On May 23, 1939, the streets of Tacoma were lined with the flags of Norway and the United States. Crowds gathered to catch a glimpse of Crown Prince Olav and his wife, Crown Princess Märtha. Many of the people who flocked to see them were Scandinavian immigrants. Over two million Scandinavians settled in the United States in the early twentieth century.

Norway became independent of Sweden in 1905. Prince Carl of Denmark was crowned King Haakon VII of Norway, a constitutional monarch with a ceremonial role. His only child and heir Olav was born in 1903. The prince’s mother was Princess Maud, the youngest daughter of Great Britain’s King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Olav married Princess Märtha of Sweden in 1929. The couple had three children: Ragnhild (1930-2012), Astrid (1932-) and Harald (1937-).

In 1939 the crown prince and his wife went on a ten-week, 15,000-mile tour of the United States, hoping to strengthen ties between Norway and the United States. They arrived in New York City on April 27. Tacoma newspapers had near-daily updates about the tour and planning for their local visit.

Tacoma Norway
Crown Prince Olav (center) and Tacoma Mayor J. J. Kaufmann (left) enjoy planked salmon at an “informal” dinner at Hotel Winthrop’s Crystal Ballroom. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Public Library, Richards Studio D8365-54

On May 23, the Tacoma Times reported problems concerning the menu at the welcoming banquet for the royal couple. Axel Oxholm, a local businessman in charge of planning the reception, had ordered a hundred ptarmigans (a delicacy in Norway) for the meal. But as soon as the frozen birds arrived, the delivery ran afoul of import regulations. After inspectors required the birds to be plucked and some given over for examination, Oxholm was forced to scrap the idea and order salmon. While he believed fish represented the city better, he regretfully told the paper that “It [ptarmigans] would have been a real treat for them, though, after eating chicken for 50 or 60 consecutive nights.”

The royal couple and their party arrived at Fort Lewis (now JBLM) by train. They were greeted by a twenty-one-gun salute from the Tenth Field Artillery. Olav and Märtha watched a review of 8,000 troops, saw artillery maneuvers and had lunch with officers.

The royal party was taken to Tacoma by car. They had a banquet at 7 p.m. at Hotel Winthrop hosted by the City of Tacoma and the Chamber of Commerce. Olav, who was educated at Oxford and spoke fluent English, gave a short speech.

At 8:15, Olav and Märtha went to a reception at the Tacoma Armory. Local Scandinavian societies gave musical performances, including singing in Norwegian and Icelandic. Olav gave another speech. The reception ended at 10:30, and the royal couple retired to their suite on the ninth floor of the Winthrop Hotel, which had been specially decorated with rhododendrons, the state flower, for the occasion.

After stopping at Pacific Lutheran University (founded by Norwegian-Americans), the royals left to ski at Mount Rainier and later visited Seattle before heading east to see Grand Coulee Dam and Spokane. They continued their tour, leaving the United States in July.

Tacoma Norway
People gathered at the Tacoma Armory in 1939 to see Crown Prince Olav and his wife Princess Märtha. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Public Library, Richards Studio A8365-1

For their part in the tour, King Haakon later sent Tacoma Mayor J. J. Kaufman, Mrs. Henry Berglund (Daughters of Norway) and Axel Oxholm medals of the order of St. Olav. Footage of the prince and his wife reviewing the troops at Fort Lewis was shown as part of a newsreel (now available on YouTube) at the Roxy Theater (now Pantages Theater) in June 1939.

Disaster struck Norway during World War II. Germany invaded in April 1940. Norwegian and Allied forces were soon overwhelmed. The royal family fled to the United Kingdom, forming a government-in-exile.

Olav returned to the United States to drum up support for Norway. Accompanied by Märtha, Olav spoke at Tacoma’s Jason Lee Junior High School’s auditorium (now Hilltop Heritage Middle School) after a dinner on April 24, 1942. “Our spirit is not broken,” he said, “Though the Germans have tried to break our solidary and our unity.” He also thanked the United States and the Allies for their continuing support of Norway. 

Olav returned to a newly liberated Norway in 1945. Princess Märtha died of cancer in 1954 and Olav never remarried. After his father’s death, Olav was crowned Olav V in 1958. He was a popular king, known for being down to earth and kind, earning him the nickname “Folkekongen” (or People’s King). Olav returned to the Pacific Northwest twice, though he did not visit Tacoma again.

In 1968 Olav spoke at the University of Washington in Seattle and skied at Crystal Mountain. Many Tacomans went to see him land at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. The Tacoma Times even published a recipe for sardine potato salad in its May 1, 1968 issue in honor of the king’s visit.

Tacoma Norway
Crown Prince Olav and Crown Princess Märtha at the Tacoma Armory in 1939. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Public Library, Richards Studio D8365-7

Olav returned to Washington in 1975 as part of a tour honoring the sesquicentennial of Norwegian immigration to America. He visited Poulsbo, nicknamed “Little Norway” for its sizeable Norwegian-American population. King Olav also spoke at PLU’s commencement, praising the school’s attention to its Scandinavian heritage and reminding the students, many of whom were of Norwegian descent, to “Never forget the roots and background from where you came.” The school made him an honorary student.

In 1991 Olav passed away and was succeeded by his son Harald. Harald V visited Poulsbo in 1995.  His daughter Princess Märtha Louise stopped in Poulsbo in 2005, promoting her new children’s book “Why Kings and Queens Don’t Wear Crowns,” which told an amusing story about her grandfather Olav as a child. Her father revisited PLU in 2015, speaking at commencement.  

Prince Olav’s visit to Tacoma in 1939 shows the importance of Scandinavian Americans to the history and culture of Washington. His return visits to the region in 1942, 1968, 1975 and by his son and granddaughter show how these connections endure.