Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

It is said that, on certain autumn days, a visitor to one particular mountain top in Potter County can still hear the haunting violin strains of nineteenth century music legend Ole Bull, drifting ever-so-faintly amidst the whispering pines and the soft murmur of Kettle Creek wending its way through the valley below. It seems that the trilling of the songbirds and the chattering of resident chipmunks provide orchestral accompaniment for a score composed by the master.

Ole Bull (1810-1880) still lives in the mountains of southern Potter County in the countless stories recounted by local tourist promoters – some of whom add their own twists – and in the files of local historians more committed to preserving the truth about Ole (pronounced o-lay) Bull than capitalizing on his fame. Bull’s brief and fateful association with northcentral Pennsylvania’s mountains is also commemorated by Ole Bull State Park, an expansive and picturesque recreational area visited each year by twenty thousand campers, hikers, hunters, picnickers, or fishermen, as well as those who attempt to trace the footsteps of Bull and his fellow Norwegians.

The internationally-­acclaimed offerings of Bull’s violin were silenced forever more than a century ago. Suggestions that the eternal strains can still be discerned amid the natural symphony is but one obvious – if not far­-fetched – example of the flights of fancy which researchers have encountered in attempting to detail the experiences of Ole Bull in the Keystone State. Much of both the oral and recorded history about the fascinating Norwegian and his ill-fated attempt to establish a “New Norway” in the wilds of Potter County’s Stewardson and Abbott townships is part documented fact, part unsub­stantiated legend, and part outright fiction. Researchers studying the sad story of Bull and his fellow Norwegians have been frustrated by the convincing conjecture that has marked – if not marred – so many accounts during the past century and a half.

“There are many things about Ole Bull’s experiences in Pennsylvania that we simply do not know,” explained Robert K. Currin, who is as disturbed by the lingering misconceptions as anybody else. Currin, a retired high school social studies teacher has devoted two decades to accurately recording and interpreting the history of Potter County (see “Potter County: At the Edge of the Forest” by Robert K. Currin in the spring 1989 edition). He is president of the Potter County Historical Society, as well as curator of the organization’s museum in Coudersport, the county seat. Yet, stripped of its romantic lore and Gothic elements, the sad saga of Bull’s colony remains intriguing enough.

Townspeople in Coudersport were abuzz in the summer of 1852 when the local newspaper, the People’s Journal, reported that the world­-famous Ole Bull had purchased one hundred and twenty thousand acres of forest land in the southern section of the county and intended to populate the land with thousands of Norwegian settlers. And so the myths begin. Bull actually purchased a little more than eleven thousand acres. Adding to the excitement a few weeks later was the arrival of Bull himself, accompanied by thirty of his countrymen, for an overnight stay in Coudersport as they made their way to the wilder­ness land located about twenty-five miles to the south. Bull had brought pride and fame to Norway, and was generally acknowledged as the world’s foremost violinist, following in the footsteps of Italy’s legendary Nicolo Paganini. He was also well­-known for opposition to the influence that Sweden and Denmark were imposing on Norway’s artistic, cultural, and political affairs. As his disen­chantment with social and cultural developments in Norway grew, he looked for ways to use his wealth and stature to benefit his oppressed countrymen. If that meant leaving Norway and establish­ing a colony in the New World, Ole Bull was prepared to lay the necessary ground­work – at least to the extent that a musician could be expected to do.

On September 7, 1852, the People’s Journal carried another report, designed to fan the flames of excitement. “There arrived some thirty fine­-looking, robust and determined appearing sons of Norway on their way to Ole Bull’s new possessions. These are the vanguard of the army which is to follow when these pioneers shall have prepared shelter for them.” The band included carpenters, bricklay­ers, and laborers Bull had greeted when their ship arrived at New York City. Less than two weeks later, the People’s Journal reported the arrival of another one hundred and five Norwegians who were provided room and board at local boarding houses and private residences before beginning their stagecoach journey to Bull’s settlement via the region’s only road, the Coudersport and Jersey Shore Turnpike. While in Coudersport, many of the travelers purchased stoves, household equipment, lumber, and provisions to take with them.

