By Sara Friedl-Putnam • Originally published in the Summer 2016 Inspire(d)
It’s the last Saturday in July, and thousands of men, women, and children – some wearing bunads, the traditional Norwegian folk costume, others sporting silver Viking helmets – crowd Water Street in picturesque Decorah, Iowa. Norwegian and Scandinavian flags flap gently in the wind as a Hardanger fiddle resonates its spellbinding melody along the car-free street. The irresistible aroma of griddle-warmed lefse and piping-hot varme pølser wafts through the air; mischievous-looking wooden nisses peer out from glass storefronts; and residents and visitors alike exchange hugs and hellos (or hallos!).
Welcome to Nordic Fest, Decorah’s celebration of all things Norwegian.
Each July since 1967, this scenic small town has hosted a surprisingly big Norwegian celebration of treasured customs and traditions. Every year, the Fest and its numerous volunteers have improved upon the last, but there are certain – one might say “perfekt” – things that never change. Just as Decorah’s Nordic Dancers delighted crowds with Norwegian folk dances at the first Nordic Fest, so too will they at this year’s event. Just as ’60s-era Fest-goers strolled down Water Street to sample Norwegian fare such as lefse, kringla, and varme pølser (then just 50 cents a pop!), so too will this year’s visitors. Just as Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum hosted world-acclaimed rosemalers, weavers, and whittlers through its Folk Art School at the first Fest, so too will it at this year’s 50th. And just as talented musicians – many roaming freely along Water Street – entertained the estimated 35,000 people who flocked to the inaugural fest, so too will musicians highlight Nordic Fest 2016.
“The Nordic Fest of today is very similar to the Nordic Fest of 1967 – it’s actually remarkable how true it has stayed to its roots,” says Decorah native (and unrivaled Nordic Fest expert) Dawn Svenson Holland, daughter of fest founder Gary Svenson and author of the soon-to-be published “Nordic Fest: 50 Years Strong” coffee-table book (see below for book details).
It was late July 1966 when actress and screenwriter Helga Lund Algyer – then working with Vesterheim and enjoying life in her husband’s hometown of Decorah – read a “New York Times” article about a Scandinavian Festival in Junction City, Oregon. She approached her longtime friend, Decorah businessman Mike Dahly, with a copy. It was this simple nudge got Nordic Fest, year one, rolling.
“Helga loved Decorah and thought that this was something the town could do to promote tourism,” recalls Dahly, a founding Nordic Fest board member. “I thought the idea had real promise, so I talked to Marion Nelson, then Vesterheim’s executive director, to get his read on it. He liked the idea a lot, with the stipulation that it be an educational, family-friendly event.”
Soon Dahly was pitching the festival to his fellow Jaycees. They were on board from the start.
“As young Jaycees, we didn’t know how to say ‘no,’ never mind all the hard work or the fact that we had never done anything like this before,” recalls Jerry Aulwes, longtime Decorah city councilman and an active Jaycee at the time. “The Luther College Woman’s Club, which ran Syttende Mai, was also pushing for a more community-wide Norwegian-themed event so the timing seemed right.”
In August 1966 a small group of Jaycees – Dahly, Aulwes, Svenson, Darrell Pierce, and Harry Olson (Nordic Fest’s first president) – began meeting weekly at the Tap Room of the old Hotel Winneshiek to plan the very first Fest. The five men – along with Nelson and Phyllis Leseth, a tireless community volunteer affectionately called “mom” by her fellow Fest planners – are recognized as the event’s founders, though countless volunteers and supporters played major roles in bringing the first Fest to life.
Among those individuals were the board members’ spouses, many of whom worked long hours themselves to prepare for the first and following fests; Betty Hacker, who directed the first group of Nordic Dancers; Jane Norris, who spent countless hours working with Dahly and Leseth to publicize the Fest throughout the Midwest and beyond; Betty Seegmiller, Nelson’s assistant, who typed (and retyped and typed again!) the first Fest program; and Dr. Gale Fletchall, founder of Junction City’s Scandinavian Festival. “Dr. Fletchall offered a lot of great advice,” recalls Dahly, who called and corresponded with the Fletchall on several occasions. “He strongly advised that Nordic Fest be a family-friendly, nonprofit, community-wide celebration. And he stressed the importance of authenticity.”
