MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Heritage travel: Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark

Led by Norwegians, an exodus from Scandinavia changed the face of the Upper Midwest.

Near Mount Horeb, Wis., a stavkirke built for the 1893 Chica

© Beth Gauper

Near Mount Horeb, a stavkirke built for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair is the centerpiece of Little Norway.

In the 19th century, the rocky lands of Norway and Finland were a bad place to be poor.

Since the Middle Ages, Norway had been Denmark's doormat, a remote province whose own national identity, language and culture were suppressed during a time playwright Henrik Ibsen called the "400 years' night."

In 1814, Norway declared independence and adopted a democratic constitution, though it wasn't really independent until it shook off ties to Sweden in 1905. Meanwhile, its population was increasing, mostly squeezed onto the slivers of land that could be cultivated.

Farm mechanization pushed out landless laborers, and a rigid social hierarchy gave them no chance to improve their lot.

It was even worse for the Finns, subjects of the Russian czar. They were virtual serfs, forced to labor on farms, in the Finnish army and, after 1901, in the Russian army.

So, they left. Starting in the late 1830s, Norwegians came to southeastern Wisconsin, forming enclaves that drew new immigrants.

They stayed for a while before skipping to newer Norwegian settlements in the coulee country of southwest Wisconsin, the bluff country of southeast Minnesota and then the Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota.

By 1915, Norway had lost 750,000 people to the United States, contributing, after Ireland, the highest percentage of its population to the new country.

When the Finns arrived in the late 1880s, all the good farmland was taken. So, they took jobs in the mines and logging camps of northern Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Some tried to farm the land, littered with boulders left by glaciers and stumps left by lumber barons.

They stayed because they had sisu — and because they were fiercely independent: "One's own home, one's own master," goes the Finnish proverb.

Proud newcomers

The Norwegians and Finns had one thing in common besides their northern homelands: They were proud of their cultures. So were the Swedes and Danes, who were not quite as strapped but also came looking for opportunity.

Wherever the new immigrant groups went, they left their mark. On the Iron Range of Minnesota, the resourceful Finns left timber pioneer buildings with dovetailed corners and double-notched joints that make architects swoon.

They also influenced the Range's populist politics. Many Finns were socialists, often blackballed from mines for trying to unionize, and some were communists; longtime U.S. Communist Party secretary Gus Hall was a Finn, born Arvo Halberg in the countryside between Hibbing and Virginia.

The Seitaniemi Housebarn in Embarrass.


The three-peaked Seitaniemi Housebarn is part of the Heritage Homestead Tours in the Finnish town of Embarrass, Minn.

And they gave us one of the sillier patron saints. When the Irish celebrate St. Patrick's Day, Finns in the Minnesota towns of Menahga and Finland dress up in green and purple to celebrate St. Urho Day, for the man who supposedly saved the grapes of ancient Finland from a plague of grasshoppers.

In Minnesota's Chisago County, Swedish settlers found "a rich and stoneless Småland," the impoverished province so many emigrants left.

Their letters home started a boom that eventually gave Chisago County the largest concentration of Swedes outside Sweden, and in 1947 they drew Swedish writer Vilhelm Moberg, who came to the area to research a quartet of historical novels.

The novels became hugely popular in Sweden, and busloads of Swedes still come to Chisago County to see pioneer-era landmarks mentioned in the book, from Scandia to Taylors Falls and Lindström, where signs mark public buildings in both Swedish and English and the water tower is an enameled coffeepot that proclaims "Valkommen till Lindström."

There's a working Danish windmill in the Iowa town of Elk Horn, near the Danish Immigrant Museum. The Minnesota town of Tyler hosts Danish family camps and celebrates Aebleskiver Days, cooking up batches of the ball-shaped pancakes. Racine, Wis., calls itself the kringle capital of the world, for its iced, O-shaped Danish pastries.

But it was the Norwegians, through sheer numbers and cultural exuberance, who really put their stamp on the Upper Midwest.

In the 19th century, they were flush with national pride after the signing of their new democratic constitution on May 17, 1814, or Syttende Mai, a pride that remained in full force when they emigrated.

Sentimental immigrants

Today, even Norwegians from Norway marvel at the extent to which Norwegian Americans have preserved the culture they left.

In Stoughton, Wis., the annual Syttende Mai celebration is biggest in the nation and almost certainly bigger than any in Norway, though its organizers are loath to say so.

In Decorah, Iowa, visiting Norwegians study their own folk traditions at Vesterheim, the "home in the west" founded in 1877 and now the nation's most comprehensive museum dedicated to a single ethnic group. In its shop, they buy traditional kitchen implements no longer available in Norway.

