Norwegian heritage alive in Iowa
An excursion to Decorah’s Nordic Fest
Donald V. Mehus
For many people, the popular image of Iowa is that of the quintessential Midwest farming state, perhaps even that of the quintessential American state. A region of rich farmlands where the tall corn grows and well-fed livestock thrive, it is the natural setting for the great annual state fair, immortalized in a charming movie and book of the same name.
With its vast displays of both farm and homemade products, with all kinds of festive entertainments, this celebrated event is often regarded as the prototype of other such fairs. The popular image of Iowa is, not least of all, that of a state with many small towns scattered from border to border, of good healthful living, of friendly, hard-working people. As an added note, the entire state is graced by being bordered north to south by two of the country’s mightiest rivers: the Missouri along the west side, the Mississippi along the east. No other state can boast of such a pleasant distinction!
The Norwegian Heritage Shines in the Decorah Area
Awhile back I had the pleasure of once again visiting Iowa, primarily in the Decorah area lying in the northeastern part if the state. The popular image of the state—certainly judging at least by this favored section—easily matches up in many respects to the reality. Just think of the high-spirited fun in the classic, Iowa-based movie starring Doris Day, the effervescent Pajama Game, and the idea is confirmed again. Moreover, the Decorah area and Winneshiek County, of which the city of c. 8,000 people is the county sea, form a locality in which the Norwegian-American heritage is long and rich and deep—and still very much a part of many people’s lives.
The Norwegian settlers who first began to arrive in the Decorah area in the mid-19th century found the area much to their liking. The region could offer rich, rolling farmlands reminiscent of their homeland (much of the rest of Iowa is much flatter), and an abundance of streams and woods inhabited by a range of fish, fowl, and game. Moreover, the state has a temperate climate (though with summer and winter extremes) and a most congenial ambiance.
And so the Norsemen came to Winneshiek County in considerable numbers. They established their towns and farms, raised their families, built their churches, and launched institutions that were to have more than local distinction. Here in Decorah one finds such highly regarded Norwegian-American institutions as Luther College, a thriving liberal arts college increasingly more cosmopolitan in scope. (As a personal family note, my cousin Walter Langland met his future wife, Adeline Lovstuen, there at Luther.)
Vesterheim and the Nordic Fest
Here too in Decorah is Vesterheim, which with its big Norwegian-American collection and many-sided programs, is considered one of the finest ethnic museums in the United States. And the annual, large-scale Nordic Fest is regularly held the last full weekend in July—this year it’s July 23-25. This is the Fest’s 49th consecutive year and counting.
For further information on the Nordic Fest, you may check the internet or with either of these two offices: Nordic Fest at (800) 382-3378 or Decorah Tourism at (800) 463-4692. The main focus of this multi-faceted, fun-filled event, its name notwithstanding, is devoted in great part to the Norwegian-American heritage.
A Cornucopia of Riches
If you can attend only one day, you are well advised to be there for the grand finale of the festival, Saturday the 25th. In mid-morning comes the big, colorful Nordic parade, with Norwegian along with American flags waving proudly, proceeding along the main thoroughfare of downtown Decorah, Water Street. Most attractions of the three days, in fact, are focused right in midtown of Decorah.
Then for the rest of the day (as in all three days), you can partake in a cornucopia of all kinds of attractions—varied exhibitions of subjects Norwegian, demonstrations of arts and crafts, a range of Norwegian food from which to choose, contests and games including foot and canoe races, church repasts, and much more. And we must not forget that various kinds of Norwegian merchandise are available in the shops. You will soon find that you want to take in as much as possible, but unfortunately one’s stamina is such that only just so much can be managed.
The Grand Finale
The day—and the Nordic Fest itself—comes to a climax with evening fireworks lighting up the summer skies. All in all, through the days you’ll feel that you are right back in the old country. You just wonder how many—or even what other—comparable Nordic Fests might be offered elsewhere in the country. Certainly not many with the genial Norse ambiance of small town Decorah with a population of less than ten thousand people.
The whole Nordic Fest is really lots and lots of fun, with a wide range of treats and activities for everyone, from the toddler on up to the oldest of grandparents. So do go and take advantage of this once-in-a-year Decorah Nordic Fest at the height of the summer in the heart of the country’s Norwegian-American world!
We will have more to say about our rich Nordic heritage still going strong today—and most pleasantly so—in this area of the country’s northern midwest in coming issues of Norwegian American Weekly. Stay tuned!
This article originally appeared in the July 10, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.