Moorhead, Minnesota, is located on the state's western border, right across the Red River of the North from Fargo, North Dakota. As an otherwise landlocked section of the Upper Midwest, it certainly doesn't conjure images of ships and the open sea. However, the ancestors of these landlocked residentswere very much seafaring people. After the Northern Pacific Railroad reached Clay County in 1871, the next several decades featured a wave of prominently Nordic and German homesteaders into the borderland and summer camping grounds of both the Dakota to the West and the Ojibwe or Anishinaabe to the East. With those Nordic and German homesteaders came new stories and traditions, often drawing from the history, folklore, and myths of the Vikings.
The raider kings and bands of the Norse people, the Vikings ruled the Northern European seas from the 8th through the 11th centuries CE. They traveled and traded far, touching down in Canada and exchanging goods from as far east as Iraq. At the foundation of their influence and reign was the long boat – a vessel adapted for both sailing the high seas and navigating shallow rivers, thanks to the hull's flexibility, the presence of both sails and oars, and a shallow draft. With these ships, the Vikings left their mark on a wide swath of the globe.
In 1971, one of the descendants of these people — both the Norwegian immigrants and their older Viking counterparts -- Robert Asp decided that he would return to the sea. The Moorhead Junior High School guidance counselor had shared his dreams of building a Viking ship with his brother Bjarne for years, but his plans were mobilized after a severe fall from a friend's roof that summer. While recovering from his injuries, Bob studied his Norwegian heritage and found the story of the Gokstad burial ship that had been unearthed from a burial mound near Sandefjord, Norway, in 1880. Current estimates suggest this ship was constructed circa 800 CE. Bob would build a Viking ship modeled after the Gokstad and he would dream of sailing it to Norway.
After a year of planning, Bob Asp was ready to begin work on the ship. He searched the countryside for the flexible white oak required in shipbuilding and found Maynard Gulbranson’s farm, north of East Grand Forks. These were the woods that served as the principle source of lumber. Lumber was also donated by family members, friends, and local communities. Bob initially estimated that it would take 15 oak trees to build a Viking ship. The Hjemkomst ultimately required over 100 trees.
The first lumber for the Hjemkomst was milled at Harvey Engen’s sawmill north of Viking, Minnesota, on July 4, 1972. Most of the lumber was 1″-2″ thick and approximately 8″ wide. A total of approximately 11,000 feet of lumber was sawn. The lumber was sorted, piled, and left to dry for two years. Hot paraffin wax was brushed on the ends to help prevent twisting and bending. Later milling was completed in Rollag, Minnesota.
It was difficult to find a place large enough to construct a Viking ship. The Asps' backyard was too small and Asp's search for space coincided with the beginning of several major urban renewal projects in Fargo-Moorhead – projects that had demolished many large and vacant buildings. In 1973, Bob Asp heard that the Leslie Welter Potato Warehouse in Hawley, Minnesota, was empty. After some phone calls and lobbying, the Hawley City Council purchased the building and leased it to Bob and Rose Asp for $10 a year. Renovations during January and February 1974 transformed the Welter Potato Warehouse into the Hawley Shipyard. The first floor was removed from the building and the Hjemkomst was built on the basement floor, approximately six feet below street level. The Hawley Shipyard was adopted by the community of Hawley and became an important tourist attraction in town.
The Hjemkomst construction progressed slowly for the first several years. Asp could work on the ship only on weekends and during the summer. Although he was diagnosed with leukemia in 1974, Bob continued his work on the Hjemkomst with the help of friends, family, and some personally modified equipment. A surface planer was purchased for $120. With the addition of reduction gears, chains and belts, Bob was able to prepare over 11,000 feet of lumber stock. Material for the ship was moved and lifted with a “come-a-long” winch and tripod. As the ship took shape, some voiced skepticism about the project and others volunteered their time and effort in building the ship. With the lumber milled and the Hawley Shipyard readied, the Hjemkomst took six more years to complete.
