Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

One man’s dream: Build it and it shall sail, the story of the Hjemkomst November 14, 2012

The Hjemkomst.

I REMEMBER BEING ONE of the skeptics.

Build a ship in the middle of nowhere, haul it to Lake Superior in Duluth and then eventually sail across the Atlantic Ocean to Norway.

Who thinks that is possible?

A plaque honoring ship builder and captain Robert Asp, located in the Hjemkomst Center, Moorhead, Minnesota. The steps, left, lead visitors to a deck for viewing of the open ship interior.

Robert Asp.

Thirty years ago the Hjemkomst, a ship built by this Moorhead, Minnesota, junior high school counselor, with the help of family and friends, accomplished that 4,700-mile feat, proving the skeptics wrong.

The photo on right, by Tim Hatlestad, shows the Hjemkomst sailing into the harbor of Bergen, Norway.

By then, Asp had died, passing away in December 1980 at the age of 57 from leukemia. But his family pursued his dream, launching the ship on May 11, 1982, for the journey back to the Asp family Motherland on the Hjemkomst, which translates from Norwegian into English as “homecoming.”

Looking up to the mast and sails.

Hearing the Hjemkomst story many years ago is one thing. Seeing Asp’s ship permanently docked in the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead is another. Only by viewing the ship and learning its story in detail can you truly appreciate the determination of a man to fulfill a dream.

A small section of the museum exhibit on the Hjemkomst.

And details you will find in the museum exhibit, these among the highlights I pulled from the wealth of information revealed during a recent visit to the Hjemkomst Center:

  • In the summer of 1971, Bob Asp and his brother Bjarne talked about their Viking heritage over coffee and joked about building a Viking ship to sail to Norway.
  • Bob began searching in the Alvarado area, 18 miles north of Grand Forks, North Dakota, and six miles east of Oslo, Minnesota, in the spring of 1972 for oak trees with which to build the Hjemkomst. Eventually 100 oaks would be used in the ship construction.
  • In November 1973, Bob leased a former potato warehouse in Hawley, 22 miles east of Moorhead, in which to construct his replica of the Viking ship Gokstad. Archeologists discovered the Gokstad in 1880 in Gokstad, Norway. Bob based the Hjemkomst on that ship.
  • The purpose of his ship, according to Bob, was “to further the Norwegian image and heritage.”
  • In 1976, Bob was offered $25,000 by a man who wanted to hire a crew to finish building the Hjemkomst for a tall ship parade in New York City. Bob declined the offer.
  • The ship’s keel was laid in 1974 and, after six years of construction, the vessel was christened in 1980 at the “Hawley Shipyard.”
  • In August 1980, the Hjemkomst was lowered into Lake Superior in the Duluth harbor.
  • On May 11, 1982, a 13-member crew began the voyage across Lake Superior with 12 continuing on to Bergen, Norway. The trip would take 72 days, covering 4,700 miles.
  • The ship was eventually returned via freighter to the U.S. and today is permanently at home in the Hjemkomst Center near the banks of the Red River of the North.

As impressed as I was by viewing the actual Hjemkomst and by reading the detailed time-line of its construction, launch and voyage, I was even more impressed by the fortitude of Bob Asp.

A dream come true “button” attached to the side of the Viking ship replica.

He dared to dream.

Here’s a quote from the museum: “Constructed in a sea of grain, a prairie with no ocean in sight, this Viking ship was built board-by-board with determination and sailed to Norway.”

He dared to continue on, even in the face of skeptics and illness (he was diagnosed with leukemia in July 1974).

A plexi board upon which museum visitors can post their dreams.

He dared to believe in himself. Therein lies a legacy of inspiration that teaches all of us the value of holding on to dreams.

A sign of support from the grain elevator in Hawley, where the ship was built.

A quote from Rose Asp, Bob Asp’s wife.

The interior of the Hjemkomst as seen from a second floor viewing deck.

A sign on the ship honors the Asp brothers for their military service.

This dragon head was attached to a canoe, dubbed Hjemkomst Jr., and shown in parades to promote the ship project.

Some of the gear and equipment from the Hjemkomst.

Moorhead, Minnesota, Asp’s home and now the Hjemkomst’s permanent home.

In the center of the Hjemkomst Center, the mast area of the Hjemkomst ship dominates the roofline.

FYI: The Hjemkomst Center is open from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, from 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. Tuesdays and from noon – 5 p.m. Sundays. It is closed some holidays. There is free admission from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. every third Tuesday. Admission prices vary. Click here to link to a $1 off admission coupon and for other coupon savings in Fargo/Moorhead.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


25 Responses to “One man’s dream: Build it and it shall sail, the story of the Hjemkomst”

  1. I love the dream wall!!! What a neat man and what a fabulous dream he had and was able to live out!!!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Yes, Bob was at least able to sail in the Duluth harbor, but died before the ship set sail for Norway.

      I thought the dream wall a great idea also.

  2. Amy Rea Says:

    I love the Hjemkomst Center. The other thing I love is the video. We’ve now hit a point in history where there are not only photographs to detail the history, but video.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Uh, yeah, we didn’t watch the video because we thought it was too long. In retrospect, we should have. Can you summarize its content?

      • Amy Rea Says:

        Oh, it’s been several years since I’ve seen it. But there was footage of the ship being built, footage of it in the Duluth harbor, and if I remember correctly, out to sea. Very grainy and low-res, but still remarkable–not a re-creation, but actual footage. Guess you have to go back. 🙂

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Thanks for the info, Amy. Sounds like the film is most definitely worth viewing. I should have asked about the content of the film. Had I known this, I most assuredly would have watched it.

  3. Wow, he didn’t just dare to dream, he dreamed BIG! One hundred trees is a lot of trees, but the boat is gorgeous. What a story.

  4. What a Cool Place to Explore & Learn – loving your photos – thanks for sharing! Have a Great One:)

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Yes, lots to see and read. I’ll admit to skimming some of the reading material as I became overwhelmed by all of the info.

  5. What’s not to love about someone who chases such a big dream. I haven’t heard of this before, but married to a Norwegian, I sure do love it. Now we’re going to have to pull off of I-94 the next time we’re in that area!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      For sure if you’re married to a Norwegian you’ll have to stop at the Hjemkomst Center. You can also tour the stave church, if a guide is available. Your kids may be a little too young to find it of interest, though.

  6. My 3 daughters know this story well, They attended Robert Asp Elementary School!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Now this I did not know, that an elementary school is named after Robert Asp. Thanks for sharing that piece of info.

  7. How totally cool that it worked and his family pursued it even after he died. Great story! I’ve not been in MN long enough to have known it. Great post.

  8. Reblogged this on A fine day for an epiphany and commented:
    Here it is – a taste of Audrey’s blogging!

  9. rutheh Says:

    What a great post.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thank you. I love discovering stories like this. I also appreciate your stopping by Minnesota Prairie Roots.

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