Updated: Nov 13, 2021
By David John Smith
Notodden - Birthplace of the Second Industrial Revolution
The Municipality of Notodden has experienced great changes throughout its history, now internationally known for its role in the Rjukan-Notodden Industrial Heritage Site as well as the home of the beloved Notodden Blues Festival.
But, long ago and for many centuries, the area was a haven for Norsemen, known as the Vikings during their three-century period of exploration.
During that time, the strength of the region was in Heitrardalr – now Heddal, the site of the Heddal Stave Church just a few kilometres outside of Notodden.
The mercantile influence of the Vikings from Telemark cannot be underestimated, notably as a result of export of whetstones from Eidsborg in West Telemark, an important commodity found throughout Europe, as well as the iron mining on the Hardangervidda in Vinje.
Much later, the town of Kongsberg to the east was founded in 1624, just one year after silver was discovered in the region. This was the source of great riches for Denmark for centuries. Kongsberg was safe, but the mountainous terrain between Kongsberg and Notodden was wild, rugged – and rich in silver. Here the King of Denmark had little power. It was beyond his reach. This lent to a feeling of strength and independence, in the area that is now Notodden Municipality.
Then, in the late 19th century, a radical change descended upon the region, with the focus shifting from Heddal to the village of Notodden. This modern story began with Ole H. Holta, son of a farmer, who in 1899 founded the Notodden Calcium Carbide Factory, becoming the first here to harness water-power for industry.
Norsk Hydro begins
Ole Holta’s business was thriving when Sam Eyde arrived in Notodden. Beginning here, Eyde created the most iconic Norwegian company ever – Norsk Hydro – securing investments of more than all the Norwegian banks combined, wining and dining captains of industry, investors, and royalty.
In just a few years, the world’s most modern industries were employing thousands in this boom town. The region became a melting pot of people who came from all over Norway and beyond with their cultures and traditions to work for the major industries of Norsk Hydro and Tinfos Iron Works.
A Melting Pot
Jobs would now be safe for decades. It was here in Notodden that the 8-hour day was first established, giving the workers balance they had been looking for – 8 hours of work, 8 hours of free time and then 8 hours of sleep. Now for the first time, workers had time at the end of their work shifts to pursue their own interests as prosperity and creativity went hand in hand with hard work.
The traditional music of legendary musicians such as the Myllergutten fiddler (Millerboy) from the mountains of Telemark were now brought together with the music being made in the new industrial boom town. The connection with the United States and blues music was shaping the ‘Sound of Notodden’.
Silence in the Factories
For very many years the jobs were safe. All was well. Then, in 1987 the changing international business landscape caused both Norsk Hydro and Tinfos to close the factories here. The smoke disappeared, as did the jobs and money. In 1987, little was left but silence where jobs had once been.
It is a devastating blow to the town and its people. Just weeks after the shutdown, 13 young men and women met just a stone’s throw from the silent factory buildings. They shared one idea — to create a blues festival. Success followed and the festival continued to grow in size and stature through the years. More than three decades later, Notodden is known throughout the world for one of the most respected blues festivals anywhere.
Spirit of Notodden
This is the spirit of Notodden, the municipality that welcomes challenges. Today, it is the home of a campus of the University of Southeast Norway, it has clean industries within technology and processing — an entrepreneurial spirit and is the true birthplace of the story of the Rjukan-Notodden Industrial Heritage Site.
Photos 1, 2, 4, 6: Ian Brodie
Photo 3: David John Smith
Photo 6: Per Ole Hagen