Nordic Fest, 50 years strong

Photo courtesy of Vesterheim Giant Norse mythology puppets by the Puppet Project were first introduced to Decorah’s Nordic Fest in 1999. Ellen Rockne, of Decorah, was inspired to add some magic to the parade, so she and artist Matthew Alexander, also of Decorah, led a group of creative volunteers to begin the papier-mâché constructions.

Photo courtesy of Vesterheim
Giant Norse mythology puppets by the Puppet Project were first introduced to Decorah’s Nordic Fest in 1999. Ellen Rockne, of Decorah, was inspired to add some magic to the parade, so she and artist Matthew Alexander, also of Decorah, led a group of creative volunteers to begin the papier-mâché constructions.

Kari Heistad
Minneapolis, Minn.

Nordic Fest—an annual celebration of Norwegian-American culture in the small town of Decorah, Iowa—just had its 50th anniversary, July 28 through 30. In many ways, Nordic Fest is like any other fair or festival; there are food vendors, musical performances, craft making, and, of course, a parade, but it all has a distinctly Norwegian twist. Instead of funnel cake and deep-fried candy bars, attendees indulge in krumkake and “lefse to go.” While parents enjoy a demonstration on woodcarving, or perhaps a Hardanger Fiddle performance, kids in bare feet and bunads hurry to the craft area to go paint a Viking ship or make their own troll. The more you see at Nordic Fest, the more you understand that this is not an ordinary festival at all; this is something special.

How is it Nordic Fest has sustained such success year after year? A lot of it has to do with passing down tradition to younger generations. The Luren Singers, the oldest Norwegian-American male chorus in the U.S., performed at the opening ceremonies and provided a visual example of passing on the Nordic baton. A great majority of the chorus is what you might call experienced, most of them having lost the pigment in their hair many Fests ago, so 19-year-old freshmen at Luther College, James Miller and Alex Aakre, stood out among their choir mates. Miller and Aakre are Nordic Studies majors and say they decided to join the Luren Singers in order to have the chance to sing in Norwegian. “It’s an extraordinary group of mostly older men,” says Miller. He and Aakre are grateful for the opportunity to carry on the tradition of Norwegian choral music.

The Vesterheim Museum, one of Decorah’s biggest attractions, is also dedicated to keeping tradition alive. Home to numerous Norwegian art collections as well as a thriving folk art school (which also turns 50 this year) where anyone can enroll to study rosemaling or band weaving (to name just a few of their many courses), Vesterheim aims to preserve and promote Norwegian-American culture. At the Fest, the beloved museum utilizes its extensive Nordic network, inviting artists from across the country to demonstrate their crafts. This alone is worth the visit to Decorah.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun,  A contestant winds up for the Rock Throw, one of many sporting events at Decorah’s Nordic Fest and one of the three events making up the Ultimate Norseman Competition.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun,
A contestant winds up for the Rock Throw, one of many sporting events at Decorah’s Nordic Fest and one of the three events making up the Ultimate Norseman Competition.

From fine arts to athletics, Nordic Fest offers many opportunities for festers to show off their talents. This year, for instance, attendees had the chance to compete for the title of Ultimate Norseman in both the Ole (men’s) and Lena (women’s) division. Contestants participated in the Elveløpet 15k run, the rock throwing competition, and last—and certainly least appealing—the lutefisk-eating contest. Like most food-eating competitions, this was a test of speed. In each round, participants raced to finish an entire bowl of the lye-soaked fish, buttered and salted to their liking. The one rule? “It has to stay down.” A large plastic sheet was laid out for just such an event.

Contestants battled their way bowl by bowl to the final round in which local legend and defending champion Bill Goede won it once again. Nic Zahasky and Lauren Wettach, also Decorah natives, made it to the final rounds, and, combined with their performances in the Elveløpet and rock throwing competition earlier that day, both earned the title of Ultimate Norseman. Wettach, who had never tried lutefisk before that day, attributes her success to an “inner drive to be number one.” Wettach also applauded her sister Molly for winning the rock throwing competition in the Lena division. Clearly, that inner drive is a family trait.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun The current Nordic Dancers shared the street with alumni of various ages, who all seemed to be having the time of their lives despite not remembering all of the steps. It’s a testament to what these dancers mean to the town that there was scarcely room to watch despite chilly weather.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
The current Nordic Dancers shared the street with alumni of various ages, who all seemed to be having the time of their lives despite not remembering all of the steps. It’s a testament to what these dancers mean to the town that there was scarcely room to watch despite chilly weather.

The success of locals is not all that surprising. In some ways, Nordic Fest is a celebration of Decorah as much as Norwegian America as a whole. This was evident on the final night of the fest, when the pride of the town—the Nordic Dancers—invited its alumni to join in on the performance. Members of the Nordic Dancers start in third grade and perform with the same group of dancers through high school. It is an honor to be selected and extremely competitive, especially because auditions are only held certain years—many Decorah residents still regret not being born in “the right year,” missing their chance to tryout. Watching the alumni from the most recent graduates to the very first troupe, having a blast as they tried to remember the steps they once knew so well, it was clear how special it is to be a part of the Nordic Dancers.

The event that truly captured the spirit of Nordic Fest, however, was the folk dancing led by the Foot-Notes, where everyone is welcome to join. And everyone does! From four-year-olds to 84-year-olds, the whole town of Decorah seems to know the steps to the traditional folk dances. One Decorah local described the phenomenon as “osmosis.” Growing up in Decorah, you learn the Schottische by simply following along. The Foot-Notes have been leading dances at Nordic Fest for 25 years now, and last year over 1,880 people joined in.

Nordic Fest is a tradition made strong by people coming together, and after 50 years, it is stronger than ever.

Kari Heistad is a recent graduate from St. Olaf College, a small Norwegian liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota. Kari loves writing, coffee, theatre, and folk tales, and hopes to one day live in a house made of kransekake.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 12, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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