Travelers who visit downtown Fargo, North Dakota or her sister city across the Red River at Moorhead, Minnesota will likely notice what looks to be an oversize white plastic sheet draped across two poles not unlike a blanket tent I might have made in my childhood. If you drive toward the structure, you will end up in a parking lot in front of the building shown in the image above. This is the Hjemkomst Center built to honor a man with a dream and a vision. Below that large white canopy, the centerpiece on display features the accomplishment of that vision.
Upon entering the building, you will find a ship modeled after the Gokstad, a Viking ship that was discovered and unearthed in Norway over a century ago. The story of the dream began in 1971. A junior high school counselor, Robert Asp, found some extra time to study the history of the Vikings while recuperating from an injury. He and his brother discussed the possibility of building a replica Viking ship and sailing it to Norway. The Hjemkomst was conceived and the name christened. Hjemkomst translated from Norwegian means “Homecoming.”
The Hjemkomst wasn’t designed to be a museum exhibit. It was to be a full-size sailing ship built in the same fashion as the Gokstad was over a thousand years earlier. In 1880, near Sandefjord, Norway a burial mound was opened, revealing the Viking ship that was constructed sometime in the 9th century AD. For two years, Bob selected and gathered white oak trees to be processed into the lumber needed to build an actual=size vessel designed to cross the Atlantic Ocean. An old potato warehouse became the site of the build and soon a sign appeared declaring the location to be the Hawley Shipyard, so named for the community where the ship was being built, a small town of about 2,000 people just a few miles east of Moorhead.
Construction of the Hjemkomst continued for six years and finally, in 1980, the ship was transported to Lake Superior and set in the water at Duluth, Minnesota. Although suffering from Leukemia since 1974, Robert Asp found himself on the ship under sail in late September. After his passing that December, his family vowed to sail the Hjemkomst to Norway. With the help of Norwegian sailors, modifications were made to the ship to make it more seaworthy including a larger mast and sail as well as a redesigned rudder system.
With a crew of 12, the voyage to Norway began by crossing Lake Superior and like the ancient mariners, in the Erie Canal and other narrow waters, the crew used oars to row the ship, otherwise it was under sail. After arriving in New York in June, the ship launched into the Atlantic. Though battered by a tropical storm and suffering some damage, the ship and her crew stoically continued in the North Atlantic. The storm had left the ship with a major leak that was repaired as best as could be done. On July 19, 1982, the Hjemkomst triumphantly sailed into the harbor at Bergen, Norway. On one wall of the museum, a large photograph depicts her arrival at Bergen.
Though Robert Asp didn’t live to see his dream fulfilled, his family made sure that his efforts culminated in a successful journey. For a year the Viking ship was stored in Oslo, Norway, then eventually it was shipped back to the United States and donated to the City of Moorhead where it’s been on display at the Hjemkomst Center since 1986. A bust of Robert Asp is displayed prominently near his creation, a tribute to the initiative and perseverance of a man with a dream. You can read more about the ship’s construction and her voyage here.