August 1, 2009

46 Norwegians descend on Racine for a birthday party

Ola Hirth at his birthday party Saturday at DeKoven's Taylor Hall

Racine's Norwegian population took a big jump this weekend, as 46 of Ola Hirth's relatives descended on the city to celebrate his 85th birthday.

Hirth,who founded Ola Hirth Painting and Decorating, was holding court at Taylor Hall, presiding over a celebration that included two of his sisters, one brother -- and their families. This is the first visit to the U.S. for many of them, and it is serving double duty, as a birthday party and family reunion. Ola rented a bus to pick up sixteen of them who flew into Milwaukee together.

The first thing you notice about Ola is that he's a "young" 85. In fact, this is the first year -- in 80 -- that he hasn't been on skis (the result of having broken his arm in a freak carwash accident; don't ask.) Ola came to the U.S. in the 1950s, after his two best friends in Norway moved to Seattle. He tried Chicago, California, Racine and Seattle -- in that order -- and then settled permanently in Racine.

The city then had a burgeoning Norwegian population, and a big Norwegian Club, Wergland Hall on State Street, where the bus depot is now. "It also had a big ski club," he says, "where you met a lot of nice people." This was not cross-country skiing either; nor just downhill. Rather, ski-jumping.

At 85 -- he was born Aug. 9, 1924 -- Ola is now the oldest of his six siblings. The family was close-knit, he says; "we had to make our own fun." His oldest brother died a few years ago, but he has two brothers and two sisters living in Norway. All but one brother is now here for the reunion. This is not their first family reunion -- there have been at least five previous ones, but this is the first in the U.S. Ola and his daughter, Kari Farrington, and sons Jim Hirth and Darren Hirth, and their families, live here in Racine.

Kari sent us the following update Sunday, after the birthday party ended:
"After you left we continued with the party by singing a couple of songs and my Dad's youngest brother, Arne, said a few words and presented my mother and father with some handmade wooden gifts. Then, from his twin nephews and their sister, they presented him with a vest and some handmade Norwegian mittens and socks (the best things to keep you warm in the winter).

"The rest of the night was for socializing, dancing and drinking. The party finally came to an end at 4 a.m. (my dad did not last that long but made it until around 1 a.m.) My dad did have a cute song that he sang that I played my violin along with, called, "Ola, they all called me Ola." It was about a hobo, so he wore an old hat and flannel shirt while he sang. It was quite funny."
She also sent us this picture, of all the partygoers outside Taylor Hall as the birthday festivities began.