Posts Tagged: sara friedl-putnam

Nordic Fest Celebrates 50 Years!


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.


Nordic Fest 2016 button artwork by Lauren Bonney

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.

NordicFest_CrowdShot“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


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 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.

What’s on tap for Nordic Fest 2016

The following entertainment schedule is subject to change.

Thursday, July 28
Absolute Hoot

Friday, July 29
Time Machine

Saturday, July 30
Chris Avey and Jeni Grouws
Anthony Gomes

Theatre production
“Ole and Lena’s 50th Wedding Anniversary”

Additional entertainment

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)

Read the Summer 2016 Inspired Magazine


Inspired Magazine Summer 2016!

Welcome to the 2016 ‘Summer’ issue of Inspire(d) Magazine! As always, the summer issue of Inspire(d) has a fun local food theme. This year we explored the Roots of Food – family recipes and the stories that go with them. Next, we take a leap back in time with 50 Years of Nordic Fest Fun (plus an infographic!), share our Bike Love and ride ideas, have a quick Q&A with musician Mason Jennings, an “organic” business conversation with Sno Pac Foods in Caledonia, and the community series takes us to Cresco, Iowa. Plus, of course, you’ll still find all our regular features like the monthly calendars (wow – it’s going to be a fun summer!), What We’re Loving, and a very, very special back page probituary with an extremely inspirational figure from Nordic Fest’s history – you’ll just have to read it to find out!

Click on over to read the whole Summer 2016 Inspire(d) online.

Also: This is our largest issue to date! We’re super excited to have increased to 84 pages for this summer, and our circulation has expanded too – 16,000 magazines will go out to the Driftless Area and beyond. Woot!

A million thanks to our talented contributors:
• Illustrations by the incredibly talented and wonderful Lauren Bonney.
• Writing Contributions from Sarah Friedl-Putnam, Kristine Jepsen, Jim McCaffrey, and Joyce Meyer.
• Photos for our community story on Cresco from Tanya Riehle of Blue House Studio and Jessica Rilling.

And a huge, massive, very grateful thanks to all of our advertisers. They are the reason we have been able to create 46 issues of Inspire(d) and continue this awesome “experiment in positive news.” Buy local! Please support the awesome local businesses of the Driftless Region. And when you visit our advertisers, let them know you saw them in Inspire(d)!

If you’d like to see where you can pick up a copy, please click over to this link. Magazines will be on stands in early June, but often go fast. If you’d like to see them somewhere in your neck of the woods, drop us a note! (benji @

Now get out there and enjoy the summer!

-Aryn, Benji, & Roxie

Driftless Area Wetlands Centre

Photo by Kat Busse

Have you visited the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre in Marquette, Iowa, yet? It opened its doors in August 2013 with one goal in mind – to connect people of all ages to the natural world and empower them to positively impact their local environments. We say, “Mission accomplished,” ‘cause this place is awesome!

By Sara Friedl-Putnam

“What kind of bird is that?”

“Why is it sitting on those rocks?”

“Are there a lot of others like it around here?”

After (almost) stumbling upon a white-bellied, brown-winged bird and its nest, three inquisitive young boys – busy planting purple coneflowers during a native plants restoration event – excitedly fire questions at Katrina Moyna, the gung-ho director of the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre (DAWC).

All photos by Sara Friedl-Putnam unless noted

“It’s a killdeer,” Moyna replies softly to the first question, motioning the boys to back away from the nest. She answers the second just as succinctly: “Those aren’t rocks – they’re eggs.” The answer to the third question, however, will have to wait – the killdeer (or charadrius vociferous), resting comfortably just moments before, has suddenly broken into a dramatic, attention-grabbing “broken-wing act” to lure the boys, whom it views as predators, away from its nest.

It’s a spectacular display of the spontaneity of nature. It’s also a prime example of the experiential – and occasionally accidental – learning that regularly transpires at the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre, an environmental education and community center established in 2013.


“Our mission is to get people of all ages to unplug and experience the outdoors,” says Moyna, an Elkader, Iowa, native. “Everyone, regardless of age or background, can reap the benefits of connecting with – and learning from – the natural world, especially in a place as breathtakingly beautiful and biologically and geologically rich as the Driftless Area.”

KatrinaThat was exactly the message a committed group of citizen volunteers successfully conveyed to members of the Iowa Great Places Board in 2008, the year the board awarded the neighboring Mississippi River towns of Marquette and McGregor a “Great Place” designation and a $325,000 grant to build DAWC, develop the surrounding area (including a man-made wetland and restored prairie), and construct the McGregor-Marquette Center for the Arts.

By 2011 the two communities had secured the funding needed to break ground on a three-acre site just a half-mile from the Mighty Mississippi. (Bright-colored railroad cars in the center’s “backyard” serve as a highly visible reminder that the site once accommodated the largest railroad terminus in the state.) And in August 2013, DAWC finally opened its doors. “We’ve worked hard to spread the word that we are here, that we are open –year-round, in fact – and that we have interesting things going on,” says Moyna without a pause. “Though we’ve only been open a short while, we’re gaining momentum each month.”

