopher Columbus.  No doubt the Norwegians did this to inform the world that Leif Erickson had landed on the North American continent 500 years before that "Italian fellow."  Asp also got help by corresponding with people in Norway.

In 1973 he began to look for a suitable building for his project.  He was unable to find anything in Fargo or Moorhead.  Someone suggested that there was an old potato warehouse in Hawley that might fill the bill.  One day he walked into the city clerk's office and asked if the warehouse north of City Hall could be obtained for the construction of a Viking ship.  The clerk was a bit skeptical but agreed to look into the matter.  A little checking revealed that Asp was a reliable person and that he already had a stockpile of oak lumber.

At the next city council meeting, the city fathers agreed to go along with the project, partly because they regarded the vacant warehouse an eyesore and it would have to be demolished when the completed ship was removed.  The building was obtained from the owner, Obert Grover of Glyndon, and then leased to Asp for $10 per year.

In November 1973, the first load of lumber was hauled in, and Don and Patrick Burns, Bob Brekken, and Larry Quam helped unload the rough lumber and the project was begun.

During the next seven years, the "Hawley Shipyard" received attention from the local populace as well as tourists, bus loads of school children, reporters, TV crews and even on one occasion, Governor Al Quie and his entourage.  There was a British Broadcasting Company-produced TV series on the "Vikings" shown on Public Broadcasting that featured a segment on Hawley and the ship building project.

During this time Bob became one of the community.  He joined the Chamber of Commerce and attended their meetings.  He drank coffee at the Lefseland and Drug Store lunch counters and in general did all those things that a good mainstreet businessman and Hawley booster would do.  He even worked the Hawley Rodeo performances, selling tickets and programs.  In 1974, at about the time that the keel was being laid, Bob discovered he had leukemia.  However, this didn't stop him; he endured chemotherapy and continued working.  He said that he planned to work as long as possible and, if the ship was not finished by the time he died, someone else would take the task to completion.

Until 1978 or 1979, little was done to support the project financially.  There was a box at the door suggesting contributions, but yielded little.  In 1978, when the ship appeared to be nearly half finished, the Chamber of Commerce led an effort by community organizations to raise funds.  There were bake sales, a drive for individual contributions, fund raising dinners and button sales.  Hawley Herald editor, Bob Brekken, published the first edition of "A Dream is Just a Dream Until...," a booklet written by Asp telling the story of the realization of his dream of constructing a Viking ship.  Sales of this book also raised quite a bit of money.  Another money maker was an offer to get one's name on a commemorative plaque for a $25 minimum contribution.  

The climax of the 1979 fund raising effort came in September when Hawley devoted a weekend to a "Viking Holiday" celebration.  The high point was a program at the school.  The crowd was so large that many local people were turned away.  After the year's fund raising was complete, a check for $6,500 was presented to the Asps.

Hilmer Jeral, Raymond Omberg, Neil Lewis, and Eddie Mounger were among the local volunteers who occasionally lent a hand.  During the last couple years of construction, Bill Pierce, a retired carpenter from Moorhead, worked nearly full time on the project.  Woodworker Gary Olsby of Fargo carved the necessary dragon head.

When the completion date approached in 1980, the community effort shifted into high gear.  A committee was formed to raise funds and prepare for a suitable celebration.  Signs were erected along Highway 10 to lure motorists in to see a "Circa 950 Viking Ship."  When they arrived they were offered T-shirts, wood scrap souvenirs, postcards, autographed photos and more books and buttons.

Since the ship was built on the basement floor of  the warehouse, there was the problem of getting the 16-ton vessel onto the street and loaded on a trailer rig for transport to Lake Superior.  For this task, Bob enlisted the services of a host of volunteers supervised by Col. Lefty Johnson.  Johnson's first move was to tear out the front section of the building.  The resulting brick debris was used to form a ramp to skid the ship out on to the street.

A few days before the ship was to be taken out, the city clerk and Bob reviewed last-minute preparations.  It was suggested that it would be nice to have a Norwegian flag.  The clerk said he would take care of it and began phoning flag companies.  None of them could deliver before about two weeks.  While one of these phone calls was being made, Phyllis Onsgard, the manager of Congressman Arlen Stangeland's office in Moorhead, passed by and overheard the conversation.  She picked up the phone, called the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the flag was on its way.  The flag arrived on the morning the ship came out, and the U.S. flag was mounted aft and the Norwegian flag on the bow.