Other groups of Norwe­gians would follow, although documentation of the actual number is contradictory. Estimates on the number of people finally settling in the colony have ranged from slightly more than three hundred to as many as eight hundred. The true figure probably lies toward the lower end.

While the county’s early leaders were jubilant at the prospect of thousands of new residents arriving to pump lifeblood into the area’s economy, many familiar with the steep terrain of the county’s southern tier found it curious that Bull had chosen such a place for development of a community that was to be supported primarily by agriculture. But those who knew – or studied – Ole Bull were not surprised.

“He seemed to have fallen in love with the country at the outset because it reminded him so strongly of the topogra­phy of his native Norway – and to his impressionable mind, that seemed sufficient inducement,” wrote Mortimer Smith, whose The Life Of Ole Bull is considered by historians to be the most thorough and accurate biography. Smith believed that it was also possible that the land agents who induced Bull into pur­chasing the property had convinced him that the acreage was rich in mineral deposits. Smith supported this theory by citing a deed reservation that Bull stipulated with each transfer of land to his colo­nists. While the settlers owned the land, Bull “reserved the right to enter in and upon said premises at all times for the purpose of searching for and mining and removing any minerals found.”

“A land strongly reminis­cent of home, a vague hint of possible mineral wealth-what better reasons than these could a man of Ole Bull’s caliber require for the launching of a scheme that would intimidate the most practical and efficient or ordinary mortals?” Smith wrote. “He probably never gave a thought to the eco­nomic soundness of his scheme of colonization; in fact, he had very little scheme or plan but only the laudable, if extremely vague, desire to benefit his countrymen.”

Bull’s tract of land was located at the headwaters of Kettle Creek in the heart of the Black Forest, so named because of the thick stands of virgin timber, mostly hemlock, that covered the mountains. There had been some scattered lumbering of pine, but the lumbering boom would not arrive in the region for another thirty years, forever changing the nature and character of Potter County.

A colonial development corporation was formed to organize the venture, with Bull as president, and John F. Cowan, a Williamsport businessman who had agreed to sell the land, as superinten­dent and general manager. Bull advanced a sum of twenty-five thousand dollars for capitalization.

The Norwegians quickly set about taming the wilderness, while Bull and his hired surveyor plotted four villages. One named New Bergen, for Bull’s hometown of Bergen, Norway, was located at the site of the present-day Carter Camp. About six miles down the road was Oleana, the center of the colony. It was named in honor of Ole Bull and his mother, Anna. (In more recent years, the name of the village has been spelled “Oleona.”) Not far from there was to be the village of New Norway, and further south Bull plotted the development of Valhalla. The latter name is translated as “Royal Hall.” In Norse mythology, this was the place of Odin, the supreme deity, who received military heroes after they were slain in battle. After traveling the vast expanses of his land by horseback, Bull chose a hilltop at Valhalla for the construction of his own home.

Several of the most persis­tent – but also unproven and frequently distorted – stories of Ole Bull’s colony surrounds the hilltop castle which Bull is said to have occupied. Mid-­nineteenth century newspaper articles, correspondence, and various sources paint a contradictory picture of Bull’s residence. During the past four decades, attempts have been made to finance. construction of a replica of “Ole Bull’s Castle” at the site where the original structure is believed to have been built. Currin opposes the idea, noting the absence of consistent, credible evidence about the building’s architectural style. Instead of a castle, with towers and turrets piercing the horizon, it is more likely that a small log cabin was built as a temporary home for Bull, perhaps part of a vague plan to eventually erect a larger “castle” and a one hundred foot-long music hall on the hilltop. Most credible accounts suggest that even the smaller cabin was never completed. It is quite possible that Bull never even spent a night there.

Ole Bull had grand plans. As long as his money held out, he intended to purchase more property and expand his settlement to take in much of the northcentral Pennsylvania wilderness. Schools, stores, houses, sawmills, a leather tannery, and a church would be built in the vast stretches of forests that were to be cleared to accommodate agriculture. He saw no limit in the growth of the Norwegian settlement, telling an audience at Williamsport in late September 1852 that he intended to “bring out thousands and tens of thousands of my oppressed countrymen to this free and happy land.”

