Norskedalen Midsummer Festival celebrates Norwegian/Scandinavian culture
Tucked away in a breathtaking deep valley, that could arguably look like topography in Norway, is a historically rich gem of the Driftless region.
On June 22nd, the Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center located just outside of Coon Valley, Wisconsin, despite continued work to restore flood damage from last year, held their 36th annual Midsummer Fest. Midsummer happens to be the second most important yearly celebration in Norway.
Norskedalen is actually comprised of four different family farms. Back in the 1960’s, Doctor Alf Gundersen and his Wife Carroll purchased 120 acres on the South end of the property and developed an arboretum. Dr. Alf Gunderson was one of the sons of the first Dr. Gundersen.
The first Dr. Gundersen was getting all kinds of attention because of what he was doing, and Dr. Alf and wife Carroll felt like his mother Helga Isaksaetre Gundersen deserved a lot of attention because of what she was doing with integrating and raising a family. So, they named the arboretum in her honor.
When it became time for Dr. Alf and his wife retire and downsize none of the family was in the position to take the farm/arboretum; it was gifted to UW-LaCrosse. Originally, it was part of the foundation and was meant to be an outdoor classroom. So, the foundation worked with the neighboring farms to incorporate the three additional farms, that were neighbors to the Gundersen’s, into one that became 400 acres.
Eventually, a group of four businessmen went to the foundation and said ‘Here is this really very small amount of money, can we give you that and have this place?’, and the foundation said yes. So, it became Norskedalen.
At first, it was meant to be a classroom because it was untouched. Then, it was felt that there was so much rich history, not only the Norwegian with all the Scandinavian history, but the agriculture, history, and everything that went on in this area in the past 150 years; it needed to be captured. Some of the original buildings that were built by the immigrants were still in the area and still in decent shape.
A group of people who had grown up Norwegian, felt the culture needed to be preserved, so they did just that without having money nor an organization. The Engum house had fallen into disrepair because the family had all passed away and no one was maintaining it. So, they literally picked up the house and moved it here.
All of the other buildings now at Norskedalen had been on the neighboring farms within in a 10-mile radius. In addition, other buildings in the homestead were also on private property, so owners were contacted and told they would love to have the buildings to preserve. The owners agreed, and all the buildings were moved by volunteer labor, because people felt it needed to be done.
“The buildings are all from the mid-1800’s. This is not a re-creation; this is their house, this is how they lived,” said Norskedalen’s Executive Director, Laurie Dubczak. She shared that her grandmother’s kitchen was similar to the kitchen in the Engum house. “My grandmother thought that me (at about 5 years old) and my two sisters needed to learn how to wash dishes. She put stools up to the sink with a dishpan of water. Dishes didn’t get wet, but we did. You can picture that going into the Engum kitchen.”
Dubczak said Norskedalen would not run if not for the volunteer ranks that number in the hundreds. They very willingly give of their skills, time, and their talent. “We put out a call for help and they come. They are amazing,” she said.
Proof of those willing volunteers came during the major flooding that would hit the area not once, but twice in as many years.
Dubczak said, “In 2017, we lost 7 of the 9 bridges on the property. We lost one of the Holte collection, and we lost a lot of creek bank. It was a lot of wet and mud,” and recognized that a tremendous number of volunteers showed up and helped shovel massive amounts of mud.
She said with all the volunteers chipping in, Norskedalen saw a lot of progress in a short period, and admitted that FEMA was a great help as well.
Far worse though, was the flooding last year. “It wasn’t necessarily in places you could see. We had rock coming down from the neighboring bluffs and 6 feet deep in places”, she said. There was extensive creek bank damage, the exit road was all but wiped out with craters 4-5 feet deep filled with water. Dubczak took to the radio telling about the damage Norskedalen had sustained, and people came out from surrounding areas. Hundreds of people answered the call for help.
Dubczak recalled that one family came out with their kids that brought their little buckets from a sand box. One of their daughters picked rocks that fit in her hand. She would then put them in her bucket and bring it over to a big hole putting them in there, She was so intent on filling some of the holes to help.
Now to the happy stuff. The Midsummer Fest had volunteers dressed in Scandinavian and 1800’s attire, helping visitors imagine what daily life for the immigrants was like. There were Scandinavian foods that included Troll Rolls (lefse wraps), polse in lumpe, strawberry shortcake, and rømmegrøt.
Demonstrations included: wood turning by The Coulee Region Woodturners, wool spinning and knitting by the Three Rivers Weaving and Spinning Group, a showcase of Fjord horses and horse-drawn wagon rides, Blacksmithing, Hardanger, Flint Knapping, Rug Braiding, Lefse making, and special activities for kids and families that included a scavenger hunt. Oh, and of course, a troll at the Poplar Creek bridge.
Music was featured by Audrey Almo, American Feed Bag, and the Dell Tones, for those that wanted to shake a leg.
By far, the highlight of Norskedalen are the well maintained 1800’s homes and buildings surrounded by breathtaking views of the valley and hills above.
Dubczak emphasized that the fun doesn’t stop at just this event, and invites everyone to Norskedalen’s ‘Music in the Valley’ every Wednesday, July 3rd - August 14th from 5:30-7:30, featuring wonderful music from local favorites. Borgen’s in Westby will be serving dinner featuring special entrees just for Norskedalen by Chef Blane.
“This is an amazing place. I’ve been here 3 years and feel blessed. Not only by the spirit that is here in these hills and this valley, but by the people who make it Norskedalen,” Dubczak.
Norskedalen does not receive funds from any government entities, but through donations, as they are a non-profit organization. For more information on Norskedalen and future events, visit Norksedalen.org.