The morning of Thursday, July 17, 1980 was the big day.  By 7 a.m. the City Hall area had taken on a circus atmosphere.  The move had been well publicized, so a crowd of spectators was already on hand.  There were five TV camera crews (one of them interviewed Leroy Wheeler) and several reporters, including two who were from Norway.  It looked as though everyone in town had taken the day off.

A wrecker from Ron's Wrecking in Lake Park and a Sellin Bros. crane were on hand to do the heavy lifting.  The ship was braced in several places and large bridge timbers laid down so that it could be skidded out on steel pipes used as rollers.  The winch was then hooked on and Lefty's crew went to work.  The ship came out and was moved across the street at Front and Sixth.  Bob christened the area "Central Park."

Workers then hoisted the ship onto a semi-trailer rig and attached the dragon head.  An elevated platform was built so that spectators could view the inside of the ship.  At the bottom of the stairway was Dorothy Pellikka or Phyllis Layton strongly suggesting that viewers contribute to the cause.  The were very persuasive-one evening 600 one dollar bills were deposited at First National Bank.  At the same time, the ladies of the community were busy at the site selling various souvenirs.  Funds raised locally over the three years totaled $40,000.  The christening day was set for July 27.  The ceremonies were held on a platform in front of the ship with a full quota of dignitaries.  In addition to Bob and Rose Asp there was Hannah Foldoe, Roes's mother who broke the bottle of champagne.  Then there was Mayor Burt Johnson, Norwegian Consul General Olaf Solli, County Commissioner Marv Dauner and others.  The program, in addition to the speeches, consisted of a Norwegian folk dancing performance by the local "Hjemkomst Dancers," the Hawley High School Band, some Norwegian songs by local groups and soloists, a Norwegian comic routine, an old time fiddling performance by Carl (Lefse King) Knutson, etc.  There was even a fellow by the name of Jack Skogen in full Viking regalia including chain mail, helmet, sword and horn.  He was hidden aboard ship until the moment of christening when he appeared on the rail, sounded his horn and brandished his sword.  At least one major TV network picked up the shot and used it on the evening news.

After the program, 87-year old Hanna Foldoe chirstened the ship the "Hjemkomst."  The word, which means "homecoming" in Norse, fulfilled Bob's desire for a name that would indicate that the ship was being built so that it could return to the land of its ancestors.  When Bob indicated his wishes, Elsie Quam promptly selected the appropriate Norwegian word.  On August 1, a combination Rodeo and Viking ship celebration was held with a big parade viewed by large crowds.  Captain Bob Asp was the Grand Marshall.  Featured in the parade was the Viking who always appeared on camera at the Minnestoa Viking football games.  He marched in the parade for no compensation and said he was happy to contribute to the cause.  That evening another program was held at the school.

The next morning the Hjemkomst was moved to the Rodeo Grounds where it was on exhibit during the rodeo performances on August 2-3.  Again thousands viewed the ship.  Afterwards, they prepared for the trip to Duluth.

Just a sidelight on the trip to Duluth:  Since the load was considerably over-sized, a special permit was required from the Minnesota Department of Transportation.  It seems that Bob and Rose traveled to St. Paul and submitted a request to a "big wheel" in the MN-DOT.  This person apparently had never heard of the ship and basically told the Asps to "get lost" because he was not about to give them any permit.  At this point Rose helpfully suggested that Bob show the nice man some pictures of the ship.  Bob promptly produced some photos, one of which was a shot of Governor Quie standing and holding the tiller.  Needless to say the permit was quickly issued.

On the evening of August 5, the journey to Duluth began.  Highway Patrolman Bob Elliott was one of the officers assigned to escort the convoy.  As it disappeared over the hill there were a few tears shed by the attending Hawleyites.  It was the end of an era that most agreed was Hawley's finest.  People gathered in nearly every town along the way to see the ship as it passed during the night.

On August 7, two giant cranes from the Duluth Port Authority launched the ship.  A large crowd was on hand, including quite a number of Hawley citizens, many who were still busy selling books, buttons and T-shirts.  As usual the media was out in full force, including a camera crew from the network TV show "Real People."  The Hjemkomst segment appeared on the program in 1981, within the months following Bob's death.

