A Day Filled With Danish & German Heritage In Iowa
31 Jul 2008
|From On-U-Wa RV Park – Onawa, Iowa
Was just too tired last night to write an entry. We have been seeing a lot since we arrived here 10 days ago and when we got in yesterday, just ate a quick bite for supper and kicked back for the evening.
The route that took us to Elk Horn, Manning and back to Onawa was our longest driving day since we arrived in Iowa; a little over 200 miles round trip. However it was a very scenic drive letting us see more of the farmland and small towns in this western edge of the state. Again, the comment heard most throughout the day was “corn and soy beans as far as you can see”. Behind those tall corn fields, at times only the roof tops of farmhouses could be seen. A real Norman Rockwell country landscape.
Recognized today as the largest rural Danish settlement in the United States, our first stop was Elk Horn. The first Danish settler arrived in 1868 and encouraged family and friends to join him in this community named for the elk antlers found scattered on the prairie.
Today, the community tells the history of its Danish heritage with the Norre Snede windmill which once ground grain in Denmark and now sits as a landmark in the community. There is also more of their proud heritage revealed in exhibits housed in the Danish Immigrant Museum.
It was in 1975 that Harvey Somson, a rural Elk Horn farmer visited his ancestral homeland of Denmark. With fondness for the old windmills, he noticed they were quickly disappearing from the landscape and thus began his “dream” of having an authentic Danish windmill brought to Iowa and the town of 750 people. On his return the dream turned to reality when $100,000 was raised and over 300 volunteers located, purchased, moved and rebuilt the authentic 1848 Danish windmill.
The windmill is 60-foot in height and we were allowed inside to see the grinding stones and climb to the top. Today, there was not enough wind to turn the wings but we were still able to see the 80 cross shutters on each wing up close as we walked around the outside of the windmill.
Who would have guessed that a little Danish speaking boy who grew up among the Iowa cornfields would one day become the official miller of a real Danish windmill just a few miles from his family farm. Goes to show if you can dream it, it can come true.
In the early 1980s, the National Committee for The Danish Immigrant Museum was seeking a site for the museum they received over 300 letters of invitation for the Elk Horn-Kimballton area. They came to the area and were greeted by the Governor of Iowa and 500 supporters and with the windmill standing as a symbol of the town’s Danish heritage and an example of how its people worked together, the area was selected as the home for the museum in 1983.
The Elk Horn Lutheran Church donated 20 acres of land for the building, a Board of Directors was formed and they wrote the purpose which guides the museum’s development in the future. The purpose of the museum is to collect, preserve, study, and interpret the artifacts and traditions of the Danes in North America.
Phase I was constructed in 1994 and the architecture of the building reflects a Danish farm building interpreted in a modern style. The present exhibit called “Across Oceans, Across Time” allows visitors to see themselves as immigrants and experience the journey coming to America and becoming Americans.
Surrounding the 23,000 sq ft museum are lush rolling hills reminiscent of some of the areas in Denmark from which early settlers emigrated. The museum has 3 floors of exhibits and located on the grounds is the Morning Star Chapel and the Jens Dixen Homesteader’s Cabin.
In the museum is the late 1920s piano of Victor Borge. He kept the piano with him until WW II when he left his homeland of Denmark. It was in storage until 1960 when he moved it to his estate north of Copenhagen then for 25 years it was in his winter home in the Caribbean until the home was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo. After having it restored he donated it to the museum.
Another artifact is the beautiful and intricate hand-carved alter, lectern and chairs carved out of oak in 1936 by Jess Smidt, a Danish immigrant after the age of 80. The pieces were part of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota until 1968. In 1994 the pieces were moved from a Norwegian museum that had accepted them for safekeeping until a Danish museum could one day be established.
The Morning Star Chapel was built in 1951 by Charles Johann Walensky, then 83 years old. He had helped build many ch