And that’s a (very) good thing. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends a whopping 93 percent of his or her life in buildings or vehicles – but innumerable studies have shown that spending time outdoors boosts creativity, improves physical fitness, and reduces stress. The takeaway? Turn off the TVs. Stash away those cell phones. Unplug the video games. Then throw on some shoes and head outside. “Kids who spend time in nature grow into adults that care about protecting it,” says Moyna. “Something as simple as holding a frog or planting a flower can help children form a magical – and lasting –connection with the land.”


In 2014, nearly 4,500 visitors streamed through the center’s doors, half hailing from far beyond the region. This year DAWC expects to attract even more, thanks in large part to a “something-for-everyone” schedule boasting more than 50 events. “Nature provides a way for families to bond,” says Moyna. “We want to ensure this is a place where learning is fun for all ages.”

Mission accomplished. A hawk watch drew hundreds of nature enthusiasts last fall, as did an Easter egg hunt and petting zoo last spring. Highlights this summer include a rollicking “Friday Night Live” Farmers Market (music included!) each Friday from May into October, an “epic” (Moyna’s word) Dino Day at the end of July, and a Tom Sawyer Adventures program that will take area youth out on the Mississippi River to fish, swim, bird watch, wade for mussels, and, yes, learn a bit about the history of the world-famous waterway. This kind of inventive, locale-based programming, Moyna emphasizes, could not succeed without the help of many partner organizations, including the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, Big Springs Trout Hatchery, Effigy Mounds National Monument, Osborne Nature Center, La Riviere Park, and the Upper Iowa Audubon Society. “Our partners are the ones doing the ‘dirty’ work – forging into the Driftless Area’s back waters, exploring its deep ravines, and hiking its forests,” she says. “They are our eyes and ears in the area’s plant and animal communities.”

Photo courtesy North Iowa Times

And if DAWC has its way, it will soon have even more “partners” spreading the word about the wonders of this region – its deep caves and cold-water streams, temperature-regulating (algific talus) slopes and awe-inspiring bluffs, colorful plants and crafty animals. The DAWC Ambassadors Program, piloted last year and launched in January 2015, immerses participants in nature so they can learn about and promote the plant life, birds, fish, and mammals in their own backyard. “What if we could help people develop as much pride in and enthusiasm for their natural ecosystem as they have for their local sport teams?” muses Moyna. “What if they then shared that passion with those around them?”

Regardless of age, participants must attend three discovery/exploration activities at DAWC or partner sites; take part in three educational events at DAWC or local schools; and work with a skilled mentor to complete and present a special-interest project that positively impacts the Driftless Area. Upon completion of the program requirements, participants receive a badge and have the opportunity to take part in a special trip down one of the area’s major waterways. Might that waterway be the Mississippi? “That part’s a surprise,” says Moyna with a smile.

But folks interested in DAWC need not sign up for the Ambassadors Program nor wait for one of its many events to reap the benefits of visiting the center. It is open five days a week and offers plenty of opportunities to touch, feel, and explore both indoors and out. Inside, a muskrat and mink look to tussle in one of several taxidermy displays that line the building’s large glass windows. Four black shelves feature an array of rock formations – calcite, stromatoporoids, straight-shelled cephalopods, and others – endemic to the region. And a large wooden table in one corner showcases more than 20 preserved waterfowl, all poised as if ready for flight.

Just outside, a large observation deck extends into the wetland area to facilitate viewing of local flora and fauna, and eye-catching signs present important facts about the wetlands themselves. Were you aware that half of the world’s wetlands have disappeared since 1900 – or that development and conversion continue to pose huge threats to these areas? Did you know that wetlands are home to some of the richest biodiversity on the planet – or that they provide vital habitat for more than 40 percent of the entire world’s species, including killdeer, or charadrius vociferous?

That fun fact recalls the third question posed during the center’s native plant restoration event last April – namely, is killdeer prevalent in the Driftless Area? Yes, charadrius vociferous is a common species inhabiting a wide range of wetlands throughout North America, including those in Northeast Iowa. And the chance to spot one doing its thrilling “broken-wing act” is just one of many reasons to dive into this area called the Driftless. “There really is nowhere else like this place in the world,” says Moyna. “Once people begin to really understand all the Driftless Area has to offer, they also begin to really value it.”


A Florida native, Sara Friedl-Putnam still remembers the awe she felt upon first viewing the spectacular limestone bluffs of the Driftless Area nearly two decades ago. She is thankful that organizations like DAWC are working hard to connect area residents with this special place and share its many natural wonders.


Grab your shoes and head outside!

The Driftless Area Wetlands Centre – located at 509 U.S. 18, in Marquette, Iowa – is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 am to 4 pm. For more information, call (563) 873-3537 or visit