Today is Syttende Mai, translated Seventeenth May, a national holiday (National or Constitution Day) in Norway. On this day in 1814, the Constitution of Norway was signed declaring independence after the defeat of Denmark-Norway by Napoleon. You may be wondering why anyone would care about another country’s holiday. First, as a citizen of the world, we should respect, honor and celebrate other countries independence as we do our own. Second, if one is of even a little bit of Norwegian, about 1/8th in my case, it’s a cause for a celebration! Third, the area around the village of Stoughton, Wisconsin located about 20 miles south and east of Madison, was settled primarily by Norwegians and others of Scandinavian descent. Stoughton has an annual Syttende Mai festival on the weekend on or before May 17. There are: parades; folk dancing; traditional music performances; displays of traditional art such as rosemaling, hardanger embroidery, and woodcarving; and of course foods of all types including lefse and krumakake. The other event they have during the festival is a 20 mile run that begins on the Capitol Square in Madison and ends in Mandt Park in Stoughton. This race draws runners from all over the Midwest as it’s one of the first distance runs of the season.
They also have a 17 mile walk, this where I enter the picture. It was 30 years ago this week that I participated in my first and only walk to Stoughton. I’ll try to weave the story together with photos from the archives, I hope you get the connection.
It was around 7:30 AM when I met my four walking companions Wayne, Iris, Mary, and Jack at the Dane County Fairgrounds (aka Dane County Coliseum) for the 8 AM start. I don’t recall how this all got started but I’m quite sure we thought it sounded like a good idea at the time. I don’t know about the others but I actually trained for the event, walking up to six miles at a time a least three times a week. And I trained on some hills as the terrain between Madison and Stoughton is quite hilly. It was a very cool, cloudy morning with a chance of drizzle in the forecast. I wore a blue nylon jogging suit with a hood, a long sleeved t-shirt, a good pair of walking shoes and a ball cap on my head. My pockets contained an extra pair of socks and some snacks, I didn’t carry water because there were water stations situated along the course.
When the starting gun went off at 8 AM, the few hundred walkers eagerly started pounding the pavement hoping to set a pace to walk at about 4 miles per hour, some would be faster, some slower. This pace would get us to Stoughton’s Mandt Park around 12:30 or so. About a mile or two into our journey, light drizzle started to fall. It might have not been so noticeable except that the temperature also dropped. It didn’t take long until our clothes were saturated including our shoes. This is when we noticed yellow school buses sitting at some of the intersections, picking up walkers and runners who wanted to bail out of the race and ride to the finish line in style. The first two from our group dropped out within the first hour so we were down to a threesome. We chatted as we walked but saying less and less as we passed the mile markers. The temperature continued to drop and the drizzle persisted. Even with that there were folks staffing the water stations and people in their yards cheering on the participants. That encouragement kept us going. The only glitch were the porta potties; there was often a lineup, the guy’s could disappear into the woods, a little harder for the ladies but some did too! I remember plodding along probably at less than the expected 4 miles per hour but determined to finish. Soon the other two friends hopped on the bus, too cold and wet to keep going. I stubbornly (a trait I’m said to have inherited from my mother) kept on with my head down, by now the water was running off my hood and cap. Those socks I mentioned earlier, they were now on my hands to keep them warm even though they too were wet. The remaining snacks were gone or ditched at one of the water stations because they were soggy. The last few miles of the walk is on the state highway on fairly flat terrain. I was walking alone, I could see a few people ahead of me and a few behind but I kept at it with as much determination I could muster, one foot in front of the other. As I entered the town of Stoughton, my friends met me and offer shouts of motivation for the last mile. As I crossed the finish line after 5 plus hours of walking, my friends and the race volunteers cheered my accomplishment. I was exhausted, cold and wet but elated at my success. My friends hustled me into the warm car, gave me some dry clothes and drove to downtown Stoughton. There we had hot coffee, rolls and soup at Fosdal Home Bakery, with their made from scratch good ol’ Norwegian cooking. This nourishment revived my near comatose state and warmed my innards for the ride back to Madison and warmth of home. My Traveling Partner was working at the hospital that Saturday and kids were too young to participate but met me at the door with expectation. Oh yes, I got the finishers t-shirt too! Here’s a photo of me with the t-shirt on visiting with my Grandpa Miller, he was 92 at the time and living in a nursing home.
As mentioned earlier, the walk to Stoughton began at the Dane County Fairgrounds. I don’t have any photos from that day thirty years ago but below is a photo from the archives that I really like taken at the Dane County Fair, held annually during the third week of July. Since our move to Wisconsin in 1987, we were involved in the Fair as a result of our kids active participation in 4-H. I was the photography superintendent for a several years and continue to volunteer at the Fair.
The Syttende Mai walked ended in Stoughton’s Mandt Park, also home to the Stoughton Junior Fair held the first week of July. For 4-Hers and other youth groups, this is a preamble to the Dane County Fair held a couple of weeks later. Many of the 4-H members in our club entered exhibits in the Stoughton Fair so we made a lot of trips to Stoughton to attend the Fair.
In 2011, I was participated a local year long photography project where we submitted one photo every quarter to depict that season of the year. This led me to the Stoughton Fair in early July to document the activities at this rural community fair. The following photo is one of my all time favorites, hope you enjoy it too.
The following photos were taken that same day and symbolize the many joys of participating in and visiting a fair.
This is my Syttende Mai story and photos from the location of the beginning and end of the 17 mile walk. Hope you enjoyed the story and made the connection with the photos. I’m sad to report that like so many events where people congregate, the Syttende Mai Festival, the Stoughton Fair, and the Dane County Fair will not be held this year due to the pandemic. Let’s hope they return next year.
Until next week, virtual happy travels!