Each Christmas, Norwegian-Americans march into the nearest Norsk deli to buy lutefisk, the lye-soaked dried cod that hasn't been eaten in Norway since peasants could afford refrigerators. They grate potatoes for lefse, the bland peasant bread, and roll thin butter cookies on krumkake irons.

They send their children to Norwegian camp, read them books about mischievous trolls and dress them up in woolen Dale sweaters.

Norwegians, it seems, are the most sentimental of immigrants.

Troll and Viking figures adorn public spaces in towns from Mount Horeb, Wis., to Spring Grove, Minn., where bottles of the local Spring Grove Soda bear the slogan "Mange Tusen Takk," Norwegian for "Thanks a million."

Replicas of Norwegian stabburs, top-heavy medieval storehouses, and stavkirkes, the wooden churches that melded early Christianity with leftover paganism, are sprinkled all over the countryside, from Moorhead, Minn., to Wisconsin's Door County, which has two.

St. Urho the grasshopper-slayer.

© Beth Gauper

According to legend, St. Urho rid Finland of grape-eating grasshoppers.

Norwegians often chose land that reminded them of home. In southwest Wisconsin, they favored the steep, flat-floored coulees, through which creeks usually run.

Near the village of Westby, local Norwegians carefully groom a 40-story ski jump, on which jumpers from all over the world compete in a tournament that is one of four U.S. stops on the Intercontinental Cup circuit.

Nearby, the open-air complex at Norskedalen includes two restored Norwegian farmsteads, made up of pioneer buildings from around the county, and a heritage center where lecturers present programs about folk arts, Vikings and old Norse myths and legends.

In America, Norwegians can't hear enough about the old country. They hated to leave — so when they got here, they created lots of little Norways.

For specific dates on festivals, see Celebrating roots. For stories about Concordia Language Villages, see Language camp for adults and Going abroad in Bemidji.

Norwegian sites

Go to a festival

Syttende Mai in Stoughton, Wis., and Westby, Wis., the weekend closest to May 17. Also celebrated in Spring Grove, Minn.; and Decorah, Iowa.

Midsummer Festival near Westby, Wis., June. At Norskedalen heritage museum. Admission $2-$5. 608-452-3424.

Scandinavian Hjemkomst Festival in Fargo-Moorhead, sponsored by five Scandinavian societies, including the Icelandic Klub, June. 218-299-5452.

Nordic Fest in Decorah, Iowa, July. This is a wonderful festival that draws 60,000 people to the town of 8,500; plan ahead. For more, see Nordic nirvana.

Learn language and culture

The first permanent site on Concordia Language Villages' Bemidji campus was Skogfjorden, the Norwegian village, begun in 1969 with help from Sons of Norway. It hosts immersion camps for youth all summer and camps for adults and families,  800-222-4750.

Sons of Norway, founded in 1895 in Minneapolis, is an international society that promotes Norwegian language, culture and traditions. Its headquarters is in Minneapolis, 612-827-3611.

Visit heritage sites

In Decorah, Vesterheim attracts visitors from all over the world. It's a village in itself, with 16 historic buildings, a four-level museum and a crafts and education center, where instructors teach rosemaling, acanthus carving, weaving and other folk skills. It has its own church, its own stone mill and blacksmith shop and its own celebrations.

Its museum exhibits are open Tuesday-Sunday through April; from May through October, daily tours include the outbuildings. 563-382-9681.

For more, see A pocket of Norway.

Little Norway, in the hills outside Mount Horeb, Wis., 20 miles west of Madison, is an open-air museum of restored pioneer buildings, featuring a stunning stavkirke.

A reproduction of a medieval church built in Norway for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, it was brought to Little Norway in 1935. The complex was closed in 2013, but its owners hoped to reopen.

In a coulee near Westby, Wis., the Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center includes the Bekkum Homestead, a collection of 13 buildings from nearby Norwegian pioneer farms, moved and reconstructed, and the Skumsrud Heritage Farm, with 11 reconstructed buildings, including an 1853 log house.

Norskedalen offers workshops and lectures all year at its visitors center, and in summer and fall, its schedule includes Norwegian-heritage events as well as such pioneer festivals as threshing bees and ice-cream socials. 608-452-3424.

In Moorhead, Minn., the Hjemkomst Heritage Interpretive Center shows the re-created Hjemkomst (Norwegian for "homecoming") Viking ship and a replica of a medieval Norwegian stave church, and it also offers tours, lectures and exhibits. 218-299-5515.