Removing the completed Hjemkomst from the shipyard building was a difficult task, but on July 10, 1980, the front wall of the Hawley Shipyard was torn down so the ship could continue on the next leg of its journey. Care was given to support the roof and sidewalls of the Hawley Shipyard to ensure the whole structure would not collapse. The sidewalk and old bricks were pushed in and loads of gravel were added to create a ramp. EM “Lefty” Johnson, a Hawley postmaster and former colonel with the US Combat Engineers, directed the procedure.
On July 17, 1980, the ship made her entrance into the sunlight to greet the public. With a tow truck and winch, the ship was inched out supported by bridge timbers and rolling on steel pipes. Once the ship made it to the street, a crane picked up the ship and turned it so the moving process could be completed. Hannah Foldoe, Bob Asp’s mother-in-law and a Norwegian immigrant, was given the honor of christening the Hjemkomst on July 20, 1980. "Hjemkomst" means "homecoming" in Norwegian. Asp chose the name to commemorate his ancestors, Nordic immigrants. The christening ceremony was part of the three-day “Viking Ship Days” celebration held in Hawley, during which approximately $35,000 was raised for the Hjemkomst‘s voyage.
The Hjemkomst left Hawley for Duluth, Minnesota on August 5, 1980, at 9 PM. Because of the special permits needed for transporting an overweight and over-sized ship, the Hjemkomst had to be moved at night. Bob’s nephews, Alvin and Kenny Asp of Asp Brothers Trucking, moved the ship, and a highway escort was provided by state troopers Bob Elliot and Wilbur Crist.
The Hjemkomst sailing in Duluth Harbor (Photo: Duluth News Tribune).
Many doubted that the Hjemkomst would float before the ship was launched in Duluth. Bob Asp had always said that the Hjemkomst would float, but he would not guarantee it would float right side up. The Port Authority of Duluth donated the use of its 90-ton twin gantry cranes to put the Hjemkomst in the water as more than 4000 spectators witnessed the launching of the ship.
The Hjemkomst took her maiden voyage, under her own power, in the Duluth Harbor on August 9, 1980. Throughout the end of that summer, Bob sailed on the ship he'd constructed two-hundred miles west in an old potato warehouse. He took his last trip on the Hjemkomst on September 27, 1980. Although Bob died on December 27, 1980, his family was committed to keeping his dream of sailing the Hjemkomst to Norway alive.
In March of 1981, the Hjemkomst was displayed at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts along with the famous Viking Exposition. This move and public display was the next step in continuing the project and the long road of fundraising to complete the dream voyage of the Hjemkomst.
As supporters raised funds, a crew was assembled and training began on Lake Superior. Unfortunately, these efforts proved to be difficult as Duluth harbor was notably calm. Additionally, the Hjemkomst proved difficult to control with the square rigging. The crew needed someone with experience sailing square-rigged vessels to train them for the voyage. It turned out the man for the job lived in Norway, where square-rigged sailing tradition had given rise to Femborings. One of the best known Femboring sailors at that time was Erik Rudstrom, who had sailed Femborings from Norway to Iceland four times. Rudstrom was interested in the Hjemkomst and agreed to help improve the ship's performance. On Rudstrom’s suggestions, eight more tons of ballast were added to improve stability, the rudder was redesigned, an extension was added to the keel, and a larger mast and sail were made for the vessel. The original sail of the Hjemkomst was 30′ x 38′, with a 45′ mast and a 38′ yard. The new mast was 63′, with a main sail measuring 30′ x 40′ and a top sail measuring 10′ x 30′.
A crew of twelve sailed the Hjemkomst from Duluth to Norway in 1982. A thirteenth member sailed as far as New York City. The crew consisted of professional sailors, a long distance truck driver, and college students. Four of Robert Asp’s children helped to sail their father’s Viking ship across the North Atlantic.
