Old Traditions and New Opportunities
in Westby, Wisconsin
By Benji Nichols • Originally published in the Spring 2018 Inspire(d)
It would be easy to tell the story of Westby, Wisconsin through quaint scenes of Norwegian Americana: The 50th Syttende Mai festival that will take place this May, the all-volunteer Snowflake Ski jumping Club, heading into its 95th year, or the Westby Dairy Cooperative, celebrating its 115th Anniversary – and marking Westby the “Cottage Cheese Capital of Wisconsin.”
But just focusing on that would be an understatement of “Uff-da” proportions.
Make no mistake, from the Westby Stabbur to Borgen’s café, Dregne’s Gifts to the Historical Society’s Thoreson House, the Norwegian theme is strong. There’s even the Nisse House of Art, two storefronts offering unique artisan wares and class space, including “Koselig”, a tea and coffee counter. Owner Monica Orban has held the outpost in downtown Westby for the past five years – an idea that came to fruition after farming in Vernon County and spending seven years as Organic Valley’s Senior Events Coordinator. But despite the Nordic themes and deep community ties, Monica isn’t exactly an “old timer,” as they say.
“Well, I’m the president of Syttende Mai…,” laughs Monica, a wide grin perched under her browline glasses. “I’m 100 percent Polish. But, the thing is, I’m only a generation away from being an immigrant.”
A tight-knit Polish neighborhood in Detroit proper taught her what it meant to be a part of an immigrant community.
“People are willing to learn – you have to be creative,” says Monica.
The Westby community is on that creative track. Much like the town’s original Norwegian immigrant settlers, folks are taking large leaps of faith – moving forward with the conviction that they can create and re-create the small community they want to live in.
Just down Highway 14, housed in one of the oldest standing homes in town, Ruth and David Amundson are working to tell those immigrant stories in creative “out of the box” ways through their project, “History Alive.”
“When you have a small rural community, it can be very single-minded – ‘oh, I’m Norwegian, I’m German’ – but to know what happened to make a city, that’s something,” says David. Ruth picks up in a heartbeat, “We work to pique interest through active history, working through students, the community, Syttende Mai, and even with students in Gausdal [Norway].”
David, a lifelong photo collector, and Ruth are both retired high school teachers. History Alive’s goal is to share the history of Westby through photos, stories, and projects – often focused towards high school or younger audiences.
It’s the immigrant story of America – one that has come full circle in our recent world, playing out relevant as ever. But the story of Westby is what all of those immigrant stories can become.
In the mid 1840s, after time at Koshkonong and Galena, Norwegian immigrant Even Gullord walked off a boat at Coon Slough (near Genoa, Wisconsin) onto the banks of the Mississippi. He kept walking, hiking up the valleys until he found, with conviction, what would become his new homeland, Coon Prairie. He settled alongside Driftless Native Americans on the familiar-feeling land, filled with abundance. More immigrants followed, with prompting – from Biri, Gausdal, and across the struggling nation of Norway – making the harrowing weeks long trek across the Atlantic Ocean to new opportunities. Among them was Even Gullord’s nine-year-old nephew, Ole T. Tosten, whose family would take the surname of Westby upon arriving in America. Ole would eventually have a mercantile that would warrant a Westby railroad stop. A town was born.
Norwegian immigrants knew how to farm, how to milk cows, how to grow wheat and crops, eventually even tobacco. Farmsteading was incredibly difficult work, but they found success by looking out for each other, sharing the services they could provide, and through the eventual creation of cooperative agreements. Dairy cooperatives were formed, like the Westby Creamery, plus commodity ag cooperatives, including thriving tobacco croppers like M.H. Bekkedal, and the Northern Wisconsin Tobacco Co-op Pool – most with direct Norwegian immigrant ties.
“I’m still amazed I got elected as mayor, I’m only half Norwegian,” jokes Danny Helgerson, second term Westby Mayor. “But, you know, we have a city and county full of coops,” he continues, reflecting on the changes of rural Vernon County.
Even the communication system is cooperative-based. When telephone systems began to grow mid century, many failed to reach rural areas, deemed too unpopulated to be serviced. That didn’t stop a group of Norwegians from picking up the party line though, as Vernon Communications Cooperative formed in 1950. With the same cooperative principles that had led their agricultural successes, the award-winning provider was formed to service the flowing hills and steep coulees of Vernon County. The Cooperative now serves over 7,000 customers in Western Wisconsin with cutting-edge fiber connectivity, cable, 12 community access channels, and additional computer and IT services. It has been nationally recognized as one of the top rural communications companies in the country.
The cooperative model, woven into the very fabric of the region, provided a path for groups like Organic Valley, Select Sires,Vernon Communications, Premier Coop, Vernon Electric Coop, Westby Co-op Credit Union, the Viroqua Food Co+op, and many more.
“A lot of it has to do with heritage, from the Norwegian settlers with that mentality,” says Dr. Dave Brown of Select Sires – one of the largest AI (artificial insemination) and Bovine genetics providers in the world, which has roots in Westby.
