Woman milking a cow in an oldfashioned cowshed. Hadeland, Oppland, Norway in 1947-48. | Photo: Leif Ørnelund - OB.Ø51/1346 digitaltmuseum.no - CC BY-SA.
Woman milking a cow in an oldfashioned cowshed. Hadeland, Oppland, Norway in 1947-48. | Photo: Leif Ørnelund - OB.Ø51/1346 digitaltmuseum.no - CC BY-SA.

The first half of the 1900s was a time of enormous change in Norwegian society. The age-old agricultural way of life was dying – and the industrial revolution was growing fast. It was then that a young boy experienced a peculiar family custom.

All through the winter, the young boy lived with his parents in a contemporary setting. They had a modern house, with an electrical stove, a radio, and a car.

When the school was out in late spring, he set off to spend quality time with his grandparents. They had a smallholding in Østerdalen, a valley in the south-eastern region of Norway. All through summer, he ran high and low, all barefoot and happy. And every year he saw a peculiar ritual taking place.

As soon as the domestic animals were off to the summer pasture, normally sometime in June, his grandparents scrubbed and cleaned the barn’s cowshed and sheep pens from top to bottom. Next, they whitened the ceiling and the upper part of the walls with chalk.

When the barn was as clean as it possibly could be, it was time to move the beds from the main cottage – their winter home – and put them into the empty stalls and pens. A long wooden table, and benches to sit on, followed suit. The boy’s grandmother sat at one end of the table, his grandfather the other, and the boy and his many cousins on the benches in between. In this particular barn, there was also a fireplace where they prepared the food.

All through summer, they lived like this. Only when the animals returned in the autumn – and the children to their parents and to school – the grandparents scrubbed their way back into the cottage for the winter.

A celebration of summer

When telling his story as a grown man, the boy was quite particular about the reason for this odd custom. Moving out of the regular home and into the barn was like going on holiday, a change from the daily routines during the winter. It was a celebration of summer.

It was also an opportunity to give the two abodes a thorough wash. In the old farming society, taking care of your animals, buildings, and tools were both a vital necessity – and a source of considerable pride.

The custom of moving out from the main house during the summer months was a regular practice across many parts of Scandinavia. A practice that may have stretched back for more than a thousand years. Rarely, the families moved into the barn – but often into a specific summer cottage, the cook-house or other out-buildings on the farm.

Today, there are still remnants of this old way of life. Many modern-day Norwegians have cottages by the sea or in the mountains and forests. They flock there during the holidays, particularly for Easter and during the short and intense summer. For all generations, a sense of the old Norway still lingers in their minds, fuelled by childhood memories and stories told to them by parents and grandparents.

Many of today’s cottages have all the mod cons required in this day and age – but equally many are just simple abodes, echoing the past. What you will rarely find is a cottage without a fireplace. The all-important and ancient fireplace. A link to the early Norwegians who came to this fascinating landscape after the last ice-age – some 12,000 years ago.

Recommended read: The old Norwegian farm – the tradition of summer pasture

Recommended read: The old Norwegian farm – the hour of twilight

Main source: «Den norske byggeskikken» by Arne Lie Christensen – Pax Forlag 1995.

Main photo: Woman milking a cow in an oldfashioned cowshed. Hadeland, Oppland, Norway in 1947-48. | Photo: Leif Ørnelund – OB.Ø51/1346 digitaltmuseum.no – CC BY-SA.