Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect contact information for the Museum of Danish America. This version has been corrected.
The Elk Horn phone book is filled with Andersens, Christensens, Petersens, Eskovs, Clausens, Sorensens, Madsens, Mortensens and Jacobsens. There’s only one Jones.
“I’m 100 percent Danish,” a resident told me as I passed her house on the Museum of Danish America’s trail in southwest Iowa. “I’m a Hansen and I married a Jensen.”
The Hansen-Jensen home overlooks an Iowan scene spilled from Grant Wood’s paintbrush: prairie grass, corn fields, infinite blue sky. But it also sits in the middle of the Danish heartland, where about half the town’s population of 650 claims Danish descent.
The “Danish Villages” of Elk Horn and Kimballton, three miles north, represent the largest rural Danish settlements in the United States. Lille (“Little”) Denmark draws visitors with ancestral connections (investigate your Viking roots at Elk Horn’s Family History and Genealogy Center), Legophiles (erect a plastic metropolis at the museum), Hans Christian Andersen bedtime readers (visit the Little Mermaid statue and her literary pals in Kimballton’s sculpture garden) and just-off-the-plane Danes. The TV documentary “Denmark on the Prairie,” which aired in Denmark last year, stirred interest abroad.
“Visitors from Denmark told me, ‘You’re doing more in Elk Horn to keep your Danish heritage than we do in Denmark,’ ” said mayor Stan Jens, whose great-great-grandfather emigrated from the Scandinavian country.
Elk Horn’s Danish pride is prominent. On the road into town, a giant sign reads, “Velkommen to Elk Horn.” Danish flags flap along the main street, and paintings of the red-swatch-and-white-cross motif cover benches outside storefronts. A 60-foot-tall windmill causes a brief sun eclipse with its 66-foot-long sails. And, no, the Dutch have not invaded Elk Horn. Danes also use windmills, to grind grain. One can only hope that the refined ingredient ends up as a kringle or a dansk lagkage, a Danish layer cake.
The town is pickled in immigrant tales, from its first settler (Christian Jensen, 1868) to its most famous transplant (Norre Snede windmill, 1974). The Museum of Danish America (2212 Washington St., 712-764-7001, www.dkmuseum.org) dedicates substantial wall, floor and drawer space to the country and its immigrants. A 2000 Census map, for example, shows the Danish spread in the United States, with California garnering the largest number of Danish Americans (207,030), the District the smallest (1,047) and Iowa in the middle with 66,954. The Hawkeye State’s rolling hills (I swear, not all of Iowa is flat) and available farmland appealed to the new arrivals. By the mid-1800s, Elk Horn had established the country’s first Danish folk school, published a Danish-language newspaper and built a Lutheran church. Just like home — except for one (sea-ho!) difference. “There’s no ocean here,” Brandt said. “But when the wind blows through the prairie grasses, it looks like waves.”
To capture the Atlantic on Midwestern land, the museum created the Jens Jensen Prairie Landscape Park, which pays tribute to the Danish American landscape architect and colleague of that other prairie-style guy, Frank Lloyd Wright. The Friend’s Trail ribbons through the park, passing the Jens Dixen House, a homesteader’s cabin from the early 1900s, and leads to the doorstep of the Bedstemor’s House, built by Jens Otto Christiansen in 1908.
On my walk, I followed the trail into town, then hooked a right to the Danish Inn (4116 Main St., 712-764-4251, www.danishinnrestaurant.com) and the Danish windmill (4038 Main St., 712-764-7472, www.danishwindmill.com). The restaurant serves Danish specialties, many of which are brown, meaty and unpronounceable (flaeskesteg, rullepolse, skinke) and appear on the all-you-can-eat buffet. At dinner, I missed by minutes a sighting of an authentic Danish couple, who told owner Verne Kline that “the frikadeller is exactly like they have in Denmark.” My friend Clint, who grew up in a nearby town, has no Danish blood but plenty of Iowan soul. He ate two servings of the veal-and-pork meatballs and washed them down with a Bud Light.
Next door to the restaurant is the 166-year-old windmill, a combination museum, gift shop (featuring such imports as Queen Dagmar crosses, Royal Copenhagen dishes and Lakrids licorice) and adventure climb. According to a small exhibit, the windmill owes its second chance to Harvey Sornson, an Elk Horn farmer who, on a trip abroad, felt a pang of sadness for the noble structures decaying in the countryside. In the 1970s, he found a windmill whose owners were willing to sell (going rate: $11,000) and returned home to rally the townspeople to adopt it. They gave him their full support, raising $100,000 and enlisting more than 300 volunteers to help reconstruct the only authentic working Danish windmill in the country.
After a short video and debriefing, a museum employee set us free to climb the narrow wooden ladders and explore the machinery on multiple levels. From the wraparound balcony, I had a drone’s-eye view of the grounds: the Viking hut (VikingHjem), where helmet-horned reenactors shack up; the Little Chapel, a four-seat Lutheran church; a bronze bust of Hans Christian Andersen; and the mayor riding up on his Harley.
Back on solid footing, I asked Jens what he hoped visitors would gain from the Danish villages. For folks with Danish backgrounds, he said, “I hope they feel stronger about their culture and are inspired.” And for non-Danes?
“Hopefully, they’ll get a little taste of Denmark,” he answered. “And hey, we can always adopt them and turn them a little Danish.”
And so with the mayor’s blessing, I now felt qualified to buy a “Kiss Me I’m Danish” souvenir. Though I’m not Danish, I’ve been to Elk Horn and earned my kiss.
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