The rest of the summer, the ship was tried out under sail, and the prospective crew members got an education.  In October it was tied up at a marina in Knife River.  Bob stayed on board much of this time, and on one cold morning slipped and broke his leg.  This injury, together with the complications of leukemia, was too much for him, and he died December 27, 1980.  City Clerk Larry Quam and Lefty Johnson were casketbearers at his funeral.

The next year was spent in selecting and training the crew.  The crew finally consisted of three of Bob's sons, one of his daughters and several of their friends, along with two Norwegian sailors who volunteered their services.  They selected Erik Tudstrom, an experienced and highly regarded expert on Viking sailing ships, as the skipper.  In addition to training personnel, some modifications had to be made including a larger sail and additional ballast.  They were also required to install a diesel engine to run a generator for necessary navigation lights.  There was no propeller.

In 1981, the ship was transported to Minneapolis and exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.  This raised more funds and gave Hawley more publicity.  There were other fund raising efforts including a telethon staged by WDAY-TV in Fargo.

In May of 1982 the voyage began.  A large delegation from Hawley traveled to Duluth to see the crew off.  There was a luncheon and the large crowd watched from shore as the ship departed under sail.  It was a tough, stormy voyage across Lake Superior, but after that things went pretty well.  There were stops along the way, notably at Detroit, Michigan and Rochester, N.Y.  They went through the Erie Canal to Albany and down the Hudson River to New York City.

The whole journey attracted attention and newspaper clippings found the way to Hawley from the cities near the ship's trail.  Clippings from New York papers included shots of the Hjemkomst under sail with the Statue of Liberty or the Manhattan skyscrapers in the background.

The ship sailed out into the Atlantic and after three days encountered a violent storm with 30-foot waves.  A crack appeared in a strake alongside the keel, and for a while the situation looked grim.  Someone finally stopped the leak by stuffing burlap into the crack, and the voyage continued.  The party kept daily contact with Fargo-Moorhead via radio.  As the ship approached its destination, British media helicopters and planes flew out and got shots of the vessel off the Shetland Islands.  These images appeared on our local evening news as well as in all of Scandinavia.

A plane load of people from the Red River Valley area flew over to meet the ship in Norway.  The actual arrival of the ship was on a Saturday, so it had to lay to until Monday to allow the Norwegians their customary weekend off.  On Monday morning, July 19, 1982, the Hjemkomst was rowed into a slip in Bergen Harbor to be greeted by a welcoming crowd, including a dozen or more persons from the Hawley community.  The fireboats in the harbor were squirting water and the other ships in the area sounded their horns.  There was a police band, the mayor of Bergen and other local officials, the American ambassador and other dignitaries.  Music and speeches were followed by a feast of roast mutton.  It certainly was an emotional moment for the many Asp family members and Hawleyites in attendance.

After a short stay in Bergen, the ship sailed to Oslo, where the king came aboard.  The crew flew back and the ship remained in Oslo until returning on the deck of a merchant ship.  It was trucked back and on the way to its final destination in Moorhead, stopped overnight in Hawley.  The occasion of this last visit was utilized to designate the construction site as "Bob Asp Park."

And so ended Hawley's involvement in the story of the Hjemkomst.  For nearly 10 years the city had received a steady stream of publicity, all favorable.  All of it helped to foster an image of Hawley as being a generous, caring community.  Bob's dream of building the ship became the dream of everyone in Hawley.  There never has been and probably never will be a time when the citizens of the community were so united and unselfishly dedicated to a cause.  When the ship departed over the hill on the way to Duluth, most of the spectators were thinking; "there goes a part of my life, a part of the ship belongs to me and I feel so good about it." 

After the christening day ceremonies were completed, a pair of Hawley's citizens enjoyed a glass of champagne.  One was heard to remark: "If a 21st century Bob Brekken writes a history of the city's second 100 years he will surely call this day Hawley's finest hour."


This article was taken from The Journey Continues...A supplement to Journey Back to Hawley and a survey of the various organizations, churches, businesses and schools in Hawley for the observance of the 125th birthday, July 11-13, 1997.  Lori S. Dittmer, editor