“We’re going to help each other and take care of each other…it’s not quite as cut throat. It worked really, really well for lots of small farms, and we’re evolving with it as businesses grow,” he says.
But a business doesn’t actually have to be a cooperative to benefit from the model. In the early 2000s, Borgen’s Café, a Westby landmark for a century, had hit tough times. The Scandinavian café had become tired, and was eventually shuttered, much to the dismay of patrons, who for decades had stopped in for a piece of pie and cup of hot coffee. So the town got together – a group of investors formed to buy the business, make necessary repairs, and re-sell it to a community-minded owner.
“It’ll be 10 years in November,” says Blane Charles, citing the decade he and his wife, Mary, have owned Borgen’s. “It was a great way for us to get into the community. It was a win-win, it benefits the community, and it’s what we wanted to do.”
Mary and Blane have never been short of things to do – the couple embodies the value that there’s no sitting back in a small town. Mary worked her way through nursing school waiting tables, and Blane started cooking in his mother’s restaurant at age 16. They also ran a dairy farm for several years, and are present on a number of community groups and projects. At Borgen’s, they’ve brought back to life a town hub that provides everything from pie and coffee to meatball dinners to banquet and catering facilities – even nightly lodging.
“You have to buy into and be a part of a community to be successful,” says Blane.
“It’s really awesome to see how one hand washes the other, so to speak – how we all benefit. You get people into town, and they stop for lunch, but they’re also going to stop at the gas station, or they’re going to the winery, or cheese store. We’re all in it together – and when we see that common vision, we all benefit.”
Michele Engh, Director of Faith Formation at Westby Coon Prairie Lutheran Church, agrees. “You work to build your community; you don’t sit and wait for your community to build you.”
For years, Michele worked with CouleeCAP (the regional Community Action agency) and Vernon County on a grassroots level in economic development and grant writing, before finding her way to Coon Prairie Lutheran. But it was a statewide call for action from the Wisconsin State Associations that sparked her most recent endeavors. “From AARP to the churches, teachers unions, town associations – all of these state associations and leadership groups realized, ‘Hey, I’m working on this, you’re working on this, how do we cross these ‘silos’ and help put them together?’ How can we make this area better for our grandchildren?”
Once folks from the different organizations started meeting, challenges within economic development came to the front, and immediately under that heading came childcare.
“We live in a childcare desert,” says Michele, “and that prevents employers from being able to hire. So how do we address the need in Vernon County?”
With small communities like Cashton, Viroqua, Viola, and Westby all several miles from each other, the physical challenges of rural communities are magnified. There is no one-size fits all answer, Michele says, so by working with various agencies, they came up with a “Shared Services” model. “There are about 25 of these that operate nationwide, much like the many cooperatives that operate in our area.”
The group received a $400,000 grant from the Medical College of Wisconsin, disbursed over four years, to help get the program off the ground. Their focus is on in-home childcare providers who are legally allowed only three kids at a time. That number can be raised to eight, Michele says, but the work to get there can be daunting.
“So we’re creating a structure, along with the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association, to do the majority of the paperwork, training, and pooling of resources to get these providers licensed and regulated for eight kids,” Mary says. “That doubles our current capacity across the county. Providers will also receive training in early education awareness, communication, and support systems to not only help themselves, but parents of children as well… a sharing of services.”
This spirit of cooperation – working from the ground up to move a community forward – is a cornerstone principle behind Servant Leadership, a timeless philosophy that’s been inspiring the Coulee Region for years.
The phrase, “servant leadership,” was coined, in recent times, by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay first published in 1970. A “servant leader” is essentially a person who, first, wants to serve their community in some capacity – on the city council, as a mentor, anything that gives back. Second, they lead in their community with positivity – through a specific project, on a board, anything that helps move things forward.
“Our communities change when good people get together and do good work,” says Tom Thibodeau, Director of the Master of Arts in Servant Leadership (MASL) program at Viterbo University. “This is what changes communities, this is what impacts lives, this is what creates a sense of trust.”
Mayor Danny Helgerson has seen firsthand the impact of everyday leaders. “I got a phone call at city hall,” say Danny, “and Lori Pedretti wanted to know if we could talk… we’d never met. So we did, and she said, ‘I’d just like to know what we can do to make this a better community?’ That’s a great conversation. We got talking about servant leadership – I was sold once I understood that you basically start with what you have that is positive and build on it. All the way through is positive.”
On a chilly Driftless evening, Lori Pedretti walks into The Logan Mill – one of the oldest buildings standing in Westby, which now offers travelers a place to stay or gather with groups. The historic structure represents not only a unique place in history, but like Lori, a renewed sense of purpose in the community. Lori completed Viterbo’s Master of Arts in Servant Leadership program in three years, while being a full time RN, raising a toddler, and nursing her husband through a battle with brain cancer. Along the way, she started connecting with community members to bring the concepts of Servant Leadership to town.
