“There are so many things that should be preserved – showing us what people have put up with and what they have cherished in the past,” said Frida Nilsen in 1941.
This was three years after the Concordia Museum had become a reality. Little known among students, staff and faculty today, the Concordia Museum housed a large collection of unique items for many years, many of which now reside in the Concordia College Archives.
Frida Nilsen, an English professor and dean of women, was eager to have a space on campus where members of the college and the wider community could donate interesting historical items. Her dream began slowly with the creation of a small collection housed in the campus vault. As more items were donated, it became clear that the collection needed a bigger space. Upon the completion of Fjelstad Hall in 1939, the Concordia Museum was created. It was kept in the lower level of Fjelstad, across from the recreation hall. It was open to all students, staff, faculty and community members every Sunday from 2-4 p.m. Interest surrounding the museum grew among the public to the point where a collections committee was created in 1941 to aid Nilsen in the collecting of materials.
As the collection grew in size, so did the scope and focus of the collections. With the 50th anniversary of the college in 1941, Nilsen and the committee stated that they wanted to create a collection that would encapsulate the history of the region and the history of the community’s widely Norwegian ancestry. They wanted to be able to show the growth of the community alongside the growth of the college. To do so, they distributed a call to the community to donate all items that would be of interest to the area’s history or Norwegian ancestry. As a result, many items were donated such as carved chests from the 1700s that were brought to Moorhead by those who had emigrated from Norway.
In 1945, the museum was closed and the artifacts packed and stored. With a growing number of soldiers returning from the war, all available space was needed for student housing. To accomplish this goal, the library, which had previously been in the lower level of Grose Hall, was moved into the space where the museum was housed. It was not until 1975 when the items were once again pulled from storage. There were a number of people who worked to display the artifacts again, but three individuals stood out: Willard Hiebert, a professor of German at Concordia; Rachel Hiebert, a Concordia alumna and daughter of retired Concordia professor G.L. Schoberg; and Marty Wolla, Concordia custodian and sculpture expert. All of these individuals played instrumental roles in the re-emergence of the museum artifacts acting as collection curators and managers while the college determined where the collections should be stored. While the museum was never brought back to its original state, many of the objects remain on campus in the care of the Concordia Archives, including the original Concordia Museum sign.
Many items were donated to the museum collection in the early 1940s before the museum was closed. The Rev. O.L. Bolstad donated a number of interesting items that included a Prussian helmet worn during World War I. Also included in the museum collection is the expedition flag used by Commodore Matthew Perry on his ship the “Macedonian” during one of his expeditions to Japan. One of the most widely known objects in the Concordia Archives artifact collection was originally a part of the museum collection: two teeth Roald Amundsen had extracted during his short stay in Moorhead. (These teeth are the last known remains of Amundsen, who disappeared on an expedition to find another explorer who had vanished.)
The Concordia Museum sparked an interest in historical objects and preservation not only on Concordia’s campus but in the wider Moorhead community. During its time, it was a successful way for members of the school and community to preserve the history that they had brought with them or inherited from their family.
Contributed by Allison Cassell, archives associate, Concordia College Archives