Nordic heritage in the Driftless Region

If Norway is out of reach, explore the Norwegian influences in southwestern Wisconsin

Photo: Kathy Anderson
The “Driftless” area, a blob encompassing parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinios, is so called because of a quirk of geography. While the rest of the Midwest was relentlessly covered and uncovered by glaciers, this blob remained untouched for the past 500 millennia or so. What that means is that erosion has gone unchecked for that entire time, so unlike the flat areas all around, the many rivers and tributaries in this area have cut deep channels through relatively high hills, leading to gorgeous and varied terrain like that seen in Norskedalen.

Kathy Anderson
Westby, Wis.

If you only have a long weekend or a short week for a vacation this summer, it might be difficult to get away to Norway, but you could take a trip to the Driftless Region of southwestern Wisconsin. Only three hours from Minneapolis and two hours from Madison, you will have plenty to do for four or five days in Vernon County.

From 1848 until the early 1900s, many Norwegians came to this area because of its beauty and resemblance to their familiar Norwegian geography. It is a wonderful vacation spot of creeks in deep valleys surrounded by high bluffs. With excellent trout fishing streams; Amish rugs, candies, and baked goods for sale; an international ski jumping scaffold overlooking a par-three nine-hole golf course; and the most crooked river in the U.S. to canoe, just relaxing and taking it easy is a great getaway. But for readers of The Norwegian American, there are several other reasons to visit this part of the U.S.

The first Norwegian settler to this area, Evan Gullord, arrived from Biri in Oppland by way of Koshkonong, Wis., in 1848. Church services were held in his barn before the Coon Prairie Lutheran Church was incorporated in 1854. Coon Prairie was the first Norwegian church built in western Wisconsin, near the small town of Westby. Two church buildings have burned on this site before the present Country Coon Prairie Church, listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1909. Services are held here every Saturday evening during the summer months and other special events are also scheduled. The historic Norwegian church is also the birthplace of Luther College. The cemetery at the church is filled with more than 4,000 Norwegian immigrants and their descendants. Who knows, you might find a relative of your own in this remarkable cemetery.

Photo: Kathy Anderson

Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center is just 10 miles from the Coon Prairie Church, in Coon Valley. According to De Norske Settlementers Historie by Hjalmar Rued Holand (1908), “Coon Valley is a remarkable place where Norwegian customs, both good and bad, have remained unchanged longer than any other place among Norwegians in America.” A large collection of artifacts; a Norwegian immigrant farmstead outdoor museum; nine miles of hiking trails through the arboretum, woods, and meadows; and nearby ponds, waterfalls, and streams will give you an idea of what the immigrants saw 150 years ago when they settled this area.

Norskedalen was founded in 1977 when Dr. and Mrs. Alf Gundersen donated their 112-acre farm to the University of Wisconsin—La Crosse for use as an outdoor classroom. In 1978, another 160 acres were purchased followed by an additional 80 acres. In 1982, the Thrune Visitor’s Center, with classrooms, museum display space, and a gift shop, was built. Early local Norwegian immigrant farm buildings were also imported to the property homestead as an outdoor museum. The history of Norwegian immigration, the start of dairy farming, and tobacco as a cash crop are all part of the information you will learn on the tour. On Wednesday evenings from June 21 through August 9, Music in the Valley is free to the public. You can enjoy local entertainment and Scandinavian kubb games, with meals provided by local civic organizations for purchase.

Another 44-acre property, Norskedalen’s Thrunegaarden, is located three miles northwest of the homestead. There is a rich history at this site of the friendships of the Native Americans and the Norwegian immigrants. The Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center has found many artifacts on the property during their research of Native American tribes in the area. The Nils Skums­rud cabin, named to the National Register of Historic Sites in 1990, was built in 1853 and is the oldest known home in Vernon County. By appointment, tours will be available. Visiting the two Norskedalen properties can take a whole day if you plan enough time for hiking the beautiful trails and arboretum. Be sure to bring a picnic lunch.

Photo: Kathy Anderson
Strikingly, a number of Norwegian settlements, including Decorah, Iowa, and a slice of Minnesota that reaches almost to St. Paul, lie within this special part of the Midwest. Our ancestors knew how to pick their real estate!

Directly across the road from Norskedalen’s Thrunegaarden is the site of the United States Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp where techniques were developed to end soil erosion through better farming practices. Deep furrows on steep hills and overgrazing was making farming for these Norwegian immigrants nearly impossible. Aldo Leopold, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, led the effort to restore “land health” to improve the soil, water, plants, and animals of the area.

While in Coon Valley and Westby, you will need to find some of the many people who were born in the U.S. and still speak Norwegian because they learned the language from immigrant relatives who arrived in the United States before 1920. Almost every year since 2010, a team arrives from the University of Oslo to study and record the Gudbrandsdal grammar, cadence, and dialect of the language spoken in our immigrant community. It is more unique, as described by Professor Janne Bondi Johannessen, than any of the other areas they study in the U.S. because the people in this community remain proud of their Norwegian heritage and have maintained the language more consistently than most communities. The language is less changed from how the original immigrants spoke. Let the Norskedalen staff know that you are interested in meeting some of these folks so it can be arranged when you visit.

Vernon County has local wineries, farm-to-table restaurants, organic farms, local history museums, some of the best fly-fishing streams, bike routes through beautiful scenery, and friendly people. Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and school at Taliesin is only an hour away, and the great Mississippi River is even closer. Many small cottages and B&Bs are available for rental in the area. Come visit “God’s country” for the great get-away you deserve.

You can get more information by emailing westbywihistory@gmail.com or contacting Norskedalen at info@norskedalen.org or (608) 452-3424.

This article originally appeared in the July 14, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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