“As I started talking to people, I realized there were all these great things happening but people didn’t even know about them – nobody helping bring it all together. I just had this big ‘a-ha’ moment, where I knew I wanted to do something. I started talking with anyone who would listen – telling them what we wanted to do: Build relationships in the community, identify all the things we already have in place, acknowledge the positives, and figure out the needs,” she says. “It was important for me to get a wide audience – farmers, business owners, single moms, families, our seniors.”
So Lori, with the help of her professor Tom Thibodeau and Michele Engh, set a series of community meetings to share the principles of Servant Leadership.
“Our goal was to have conversations – what are the things that would make this area better? How do we, as a grassroots movement, find answers? Not looking from the top down, but what will fit our area and make sense from the bottom up?” says Michele, an edge of excitement in her voice. “It’s so easy to look at the community and say what’s wrong instead of what’s right – and saying what’s right is more fun. It’s exciting to be in Westby right now, because when you bring 100 people together and talk about what’s good with a community – it’s amazing what happens.”
But the work of gathering community conversations is real work – make no mistake.
“Everyone needs to be protected, respected, and connected to the community,” says Tom Thibodeau, “and this is the good work that Lori and Michele are helping to facilitate in the Westby community.”
They hope to do six more meetings in 2018, Lori says, with the goal of supporting current initiatives, identifying what needs to meet next, and always moving the community forward.
In many ways, the Servant Leadership ideals were already in place amongst community members of Westby. The group that helped realize the vision of the Westby Area Performing Arts Center is a great example of that.
In 2001, the Fine Arts Foundation of the Westby Area (FAFWA) was formed to figure out how to build a performance facility for the Westby community and schools.
“Seventy-four percent of high school students in Westby are involved in music, and consistently do well in contests,” says Linda Dowling, FAFWA Chairwoman. “A lot of us felt it was time for them to have a performance space that fit, and not just a gym.”
But funding was a challenge. The process drew on for years, with small successes, but no momentum.
In 2014, a community member challenged the foundation to get things moving. The group was reinvigorated, and a referendum passed with the agreement that FAFWA would come up with a sizeable amount of the budget – both in short and long-term views. Four years later – February 2018 – the facility celebrated its grand opening.
“But that’s what I see with a small town – how people come together to help each other,” says Linda. “The timing was right, the energy was there, the commitment.”
Common good, shared services, cooperative business models. This could be the description of a modern Scandinavian country, but it’s not; it’s rural Vernon County.
“There’s definitely a tipping point – I don’t know if we’re there yet, but I can’t wait to see what’s next,” says Monica Orban. “When all is said and done, you can have the small town us and them, the insiders and outsiders, but when push comes to shove, people offer a hand. Time and time again, they just give. We’re celebrating Westby, we’re celebrating history, it’s like the sign says – we have these old traditions, and new opportunities – boom. That’s the formula to move forward.”
Benji Nichols is a big fan of kind people, the hills and valleys of the Driftless, communities that are working hard to make positive change, and cheese. This story is a living testament to those truths. A special thank-you goes out to Evelyn Larson for the use of her Nisse and button art in this story.
Westby, Wisconsin celebrates the 50th year of their most well known community celebration, Syttende Mai, May 19-20, 2018. The small town comes alive with a troll hunt, folk art displays, food demonstrations, sporting events, great music, church services, the kiddie parade Saturday, and Grand Parade Sunday!
Evelyn Larson (Pictured at left) has designed the Westby Syttende Mai buttons ever since year two of the town’s celebration (the first year the button – at right – was made by the American Legion Auxiliary). Evelyn is the local Nisse creator as well. Don’t miss her Nisse at Syttende Mai (plus a couple of her drawings in this story!).
Find the entire 50th Westby Syttende Mai schedule at
“Norwegian Valley” started as a 100+ acre farm near Coon Valley, WI that was donated by Dr. Alf and Carroll Gundersen to the UW La Crosse foundation in 1977. An arboretum was established on the farm in memory of Gundersen’s mother, and in 1982 the Thrune Visitor’s Center was completed. Since then, the Nature and Heritage Center has grown into a 400 acre treasure of coulee, springs, creeks, and prairie. It also holds the Bekkum Homestead – a collection of original log buildings built by first generation Norwegian Immigrants arranged in a traditional horseshoe-shaped ‘tun’ or farmstead. Various trails, shelters, and facilities are available by reservation, and the facility is supported by visitors and memberships. Plan a visit and find out more at www.norskedalen.org
The Westby Rod & Gun Club is a unique conservation club that has been serving the region since 1937. The Club is also Wisconsin’s longest surviving conservation club to stock trout each spring in local streams. For over 75 years the club has been providing opportunities to sportsmen, and supporting local conservation and habitat projects, as well as fundraisers like their Christmas Toys for kids drive, which raised almost $4,500. for local families. The club maintains a bar & kitchen on Main Street in Westby, which is known for huge weekend breakfasts, and occasional events like smelt fries and hosting sporting contests. With additional camping, range, and banquet hall facilities just outside of the city, membership is available on an annual basis with unique perks.