At Old World Wisconsin, the nation's largest outdoor museum of rural life, two Norwegian farmsteads and a school have been moved to the sprawling site just southwest of Milwaukee and reconstructed.

In the summer, interpreters take visitors back to the years 1845, 1865 and 1906, explaining how immigrants observed Old World traditions and adopted new ones. 262-594-6319.


"Norwegians in Minnesota," by Jon Gjerde and Carlton C. Qualey (Minnesota Historical Society Press)

"Norwegians in Wisconsin," by Richard J. Fapso (Wisconsin Historical Society)

Swedish sites

Go to a festival

Midsommarfest in Chicago, June. In the Andersonville neighborhood.

Midsommar Celebration in Minneapolis, June. At the American Swedish Institute, 612-871-4907.

Midsommar Dag in Scandia, Minn., June. At Gammelgården Museum, 651-433-5053.

Svenskarnas Dag in Minneapolis, June. At Minnehaha Park, 612-825-8808.

Karl Oskar Days in Lindstrom, Minn., July.

Visit heritage sites

In Scandia, Minn., Gammelgården Museum includes five pioneer Swedish buildings, including an 1856 log church and 1868 parsonage. From May through October, tours are given 1-4 p.m. Fridays-Sundays, and Annie's Swedish Coffee Parties are given the second and fourth Saturdays at the museum, which means small old farm in Swedish. 651-433-5053.

The self-guided Swedish Circle tour includes the Karl Oskar house, Karl and Christina statues, historic churches and other heritage sites around Chisago County. Guides can be picked up at the Chisago Lakes Chamber of Commerce on Lindström's main street, 12631 Lake Blvd., 651-257-1177.

Language and culture

In Minneapolis, the castlelike American Swedish Institute has year-round exhibitions and hosts workshops, lectures and festivals, 612-871-4907.

At Concordia Language Villages the Sjölunden campus hosts youth camps as well as Danish/Swedish Family Weekend, April 21-24. 800-222-4750.


"Swedes in Wisconsin," by Frederick Hale (Wisconsin Historical Society Press)

"Swedes in Minnesota," by Anne Gillespie Lewis (Minnesota Historical Society Press)

"Swedish American Landmarks," by Alan H. Winquist (Swedish Council of America)

Finnish sites

Go to a festival

June: Finnish-American Festival in Embarrass, in northeast Minnesota. 218-984-2084.

Visit heritage sites

Heritage Homestead Tours in Embarrass, Thursdays and Fridays at 1 p.m., Memorial Day through Labor Day, 218-984-2084. For more, see Finding Embarrass.

At Old World Wisconsin, interpreters at two Finnish farmsteads from Oulu, near Brule in northwest Wisconsin, take visitors back to the years 1897 and 1915. 262-594-6319.

Learn language and culture

At Finlandia University in Hancock, Mich., the Finnish-American Heritage Center houses a museum, art gallery, theater and archive, 877-202-5491.

The Salolampi campus of Concordia Language Villages hosts camps for youth as well as family and adult immersion weeks, 800-222-4750.


"Finns in Wisconsin," by Mark Knipping (Wisconsin Historical Society), and "Finns in Minnesota,'' by Arnold R. Alanen (Minnesota Historical Society Press).

Danish sites

Go to a festival

Tivoli Fest in Elk Horn, Iowa, at the Danish Museum, Memorial Day weekend.

Aebleskiver Days in Tyler, Minn., July. 507-247-3905.

Danish Days in Viborg, S.D., south of Sioux Falls, July.

Visit heritage sites

The Danish Windmill in Elk Horn, Iowa, originally built in Norre Snede, Denmark, in 1848, is open daily in summer, 712-764-7472.

The Danish Immigrant Museum in Elk Horn has a large collection of Danish immigrant artifacts and exhibits and is open daily, 800-759-9192. Its Family History and Genealogy Center is on Main Street, 877-764-7008.

At Old World Wisconsin, interpreters at a Danish farmstead from Luck, in Polk County, take visitors back to the year 1890. 262-594-6319.

Learn language and culture

The Skovsøen campus of Concordia Language Villages hosts camps for youth as well as Danish/Swedish Family Weekend, 800-222-4750.

A quote

"Our ancestors chose this place, tired from their long journey, sad for having left the motherland behind, and this place reminded them of there, so they settled here, forgetting that they had left there because the land wasn't so good. So the new life turned out to be a lot like the old, except the winters are worse." — Garrison Keillor, in "Lake Wobegon Days" 

Last updated on May 8, 2014