News of Bull’s plans spread wildly throughout much of Norway. Newspapers and magazines were quick to spread the stories, reporting, among other things, the great musician’s solemn declaration: “We are founding a New Norway, consecrated to liberty, baptized with indepen­dence, and protected by the Union’s mighty flag.” The accounts stirred a desire among the less affluent to leave their homeland and flee to a land of opportunity, where their beloved Ole Bull was prepared to offer them a new beginning. The drama was underscored by pro-labor newspapers that had been espousing emigration.

During the dramatic turn of events in 1852, Bull’s followers equated skepticism with sacrilege amidst the feverish excitement erupting in Potter County and in parts of Norway. But Lutheran minister Jacob Aall Otteson, who was among the second wave of Norwegians to arrive at Oleana in September, shared his initial impressions in a letter to a friend who remained in Norway.

After a journey of some miles, we came to the beginning of Ole Bull’s property here in Potter County in Pennsylvania. it consists of 120,000 acres, where he wants to colonize a settlement with Norwegian immigrants called New Norway. Construction has already begun in a section he calls Oleana. Here he has a flag consisting of the Norwegian and American colors, and by the help of some very rich American speculators’ capital he is beginning in grand style. About two-thirds of our immigrants made for this place ….

Ole Bull expects ultimately to get the whole of this impenetrable forest with its steep hillsides turned into arable land, inhabited by our countrymen. I must say that I advise no one take my word for granted, as I do not yet know whether he CAN keep his promise and realize his great plans ….

It appears to me that the forest is so dense and the hillsides so steep that it can scarcely become good arable land, but good only for cattle grazing, and especially good for goats. I am firmly of the belief that Ole Bull means well but he is no businessman, and added thereto are politico­-democratic plans wholesale in the game also. Oleana lies sixty miles from the railway ….

Otteson stayed at Oleana for only a few weeks. He went on to become well known as a religious worker in the Norwegian settlements of Wisconsin. His characteriza­tion of Bull’s business acumen and his recognition of the difficulty of taming such a wild and isolated region were prophetic, as the remaining colonists would, sadly, learn within a year.

Workers who cleared land and built houses were paid about fifty cents a day by the colonial development corpora­tion, which provided them with board and lodging. Plans called for these laborers to be able to purchase lots for extremely low prices as the settlement grew. By the time the winter of 1852-1853 drew near, however, only a school­house, a store, and a small cluster of houses had been erected. In addition, Ole Bull realized that he was quickly running out of money. He turned to what he knew best – his violin – to rebuild his fortune. As highly-regarded as he was in America, Bull would have no trouble attracting audiences for concert appear­ances, no matter where he chose to perform.

Tn November 1852, Bull left his colony with Maurice Strakoch, a twenty-seven year old pianist who became his manager (and extracted a considerable fee for his services). They were joined by child prodigy, eight year old Adelina Patti, who would later become one of the most popular singers of the nine­teenth century. While the music performed during this tour did not meet with the critical acclaim that Bull had enjoyed earlier in his career­ – and would recapture later in life – the concerts were well­-attended and profitable. Performances in Cincinnati, St. Louis, and cities in upstate New York preceded a short break for the Christmas holiday. The troupe then traveled south for a month­long stay in New Orleans.

Bull probably heard little about his colony during the concert tour, but the venture attracted considerable atten­tion – in Norway, in Pennsylvania, and in the Midwest. Editors of the Milwaukee Free Democrat, worried that Bull would be successful in diverting would­-be Wisconsin residents to Potter County, lashed out against the struggling little colony in a December 1852 newspaper article.

It is well-known that each successive year witnesses a large emigration from Norway to this country. The Norwegians are industrious, frugal, intelligent and moral, and are a very desireable class of emigrants. Hitherto a large portion of them have found their way to Wiscon­sin, adding largely to the industry, wealth and good character of our Commonwealth. It is also very important to the interests of our state that this emigration should continue. But a strong effort has been made this past season to divert the current of this emigration to Pennsylva­nia. Ole Bull, of horse hair and catgut celebrity, has undertaken to settle a large colony of his countrymen in Potter County, Pa. There is doubtless good land in Potter County, but this has been appropriated, long ago. The unsettled portion is notorious for its poor soil, being hilly, timbered with hemlock, and of a soil so notoriously sterile that the American farmer would not settle upon it, save in the last extremity. And this is the place where Ole Bull proposes to found a colony!

