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Sons of Norway: 20 years in a Swiss town and going strong
Gary Wilhelms plays the Norwegian game of Kubb at a Sons of Norway picnic last week at Northeast Park. Wilhelms has been with the Sons of Norway for about 14 years but this was his first time playing Kubb. To order either of these photos, click here. (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)
MONROE - Despite a tradition of Swiss-centric cheesemakers and descendants proclaiming Monroe as their own, a small group of people are keeping their allegiance to lefse and lutefisk.

Sons of Norway President Maren Nelson has been a part of the Monroe chapter since it was founded two decades ago by Marion Boynton. The lodge, titled "Ostestaden," which means "cheese city" or "cheese place," has been a point of Norwegian pride for its roughly 80 members.

On July 14, the local chapter celebrated its 20th year by recognizing charter members during a social. Nelson and fellow member Elaine Bethke were among them.

"It was a very nice party," Bethke said.

"It's amazing we survived in a Swiss town," Nelson said. "No one thought we could do it."

Nelson said Wisconsin is ripe with residents who claim Swiss or Norwegian heritage, and the divide between the groups is truly non-existent.

Bethke noted how similar Switzerland and Norway tend to be and said everyone should admire where their ancestors began.

"It's a good-natured rivalry," Bethke said. "Everyone is proud of their heritage."

You don't have to be of actual Norwegian descent to become a member of the Sons of Norway: Anyone with an interest in Norwegian culture is invited to become involved.

Bethke said the group not only encourages interest in Norway, but also focuses on genealogy and the everyday life of current Norwegians. To that end, the group invited a local foreign exchange student to share some insight into the country and compile a newsletter to share events in Norway.

The Sons of Norway Monroe chapter began with Boynton, a member of another lodge in Mount Horeb who did not like making the hour-long drive in the dark. She instead sent a postcard to the Sons of Norway International Headquarters, based in Minneapolis, and requested the chance to begin a lodge in Monroe.

Originally, there were five members. The group met with the district president and a member of the district board to discuss developing a new chapter and a temporary slate of officers was named. The Ostestaden Lodge was formed on June 14, 1996 with a potluck and guests to witness the installation.

Nelson said the interest in Norwegian culture and history is the whole reason for being a part of the group. Throughout the year, the group meets every second Tuesday of the month at the Union Presbyterian Church in Monroe.

Members also host events to raise awareness about the ways of Norway. Potlucks, picnics and socials host musicians who play the Hardanger fiddle, an 8- or 9-stringed instrument which closely resembles a violin, and individuals dressed in their best cultural costume.

Nelson added that the group has made more than 100 pounds of potatoes into lefse for its Christmas bake sale. Group members also take part in classes, hear from speakers, create paintings and carvings and listen to music all relating to Norway. They even contribute as a sponsor for a camp near Eau Claire, Wisconsin for kids to gain knowledge of Norwegian culture.