IN THE HEARTS OF MANY AMERICAN DANES in
the early years of the twentieth century, was the desire to help their
fellow immigrants adjust and prosper in this exciting new land. They did
this by establishing Danish colonies with a Lutheran church and a folk
school in various parts of the country.
It was with this noble thought in mind that the Rev. J.M.
Gregersen, pastor of the Danish Lutheran church in Cedar Falls, Iowa,
invited Benedict Nordentoft and Peter P. Hornsyld, both affiliated with
Grandview College in Des Moines, Iowa, to accompany him to California.
They dreamt of founding a Danish colony, church and folk school there
and finally decided on the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley. There were already
two tiny towns popping with activity here, one was called Los Olivos,
the other Santa Ynez. There was also a sleepy spot in the road called
Ballard, which had been a stage coach stop and had a one room school house
built in 1883 and a Presbyterian church, constructed in 1898.
The three gentlemen felt that the prospects looked good and
the great decision was made. On the brisk day of January 23, 1911, the
Danes purchased 9,000 acres of the historic land grant Rancho San Carlos
de Jonata, for $40 per acre!
When their Danish-American Colony Company put out the word that land was
now available for purchase, a Danish-Californian named Johannes Burchardi,
was the first to put up his money. His family still lives here in a house
constructed by one of the original settlers, Hans C.D.Skytt, in 1912.
Soon more Danes began arriving in Los Olivos on the narrow-gauge
railroad. They rented rooms in Mattei’s Tavern, or searched for
houses to rent and some simply pitched tents or lived under the shelter
of oak trees. Their possessions were stuffed into a warehouse in Los Olivos,
which was the first Danish-built structure there. This was truly a character
building experience, since weather records show that it rained so hard
and so long that adobe buildings started melting into the earth. Even
the bell tower at Old Mission Santa Inés gave up the ghost and
crumbled. But over the months, more pilgrims arrived by various methods
of transportation and they brought their household goods, farm machinery,
family milk cows, and household pets.
After considering several sites, the heart of the village
of Solvang was located near the Mission because of the good water supply.
The first building to rise upon the sunny fields was the Solvang Hotel,
owned by the Rev. Gregersen. It was an instant success and the center
of all activity. It has been reported that people even slept on the floors
between the tables in the dining room. One of the busiest individuals
in the budding village was the master carpenter, Hans C.D. Skytt, who
between pounding nails and sawing the lumber for new structures, was struck
by cupid’s arrow and fell in love with the hotel’s cook, Betty
The very first Lutheran Church service was held on a beautiful
Sunday in July, in the little Ynez one-room schoolhouse. It stood on what
is now the corner of Mission and Alisal. Later the Bethania Lutheran Church
was built on Atterdag Street where it stands today. Visitors especially
enjoy seeing the model of a fully rigged ship which is suspended from
the ceiling. For many years, services were conducted in Danish but by
1961 English predominated and the Danish services were held just once
In November of 1911, the Hojskole-folk school had opened and was used
for both school and church activities. Construction costs for this two-story
building had reached a whopping $2000. Delighted students, were so anxious
to get underway, that they pulled up blocks of wood to sit on until furniture
could arrive. Studies were often pursued by candlelight. Over forty young
Danes were taught both English and Danish and delved into folklore, history
and Danish traditions. Teaching was based on inspirations rather than
examinations. Math and history, as well as singing, dancing, gymnastics
and drama were added.
The Hojskole was active for three years. The building still
stands on Alisal Road and is now the Bit O’Denmark restaurant.
By 1912, it was realized that more participants were needed
to make Solvang the success that it could be and Rev. Gregersen undertook
a trip through Nebraska and Iowa and found buyers for the remaining 6,000
subdivided acreages. Imagine these buyers’ delight to find snow-free
winters in a sunny paradise.
In 1914, excitement knew no bounds when Solvang residents
got together and decided to establish a college where the folk school
could continue and enlarge. The pastor Nordentoft led the project and
scraped together $3000. Peter Albertsen and Carl Jensen donated land and
the townspeople provided free labor. Carl Jensen’s canyon was partially
cleared for a picnic area and the bowl-like terrain became the site of
great merriment, parties and entertainments for years to come. The Danes
may be hard workers but they are consummate partiers too! A few sips of
Akavit could get any party on its way.
When the top roof beam of the Atterdag college building was
put into place, it signaled that it was time for a wonderful traditional
Danish party called a rejsegilde. Many of the workers climbed a-top the
three-story edifice for an historic photo. The date was August 25, 1914.
(According to the memoirs of Anna Vincentia Bacher and Hans H. Nordentoft
“an erection party was held on October 15th, 1914.”)
Reverend Nordentoft, who had been the president of Grandview College in
Iowa, was the president of Atterdag College for ten years. He and his
wife, Mary, had eleven children all of whom were christened with the middle
name “Atterdag” which means “another day.” The
college continued to enrich its students with regular classes until 1937.
After that it continued as a boarding house, and site of many community
functions and church events. Under the inspired direction of Viggo Tarnow,
it operated every summer as a six-week summer school that was noted for
its excellent gymnastic curriculum for one hundred students. The vigorous
Tarnow continued his duties in spite of advancing age until 1950, when
he decided to retire. When need for the building gradually dwindled, it
was taken down in 1970, and the Santa Ynez Recovery Residence was erected
on the site, now adjacent to the Solvang Lutheran Home.
Visiting the village of Solvang is more exciting and interesting
when one knows and appreciates the story of how good-hearted pioneers
of sturdy Danish stock, lived out their dreams and brought them into reality
through hard work and the spirit of cooperation.