Coudersport’s People’s Journal promptly responded.

The Democrat is one of the best and most accurate papers with which we have the pleasure of an exchange; but the article does great injustice to this county. The good land of this county has not all been appreci­ated. In fact, some of the best land in the county – land as good as can be found in western New York – is at this day an unbroken wilderness and offers to the industrious laborer inducements to settle on it as great as the best lands in Wisconsin. A large share of the unsettled portion of this county is good land and, since the completion of the New York and Erie Railroad, is settling fast. The reputation of the Wisconsin land is world-wide; the fertility of the soil no one questions; her inviting prairies are rapidly filling up with hardy settlers. We don’t see that her editors need envy the good luck which has at last set in the direction of Potter County. We hope the Democrat will have the magnanimity to correct these erroneous statements …. Potter County is not “proverbial for the amount of its sterile soil,” and if it was, the proverb would be false. In fact, there is scarce a county in the state as free from sterile soil as this much-abused county of Potter. It is “free soil” the Democrat has heard of, and for what we are proud to say “Little Potter” is pre-eminent, being the banner county in the Keystone State, which position she is bound to maintain.

Meanwhile, the Norwe­gians were holding, albeit barely, their own during a bitter winter in northern Pennsylvania as they contin­ued building their colony. The harsh weather, lack of sup­plies, and irregular payments by the violinist dampened spirits immeasurably. Employ­ment opportunities were nonexistent. Families able to procure food shared with others. Towering snow drifts prevented settlers from escaping to Coudersport, twenty-five miles away. And Ole Bull seemed to know little, if anything, about the desperate plight of his little band of stranded followers.

In a letter to his brother Edward written on February 6, 1853, during his concert tour through Georgia, Bull waxed eloquently about his dreams for his New Norway.

Not indifference, but over­whelming business has prevented me from answering your dear letter, and unfortunately my reply must be as short as possible, although I have so much on my heart that I long to tell you. Of my activity as an artist and leader, and controller of my little State in Pennsylvania, you can have a conception only when you know that I am engaged simulta­neously in laying out five villages, and am contracting with the government for the casting of cannons, some ten thousand in all, for the fortresses, especially for those in California. Philadel­phia has subscribed two million to the Sunbury and Erie road, which goes near the colony to the south; New York has also given two million to a branch of the Erie and New York road from Elmira to Oleana, the northern line of the colony, so that we shall be only twelve hours distant from New York, ten from Philadelphia, and about eleven from Baltimore. So many have applied for land that I have been obliged to look out for more in the neighborhood; I have bought 20,000 to the west, and in the adjoining county [McKean] I have refusal of 112,000 acres. In Wyoming County I am contract­ing for an old, deserted foundry with forest, water power, workshops, and dwellings, and am taking out patents in Washington for a new smelting furnace for cannons. I am giving concerts every day, and must often go without my dinner, I am so driven. Today, Sunday, I have a moment free; tomorrow to Columbia, and on to New Orleans; from there either to Washington for the inauguration of President Pierce, or to California via Nicaragua ….

In April, Bull performed three concerts in Chicago and the trio then moved on to Buffalo, where Bull became ill and the concert series was postponed indefinitely. Bull returned to Oleana in time for the celebration of the Norwe­gian Independence Day, on May 17,1853, but continued to battle health problems for most of the spring and summer. Nevertheless, his return to the colony after an absence of a half year was a source of inspiration to the growing number of Scandina­vians who now considered Potter County their home. For Norwegian Independence Day, he hosted a dinner and gave a recital as part of the celebration in the wilderness.

