Oslo on the High Plains

Nov 7, 2012

Hansford County, Texas
Hansford County, Texas

A full history of the Oslo Settlement is provided in the article below.

Oslo on the Texas High Plains
Peter L. Petersen (Volume 28: Page 138)

HPPR thanks the Norwegian-American Historical Society for permission to post this article.  A grant from the West Texas State University committee on organized research assisted in its preparation.

But in December, after securing a sales position with a Canadian land company, hope again replaced despair. Before long Mordt was dreaming of returning to Oslo. Such was not to be, however. The economic uncertainties that accompanied the beginning of World War I forced his new employer to dose down operations. By late 1914, Mordt had again joined the ranks of the unemployed. In desperation, he sought to borrow $5,000 from an aunt in Norway, offering his home in Guymon as collateral. “If we get the money;’ he told Grevstad, “I will go to Guymon at once, settle all outstanding business debts and clear up and after having done this I will still have money left to make a business showing and help me to pick up bargains when bargains are offered.” The loan was not forthcoming, however, and a deeply dejected Mordt finally abandoned all hope of reviving his land business. He eventually deeded his Oklahoma [153] home to Grevstad as partial repayment for the money he had borrowed; apparently he never returned to Guymon. {18} His decision meant the end of one of the most remarkable land companies in the entire history of the Texas Panhandle Plains.

Mordt’s departure also meant the end of both Oslo Posten and the townsite of Oslo, the latter already doomed to an almost certain oblivion by the failure of the Denver and Gulf Railroad Company to build a line through the area. Yet this did not totally stop the movement of Norwegians from the Midwest into the Oslo community. New arrivals continued to drift into the settlement for the next few years. Several were individuals who had purchased land from Mordt earlier and were just now moving. Generally, however, from 1913 well into the 1920s, there were far more people leaving than entering Oslo. The four years following Mordt’s withdrawal were especially difficult ones for the Norwegian farmers of Hansford County. Rainfall remained inadequate and crops were short. Many people grew discouraged and left, some returning to their old homes in the Middle West or moving on to the Pacific Northwest. But others bided their time and waited for conditions to improve. {19}

The approximately thirty families that remained formed a tightly knit rural community with the Lutheran church at its center. Relatively isolated by the lack of good roads and the absence of any sizable town near the settlement, Oslo retained much of its ethnic character well into the 1930s. Norwegian continued to be used in many of the homes and during services and social gatherings at the church. But the development in the late 1920s of the town of Gruver and its accompanying school eighteen miles to the southeast - along with the improvement of highway travel - brought about gradual assimilation. Yet even today - more than sixty years [154] after the collapse of the Mordt Land Company - a merchant in Guymon is not surprised by an order for a box of Norwegian salt herring. {20}

Agriculture continues to be Oslo’s predominant economic activity. The discovery of natural gas in the area during the 1930s and the subsequent development of irrigation have added greatly to the prosperity of the community. In recent years, Hansford County has become one of the top ten Texas counties in terms of agricultural production. Relatively high prices for grain in 1975 pushed its per capita income to the $8,863 mark; this places it forty-fourth among the nation’s 3,138 counties in personal income. The agricultural skills of the Norwegian settlers and their descendants have contributed significantly to this success. In 1964, at the annual Texas Conservation Awards dinner in Fort Worth, the farmers of Oslo were named an “outstanding soil conservation group in Texas,” and the Reverend Robert L. Cordes, then pastor of the Oslo Lutheran Church, was honored for “most unselfish service to soil conservation” by a professional man. {21}

Certainly the most striking reminder of the community’s unique beginnings is the Oslo Lutheran church building, an imposing, neogothic structure, often called the Cathedral of the Plains. Built of Austin stone, the richly appointed church features a custom-crafted pipe organ - one of the finest in the vast Panhandle region. The history of this church, much like that of the rural community which it serves, is one of both hardship and triumph over adversity. The congregation did not become self-sustaining until 1937. Shortly thereafter, members voted to contribute two percent of their wheat crop to a building fund.

Within ten years there was enough money to begin the construction of a replacement for the frame structure erected during the Mordt era. When the new sanctuary [155] was sufficiently completed for services, the old church was razed. Tragically, on February 18, 1950 - the very eve of dedication services - a disastrous fire almost totally destroyed the new structure and its contents. Not only had the congregation lost nearly $80,000 in building funds - much more if equipment and donated labor were included - but it now found itself without a building of any kind. The fire was a terrible blow for the small parish, but seemingly undaunted, the members almost immediately set out to construct another house of worship. The new church - the second built in less than a year - was dedicated on October 29, 1950. Incredibly, the congregation still managed to finish the year free of debt!

