It was a rewarding sight for members of the Westby Area High School class of 1964 when they returned home for their 50th class reunion on Saturday, Aug, 23, and saw the newly resurrected Norsemen statue on the corner of Main and Maple streets.
Since 1999, the Norsemen statue had become a Westby landmark after the class of 1964 commissioned Jerry Halstad, a chain saw carver of La Crosse, to transform the trunk of the maple tree into a large Viking statue. The statue replicated the Norwegian heritage of the area and a branch on the tree doubled as a directional arm pointing the way to Westby schools.
The Viking design was created by artist Gerald Ekern of Westby, while Halstad was the man with the blade, or chain saw in this case. His amazing talent attracted a large crowd on onlookers when the tree was carved 15 years ago. Alan Berg, a member of the “class of 64”, said the class knew the statue wouldn’t last forever, but he was pleased it lasted as long as it did. He was even more impressed that it was resurrected and will remain a landmark for decades to come.
“The tree was decaying and when the arm broke I knew it would only be a matter of time before the whole thing rotted away. It was heartwarming to learn that someone had stepped up to the plate and was taking on resurrecting the statue and to see how wonderful the new Norse looks,” Berg said.
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Positioned across the street from a church it was only right that a group of saviors would come forth to resurrect the decaying landmark. Those saviors were led by Donna (Martin) Kjelland, who worked with land owners, Art and Dorothy Gronning and the Seas Branch Smithies 4-H Club, to raise enough money to remove the decaying tree and replace it with a fiberglass model that is designed to withstand the test of time.
Kjelland spearheaded the efforts to raise approximately $3,000 for the project, which came full circle on Monday, Aug. 11, when a new 1,000 pound fiberglass Norse statue was unmasked and secured to the base. Once enough funds were raised, Kjelland commissioned David W. Oswald, owner/operator of DWO Fiberglass in Sparta, to create a replica of the former wooden version.
Oswald, who makes numerous monthly trips through Westby, had always admired the wooden Viking statue and like so many others was saddened when the wooden arm (branch) broke off the landmark.
He said he was honored and humbled when Kjelland contacted him last year about resurrecting the 12-foot statue out of fiberglass. Oswald said he planned to have the project completed for an unveiling during Syttende Mai, but it took him longer than anticipated due to illness and the harsh cold weather over the winter. Oswald refused to take credit for the design, stating that credit belongs to the artist and the carver, not him. He spent 200-plus hours molding the statue out of fiberglass, a material he said should last for decades and is easily repairable if it ever needs it. The one of a kind cardboard pattern of the statue is surrounded by layers of spray foam and castings. The arm and body has a steel pipe running horizontally through it that should withstand anything that might be hung on on the 9-foot, finger-to-shoulder arm. He added that the colors shouldn’t fade for 20-30 years and a brush of clear coat can do wonders to extend the life of any outdoor pieces of art.
“I am very pleased with the results and to see it returned to its home on the corner of Maple and Main in Westby. The original design was fantastic and those men deserve the credit, not me,” Oswald said.
As a special feature a time capsule was molded inside. Kjelland said the capsule is filled with 4-H memorabilia, plus a copy of the Westby Times. It is encased in the left leg, near the hip for safe keeping. Kjelland said the time capsule is extra special since 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of 4-H and the overall project will be entered into a statewide contest honoring the landmark year of the organization.
“It took longer than we thought to get done, but it was worth the wait. So many people looked for the statue when they drove by, now he’s back home and the 4-H club has left a footprint on the community for decades to come. I’m proud of that,” Kjelland said.
The project cost $2,800, which Oswald and Kjelland both said was a bargain considering the time and energy invested. The city of Westby used its equipment to position the statue in place and members of the Westby-Christiana Fire Department assisted. Emma Solverson, a member of the Seas Branch Smithies was hoisted on the shoulders of fireman Scott Yttri to unveil the face of the statue, a task that turned out to be more difficult than Solverson thought when the face cover was bound to tight. She didn’t give up though and within a short time the cover fell to the ground as and cheers of excitement echoed from the base below.
Kjelland said the 4-H club is still taking donations for the upkeep of the statue and landscaping of the corner land it is located on. An account is set up at WCCU in Westby and anyone wishing to donate can do so at that location.