A walk through time at Vesterheim’s Heritage Park

Where past and present converge

heritage park

A step back in time: As visitors enter Vesterheim’s Heritage Park, they are transported back in time to the days of the Norwegian-American immigration.

Decorah, Iowa

Vesterheim traces its history back to Luther College in 1877. Luther President Laur Laursen had a bold and courageous dream—to begin collecting everyday objects of Norwegian immigrants.

In line with this dream, Laursen’s successor, C.K. Preus, created an open-air display beginning with the Egge-Koren log house. That display was eventually moved from Luther College to Vesterheim’s downtown campus and continued to grow.

stabbur vesterheim

Erikson-Hansen Stabbur: This building type, a storehouse placed on pedestals to deter pests, was a symbol of wealth in Norway. This stabbur from Olmsted County, Minn. (about 1860), is a rare example, as these buildings were seldom found on Norwegian-American farms.

In recent years, Vesterheim reimagined this open-air display into Heritage Park, an important component of the museum’s collection. After many years of work, on Aug. 21, 2021, Vesterheim celebrated the public dedication of the new open-air museum.

Heritage Park includes 12 historic buildings in an open-air setting. The buildings depict the story of immigration, showcasing life in Norway in the 1800s and then life for immigrants in America.

The park is a forested area, interspersed with glade-like openings that act as outdoor rooms. There is a welcome patio that includes a brick outline of the Restauration, the first ship to bring Norwegian immigrants across the Atlantic. There is a timber frame meeting area for groups and Folk Art School classes, as well as an outdoor stone amphitheater for performances. Carved portals mark the entrances to the park and visitors are invited to wander through time, past and present.

Bethania church

Bethania Lutheran Church: Typical of many rural churches in the Midwest, this church from Rural Northwood, N.D. (about 1901), served a Norwegian-American farming community near Grand Forks, N.D., for over 80 years before being moved to Vesterheim in 1992.

Vesterheim’s Heritage Park incorporates the Nordic appreciation for nature and outdoor living. Heritage Park better connects Vesterheim to the Decorah community and helps the museum continue to share stories that will inspire and touch many generations to come. This exciting project not only enhances museum programming,  but it also serves as a welcoming and accessible community gathering space as well.

The design uses a Norwegian forest-and-glade concept, with extensive tree plantings surrounding a scattering of open areas for public gatherings, the interpretation of historic buildings, educational functions, and folk-art classes. There is even a small amphitheater for performances. Heritage Park’s pathways are in compliance with ADA accessibility standards.

Heritage Park was designed by Damon Farber, an award-winning landscape architectural firm from Minneapolis, in partnership with Snøhetta, the renowned international architecture and landscape architecture firm with offices in New York City and Oslo. Heritage Park is part of an overall master site plan created for Vesterheim by Snøhetta.

mill vesterheim

Painter-Bernatz Mill: The original mill was built on this site in 1851 as a commercial flour mill. Shortly thereafter, it was enlarged to its present size. The upper story was added in 1890. The mill continued to operate until 1964 and was dedicated in 1971 as part of Vesterheim’s Heritage Park.

In the master-planning process for Heritage Park, Vesterheim made a shift toward sustainability. The Heritage Park plan recognized Vesterheim’s relationship to the Upper Iowa River. The river used to run next to Vesterheim’s property, and there is a continued responsibility toward it.

The landscaping of the park incorporates many environmentally-sensitive elements, thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s Water Quality Initiative (WQI) Urban Conservation Project. Vesterheim worked with Amy Bouska, eastern Iowa’s urban conservation program coordinator, on the grant.

As the grant outlined, the plans for Heritage Park implemented four primary practices to transform a currently underutilized, traditional mowed lawn into a densely planted, tree-covered landscape with features that improve filtration, reduce nutrient and sediment runoff, and demonstrate sustainable storm-water management.

fiddle vesterheim

Living culture: Musical performances are a common occurrence at Heritage Park. Eden Ehm wears her authentic Norwegian bunad while performing on the Hardanger fiddle, Norway’s national instrument.

These practices include soil quality restoration, native landscaping, a bioretention cell, and permeable pavers. Through successful implementation and maintenance, these practices demonstrate the importance of reducing negative impacts contributing to the impaired water conditions of the nearby Upper Iowa River.

Heritage Park would not have been possible without some exceptional partners—Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s Water Quality Initiative Urban Conservation Project, the Paul D. Pratt and Marguerite Olson Pratt Fund of InFaith Community Foundation, and Kate Nelson Rattenborg. Vesterheim also received funding from Winneshiek County Community Foundation and Humanities Iowa for interpretive signs.

The primary contractor for the project was 2nd Nature Landscaping, Bloomington, Minn., and other contractors included Skyline Construction, Inc., Wicks Construction, Perry Novak Electric, and Stevenson Tree Care, all of Decorah.

To learn more about Vesterheim’s Heritage Park, visit vesterheim.org/exhibits.

All photos courtesy of Vesterheim

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.