Windows on the Ballard House were replaced after finding rotting casings on second floor. Tripling insulation value should reduce energy costs. PHOTO:BILL FRIED/GOE HERITAGE CENTER
Windows on the Ballard House were replaced after finding rotting casings on second floor. Tripling insulation value should reduce energy costs. PHOTO:BILL FRIED/GOE HERITAGE CENTER
<
1
2
>
On the surface, Giants of the Earth (GOE) is simply a Spring Grove-based heritage center. If you take a peek below the waves, however, a lot more pops into view.

GOE volunteer Bill Fried spoke recently on the ongoing renovation of the Ballard House, which is the Main Street landmark which houses the organization. He also took the time to explain the purpose of the group.

"The Ballard House was built sometime before 1893," Fried said. "We are now in the process of fixing up the outside of the building."

"We just thought that with the fixing of the highway (44) it was a good time for this.... We peeled off the old vinyl siding, and found some water damage and lack of insulation, so it really did turn out to be a good time to do this."

"There have been some questions as to the color we chose. Since Spring Grove was originally known as Norwegian Ridge, we thought we'd choose colors that you might see if you were to visit Bergen, Norway. If you were to sail into the Bergen harbor, you might see some of these types of colors on the businesses right next to the piers."

Why Bergen? That west-coast community happens to be Norway's second-largest city, and has been an important port and trading center for centuries. According to historians, Bergen was incorporated in about 1070, and is steeped in the cultural identity of it's nation. Considering the sheer number of persons who would emigrate to, and through, the upper Midwest in the 19th century, it's easy to see a Spring Grove tie-in with the old city. According to reports on GOE's website, some 780,000 Norwegians emigrated to the United States between 1865 and 1930. Presaged by earlier arrivals, the great migration sought land and opportunity.

Norwegian author Ole Rolvaag's award-winning novel "Giants in the Earth" was published in 1924-1925. The book chronicles a Norwegian pioneer family's struggles as they try to build a life in the Dakota Territory. Substituting "of" for "in," GOE drew both it's name and inspiration from that epic work (for more on this subject, see Dr. Johnathan Storlie's commentary at springgrovemnheritagecenter.org).

GOE became a 501 C3 in April of 2009, Fried stated. Later that year, the group acquired the Ballard House.

"What we intend is to restore the Ballard House to it's 1890's appearance," Fried added. "During most of it's history, the building served as a hotel. At various times, there was a restaurant and/or bar downstairs. Most recently, it was an antique/gift shop."

"We'll have big block lettering just above the awning, like you see on businesses in Bergen, identifying the heritage center..." Fried noted. "We're partially through the painting process. We were desperately trying to get all the siding on the side of the building before the snows came, and we just barely made it. We'll have another week or so of painting to do in the spring. The Valspar Corporation has donated some of the paint."

"The reason we think Spring Grove is the place to have a heritage center is because it was a Norwegian settlement and it functioned like a portal or gateway to the rest of Minnesota and the Dakotas."

"People would come from Norway to northeast Iowa and southeast Minnesota because they had relatives that were already here. It's what my great-grandfather did...."

"People call here to do genealogy research. We have over 55,000 names in our database now of immigrant families that lived for some time or perhaps even still live in this area. We wanted a place for those people to gather that information, tell their stories, and record their stories."

"What we basically do are three things: We help people to discover their stories. We have people record and preserve their stories. And the third thing we do is help them tell their stories through written records and/or video, such as oral histories that we'll tape for them. The three words are discovering, preserving, and telling. It's the core of what we do."

"Beyond that, now that the human genome project has made DNA analysis available for a relatively inexpensive price, we're assisting people with that.... Orphans, for example, or people who have been stuck with their searches for their family background can use that type of information through a saliva test. It gives them about a million bits of information on their human genome.

Those DNA test kits are available during certain dates and times at GOE. Persons interested should call for more information.

"It's quite fascinating, the analysis that can be done," Fried said.

By tapping into their "deep roots," people often learn surprising things, such as where their old-world ancestors lived long before setting sail from a place such as Norway.

"Between the DNA searching and records such as censuses, church listings, and shipping lists, we are kind of able to triangulate a better understanding of where people come from. I moved to Spring Grove almost 34 years ago, and I discovered that I'm living within about 21 miles of my great-great grandmother's final resting place. I had believed my relatives were basically in western Minnesota and the Dakotas. I just discovered this about a year ago..."

"There are documents in people's attics, in family bibles, and trunks and so fourth from people who have passed on... We help family members to figure out what's in those documents."

"We keep adding to those stories. It's quite heartwarming when we have people tell us that we've been helpful."

The educational programs and resources which GOE hopes to make available to the public also represent an ambitious undertaking. Displays will include both artifacts and documentary materials.

"We also have a fine arts/school component, too," Fried said. "During the last couple of years we've done a language camp where people can come here for a week and learn culture as well as language of Norwegian background. We're also co-operating with the schools, and during the second semester of this school year, we're hoping the elementary students will have an 'academy' where once a week we can sit down with them at the Ballard House and talk to them about a topic like 'what was it like to be a pioneer?'

One thing elementary kids may get to do is to work up their own family tree.

"We're going to do 10 weeks of sessions with the elementary, and then on the week before Syttende Mai we're going to present their findings, genealogy and family stories. We're going to create a binder that they can keep and pass on to their children.

Perhaps the last line of the group's mission statement says it best. "The significance of this shared heritage mandates an important role for the institution (GOE) as a laboratory for inter-generational and experiential opportunities, which immerse participants in a continuing story of the American experience.