Solvang, a little piece of Scandinavia in California
Welcome to “Little Denmark” in the Santa Ynez Valley
CYNTHIA ELYCE RUBIN
The Norwegian American
When it came to celebrating my birthday this year, I wanted to again spend time with my nephew Andrew who has the same Nov. 7th birthday. The pandemic had kept us apart. Andrew had moved to Los Angeles from Boston, and I decided to join him on the West Coast. As this newspaper’s travel editor always looking for a Scandinavian topic to write about, I searched for a topic or Scandinavian destination nearby. And I discovered Solvang. Meanwhile, I was thrilled that our intrepid traveling editor-in-chief decided to join us. Although I have worked with her for years, we had never met in person.
Located just 35 miles from the beaches of Santa Barbara and an easy 125 miles up the coast in the mountains from Los Angeles. Solvang, meaning “sunny field,” is a Danish-American village, the largest of the Santa Ynez Valley towns. Today, it’s a thriving tourist attraction known for its old-world charm of half-timber buildings and windmills and lively food, wine, and shopping scene, even though it was founded as a home for a traditional Danish folk school.
Called the “Danish Capital of America,” the town was originally established in 1911 when three Danish-Americans—Pastor Benedict Nordentoft, Pastor Jens Møller Gregersen and Professor Peder Pederson Hornsyld—traveled from the Midwest to establish a western colony. These Danes were part of the great immigration wave of the 19th century who had met at a Danish Lutheran Seminary in Des Moines, Iowa. They volunteered to lay the groundwork for a new Danish-American colony and made several trips to Oregon and California.
After forming the Danish American Colony Corp., in 1911 they bought 8,882 acres of land in the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley from the Santa Barbara Land and Water Co. for $338,000, which they agreed to pay over time. Thus, Solvang was founded, a place that offered the Danes and Danish-Americans a wish come true where they could participate in the American dream with a mutual support system and, at the same time, preserve the culture and traditions of Denmark.Living was difficult for the early residents. There were few businesses and services, no electricity or indoor plumbing, limited water and few neighbors, but the mild climate was a big plus and a constant draw. By the end of 1911, 80 adults called Solvang home.
Despite a healthy beginning, stock in the DAC Corp. did not continue to sell well, and monies coming in were not enough to cover the next financial installment. Consequently, all unsold stock had to be returned, nearly two thirds of the original parcel.
But the hardy pioneers didn’t give up. They appointed one of the founders, Pastor Gregersen, admired for his business ability, to take over Solvang’s finances. He had the charisma to make successful personal appeals to investors so they believed. He took on the job, and his reputation proved true. He did everything in his power to persuade people to invest. And, lo and behold, within two months, he had received enough money from 25 Danish investors to buy back 5,828.22 acres of the original parcel. Plus, he made the final payment to the Santa Barbara Land and Water Co. As a result, the DAC Corp. could dissolve debt-free with almost all the land now back in Danish hands.
In The Spirit of Solvang (2020), Ann Dittmer, independent researcher, and Esther Jacobsen Bates, executive director of Elverhøj Museum of History and Art, describe the Danish folk school, the unique cultural institution borrowed from Denmark. It “fostered cooperation and community bonds and served as a center of learning for life, where Danish history, arts, and culture were supported. The curriculum . . . encouraged intellectual pursuits, innovation, and imagination through lectures and discussion between teachers and adult students.” There was little book-learning and no memorization. Teaching was mainly independent intellectual exploration with lessons on Danish heritage, including literature, history, and singing and dancing, as well as gymnastics and theater. From November to April, faculty and students lived, ate, and studied together.
It was like summer camp, a convivial atmosphere in which open-minded dialogue thrived. All went well until the fiscal crisis. Soon a new school opened. In 1914, Solvang co-founder Pastor Nordentoft founded Atterdag, the name based on a Nordentoft saying, “Tomorrow there is a new day.”
And the town without fanfare moved on. When World War II ended, as Dittmer and Bates tell the story: “For once-quiet Solvang, a door had been opened. Servicemen who had been stationed at Camp Cooke (today’s Vandenberg Air Force Base) remembered the rolling hills and pastoral charm of the Santa Ynez Valley and sought to return.”
Meanwhile, people from Santa Barbara started coming to buy bakery goods, meats, and Danish specialties. Residents of Los Angeles followed, a result of word-of-mouth advertising. Then, in the Jan. 18, 1947, issue of the very popular Saturday Evening Post, the dam broke with the article, “Little Denmark” by Dean Jennings. The subtitle enticed readers: “The rullepølse and risengrød were never finer in Copenhagen than they are in Solvang, a spotless Danish village that blooms like a rose in California’s charming Santa Ynez Valley.” Who could resist?
Soon, with the great tourist push came an interest in increasing emphasis on Danish architectural facades and food specialties. Before Jennings’ article, the “Danish culture of the town had been expressed inwardly, but it hadn’t been expressed outwardly,” Bates told one reporter from the Santa Ynez Valley News in 2017. People wanted to experience something different, something unusual, something they could talk about back home. Solvang would cement its economic future by transforming itself into a memorable tourist destination, looking like a “real” Danish village, windmills and all!
