The area of New Norway was in the of the territory claimed by both the Cree and the Blackfoot in what is today central Alberta. For centuries, the two nations would occupy parts of the territory, which was fruitful because of the bountiful flora and fauna, and the bison herds that migrated to the area through the year.
As Europeans arrived from the east and pushed Indigenous groups to the west, these conflicts increased and would not be resolved until the late-1800s through treaties signed by the Cree and Blackfoot.
Today, New Norway sits on Treaty 6 land.
In 1881, north of where New Norway would be, a small mission was established by the local Metis for Father Hippolyte Beillevaire, who first came to the area in 1881. The first structure was a house and chapel but it proved too small and in 1883 construction began on a new church. The Metis volunteered their time to build this log church, using post-on-sill methods that were developed with the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Catholic Church of St. Thomas still stands to this day and is an iconic part of the rural landscape. In 1915, siding was put on the church and a belfy was built. Father Beillevaire would continue to administer to the Roman Catholics of the area at the church until he passed away in 1937. The church still has its original bell, which was a gift made by Bishop Joseph Thomas Duhamel in the early 1890s.
The first settlers to come to the New Norway area were brothers Ludwig, Lars, Evan and Ole Olstad, who had come from Minnesota, where their family had immigrated from Norway prior.
Originally, the brothers arrived in Wetaskiwin and then they began to explore the surrounding countryside to find the homestead that they wanted. They traveled over the land, which at that point was mostly unsettled, bringing cattle, sheep, implements and household effects. The land they would select was along the Battle River, which would be called Gould’s Crossing. As they settled there, the area became known as Olstad Settlement. The brothers worked the land for four years before getting their families to the area.
The Edmonton Journal reported on Feb. 21, 1942, 50 years after the area was settled, quote:
“On the whole it was not so hard to make a start. There was an abundance of wild hay and wood. The first houses and barns were built of logs with sod roofs.”
In 1892, the railway was constructed through the area and more families, who originally came from Norway, started to settle in greater numbers. With so many new settlers, the settlement changed its name to New Norway in 1895. It wasn’t just Norwegian settlers in the area, but also Swedish and German settlers as well.
One settler who arrived in 1893 was Gullik Iverson, who came to the area from Minnesota and joined the other Norwegian families in the area. He would construct a homestead and built a small log home using dove tail corner joints, a technique Norwegians brought to Canada. Eventually Iverson would construct a larger log house, and this building still stands on the homestead and is one of the few remaining Norwegian log houses in Alberta from this time of settlement. In 1993, the entire homestead, including the log house and other structures, became a Registered Historic Resource.
By 1903, the community had a blacksmith shop and general store.
Nearby, there was the Verdun School, which was built in 1902 and would be expanded with a teacherage in 1915. The school was built by local German settlers, the school was originally named New Berlin School. The first teacher was Mable Chandler, and there were only about a dozen children in the school.
During the First World War, to prevent hostility in the area, the name was changed to Verdun School to honour Canadian soldiers fighting overseas. The school would stay open until 1952 when it closed and became a community hall and church.
Today, the Verdun School remains one of the oldest one-room schoolhouses in rural Alberta and in 2010, it was made a Provincial Historic Resource.
Six years later in 1909, the Grand Trunk Pacific railway was built nearby and the entire community picked up and moved to be along the railroad. This was actually a common occurrence in the prairies and most buildings were moved on skids pulled by oxen.
Before the town lots went on the market, it was already generating a lot of interest.
On Oct. 13, 1909, the Edmonton Journal wrote quote:
“For a townsite not yet on the market, let alone on the map, New Norway, the first town to be surveyed on the Calgary-Tofield line of the GPT, shows remarkable vitality.”
On Oct. 14, 1909, the townsite of New Norway went up for sale with 14 businesses being established in the first month. Commercial lots were selling for $250, or $6,300 today, while residential lots were selling for $150, or $3,800 today.
On May 6, 1910, New Norway was incorporated as a village and three days later the first council was established. By 1912, the community had 150 people and Ole Olstad, the first settler, was the first mayor.
The last original settler would be Ben Kvelland, who lived on the outskirts of the village and would take part in the 50th anniversary celebrations.
The same year that New Norway was incorporated as a village, the Bethesda Lutheran Church was built. The church is the second tallest structure in town with its beautiful steeple. Only the water tower is taller than the church.
By the 1950s, the area of New Norway was booming thanks to a large amount of natural gas found in the area. Several wells were dug to take advantage of the opportunity, including the South New Norway tract in which the Alberta government sold for $33,088. Oil was also a big part of the economy in the area at this point, and various companies were investing heavily in drilling rigs to capture some of the oil under the ground as Alberta as a whole went through a major oil boom.
Residents in the area weren’t always happy about this though. Many in New Norway and the area were protesting what they saw as land grabs by Camrose in order to take over the oil fields around New Norway. A petition was put out that stated quote:
“We, the undersigned, owners of land in and near the newly-discovered oil field in the New Norway district, resent and vigorously protest the encroachment by Camrose of our rightful claim to this discovery.”
The influx of money from oil and gas would allow New Norway to build a new hotel in 1961. The New Norway Hotel was opened in a ceremony by the mayor and the two oldest residents of the area. The hotel was two-storeys and built in an L shape. It included a spacious lobby, a beverage room that could accommodate 72 people, a large coffee shop, a lunch counter and ten rooms with modern furnishings. This hotel replaced the original New Norway Hotel that was built in 1910 and had burned down in 1957.