With that vision in mind, the Jaycees, Vesterheim, and a dedicated group of community-minded volunteers set to work turning a town of 8,000 tucked into the wooded ridges and limestone bluffs of Northeast Iowa into a little slice of Norway for four summer days. The founders worked for nearly a year to hammer out the details of launching a community fest on a budget of little more than $2,600. These funds were raised through the selling of $50 Fest founders’ memberships and $10 sustaining memberships.
The decisions that year were seemingly endless. How many days should the Fest run? (Four, later shortened to three.) Should Water Street be closed to vehicular traffic? (Yes.) What should the first Fest theme be? (“This is Norway.”) Who should “profit”? (Only nonprofits, which, in turn, would use funds raised through food sales for community betterment.) Would there be a parade? (Yes, and, in fact, there were four that first year.) Who should provide the food? (Community groups like the sorority Beta Sigma Phi “manned” food booths, while local church congregations served up full Norwegian smorgasbord dinners.) How should directors “run” messages and other updates back and forth throughout the fest? (By riding bicycles.) Would there be fireworks? (No, not initially, but a Sutr “Norse fire giant” celebration replete with a torchlight parade and bonfire did take place.) Should alcohol be served? (No.)
The decision to hold the fest the last weekend of July was easy, says Aulwes.
“Marion Nelson did a study to find the summer weekend with the best weather in Decorah,” he says. “It turned out it was the last weekend in July.” That doesn’t mean Mother Nature has always cooperated. During one of the early Fests, strong winds toppled pressurized Pepsi Cola tanks and sent jets of Pepsi spouting 20 feet in the air. Another year early on, pouring rain soaked thousands of Grand Parade spectators. “We had had a very dry summer, and everybody was so thrilled to get that rain,” recalls Aulwes. “No one moved – they were going to enjoy that rain, and that parade, no matter what.”
There have, of course, been some major changes to the Fest in the 50 years since its founding. A beverage garden offering beer was established (much) later, in 2001. Other additions like the Elveløpet “river race” (launched in 1978, with little nisses as distance markers) and button sales (begun in 1995) as well as free activities like the Troll Walk, fireworks, rock throw, and lutefisk-eating contest have provided diversified entertainment and additional revenue streams that have allowed the Fest to survive and, in fact, prosper over the last 50 years, drawing well more than a million attendees since its founding.
But still, this year is an anniversary Fest founders never imagined they would see.
“We had no idea it would last this long,” says Aulwes candidly. “We had a lot of hopes, but, no, we had no idea. A lot of people said it would never work, and we really didn’t know what we were doing, but somehow it worked, and worked really well.”
For more information on Nordic Fest 2016 – to be held July 28-30 – visit www.nordicfest.com.
Sara Friedl-Putnam experienced her first Nordic Fest in 1997 and, ever since, has enjoyed being a “little bit Norwegian” for the last weekend in July as an Elveløpet runner, lefse booth volunteer, and overall fest enthusiast.
Order ‘Nordic Fest: 50 Years Strong’ – and help preserve fest history!
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into by committing to this book,” admits Dawn Svenson Holland, author of the book “Nordic Fest: 50 Years Strong.” “It’s been more time-consuming than I ever expected, but it has also been more rewarding – it’s felt like a labor of love.”
Svenson Holland, daughter of longtime Nordic Fest historian Gary Svenson, drew heavily upon her father’s work preserving the Fest’s history in researching the book. “I could not have completed this project without the clipping books my father put together,” she says. “And I do believe that had he been alive, he would have written this book.”
Proceeds from the 300-plus-page coffee-table book will support the permanent placement of the Nordic Fest archives at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah. The book includes 22 chapters of Fest history, as well as a section for recording personal Nordic Fest memories. It also includes a DVD with archival footage of the first Nordic Fest and a promotional video made for the 25th Nordic Fest.
Orders may be placed online at www.nordicfest.com. The pre-Nordic Fest cost for each book is $50, with a limit of five books per person. The cost increases to $65 per book at Nordic Fest.
The following entertainment schedule is subject to change.
Thursday, July 28
Friday, July 29
Saturday, July 30
Chris Avey and Jeni Grouws
“Ole and Lena’s 50th Wedding Anniversary”
Kyle and Dave, Jim Busta Band with Mollie B, Foot-Notes, OK Factor, Miles Adams Band, 2Tall4U, The Silos, John Goodin and Erik Sessions, Luren Singers, Nordic Dancers, Jason Huenke (comedy juggler), Kevin Lindh (balloon artist), ArtHaus (children’s activities), and the Trolleri Players (roaming trolls and drama troupe)