On May 24, 1853, John F. Cowan and his wife Rosetta finally deeded eleven warrants of land in Stewardson and Abbott townships, totaling eleven thousand one hundred and forty-four acres, for the sum of ten thousand three hundred and eighty-eight dollars to Bull. The deed dearly defined three sections, totaling six hundred and fifty­-eight acres, that were reserved under the Cowans’ ownership. Almost immediately after the deed was executed and funds changed hands, Bull became concerned about the document’s wording. In a letter dispatched the following day to Robert Hamilton, the surveyor for his colony, Bull expressed his concerns. “Mr. Cowan having sent a deed to me, according to promise, I see that some exceptions have been placed therein that somewhat puzzle me as l am not acquainted with the form in such deeds; therefore, I beg you to examine these carefully and explain matters to me.”

Hamilton responded two days later, accompanying his letter with a sketch showing the tracts reserved by the Cowans. “One reservation will include New Norway and the garden and nursery grounds,” Hamilton advised. “The other will include New Bergen; also some three or four lots that have been selected and partially improved by the Norwegians.” Ole Bull learned that significant improvements his countrymen had made over the past eight months or more had taken place on land that was not included in his purchase.

Many researchers who have studied the Ole Bull story have concluded that Bull was bilked by Cowan, a clever business­man who had been involved in other dealings that rendered him somewhat suspect in the eyes of the Williamsport business leaders. Other researchers attribute the misunderstanding to Bull’s lack of business sense, and feckless counsel given by his attorney, Lucius E. Bulkeley of New York City. Bull’s poor management of business matters generally supports the theory that he was not one to pay great attention to such details.

As the early summer sun began to warm the isolated settlements, Norway’s dauntless pioneers continued to work away, particularly in Oleana and New Bergen, unaware of their leader’s discovery about the problem of land ownership. Several Potter County officials joined the colonists for a gala Independence Day celebration that continued through the night, replete with beer and champagne, a midday supper, a late afternoon tea, tours of the villages, fireworks, music, and Norwegian dances. Ole Bull did not attend the July 4 party, explaining that he was much too ill. Few colonists actually saw him during the summer months – he may have been sick or he may have been in despair over the disheartening discrepancies in his land purchases. Some researchers believe he may have been away, attempting to negotiate a quiet settlement with John and Rosetta Cowan.

By late August, Bull had sufficiently recovered – and resurfaced – to rejoin Strakoch and Patti and resume their concert tour with a perfor­mance in New York City. Ole Bull bade farewell to his colonists and his beloved New Norway. He would never return to Potter County.

The rapid demise of Bull’s colony was poorly docu­mented and extant accounts are seriously flawed or distorted. One highly romantic version – repeated often in Norway – suggests that Bull’s business agent and Cowan conspired to defraud him, and that the agent had attempted to poison Bull’s food when confronted about the discrep­ancy. Biographers and historians alike have com­pletely discounted this account. Although it was probable that Cowan – or anyone else for that matter­ – did not attempt to deter Bull from making what proved to be a disastrous business decision, the Cowans did agree to refund the violinist’s original purchase price. Bull deeded the property back to John Cowan on September 22, 1853.

Ole Bull abandoned his Norwegian followers, leaving them stranded and in dire straits. While he performed in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, no one was able – or at least willing – to pay salaries to his workmen. His workers grew disen­chanted and disillusioned. Louis Lowe, a Hungarian hired to manage the Lion Hotel, then being constructed at Oleana, filed suit against Bull in New York City, seeking payment of delinquent wages. An article appearing in the New York Herald reported that the court seized Bull’s violin in payment of the debt, an act which the rival New York Tribune described as “profan­ity.” Lowe’s was one of many suits that would be filed against Bull during the following several years.

Ole Bull may have aban­doned his New Norway, but he did not forget the stalwart settlers who remained in the vast wilderness of northern Pennsylvania. The maestro, performing with Strakoch and Patti, gave two concerts in Philadelphia in early Novem­ber “for the benefit of the Oleana sufferers.” While in Philadelphia he asked his surveyor to deliver a message on his behalf to the settlers in early November.