And so here we came. I confess the three of us spent one day, and we didn’t see it all. Our first visit was to the Danish Mill Bakery, where owner Rene Gross Kærskov and baker Henrik Gram sat down with us over coffee and pastries. We learned how Gram, born in Denmark into a bakery family, not only grew up in a bakery but has spent his life working and consulting with bakeries both in Denmark and America. In 2008, he arrived in Los Angeles to work in a bakery and then found himself in Solvang. “You have to work with your heart, you need to have patience,” he said. And he has trained six bakers to produce some 30 different Danish pastries. He does not want to be different from a bakery in Denmark. He returns often and spends time visiting bakeries there to see what is popular. He uses only fresh eggs, real milk, and the best chocolate you can find. Kærskov believes the bakery is an important part of maintaining the identity of the town. “There is the feeling, the history, the love.The town looks like it was built during the time of Hans Christian Andersen,” he said. Then he laughed, “If it looked like Fredrikshavn where I come from, no one would come.”“What’s the best?” Lori Ann asked. “Everything!” The Mill Bakery sells not only pastries; it is always introducing new items, for example treats for dogs, make-at-home Viking bread, a local invention of a gluten-free bread made with only seeds, and the innovation of the Dan-nut, half donut, half Danish pastry.
Then on to Elverhøj (meaning elves on a hill) Museum, a community museum whose mission is to collect, preserve and exhibit the history and Danish culture of Solvang while also promoting the arts. Enter the handcrafted structure with the pull of an antique latchstring. Here you are greeted with a tour guide who gives the history of the house and Solvang. Changing art exhibitions appear in the Brandt-Erichsen Gallery.
The small building was previously owned by Viggo and Martha Brandt-Erichsen and is an 18th-century-style former home with authentic Danish architecture, ornamental ironwork, wood carvings, and painted panels. Everyone who enters is given a guided tour. This should be the first stop for anyone visiting Solvang because the history of the town is a good orientation. The executive director was our guide. She wanted to make sure that we understood the town is an interesting case study on how a transplanted culture survives and evolves on foreign soil. It’s important for everyone to understand that Solvang has historical Danish roots and descendants of the original pioneer families still live there and celebrate their heritage. The stork is a symbol of Solvang, and you see representations of them on many roofs. Some double function as lightning rods, but what is important is that they are a symbol of prosperity and rebirth.
On a guided walking tour, you can learn more about the town and its buildings. Proud of her heritage, Kirsten Klitgaard from the museum staff was our guide. Her father runs the town’s visitor’s bureau. Ask him a question; he probably knows the answer to all, but you might have to interrupt his accordion performance. We were very hungry and Kirsten led us to the restaurant Bit O’Denmark, one of the older Solvang buildings that used to be a women’s dormitory. It is a good location for authentic food experiences. I can vouch for that. My open-face sandwich was as good as any I have eaten in Denmark.
The town gives a giant nod to Hans Christian Andersen with its Hans Christian Andersen Museum above The Book Loft bookstore. Born in 1805 in Odense, Denmark, his first fairy tale collection was published in 1835 and his third collection was published in 1837. He died in 1875. Andersen never visited Solvang or America, but his fairy tales have been translated into 125 different languages and are loved by children and adults alike. This is a personal collection and certainly gives value to the pursuit of collecting with its first editions, foreign publications, and memorabilia.
For a fun ride, try the horse-drawn Solvang trolley. It’s worth stopping at The Copenhagen House, which represents modern Denmark with the best of modern Danish design, including Georg Jensen, the wooden animals and birds by Kay Bojesen, Lego, and the largest collection of the fun and wacky Hoptimists in the United States.The Landsby Hotel is Solvang’s new luxury boutique hotel. The outside architecture blends in with traditional Solvang, but the interior is pure Danish modern with sleek lines and lots of wood. Mad & Vin (meaning Food & Wine) has an international cuisine on the menu. It’s California farm-to-table freshness, and I attest to its deliciousness! The fish menu is a nod to Denmark. The salmon special was delicious and as the name of the restaurant hints, there is an excellent wine list featuring many wines from the surrounding Santa Ynez wine country.
Speaking of wines, wine-tasting is very popular in Solvang. We saw many small establishments where you could try different wines from many local vineyards in the vicinity. All in all, there are around 150 shops with many souvenir shops. There are five bakeries; all have different products to choose from. And, of course, there is great variety in restaurants and snack bars. You won’t see franchises. I only noticed Subway. Look for the trade signs like the golden pretzels hanging in front of buildings, a holdover from the Middle Ages when simple tools, coats of arms and crests appeared at the doors of shops and inns, giving a name to an establishment for people who could not read.
Solvang is a great weekend destination. As Lori Ann says, the town “can be done” in one or two days. We recommend a visit during one of the festivals. Julefest goes on for the entire month of December, when the whole town is decorated for Christmas. Enjoy going on a hunt for a hidden nisse, concerts, and more. Be prepared to fall in love with “The most Christmassy town in the USA.”
Yes, Solvang is certainly a unique town, but for me, in the end, what stands out the most are the people you meet along the way.
Top 10 SEE AND DO
- Stroll the village to spot Danish icons including the Little Mermaid Fountain, five windmills, the giant red clog, and Round Tower
- Try tasty Danish pastries and æbleskiver (at five authentic bakeries)
- Browse through 150 boutique shops for unique treasures
- Sample wine and beer at 20 downtown tasting rooms (125+ area vineyards)
- Discover Danish and American culture at local museums: Elverhøj Museum of History & Art, The Wildling, Hans Christian Andersen, Vintage Motorcycle, Old Mission Santa Inés, plus Amber Museum and the Great Hall of the Danes
- Enjoy international and wine-country cuisine at more than 35 restaurants within easy walking distance of 18 hotels
- Visit historic churches: Old Mission Santa Inés and Bethania Lutheran
- Get outside: ride a horse, take a tour by trolley or Segway; cycle country roads like the pros; hike and play a round of golf (four nearby courses)
- Take in a performance under the stars at Solvang Festival Theater (June–September)
- Enjoy annual events including Taste of Solvang (March), Danish Days (September), and Julefest (December)
This article originally appeared in the December 2, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.