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Viking Saga Sets Sail in Utah Town

The mayor's colorful yarns about a Norse kingdom were meant to drum up business for a festival. But some artifact-hungry residents didn't get the joke.

August 31, 2003|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

CEDAR CITY, Utah — Each year when summer ends and the tourists leave, the economy plummets in this little town nestled among the crimson cliffs and twisted juniper of southwest Utah.

That gave Mayor Gerald Sherratt an idea. He decided to boost off-season revenue with a festival of feasts, shows and pageantry based upon its Viking heritage.

And he didn't let the lack of that heritage stand in the way.

With a liberal blend of fact and fantasy, Sherratt wrote a series of articles -- some under the byline "Gretchen Vanderhooven" -- for the local newspaper reporting incredible finds of Viking swords, tools, anvils and papers documenting a secret Norse kingdom standing on what is now Cedar City.

Warming to his subject, Sherratt, 71, grew ever more detailed in his coverage, sometimes publishing photographs of Viking artifacts supposedly found in local caves that he in fact photocopied from Norwegian tour books.

Soon he had created an entire history of the imaginary Kingdom of Himmelsk, written in serious reportorial tones and sprinkled with bogus quotes from historians, analysts and anthropologists to lend an air of legitimacy.

Atop each installment, the words "paid advertisement" appeared in small type -- though apparently too small for some.

"It was so absurd," said Sherratt, who took out the ads himself. "We have no Norwegian blood in this town. Who would believe it?"

One resident marched into City Hall and said the cave where the artifacts were found was on his land. "He said they belonged to him," recalled the mayor, stifling a chuckle. "Another man said he owned the mold used to make the swords."

And there were reports of a Viking ship submerged in a nearby lake.

Sensing trouble, Sherratt quickly concocted a story with a Washington dateline saying the Smithsonian Institution was taking control of the artifacts based on the fabricated "Antiquities Act of 1803," which he claimed automatically awarded items of "historical importance more than 500 years old" to the government.

People called in, terrified that they'd never get the stuff back.

When the mayor confessed to the prank, they weren't amused.

"You can't let them go too far; they get embarrassed and then they get mad," said the bespectacled Sherratt, wearing a crisp black suit and suspenders. "Some don't believe us when we say it's a hoax, and they think there is some government coverup going on. It boggles the mind."

He refuses to identify those fooled by the ruse "to save them from embarrassment."

The mayor, an avid writer with a self-published satire gathering dust in his garage, began penning the articles last year and will resume work next week to gin up excitement for the first Festival Royale of Himmelsk, a sort of Norse Mardi Gras planned for April 14-17. Himmelsk, incidentally, is Norwegian for "heavenly."

"The whole object of this is money," Sherratt said. "Motels and restaurants have a tough time here during the off-season, so we are trying to come up with a festival each month to keep things going."

The rural community of 22,000, not far from Zion National Park, has dubbed itself Festival Town USA. It already has a yearly rodeo, powwow, Renaissance fair, July Jamboree Street Festival and nationally known Shakespeare festival, which ended last week.

A conservative, largely Mormon town, Cedar City is a somewhat eccentric place.

The 88-foot-high lighthouse just off the highway and 400 miles from the ocean may be the first indication of this.

The lighthouse, owned by a local developer, was built to draw attention to his company. Sherratt quickly appropriated it for his articles, claiming that it was the last remnant of Himmelsk.

"We loved that," said Brent Drew, vice president for business development at Quantum Construction, which owns the building. "We think this is the tallest inland lighthouse in the United States, and we know it's the tallest lighthouse in the desert."

On the downtown campus of Southern Utah University, there is a near-perfect replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theater, where actors mill about in frilly Elizabethan costumes and speak in clipped English accents.

The college is the site of the Utah Shakespearean Festival, which draws 150,000 people annually and won a Tony Award in 2000 for excellence in regional theater.

"We bring in 56 million tourist dollars a year," said Fred Adams, who started the festival in 1962. "We essentially give Cedar City a second Christmas."

Sherratt, who was the university's president for 16 years before retiring, wants to give it a third.

"I honestly think the Festival Royale could be huge," he said, leaning forward in his chair. "There is nothing like it. People are hungry for this kind of stuff."

He has set up what he calls a "committee of weirdos" to develop feasts, museums, parades and comedy shows. Sherratt also pieced together a 13-page history of the Norse years.

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