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Julebyen cultural festival lets the good times troll

The annual fundraiser for the Knife River Recreation Council drew hundreds on Saturday.

Signs for Julebyen Christmas Village
A sign display with arrows pointing toward attractions at Julebyen Christmas Village in Knife River as seen Saturday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
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KNIFE RIVER — After getting a fresh group of passengers aboard, a train sounded its horn on Saturday and began to churn its way along the Lake Superior shore, toward Troll Canyon.

Along the way, passengers were regaled with facts about trolls, troll history, and so on, before a pair of “troll patrol” officers from the Knife River division of Minnesota’s Department of Troll Control, which regulates and monitors the mythic creatures, boarded to explain recent troll activity in the area.

Their timing was impeccable: a pair of trolls were lounging in a field not far from where the agents had hopped on. A gentle game of catch between the beasts grew physical, the officers suspected, because the trolls, sensing the Scandinavian connection, had been watching Minnesota Vikings football games. The train promptly reversed course back to the station, and the officers distributed bells, which are a traditional troll repellent, to the dozens of people onboard.

People waiting in line to ride a Troll Train
A line forms as people wait at the Knife River Train Depot to board a Troll Train ride Saturday during the opening day of Julebyen Christmas Village on Saturday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

On the return trip, passengers heard tales of Gunny and Tor, a pair of Knife River boys who outran and outwitted a lake troll before, naturally, living happily ever after.

The “troll train” is a big draw at the annual Julebyen — “Christmas village” — Scandinavian cultural festival organized each year by the Knife River Recreation Council. The all-volunteer festival, whose name is pronounced somewhat like “you’ll be in” in English, is in its ninth year.

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Julebyen Troll Village sign
A sign marking the Julebyen Troll Village sits on a trailer of Scenic Drive and near the Knife River Train Depot Saturday during the opening day of Julebyen Christmas Village on Saturday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Folkloric jargon aside — “officers” Mary and Bob McDonald are an accountant and doctor by day, and Gunny and Tor are the creation of local author Lise Lunge-Larsen — it’s the centerpiece fundraiser for the recreation council, which helps pay for a nearby public beach, tennis courts, and a trail named after the Huldrefolk — “hidden folk” — of northern European lore.

Beyond the train , the yearly festival also includes carolers, puppet shows, lefse-making demonstrations, accordion performances, and a “herring run” that seeks to determine which local child can run the fastest while carrying the Scandinavian staple on a spatula.

Helene Hedlund, who chairs the festival, said the multi-generational aspect of the festival makes it special.

“Not only is it multigenerational for the attendees, but also for the volunteers,” Hedlund said Saturday. “We have volunteers of kids, moms, and dads and grandparents that worked together as volunteers to put this on, and I think it makes it really special, unique and different from maybe some of the other winter festivals.”

Woman dressed as a nisse passes out candy
Dressed as a nisse, Mary von Goertz of Knife River reaches into a basket while getting ready to hand out treats to guests waiting in line to board a Troll Train at the Knife River Train Depot on Saturday during the opening day of Julebyen Christmas Village.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

The ride out to Troll Canyon and back was the first train trip for Sherri and Tom Steck, who drove up to the Duluth area from the Twin Cities. Their daughter bought them tickets for the train, which also transports festival-goers in from Duluth and back once each day, for the couple’s 41st wedding anniversary. The Stecks planned to check out the Bentleyville holiday displays in downtown Duluth later that evening.

“The best gift you can give to someone is to give to someone who can’t pay you back,” Paul von Goertz, the depot agent at the only station on the troll train’s line, told the News Tribune. “That’s, I think, what’s rewarding here. To see all these families here. Happy families, everyone in a festive atmosphere, and that’s what makes the work that we’ve done here…all worthwhile.”