Since 1950 the congregation has built a new parsonage, completed a major addition to the sanctuary, and assisted financially in the development of two new Lutheran churches in Texas. And, during the early 1960s, several members contributed a substantial sum for the purchase of the land on which the American Lutheran Church now stands in Oslo, Norway. All of this is a remarkable record of stewardship for a rural church with less than two hundred members. Some sixty years ago, when Anders L. Mordt began the Oslo settlement, he envisioned a community of prosperous Norwegian-American farmers with a Lutheran church at its center. That dream has become a reality. {22}

NOTES

<1> Canton C. Qualey, Norwegian Settlement in the United States, 198 (Northfield, 1938).
<2> Martin Ulvestad, Nordmændene i Amerika: Deres historie og rekord, 1:234, 2:808 (Minneapolis, 1907); Guymon Herald, May 28, 1910; Skandinaven, January 7, 1910.
<3> Guymon Herald, July 9, 1908. For a description of agricultural conditions in the Midwest, see John D. Hicks, “The Western Middle West, 1900-1914,” in Agricultural History, 20:65-77 (April, 1946). For an account of Norwegian migration westward, see Kenneth O. Bjork, West of the Great Divide: [156] Norwegian Migration to tile Pacific Coast, 184 7-1893 (Northfield, 1958), and especially the same author’s more recent work, “Scandinavian Migration to the Canadian Prairie Provinces, 1893-1914,” in Norwegian-American Studies, 26:3-30 (Northfield, 1974).
<4> Olaf Holen, “En norsk menighet i Texas,” in For Fattig og Rik, 32:1 (September 21, 1958). Information on the nativity of the Oslo settlers came from birth records kept by the Oslo Lutheran Church.
<5> Oslo Posten, November 18, 1910; program for the “Fortieth Anniversary and Church Dedication,” Oslo Lutheran Church, October 29, 1950; O. C. Malmin, “Isolated But Not Separated,” in Lutheran Herald, 43:3-4 (September 8, 1959).
<6> Interview with Bill Johnson, November 13, 1975; Selma Olsen English to Genevieve Olsen Miller, June 20, 1975, copy in the author’s possession; Guymon Herald, September 15, 1910; interview with Burton Olsen and Genevieve Olsen Miller, September 6, 1975; interview with Elmer Jensen, April 13, 1973; interview with Mrs. John O. Dahl and Mrs. Ingeborg Sogn, September 6, 1975.
<7> Interview with Thomas Jefferson Randol, February 26, 1976; the Denver Post quoted in the Guymon Herald, April 1, 1909. See also the Guymon Herald, July 8, October 8, 1909, September 8, 1910, October 12, 1911.
<8> Lutheraneren, 18:960 (July 17, 1912).
<9> Lutheraneren, 18:1568 (November 27, 1912).
<10> Theodore Eggen, “En oplysing,” in Lutheraneren, 18: 1555 (November 27, 1912); Eggen, “Hvad jeg fandt i Oslo,” in Lutheraneren, 18:1697-1699 (December 25, 1912), 19:17-18(January 1, 1913), 19:50-51 (January 8, 1913).
<11> Anders L. Mordt to Nicolai Grevstad, January 1, 1913, in the Grevstad Papers in the archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, Northfield. Mr. and Mrs. Joel Stavlo kindly furnished me with a copy of this document; a Xerox copy is now deposited in the archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association.
<12> Guymon Herald, December 26, 1912; Mordt to Grevstad, January 18, 1913.
<13> Mordt to Grevstad, January 18, 1913.
<14> Dagny Mordt to Grevstad, March 18, 1912; Anders L. Mordt to Grevstad, February 6, 1913.
<15> A good illustration of this type of advertisement is in Lutheraneren, 19: 192 (February 5, 1913). See also the Guymon Herald, February 13, 1913.
<16> Anders L. Mordt to Grevstad, June 23, July 3, August 11, September 25, 1913; Dagny Mordt to Grevstad, November 2, 1913.
<17> Mordt to Grevstad, October 14, November 1, 1913.
<18> Mordt to Grevstad, November 30, December 12, 1914. For reasons that remain unclear, Mordt eventually changed his surname to Van Maarth.
<19> Holen, “En norsk menighet i Texas,” 6.
<20> Interview with Cora Stedje Knutson and Leona Knutson Stavlo, September 6, 1975.
<21> U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, “County and Metropolitan Area Personal Income,” in Survey of Current Business, 23-48 (April, 1977); interview with Bill Johnson, November 13, 1975.
<22> Malmin, “Isolated But Not Separated,” in Lutheran Herald, 43:4; Philip S. Dybvig, “Oslo Is First,” in Lutheran Herald, 43:7 (September 8, 1959); Amarillo Daily News, October 27, 1950; Amarillo Globe-Times, February 26, 1976.

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