Curious Norge

Norge doesn’t rhyme with George; at least it didn’t 113 years ago.

If you want to correctly pronounce the name of the small community on Richmond Road that is nestled between Lightfoot and Toano, you have to say “Nor-gay” — emphasis on the second syllable.

When the unincorporated community was established in James City County in 1904, it was populated heavily by the Scandinavians, primarily Norwegians, along with some Swedes and Danes. Carl Bergh, son of Norwegian immigrants, made the area a trendy homestead for Scandinavians tired of the unproductive and difficult winters of the Midwest.

A land and excursion agent for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, Bergh sold his fellow Scandinavians on Norge because its land was excellent for growing crops. It was also inexpensive to acquire — $6 to $10 per acre thanks to depreciation from the Civil War — with railroads and access to the York and James Rivers nearby.

In 1895, the first group of settlers arrived, staying at the Bergh Hotel, owned and operated by Carl’s son Alfred — now it’s the home of Williamsburg Wicker & Patio.

“The Berghs would pay for the transportation when they first started bringing Scandinavians to Norge,” said Norge Depot Association President Chris Hamilton.

“There wasn’t a train stop yet, so he would buggy them from Toano to Norge. The Wicker store used to be their hotel.”

The building, which looks like an old farmhouse inside, has its original rooms, walls, molding and floors. Williamsburg Wicker did some renovating, but maintained the integrity of the former Bergh Hotel.

“We love the old-fashioned flair and the old Norge charm in the building,” said Katie Carpenter, owner of Williamsburg Wicker. “One year, we had a member of the Bergh family — I think it was a grandson — who was born here stop by on his way to a family reunion in Norway.”

Carpenter’s captivation with the handiwork of the Scandinavians is on par for what the new migrants were known for. Aside from being skilled farmers, the Scandinavians were impeccable craftsmen who quickly went to work at building the area along modern Richmond Road: installing houses, farms, a blacksmith shop, a sawmill and a cabinetry shop.

From 1898 to roughly 1908, 61 families from Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota and North Dakota had moved to Norge with Bergh’s encouragement. A distinct Scandinavian culture and identity was taking root.

According the Betty Brantley, a member of the Norge Women’s Club, “Norwegians tend to be Lutheran or Catholic.” This desire for community worship led 20 Lutherans, including members of Bergh’s Farmers Union, to meet at Riverview Plantation on the York River to form Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1898.

In 1932, the church merged with Bethany Congregation and became Our Saviour’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. The two churches had shared a pastor, Reverend John J. Maakestad who preached in Norwegian and English for 15 years.

And though St. Olaf is the patron saint of Norway, according to church secretary Margaret O’Brien of St. Olaf’s Catholic Church, the parish doesn’t have historic ties to the  Norwegian heritage or culture of Norge, but instead was named as such to pay homage to the area’s Norwegian roots.

After the establishment of the church for worship, several men referring to themselves as the “Vikings of Norge” sought to have a town hall erected much like those back in Norway. So, they purchased two acres of land for $5 on the corner of Richmond Road and Peninsula Street.

“Viking Hall — as it was known then — was used for meetings and get-togethers, worship and dancing. At one time there was a basketball court inside and the original bleachers are in the attic still,” said Brantley. The hall, now known as Norge Community Hall, is home to the association and the Norse Group. Much of the original purpose of connecting with Scandinavian heritage and customs now hardly exists.

“The Norge Women’s Club has maintained it as a women’s club and a home demonstration club. We worked with 4-H to teach girls cooking and the women meet to share recipes and have talent shows,” said Brantley.

In 1907, a 34- by 89-foot train station was constructed on Peach Street. The Norge Depot became a hub for farmers looking to sell their produce and goods between Richmond and Newport News. According to Hamilton, the lore is that train conductors who could correctly pronounce Norge were given free milk at the depot.

In 1969, it ceased to provide passenger travel and by 1999, the abandoned station was slated to be demolished until Frances Hamilton and the Norge Depot Association fought to preserve it. They succeeded in saving the landmark, moving it from Peach Street to a lot next the James City County Library in 2006. Hamilton died in 2008 having accomplished her mission to save the depot, leaving daughter Chris to carry out the renovations.

“CSX was going to tear the depot down, but mom tried and tried to save it and finally got the county involved and they came up with the money,” said Chris Hamilton. Today, the depot, now a historic landmark, contains many parts of its original structure, with the flooring, rafters and signaling equipment still intact.

Though culturally rich, modern day Norge no longer reflects its past heritage. Many of those connected to the Scandinavian migration to Norge have passed away and their descendants have moved on.

“The older generations and their children have died off. The people here now are third and fourth generation and since so many new people have moved in to Norge, Scandinavians make up a small part of the population. There’s not many left,” said Brantley.

The land where Norge Elementary sits today used to be Anderson’s Farm. Norge founder Carl Bergh’s original house on Peninsula Lane is presently lived in, and a developer owns his old farmhouse at the end of Farmville Lane. Behind Our Saviour’s Church, in the cemetery, Carl Bergh, the man responsible for the Scandinavian establishment of Norge, rests.

For Hamilton, a fourth-generation Norwegian who still returns to Norway to visit family, there is an importance to preserving history. Her mother “heavily believed in Norge” and in keeping its history alive, including a book she wrote with Nancy Bradshaw called Velkommen til Norge (Welcome to Norge). Copies of the book can be purchased at the Norge Depot, which is open to the public (and free) for two hours every Saturday and Sunday.

“People have to care about preserving history. It takes time and effort and money. It’s hard to do. It takes a concerted effort to preserve anything,” she said.

Added Brantley, “We have to try to keep the story of our Scandinavian heritage alive.”

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Story and photos courtesy of and originally published in The Local Scoop