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Giants of the Earth Heritage Center: An entry to cultural exploration

By Alison Leathers, June 13, 2024

Giants of the Earth Heritage Center Staff in front of mural depicting Valdres, Norway, by late Norwegian artist Sigmund Aarseth. Left to right, Violet Hatfield, Bill Fried, Anastasia (Stacy) Wold. (Photo by Alison Leathers)

Giants of the Earth Heritage Center: An entry to cultural exploration


SPRING GROVE – Driving southeast across Fillmore and Houston counties, from Lanesboro to Spring Grove on a sunny spring day, I began to reflect on the privilege I have of knowing a little about my immigrant ancestors and the journeys they took from Norway to begin their American lives in this corner of southeast Minnesota.

My destination on this day is the Giants of the Earth Heritage Center, a nonprofit educational organization in downtown Spring Grove, where I would learn more about Norwegian-American history, artifacts, stories, and services provided by the Center.

Founded in 2009, Giants’ mission, according to Acting Executive Director Bill Fried, is to “collect, create, and educate while documenting the present and preserving the past for the future.”

These main goals are achieved by the Center’s exhibits, genealogy research assistance, educational programming, and preserving artifacts. I knew visiting Giants would be the best place to learn something new about the history of immigration in our region.


Giants of the Earth Heritage Center, Spring Grove’s only building on the National Register of Historic Places. (Photo by Alison Leathers)


Art as Storytelling

As soon as you walk into Spring Grove’s only building on the National Register of Historic Places, you are greeted by welcoming staff and a mesmerizing immersion of amazing art on the walls and ceilings. The building has been home to many businesses over the years, but Giants directed its restoration back to its original look from 1893.

Storytelling begins through art in the main hall, named the Larsen Tomlinson Immigrant Hall, with walls covered with paintings by the late Norwegian artist Sigmund Aarseth. The back wall depicts his hometown of Valdres, Norway, and even includes his grandmother and her grief after five of her six children left for America. The story continues as the art depicts different time periods of immigrants coming to Spring Grove all the way up to the 1940s.

In another room that houses the elevator to help make the building accessible, Mr. Aarseth painted two large canvases of rosemal-esque works and a life cycle painting that surrounds the room where the walls meet the ceiling.


Outdoor patio and garden space, featuring mural art by Sally DeReus and Doug Eckhardt and bronze sculpture of late artist Sigmund Aarseth. (Photo by Alison Leathers)


As you step outside onto the patio and into the calming back garden designed by the late Steve Kemp, you are surrounded by more mural art by Sally DeReus and Doug Eckhardt and a bronze sculpture of Sigmund Aarseth created by sculptor Craig Bergsgaard. This sculpture is positioned so when the sun hits it at a certain time, the shadow looks like Sigmund is painting on the mural. (The building and its outdoor spaces are available for rent for private gatherings.)

Exhibits highlight early immigrants’ impact on the region

On the second and third floors of the building, you will find curated exhibits showcasing the influence of early Norwegian immigrants on Minnesota history. The most recently opened exhibit features the late Olaf Kjome and his impact on the United States dairy industry.

Other exhibits feature Mons Fladager who got the train to come to Spring Grove; an exhibit on ‘Settling Spring Grove’ which displays immigrant history from the 1850s to the 1900s; an exhibit on rural churches, including churches that were built in Minnesota and moved to Norway and vice versa; handmade 1:8 scale farm implements that are now 100 years old; an exhibit on the Norwegian-American comic strip ‘Ola and Per’ and its artist, Peter Rosendahl; and an exhibit on the Myrah family, where I got to learn more about my ancestors and relatives.


Second floor exhibit on Olaf Kjome. (Photo by Alison Leathers)


An international genealogical resource

One main reason people travel to or contact Giants of the Earth Heritage Center is to learn more about their own family history and get assistance with genealogy research.

The Center serves Americans looking for family history and fields frequent requests from Norwegians trying to learn more about their ancestors who emigrated to the United States.

The Center has access to various online databases and one special offline database, the genealogy library of Georgia Rosendahl. With detailed research completed by the Center staff, clients are able to learn about their relatives and have stories to pass onto their families.

One special project Giants of the Earth does is its Milestone Binders, which are family histories written for various people if they have a milestone birthday or anniversary.

Translation services are offered, and the building even houses a recording studio, named the Andrew J. Gray Preservation Studio, to gather oral histories. Visitors are welcome to drop in or call ahead to schedule a visit to learn more about their (Norwegian or other) ancestors or record a family story.

A local education resource

Local elementary students recently got to press original plates of the ‘Ola and Per’ comic strips, and because they don’t know Norwegian, the students translated them based on the drawings. Additionally, in cooperation with Spring Grove schools and Mabel-Canton schools, students get to do history projects on their families.

The Center has gently-used Norwegian sweaters for sale as well as a unique gift shop. (Photo by Alison Leathers)

The Center offers an annual Norwegian Ridge Language and Culture Camp. This year’s camp (held June 17 through 21, 2024) was themed with “Dragons, Boats, and Trolls, Oh my!”

Giants also offers an open-to-the-public Passport Program, a monthly program that features programming from other cultures such as Irish, Hmong, Ukrainian, and Central American, through music, food, and a speaker presentation. 

Giants of the Earth is a big contributor to Spring Grove’s annual Syttende Mai Festival, which features a Barnetoget, or children’s parade, for Spring Grove school children.

The Center also hosts a quarterly beer choir gathering; is home to Spring Grove’s Sons of Norway chapter which hosts public programming;

and offers various classes and gatherings throughout the year.

How to Get Involved

“There are many ways for people to get involved at Giants of the Earth,” shared Director Bill Fried, “including sharing programming ideas with us.”  The Center relies on its members, donations, and grant writing to complete its important work.

They are always looking for volunteers who want to help with special events and programming, and they are in the process of hiring a new Executive Director. 

If you are interested in being a sponsor, becoming a member, sharing an idea for programming, or wanting to volunteer, be sure to visit the Giants of the Earth Heritage Center website and reach out!


Giants of the Earth Heritage Center acknowledges the following supporters:

The Settling Spring Grove exhibit was funded in part by the MN Historical Society through a Legacy Amendment Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund grant from the Minnesota Legislature and administered by the Minnesota Historical Society. 

The Passports Program was funded in part by the Southern MN Initiative Fund and led by Outreach Coordinator Rachel Storlie.




Alison Leathers is a Preston, Minnesota native who has enjoyed learning about the region from a new perspective having moved back to the area after living out of state.





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