Older and fewer, members of Sons of Norway sell Bellingham lodge building

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 14, 2014 

The Sons of Norway building at 1419 N. Forest St. no longer belongs to the Sons of Norway.

In January, members of Wergeland Lodge No. 21 voted to sell their lodge, land and parking lot to businessman Ken Robinette for just over $600,000, joining other Sons of Norway lodges in the state without a building of their own, said Vaughn Hagen, a certified public accountant in Bellingham and the lodge's president.

The lodge plans to hold events in the building for the next few months, including two more of its popular Swedish pancake breakfasts that are open to the public.

Wergeland Lodge was founded 87 years ago and has been in the building on North Forest for 66 years.

"This is an end of an era in downtown Bellingham," Hagen said. "It was a tough decision."

He said the lodge has a shrinking, aging membership for whom the task of covering the building's costs has become more onerous over time.

"We felt it was time to remove the burden of maintaining the hall and also the burden of the monthly pancake breakfasts, and concentrate solely on increasing our membership and expanding our cultural events," Hagen said.

For the short-term, members will meet in a local church. Without the kitchen and meeting space of the lodge, the members' monthly Swedish pancake feeds, highlighted by accordion music by Emil Aanestad, and their annual lutefisk dinner could remain in limbo after the breakfast in mid-May.

ACTIVE GROUP

The first Sons of Norway Lodge in Bellingham operated from 1909 to 1918, but details are sketchy.

Then, in 1927, two dozen residents of Norwegian descent organized a new Bellingham lodge named after Henrik Wergeland, an early 19th century poet and a symbol of Norway's independence. For the next two decades, members met at the Leopold Hotel and, later, in a Knights of Columbus hall downtown.

In 1948 they built a lodge of their own. They had bought land at 1419 N. Forest and with the help of volunteer labor and with loans repaid by lodge fundraisers, built and occupied the bottom floor of what would later become a two-story building.

While its name remains Sons of Norway, the lodge is open to people of broader Scandinavian descent, said Hagen, whose father was lodge president four times and whose mother was the lodge's first woman president, in 1954.

The lodge prospered in its early decades, with hundreds of members and a slew of activities, including an orchestra, dances, picnics, parties, parade floats and festivals.

"That's what they were about, creating a great community so their kids could grow up in a great community," Robinette said.

In 1961, the lodge bought a next-door lot for parking. Eight years later, members built the lodge's upper floor, again paying off construction loans through lodge fundraisers.

While the lodge still had more than 200 members by the 1990s, a proposal came forward in 1996 to sell the building. The idea was rejected three-to-one.

Given the passage of time, and with just over 100 members now, the vote in January to sell the building passed two-to-one, Hagen said.

Robinette, whose business, Bellingham Underwriters, is located one block away on North State Street, said he plans to upgrade the building while protecting its "character and history." He hopes to find a tenant, perhaps a church, interested in the building's open layout.

"It's an ideal space for what it is, which is a lodge," he said.

If that doesn't work out, Robinette might turn the building into a rental hall for events.

Hagen said the sale is sad, but makes sense.

"It was a difficult decision deciding to sell the only home we have known," he said. "A lot of memories."

COMING UP

- The last public pancake breakfasts at Sons of Norway Lodge, 1419 N. Forest St., will be 8 to 11 a.m. April 19 and May 17 with Swedish pancakes with lingonberries and whipped cream, scrambled eggs, ham, coffee and orange juice. Cost: $7 per person, $3 for kids 10 and younger.

The May breakfast falls on the 200th anniversary of Norwegian independence. On May 17, 1814, a constitution was signed declaring Norway an independent nation.

- For details about the lodge, call Vaughn Hagen, 360-739-5950, or Elaine Grasdock, 360-734-7753.

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-229 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com .

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