North Shore Scenic Railroad locomotive
A North Shore Scenic Railroad locomotive as part of the Troll Train used for rides during Julebyen Christmas Village in Knife River as seen Saturday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
People outside of the Knife River Train Depot
People wait outside the Knife River Train Depot ahead of a Troll Train Ride Saturday during the opening day of Julebyen Christmas Village.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
Woman dressed as a nisse hands candy to kids
Dressed as a nisse, Mary von Goertz, of Knife River, second from left, hands candy to children who were waiting in line to board a Troll Train at the Knife River Train Depot on Saturday during the opening day of Julebyen Christmas Village.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
People board for a Troll Train ride
Larry Ronning, of Knife River, left, speaks with guests getting ready to board a Troll Train at the Knife River Train Depot during the opening day of Julebyen Christmas Village on Saturday. Ronning is a member of the Knife River Heritage and Cultural Center Board of Directors.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
Passengers look through the window of a railcar.
Passengers look through a window while sitting in a railcar ahead of a Troll Train ride on Saturday during the opening day of Julebyen Christmas Village in Knife River.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
Carolers singing
Carolers sing "Jingle Bells" as visitors at the Knife River Train Depot board Saturday for a Troll Train ride during the opening day of Julebyen Christmas Village.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
Railcars part of the Troll Train
The view the railcars that were part of a Troll Train ride as seen from the rear locomotive Saturday during the opening day of Julebyen Christmas Village in Knife River.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
Trolls playing catch
Two "trolls" play catch with a ball in the "Troll Canyon" area as seen during a Troll Train ride Saturday during the opening day of Julebyen Christmas Village.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
A Troll Patrol Troll Control vehicle
A Troll Patrol Troll Control vehicle parked near train tracks near Knife River as seen Saturday. The Troll Train stopped so two Troll Patrol Troll Control officers could board the train during a scheduled ride.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
Two Troll Patrol Troll Control officers
Two Troll Patrol Troll Control officers prepare to board the Troll Train near Knife River Saturday. The train had stopped during the ride so the officers could board it after they had heard about potential troll activity in the area.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
Two Troll Patrol Troll Control officers waive at train passengers
Two Troll Patrol Troll Control officers waive at passengers on the Troll Train after they exiting the train after briefly boarding it near Knife River after they had heard about potential troll activity in the area on Saturday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
Railcars part of the Troll Train
The view the railcars that were part of a Troll Train ride as seen from the rear locomotive Saturday during the opening day of Julebyen Christmas Village in Knife River.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
People leaving after a Troll Train ride in Knife River.
Passengers start getting off at the Knife River Train Depot after riding on a Troll Train Saturday during the opening day of Julebyen Christmas Village.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
1120422.N.DNT.JULEBYEN.C19.jpg
Dressed in Civil War era depot agent attire, Knife River Heritage and Cultural Center President Paul von Goertz, of Knife River, speaks during a conversation outside of the Knife River Train Depot during the opening day of Julebyen Christmas Village on Saturday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
Signs for Julebyen Christmas Village
Saturday marked the opening day of the two day Julebyen Christmas Village in Knife River.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
Santa Claus
Santa Claus was a visitor during the opening day of Julebyen Christmas Village in Knife River on Saturday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
Outdoor Market at Julebyen Christmas Village
Visitors, including Santa Claus, right, check out the Gnome Dome Outdoor Market vendors on Saturday during the opening day of Julebyen Christmas Village in Knife River.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
People waiting in line to go on a train ride
A line forms as people wait at the Knife River Train Depot to board for a Troll Train ride Saturday during the opening day of Julebyen Christmas Village.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
A fire burns in a fire ring
A fire burns inside a fire ring and illuminates inside a bear silhouette near the Knife River Train Depot on Saturday during the opening day of Julebyen Christmas Village.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
People near a fire pit
Volunteers gather around a fire ring near the Knife River Train Depot as visitors start to arrive for a Troll Train ride Saturday during the opening day of Julebyen Christmas Village.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

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Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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