Rural Danish America. Several ethnic groups have settled in Iowa over the years, usually establishing enclaves of people who came from the same country and settled in the same location in the state. Danish settlers were attracted to southwest Iowa because of the similarity of the geography to what they were accustomed to in Denmark. According to a tourist brochure, the largest rural Danish settlement in the United States is found in the small neighboring Iowa villages of Elk Horn (population 660) and Kimballton (population 316), roughly an hour west of Des Moines. What the towns lack in size, they make up for with a dedication to their Danish heritage. Elk Horn, in particular, has become a center of Danish history in the nation. My wife has Danish blood in her from her father’s side of the family, so we’ve been to Elk Horn several times over the years and enjoyed a taste of Denmark.
The Danish Windmill. As you drive into Elk Horn, one of the first sights you see is what looks like a Dutch windmill. It is actually a 60′ Danish windmill, built in Norre Snede, Denmark, in 1848, and transported to Elk Horn, and rebuilt in 1976. It is the only authentic working Danish windmill in America. It was purchased, dismantled, carefully marked for reassembly, shipped to Elk Horn, and rebuilt by a group of volunteers. The residents of Elk Horn raised over $100,000 to move the windmill to America. An accurate scale model of the windmill served as a guide for the rebuilding process.
Visitors, and there have been over a million of them since the mill was opened, can view a 15 minute video about the history of the windmill, then tour the windmill itself. The bottom level has some artifacts, including the scale model windmill that guided the volunteers as they reassembled the mill. Visitors can climb to the different levels to get a feel for the inner workings of a mill. Wheat or rye flour, ground at the mill, is for sale in the windmill’s gift shop. The windmill is open year round to tourists.
Danish Immigrant Museum. Referring to Danes in America, the slogan of the museum, located on the outskirts of Elk Horn, is “Your Museum in the Heart of the Continent.” Claiming Queen Margrethe II of Denmark as its protector, the museum houses the usual kinds of objects found in museums, as well as the first piano of the Danish immigrant Victor Borge, a family history and genealogy center, and, on the grounds of the museum, the tiny Morning Star Chapel. Included in the holdings of the museum are heirlooms brought from Denmark, samples of needlework, and tools used by the immigrants. The museum, with the theme, “Across Oceans, Across Time,” was founded in 1983 for the purpose of preserving the history of the Danish immigration to the United States. The first building was completed in 1994.
Tivoli Fest. An annual celebration on Memorial Day weekend is Tivoli Fest, held in Elk Horn. The meaning of the word “Tivoli” is obscure, although there is a famous amusement park,Tivoli Gardens, in Copenhagen, Denmark. In Elk Horn, Tivoli Fest is a time for the residents to celebrate their Danish heritage and to invite others to do the same. A big parade is part of the celebration. Crafts, foods (including abelskivers, the famous ball-shaped Danish pancakes), and programs give visitors the taste and feel of Denmark. Something new this year was a VikingHjem (Viking Home) as it would have appeared in 900 A.D. Activities are now underway to raise money to furnish the home as authentically as possible.
Julefest. On Thanksgiving weekend, Elk Horn and Kimballton both have Julesfest, a Christmas celebration. Visitors will find a large selection of holiday crafts, gifts, foods, and antiques. The Danish Windmill, the Danish Immigrant Museum, and other points of interest will be decorated for the holidays. Julefest is one more way for Danes to reconnect with their past and for non-Danes to better understand someone else’s culture.
For a brief but satisfying immersion in Danish history and culture, the Iowa towns of Elk Horn and Kimballton are the places to visit. You’ll find people who are eager and happy to share their history with you.
Information about the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark, can be found on Wikipedia:
Basic information about the Danish Windmill and the Danish Immigrant Museum can be found in brochures available in the gift shop of the Danish Windmill