A Great Danish American Birthday - Tom Knudsen

  • September 10, 2021
  • September 10, 2022
  • 2 sessions
  • September 10, 2021 (CDT)
  • September 10, 2022 (CDT)

A GREAT DANISH AMERICAN BIRTHDAY - TOM KNUDSEN

Thorkild Rostgaard (Tom) Knudsen was born September 10, 1890 in the Danish country village of Lohals on the island of Langeland.  Shortly after his birth his mother passed away and Tom's father, Valdemar Knudsen, had to raise four children by himself. Tom found his first job as an errand boy for a tobacco manufacturer when he was nine years old. He attended school in the mornings and worked in the afternoons.  In 1902, Tom won a scholarship to a technical school and, at sixteen, he graduated with high grades.  He dreamed about owning his own farm.  For the next three years he worked his way up to better and better jobs on various dairy farms in Denmark.  He soon realized he could not earn enough in Denmark to make his dream come true.  He had a strong sense of adventure.  Tom decided to travel to America where there were “golden opportunities”.

Tom left Denmark when he was twenty years old and emigrated to America.  He paid his way across the Atlantic by peeling potatoes. He arrived in New York on May 30, 1910.  He believed one should have integrity, ambition, and live by the Golden Rule.  He was not afraid of hard work and worked as a hospital janitor in his first job. He soon became a farmhand on a progressively managed dairy farm.  He learned a management style that he would carry forward to his own business. He was treated as an associate, and his boss gave suggestions rather than orders. Management and employees dined together and each employee was addressed by his first name. This was in stark contrast to prevailing customs, and highly unusual in an era when most employees were treated with little or no respect. Employees were considered members of the family.  He studied the American dairy production process and determined he could improve the quality and taste of many products.  He then discovered he could make more money as a fireman on a locomotive and get paid to travel, so he took a fireman’s correspondence course.  He found a job with the New York Central railway.  By 1912 he had saved enough money and returned to Denmark to buy a dairy farm and fulfill his dream. It only took him a few days to realize that the American way of life had “gotten under my skin”.  He returned to America a year later.

He earned his way across America by shoveling coal, and finally in the fall of 1914 he founded a consulting dairy laboratory called Knudsen laboratories with his brother Carl who had preceded him to Southern California.  They acted as consultants and showed dairies how to keep their products fresher longer.  The brothers soon patented a process for making cottage cheese which they licensed to dairy product manufacturers throughout the nation.  The new product was well received and they prospered.  But the war came in 1917 and the two brothers gave the government their patented process as a contribution to the “Food Will Win the War” campaign.  In doing so they gave away the lab’s most important asset. Tom and Carl Knudsen relinquished personal financial security to help in the war effort.  

At the end of the war the Knudsen brothers were without their patent and the laboratory was no longer profitable. Tom had to start all over again. Tom and Carl began producing their own buttermilk for the Southern Pacific railroad and Knudsen Laboratories began its rapid expansion. Quality, taste, and customer service were the engines of growth.  In 1924 Tom and Carl decided to divide the business between them. Carl wanted to specialize in yogurt and Tom took the remainder of the dairy products including ice cream, mixes, buttermilk, and cottage cheese. On July 17, 1925 Tom made his full commitment to America when he became a naturalized citizen.

He subsequently changed the company’s name to Knudsen Creamery.  He began with three employees, a second hand delivery truck, a few hundred dollars in borrowed capital, some used machinery, and his personal philosophy of high-quality and fair dealings.  His zeal for excellence created superior products.  His philosophy became the company’s slogan: “The Very Best”. The Knudsen Creamery became known for its high quality products, it's impeccable customer service, and a great place to work because Tom Knudsen treated his employees like he had been treated years before on the New York dairy farm. Eighteen years after arriving in America Tom Knutson was recognized as an undisputed authority within the dairy industry and set the standards that others would follow. The business grew to 32 dairies in California

Tom met his wife Valley at the Danish American Club in Los Angeles in 1916. They were married December 14, 1917.  Tom and Valley became the proud parents of Elinor Gene and later adopted Marie, an orphaned Danish American girl. As time passed Tom and Valley both became more and more involved with civic activities and gave both time and money to help others.  In the 1930’s the Knudsen’s raised money to help underwrite expenses for Danish athletes competing in the 1932 Olympic games in Los Angeles. The funds left over were used as seed money for the Danish Cheer Committee, now part of The Danish Lutheran Church and Cultural Center, which aided and assisted needy Danes.

After World War II when many Danes wanted to immigrate to the United States, Tom and Valley personally sponsored more than 100 people. They were, in effect, the uncrowned leaders of the Danish community and created strong ties between Denmark and California.  For their involvement, Tom was Knighted by His Majesty King Frederick IX of Denmark as Commander of the Order of Dannebrog and Valley was awarded the King Christian X Liberty Medal.

Valley Mary Knudsen (Filtzer) was born March 24,1895 in Chicago, Illinois and moved to Los Angeles when she was nine.  Valley became one of the most active civic leaders Los Angeles has ever known, at times holding literally dozens of civic posts simultaneously. Her greatest and certainly her most lasting achievement was the founding of Los Angeles Beautiful in 1949.  She served as president for the next 20 years. This organization planted trees and removed trash from the cities streets. Her campaign was so successful that by one estimate Los Angeles Beautiful had planted 250,000 trees valued at $6 million in 15 years. Under her leadership the organization helped landscape numerous public facilities, converted fourteen miles of deserted railways into green spaces and fought a tireless battle against urban litter.  Los Angeles Beautiful became the model for similar efforts in communities across the country. Tom passed away October 29, 1965 and Valley September 10, 1976. 

The Danish Church and Cultural Center in Yorba Linda would not have been built without the financial support from the Tom and Valley Knudsen Foundation. The Tom and Valley Knudsen Foundation was established in 1951 and provided moral and financial support to worthy community causes. The Tom and Valley Knudsen Foundation had generously donated over $1 million to construction of the Danish Lutheran Church and Cultural Center. The Danish Cultural Center was named the Tom and Valley Knudsen Cultural Center in honor of their support to the entire Danish community.

Knudsen Biography from The Danish Lutheran Church of Southern California 100 Years - A Century of Trials and Triumphs

Photos of portrait and bust from the Tom and Valley Knudsen Cultural Center



National Foundation for Danish America
PO Box 1003
Wilmette, Illinois 60091

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