The Museum of Danish America
On the road in Scandinavian America
The Museum of Danish America
Elk Horn, Iowa
About halfway between Omaha, Neb., and Des Moines, Iowa, just 6 miles north of the transcontinental freeway of Interstate 80, lies a Danish-American community known as the “Danish Villages.”
Although these villages of Elk Horn and Kimballton, Iowa, have a joint population of just over 900 residents, they hold the historic distinction of being the largest rural settlement of Danes in the United States. That immigrant population is a significant reason why the nation’s museum for Danish-American experience opened its doors there in 1994, on the western edge of Elk Horn, atop 30 acres of donated land.
Between 1820 and 1990, more than 375,000 Danes came to the United States with hopes for a better future, freedom from oppression, or simply excited by the prospect of opportunity and adventure.
Most Danish immigrants came from agricultural backgrounds. In the 1880s, they settled the Midwest in large numbers, drawn there because the prairies and the plains had great agricultural potential, and the government and railroads offered large tracts of land for sale.
A museum is born
In 1979, two professors from the now-defunct Dana College in Blair, Neb., proposed to the college’s board of regents that a museum dedicated to the preservation of Danish immigrant heritage should be created. The proposal was approved, and a year later, the Danish American Heritage Society formed an exploratory committee. In 1983, the committee chose to locate the museum, called the Danish Immigrant Museum, in the Danish Villages.
In 2013, the Danish Immigrant Museum officially adopted the name Museum of Danish America. Today, the professionally accredited Museum of Danish America (MoDA) cares for about 30,000 objects—a collection which comprises many time periods, telling tales of early pioneers, their descendants, and modern-day dual citizens. The museum’s artifact database is publicly available to browse and search on its website, www.danishmuseum.org.
In addition to sharing stories of Danish immigration, the museum regularly hosts exhibitions of art and relevant contemporary topics. Also on its website, a virtual tour provides a taste of what the museum presented within its walls in July 2019, but its exhibits and programs may be experienced elsewhere (and in person), as it regularly lends out its collection and travels around the country. For example, its recent exhibition on “New Nordic cuisine” is slated to appear at many of the nation’s Scandinavian museums in coming years.
Along with its main museum building, the Museum of Danish America operates a genealogical research library, known as the Genealogy Center, and two historic house museums, Bedstemor’s House and the Jens Dixen Cabin.
The Genealogy Center offers professional research and translation assistance for both novice family historians and experienced genealogists, virtually or in its comfortably restored building on Main Street (by appointment). An exhibition of local history and artifacts is on display in the center’s lobby.
Two houses on the prairie
Bedstemor’s House, or Grandmother’s House, is a 1908 Victorian home in Elk Horn, built by Danish immigrant business owner Jens Otto Christiansen. According to local lore, he built the house as an engagement present for a young woman who sadly turned down his marriage proposal. He then rented out the home until he sold it in 1933. In 1946, the house was sold to Meta Mortensen, who lived there for 36 years. In 1982, Mortensen sold the house to the Elk Horn-Kimballton Arts and Recreation Council. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the home is seasonally open for tours of its turn-of-the-century interior.
In stark contrast to the large Victorian home is the homesteaders’ cabin located just north of the museum building. It is an authentic Kenmare, N.D., cabin once occupied by Danish immigrant schoolteacher and preacher Jens Dixen. He taught area boys in this house, and primarily focused on spiritual training. During harsh North Dakota winters, the students slept in the small attic. Dixen’s students became known as “shanty boys,” because of where they were taught.
The Jens Dixen cabin was moved to the museum grounds in 1999 and was restored by the Cedar Valley Danes. It has since been furnished as Dixen may have used it. Here, the cabin combines with the prairie in a potential emulation of what a homesteader’s experience may have been before the surrounding land was converted to farmland.
The prairie in this area of the park contains bluestem grasses, partridge pea, butterfly and common milkweeds, yellow and purple coneflowers, and other native plants. The house is occasionally open to visitors during the museum’s regular operating hours.
The legacy of Jens Jensen
In 2011, the museum’s campus was transformed into a prairie park with several unique design features honoring Danish immigrant and pioneering landscape architect Jens Jensen. A colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright, Jensen is credited as the “father of the Prairie School” of landscape architecture and had advocated for native plants.
A pergola with interpretive panels about Jensen’s life and philosophies has been erected in the park, along with two council rings, circular stone structures for campfires and seating, which are available for public use. Signage throughout the park expands on Jensen’s design approach and the features of the park, encouraging further exploration of natural design topics, ecology, and the contributions of Danish Americans.
Visitors can stretch their legs on a paved trail or even strengthen them on outdoor fitness equipment that was designed in Denmark. The park is free and open to the public each day from sunrise to sunset.
Cultural experiences all year round
And if it is contemporary Scandinavian design you’re after, the museum’s Design Store is unlike any other in the area. It carries housewares, décor, jewelry, books, and more. The carefully curated selection of merchandise reflects the innovation and practicality for which Scandinavia is revered. In this time, when shoppers may not feel completely comfortable in traditional retail spaces, MoDA’s shop fulfills phone and website orders through shipping or with contactless, curbside pickup at the museum (visit www.danishmuseum.org/shop).
While the pandemic has put many events on hold, the museum usually holds several events throughout the year, including participation in the Danish Villages’ popular summer festival, Tivoli Fest (Memorial Day weekend), and its holiday season kickoff, Julefest (Thanksgiving weekend). MoDA also holds an annual celebration of the Danish midsummer holiday of Sankt Hans Aften. This Saturday evening outdoor festival includes a traditional bonfire, music, and food inspired by Denmark. Other events are typically themed around current exhibition topics or national events.
Besides the Museum of Danish America and its properties, if ever you’re traveling in the Danish Villages, a visit to Elk Horn’s authentic 1848 Danish Windmill is a must-see, along with the Morning Star Chapel, once dubbed the World’s Tiniest Church and VikingHjem, a replica of a 900 A.D. Viking Smithy’s home, both on the grounds of the Danish Windmill. The Hans Christian Andersen Sculpture Park in Kimballton, which includes a replica of Copenhagen’s most popular statue, The Little Mermaid, is also a favorite destination.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.