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Sondre Norheim
- the
Skiing Pioneer of Telemark

Finding an Unmarked Grave

March 9, 1897 Sondre passed away while living on the North Dakota prairie. The burial was delayed until 1898, probably because of the hard winter. He was buried in an unmarked grave eight kilometres from his farm. Sondre had not told his neighbours and friends about his skiing fame, and because the grave was unmarked, no one knew where the legendary skier was buried.

Two of Sondre's great granddaughters, DeLoris Saunderson Raustadt (left) and Dorothy Lyon at his grave
Photo by Anne-Gry Blikom

Dorothy Lyon of Atlanta, Georgia, a great grandchild of Sondre, happened to find that her great grandfather’s skiing feats were recognized in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Volume 20 of the 1955 edition refers to him as “a pioneer not only in the slalom and jumping, but also in makings skis”.

The Britannica describes Sondre’s impact on the development of skiing, the skiing environment in Morgedal, Sondre’s performance in the important Christiania (Oslo) skiing competition in 1868, and the turning techniques and his equipment. It also reports that “the Telemark and the Christiana styles were adopted by other Norwegian skiers and spread rapidly to the Alpine countries”.

Dorothy decided to initiate a search for the location of his grave. Growing up in Grand Forks, North Dakota together with her grandfather Åmund (Sondre’s son), Dorothy felt a strong connection which made her determined to find out exactly where her great grandfather was buried.

In the summer of 1965 she contacted the Judge of McHenry County, which was the county where Sondre had lived. They advised her to get in touch with the churches in that area. So on July 6, 1965 she wrote a letter to the oldest church in the Mouse River loop, Norway Lutheran. Later the same month the location of Sondre’s grave was pointed out based on a check of the burial records of the church, done by Vera Nelson, secretary of the congregation, along with information from early residents.

Norway Lutheran Church Cemetery with Sondre's grave to the right
Photo by Fredrik Pedersen

Sondre’s unmarked grave was identified in the southeast corner of Norway Lutheran Church Cemetery south of Denbigh. Rev. Richard T. Wanberg of Towner, pastor of the Norway Lutheran since 1919, was instrumental in locating the grave.

According to the cemetery records, two grandchildren of Sondre are buried in the same cemetery. Neither of their graves is marked.

Denbigh is a small town about one hour’s drive from Minot, midway between Minot and Rugby, which is known as the geographical centre of North America.

On June 12, 1966, a stone with a memorial plaque was unveiled at his grave, organized by committees from Norway Lutheran Church and North Dakota State Historical Society. The plaque was made without charge by Ulefos Jernværk (Ulefos Foundry), located at Ulefoss, Telemark. The boulder was transported from the Bismarck area by the National Guard. Norwegian organizers included
Eivind Strondi from the Morgedal Sports Club and Jakob Vaage, Norwegian ski historian and curator of the Ski Museum in Holmenkollen, Oslo.

Witnessed  by hundreds of people, two young women from the Norway Lutheran Congregation, Sandra Espeseth and Carolyn Moen, both dressed in Norwegian national costumes, unveiled the plaque on the boulder, by removing a Norwegian flag.

Norway Lutheran Church was built in 1907 by early Norwegian settlers
Photo by Eivind Molde

Speakers at the ceremony were Vaage and Edward A. Milligan, President of the State Historical Society. When speaking inside the overcrowded church, Vaage described Sondre as “the fastest man in the world at the time”. Vaage summarized Sondre’s contribution to skiing, and said, “We thank him for his work, which was never rewarded when he lived. I feel honoured to be able to pay tribute to Sondre Norheim today.”

A few days later the Senate of the United States learned about the dedication of the Sondre plaque. These are the remarks by Hon. Quentin N. Burdick of North Dakota, according to the Congressional Record for June 15, 1966, “Mr. President, Sunday an iron plaque made in Norway was dedicated at the Norway Lutheran Cemetery near Denbigh, N. Dak. It marks the grave of an internationally famous Norwegian sportsman, Sondre Norheim, who after revolutionizing the world of skiing in the 19th century, immigrated to the United States and North Dakota from his native Norway.”

“A recent editorial of the Minot Daily News of North Dakota tells a bit of this story and conveys the pride with which North Dakotans appreciate their association with the famous sports figure. I ask unanimous consent that the editorial be printed in the Appendix of the Record. There being no objection, the editorial was ordered to be printed in the Record.”

Norway Lutheran Church and Cemetery south of Denbigh,North Dakota
Photo by
Fredrik Pedersen

In the editorial, Minot Daily News describes Sondre as “a modest man, who did not tell his neighbors at Denbigh of his prowess as a ski jumper. The neighbors knew him as a quiet man with pride of workmanship with wood”.

“It is quite possible that Norheim himself had no inkling of the importance of his contribution to competitive skiing. Now his name is prominent in all histories of the sport.”

“Without much expense to anyone, people on both sides of the Atlantic and in the mid-continent of America have joined to put a memorial on the grave of a man who richly deserved to be remembered”, the News said in its editorial.

Copyright © 2002-2012 by Anne-Gry Blikom and Eivind Molde email@sondrenorheim.com
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