Iowa's Danish Settlement

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on February 4, 2001

Elk Horn, Iowa, was facing the same economic doldrums of many other rural Midwest towns in the mid-1970s when residents turned to a windmill to revitalizeand rekindle spirits inthe largest rural Danish settlement in the United States.

Led by the late Danish-American farmer Harvey Sornsen, townspeople raised $30,000 to buy and dismantle a historic windmill in Norre Snede, Denmark, and bring it to Elk Horn (pop. 664), where it was reassembled in 1976 by more than 300 volunteers. Renovation of the historic wooden windmill ultimately cost $100,000.

What was neat about Harvey was that he knew our town needed something, and he knew the windmill was it, says Lisa Riggs, a second-generation Danish-American who manages the Iowa Welcome Center at the base of the windmill.

Settled heavily by immigrants from Denmark, nothing showcases Elk Horns Danish heritage better than the 60-foot windmill that towers over the western Iowa community. Built in 1848, the windmill no longer grinds wheat and ryeexcept in small quantities for visitorsbut it does attract lots of sightseers and reminds residents of their European roots.

Its made us realize that our Danish heritage is something to celebrate and show off, Riggs says.

Danes began arriving in western Iowa in 1867, two years after the first settlers, says Wava Petersen, who co-authored a 600-page history of the Elk Horn area with Norma Nelson. The first Dane, Christian Johnson, was very influential in getting others to follow, she says. He told them that the rolling hills here resembled Denmark and then he helped support many of those who came.

Among the early Danes who followed Johnson were Petersens great-great-grandparents, who lived with Johnson for awhile when they arrived, as did some other newcomers.

Danes came to America for a variety of reasons, says Petersen, but mostly because Denmark was involved in a border war with Prussia, and steamship lines and railroad companies pitched how wonderful America was. Other draws for Danish immigrants were Elk Horns school, modeled after those in Denmark, and its location midway between colleges started by Danes in Blair, Neb., and Des Moines, Iowa.

Just west of Elk Horn is the Danish Immigrant Museum, which has a research center listing the lineage of many Danes who came to America. This is the Danish national museum, says director Rick Burns. Its not about just those who live here, but all the Danes who came to America.

Housed in a large A-frame structure that shows Danish influence, the museum also operates Bedstemors Hus, a restored Victorian-era home built by a Danish immigrant.

Last summer the museum hosted Number the Stars, a play telling how 7,500 of the 8,000 Jews in Denmark were given refuge and smuggled to Sweden during World War II by their fellow Danes. When the war was over, (the Jews) returned to find their businesses still operating, their homes okay, and their gardens watered, says Burns. Its a story not many know.

The play will be performed again in July.

Reminders of Denmark are apparent throughout Elk Horn. Red and white Danish flags flutter alongside the Stars and Stripes on Main Street. Benches are painted like the Danish flag. Moredard (pork stuffed with apples and prunes) and frikaddeler (meatballs) are served with American foods at the Danish Inn, and the local grocery offers Danish meats, cheeses, and breads.

Two miles away in sister city Kimballton (pop. 289), a copy of the famous statue, The Little Mermaid, the main character of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, rests amidst a spray of water in a circular fountain.

Also, each May, residents and some of their relatives from Denmark celebrate with ethnic dancing, parades, and storytelling during Tivoli Fest and prepare for winter with similar activities at Julefest each Thanksgiving weekend.

Bringing that windmill pulled it all together for the town, Petersen says. Its a great focal point for people to start knowing what a wonderful Danish heritage we have.