Robert Asp – Captain Erik Rudstrom – Skipper Roger Asp – Shipmaster Mark Hilde – First Mate Dennis Morken – Boatswain Mate Myron Anderson – Medical Officer Jeff Solum – Radio Operator Paul Hesse – Navigator Deb Asp – Crew Member Doug Asp – Crew Member Tom Asp – Project Coordinator Vergard Heide – Crew Member Bjorn Holtet – Crew Member Lynn Halmrast – Crew Member
Mark Hilde, Bjorn Holtet, and Deb Asp sitting on the ship's deck. Hilde plays harmonica (Photo: Forum Communications).
The voyage began in May, 1982, on the Great Lakes. According the crew, Lake Superior was the coldest and most difficult part of the voyage, but the Hjemkomst and her crew sailed Lake Huron in near record-setting time. Throughout the American leg of the journey, the crew was honored at several receptions and celebrations. The crew was forced to row the Hjemkomst through part of the Erie Canal as their Viking ancestors would have along coasts and through rivers and fjords; and the Buffalo, NY, Westside Rowing Club volunteered to row the ship to North Tonowanda, the beginning of the Erie Canal.
The Hjemkomst arrived in New York City on June 8, 1982. The voyage around the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of freedom and hope throughout the world, brought national attention once again. Not unlike the Statue of Liberty, the Hjemkomst and her story has inspired people all over the world to dream and aspire to whatever their minds can conjure.
A few days out of New York the crew began preparing for a fierce tropical storm. They needed to make a few repairs to the rigging and batten down in anticipation. The Hjemkomst was handling well in the heavy seas, and soon the crew were to face the ultimate test of the North Atlantic.
Five hundred miles out of New York the storm hit and the crew worked dauntlessly to ensure both their own safety and that of the Hjemkomst. The strake on the port side closest to the keel cracked and began to leak. Although only 1/8 of an inch wide, the crack ran fourteen feet. Crew members stuffed burlap sacks into the crack to slow the leaking. Interestingly, the damage the ship suffered was after the worst of the storm had passed, when the waves grew in its wake. Although only 500 miles from New York, Skipper Rudstrom decided the Hjemkomst should continue its voyage to Norway. To turn back meant the ship would sail against the wind, perhaps causing more damage, and would take the same amount of time as it would to sail to Norway. Several more gales were encountered, but nothing compared to their first and only significant storm.
During the following weeks on the North Atlantic the crew entertained themselves by writing in their journals, relaxing and reflecting, filling the silence with music, and watching and swimming with dolphins. Several crew members have noted their awe upon seeing whales and sailing several evenings through bioluminescent plankton. However, many have had difficulty articulating their sense of triumph upon first seeing Norway after their weeks on the high sea. The crew had prepared for months, and for some years, for this moment. They did it for Bob Asp and his dream, and for their personal dreams, and for the adventure-and they had made it. The crew of 12 was greeted by their families and honored with a hero’s welcome by the people of Bergen, Norway, on July 19, 1982. All around the coast of Norway the Hjemkomst and her crew were honored in celebration, including a royal visit with the King of Norway on his yacht in the Oslo Fjord. On August 9, 1982, the Hjemkomst reached Oslo, Norway, her final destination, and the destination dreamed of by her creator and builder, Robert Asp, eleven years prior during a lazy Moorhead summer.
Bob’s dream had been fulfilled.
The Hjemkomst sailing in New York Harbor. The New York skyline soars in the background (Photo: HCSCC).
The Hjemkomst was stored in Oslo, Norway for one year after the voyage. Then it was towed to Porsgrunn, its point of departure before it was shipped to Cleveland, Ohio, aboard the M/V Brunto in August of 1983. The ship was then towed from Cleveland to Detroit, Michigan, and transported by truck to Minnesota. The ship was donated to the City of Moorhead and placed on display at the newly constructed Hjemkomst Center in Viking Ship Park (completed October 10, 1986), a stone's throw from the Red River of the North.
The Hjemkomst Center, home of HCSCC's museum and The Hjemkomst Viking ship.