Mr. Robert Hamilton, who brings you this letter to the colonists at Oleana, comes charged with a quantity of provisions and stores purchased from the new proceeds of two concerts recently given by me in this city. I have received accounts of the necessities of the colonists which have wrung my heart with sympathy, and made me keenly regret that these concerts were not still more productive; they would undoubtedly have been so but for the persevering efforts of the designing men who are endeavor­ing to sacrifice the colony and myself, and who reported everywhere that there was no suffering at Oleana, and men caused statements to the effect to be issued in the public press. I intend to be at Oleana in a few days to renew the bonds of fraternity and good feeling which has ever united us, and which it is the hope of my life, can never be broken.

Inexplicably, Ole Bull did not return to Potter County. Instead, the musicians traveled to Washington where they performed for Pres. Franklin Pierce, who was reported to be a friend of Bull’s. The trio rounded out its concert tour with stops in Louisville and Chicago, and with an encore in Philadelphia on December 26 that marked its last public performance.

Mortimer Smith best describes the beginning of the end of Ole Bull’s New Norway.

Not only the Bull-Patti tour was ended with the dawn of the new year. Another dream of Ole’s had been wrecked on the hard rock of reality. His vision of a new and happy land for his countrymen, his dream of an idyllic state full of industry, idealism and democratic brotherhood under his benevolent leadership, was melting away like the rays of a rainbow, as the weary, disillusioned Oleana colonists packed their few belongings and prepared for a hard winter trip to Wisconsin and other lands to the westward. A few of them remained and eked out a miserable existence until spring, and a few hardy souls remained there for the rest of their lives. But the new Norway, that had been ushered in with such a blaze of glory little more than a year before, which had aroused so much interest in America and such high hopes among the peasants of the homeland – this new Norway had gone to join in limbo other American utopias.

Actually, some colonists relocated to Wisconsin and Minnesota, while others returned to their homeland. Of the few that stayed, the Joergs, Andersens, and Olsons established homes and raised families in Potter County. Lumbering interests would purchase the property in the late 1800s and realize a handsome profit from the timber. Most of the land was eventually acquired by the Commonwealth of Pennsylva­nia, a portion of it converted to Ole Bull State Park and the balance maintained as State Forest Land. Private holdings in the Oleana (Oleona) area have changed hands over the years. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a few homes were built on land that was once occupied by the Norwegians and two tourist-oriented businesses were established.

Little remains of the colony, although visitors to Ole Bull State Park can climb the “Castle Vista Trail” to the shelf of Nordjenskald Mountain, where they can see what little is left of the foundation for Bull’s modest log home and look out over the rolling hills of what was once the musician’s vast domain. A few miles up Route 144, time has washed away the lettering on many of the tombstones scattered in the neglected Oleana Cemetery, the final resting place of about a dozen Norwegians who, sadly and ironically, suffered much in seeking a better life in Potter County.

 

For Further Reading

Beebe, Victor L. History of Potter County. Coudersport, Pa.: Potter County Historical Society, 1934.

Beers, J. H. History of the Counties of McKean, Elk, Cameron and Potter, Pennsyl­vania. Chicago: J. H. Beers and Company, 1890.

Bull, Sara C. Ole Bull: A Memoir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1910.

Currin, Robert K. “Potter County: At the Edge of the Forest.” Pennsylvania Heri­tage. (spring 1989).

Egle, William H. An Illustrated History of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: W. C. Goodrich, 1876.

Heimel, Paul W. Shattered Dreams: The Ole Bull Colony in Pennsylvania. Coudersport, Pa.: Leader Publishing Company, Inc., 1992.

Wefling, Mary E. The Ole Bull Colony in Potter County. Coudersport, Pa.: Potter County Historical Society, 1952.

 

Paul W. Heimel of Coudersport, Potter County, is managing editor of the Potter Leader Enterprise, and serves on the editorial board of the Port Allegany Reporter Argus. He is the author of Shattered Dreams: The Ole Bull Colony in Pennsylvania, published in 1992 by the Leader Publishing Company (see “Bookshelf,” fall 1992). His articles have appeared in Women’s World, Outside, and Deer and Deer Hunting. His latest book, High Wire Angel: The Angel Wallenda Story, describing the experiences of the famous aerial performer, will be published later this year.