WAHKON -- When event organizer Paul Wilson was looking for an image to put on this year's Nisswa-stamman T-shirt, he wasn't necessarily thinking of the marketing possibilities in Wahkon. He was just looking for a photo that summed up the fiddling event.
"I saw Stanley's photo and it grabbed me," Wilson said.
It proved to be an accidental stroke of marketing genius. Wilson has received nearly 40 pre-orders for shirts from the south shore of Mille Lacs Lake. That's the home turf of Stanley Berge, a soft-spoken, self-taught musician who has been playing the fiddle for the last 80 years, all of them in the tiny burg of Wahkon.
When Wilson started the Nisswa-stamman five years ago, he made sure Berge was on the bill. Now 88, Berge will be back for this year's event, Friday and Saturday at various locations in Nisswa and Pequot Lakes, accompanied by another Wahkonite, Susi Lyback-Dahl, on guitar.
To be honest, the Nisswa-stamman, essentially a massive two-day fiddling jam, isn't exactly Berge's bag. He bowed out of a jam session near Milaca when it got too big for him ("A half-dozen people," Berge explained). He finds the size of Brainerd's Thursday jams at Coco Moon, which draw a dozen musicians or more, to be overwhelming.
"Some of those things get to be so big and complicated," he said. "I don't especially like playing in front of a crowd. I guess you do it because you have to sometimes. But I've made a lot of good friends up in Nisswa from all over the country and northern Europe."
Aside from playing with a couple friends at Tuesday night jam sessions, or performing in nursing homes ("They're not too critical"), fiddling is just a hobby to Berge. Of course, when you've lived most of your life in Wahkon (population for the past century: about 300 and holding steady), it's good to have a hobby.
Berge was born in 1916 in Minneapolis, the oldest of six children to a Swedish mother and Norwegian father. The family moved to Wahkon when Berge was four, and took up farming the hardscrabble land, because that was what people on the south shore did after the logging boom died out and before the tourism industry emerged.
Wahkon is the Dakotah word for "great spirit," and in order to live in the area, that's exactly what you needed.
Stanley Berge has been fiddling for 80 of his 88 years, most of them at the same house in rural Wahkon on the south shore of Mille Lacs Lake. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
"It's a miracle any of us survived," said Berge, who keeps a few pieces of old farm equipment in his yard as a reminder of the difficult but satisfying way of life.
When Berge was 8, his grandfather passed along a homemade fiddle from Sweden. No lessons accompanied the gift.
"He just said, 'Go at it,'" Berge remembered. "He was one of those stubborn Swedes. So I just started scratching away at it."
Berge was the only one of the children to take interest in the instrument, but his passion more than compensated for his siblings' indifference. (There are no fiddlers among Berge's two children, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, a fact that doesn't seem to concern Berge in the slightest.)
Berge constructed his first fiddle at 12. An old Victriola, cranking out a steady supply of violin music, was his teacher. When Berge was growing up, music taken for granted as part of the fabric of life, for better or worse.
"My mother played piano and my dad could've been a good singer," he said. "But in those days they didn't know how to handle kids. They more discouraged kids from singing than encouraged them. Nowadays they do it differently. Also, there weren't enough financial resources in those days."
Wahkon High School included a brass band, but little guidance from the teachers.
"They'd give you a horn and say, 'Go learn to play,'" Berge said.
But the fiddle remained Berge's favorite instrument. He graduated in 1934 in a class of seven, along with his future wife (who passed away in 1992), and began a career in farming and later carpentry. He has lived in the same house since 1939.
Wilson first met Berge about 10 years ago at a chance encounter at an gift shop on Mille Lacs Lake.
Berge's fiddle collection includes the instrument that Berge's grandfather constructed in the 19th century in Sweden and handed down to Berge. Berge started fiddling at age 8 and constructed his first violin four years later. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
"Our band was coming back from gig in Duluth, and we stopped in this gift shop to check it out," Wilson said. "Stanley was in there with a couple other old duffers playing some music. We got our instruments out too and just started jamming. I thought he was a classy old guy."
Berge has performed at three of the previous four Nisswa-stammans, where he's developed a following big enough to rival the population of Wahkon. Despite his Scandinavian heritage, Berge admits to a soft spot for Italian music in the baroque style.
"That's the stuff I like the best, but it's hard to find people who are interested in it. My style is more of an American style, I guess. When you teach yourself all your life, you make your own style,
Generally, playing a non-Scandinavian style at the Nisswa-stamman is the equivalent of launching into a country tune at Ozzfest, but Wilson is happy to make an exception for Berge.
"He's got a nice, light touch on the fiddle," Wilson said. "For a self-taught fiddler, he actually picked up some classical stylings a bit. I don't do those at all. But he's certainly proud of his Scandinavian heritage, and has a good repertoire of old-time tunes, too."
Among those is Berge's own "Tomte-Gubban's Reel," which he put to paper in 2001.
"That's the only one that I ever even tried to write out," he said.
Aside from a stint in Aitkin's Great River Strings Orchestra a couple years ago and the Nisswa-stammans, Berge has never played professionally, and he doesn't regret it one bit.
"You do it for your own fun," he said. "I don't want a career. It's not fun if you have to do it."
JOHN HANSEN can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5863.
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