Spring 2004 - Archives

Remember When?
By Pat Murphy

  DEEP 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 Rasmussen.
  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 a month.
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.


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