In the Far North


Even Ulving. ‘Midnight Sun in Lofoten’. Oil on canvas, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway.

My grandmother’s grandfather, Andreas Grenstad (1821-1900), is known among our relatives in Norway even today as ‘Andreas Kirkebygger’, or ‘Andreas the Churchbuilder’. Born on a family farm on a lake a bit south of Trondheim, the historic city where Norwegian kings have been crowned since the Middle Ages, he was one of the middle sons of a very large family and not about to inherit much. He must have been an enterprising young man, however, for he soon found his way to the very far north, settling in the Arctic city of Tromsø, not far from where the Norwegian border met those of the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland and the Russian province of Anchangelsk. This was when he was very young, but by the mid 1850’s he had settled for good a bit farther south, just slightly below the Arctic Circle at Mosjøen, on the Vefsnfjord, which had a moderately active port. There he married into a Danish family named Jørgensen resident in the Mosjøen area and thus acquired land of his own, though he later built a much finer house on a hill overlooking nearby Fustvatn Lake, just a few kilometers away. That original Jørgensen house still stands, and the house at Fustvatn survives too, but in a very poor state: its present owners have replaced it with a newer one. 

During the second half of the 19th century Andreas established himself as an architect and master builder. Even today much of Nordland province is dotted with the houses, commercial establishments and churches which he built. It was the churches, though, which became his specialty. His many sons helped him in his trade, learning valuable skills which would help some of them to earn a living as emigrants to America later on. And in their spare time they ran a saw mill to supply themselves with lumber, and built boats in which to sail to the Lofoten islands to fish in the off-season. During one of these journeys to Lofoten, a very extended one as it turned out, Andreas and some of his sons built the Valberg church on the island of Vestvågøy. This took place between 1888 and 1889. The church still stands, surrounded by its churchyard of peaceful graves, and the remote location appeals to me. But it is rather plain and dour, and I much prefer the octagonal Rødøy church on the tiny island of Rødøy near Mosjøen. Andreas built it in 1885, and it was heavily damaged after its steeple was struck by lightning on 11 January 2009. I think repairs have been completed by now. The Norwegians are good at documenting their historic buildings, and you can find many photos of churches built by Andreas Grenstand online. 

When Andreas died at age 79, his widow retained a life residence in the house at Fustvatn, where she lived until her death in 1925. But the building and lumber businesses dissolved, and most of the Grenstad sons headed for the New World, where some of them became involved in the various building trades they had learned at home.  Yet a whole trove of stories of their life in the Norwegian Arctic has lingered on among their descendants to the present day. I have decided to illustrate today’s post with a painting by the Norwegian artist Even Ulving (1863-1952). Born on Vegøy, a small island a few kilometers from my family’s home at Fustvatn, he is known for his paintings of the Helgeland region of Nordland, where both Vegøy and Fustvatn are located, and for his many canvases inspired by his years in the Lofoten islands, where he lived and painted at Henningsvær for 15 years. He had a long life and left many works. 


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