SKÅL SOLVANG - CELEBRATING 110 YEARS OF HISTORY AND CULTURE
Elverhøj Highlights Solvang’s Founding throughout 2021: Skål Solvang – Celebrating 110 Years of History & Culture
Visitors to Solvang today are welcomed by a picturesque downtown of half-timber Old World, Danish-style buildings and windmills. The story behind the downtown facades dates back 110 years.
After an extensive land search, nearly 9,000 acres of land were purchased on January 12, 1911 for a new Danish colony in the Santa Ynez Valley. The founding of this agricultural town was based on three deeply held principles: community, education and church. Within a month, settlers began to arrive and a name was selected for the new town: Solvang, literally “sunny field” in Danish.
Downtown Solvang grew quickly. Danish entrepreneurs built new businesses that provided goods and services to the growing community and the surrounding Santa Ynez Valley. Atterdag College, the Danish folk school built on a hill overlooking town, educated young adults and was the hub of the community. Solvang’s evolution from a rudimentary beginning into a success story was driven by perseverance and collaboration – a blending of American economic ideals with Danish community cooperation.
Following World War II and the January 18, 1947 publication of a feature story in Saturday Evening Post, enthusiastic tourists started visiting Solvang looking for “Little Denmark” as described in the Post article. The town turned to tourism with ever-increasing success, emphasizing Solvang’s heritage by rebuilding downtown structures in the Danish architectural style that has received national and international recognition.
Perhaps one of the most astonishing aspects of Solvang is that it has survived where many larger, more established Danish colonies in the United States did not. Through tenacity, forward thinking, sheer determination … and location … Solvang today is a vital and ever-evolving community.
The celebration of Solvang’s founding in 1911 and its 110th anniversary will be celebrated by the Elverhoj Museum of History and Art throughout 2021. “Skål Solvang – Celebrating 110 Years of History & Culture” will include special exhibitions and programming, an email series highlighting community milestones, and events when allowed.
CELEBRATING 110 Years of History and Culture
Elverhøj is honoring Solvang's founding in 1911 and its 110th anniversary using the theme “Skål Solvang – Celebrating 110 Years of History & Culture.” This is the second in a year-long series of emails highlighting community milestones.
Perhaps one of the most astonishing aspects of Solvang is that it has survived where many larger, more established Danish communities in the United States did not. What most visitors and even long-time residents don’t know is how close the town came to collapsing in the years just after its idyllic beginning in 1911.
Problems accumulated in a stealthy, devastating way. Weather, fiscal difficulties and misperceptions became serious problems.
By 1913, the nucleus of Solvang’s downtown was growing. Gaviota Road (present day Alisal Road) is visible running through the middle of the town. New homes cluster at the right along Lompoc Road (Mission Drive).
When the land sale was finalized in January of 1911, the local hills were green and the Santa Ynez River flowed nearby. The land was beautiful but very different from what the Danes had been used to, whether they were coming from the Midwest, elsewhere in the U.S. or directly from Denmark.
Despite heavy winter rains the first year, groundwater was hard to find and many test wells came up dry. The fall harvest was weak. The extended summer heat and dry spells made some settlers talk of leaving.
Water for irrigation was a perennial problem. Most early residents practiced dry farming, growing crops during winter rains and letting the land lie fallow during dry summer months. Beans & grains grew best in these conditions.
Worse, the Danish American Colony (DAC) stock used to finance the purchase of the land to establish the new town was not selling well. Verbal support remained strong, but the expected financial backing didn’t materialize. Land sales plummeted as rumors flew that Solvang land was not well suited to agriculture. Even with a two-month extension, the DAC barely made the second $100,000 payment at the end of 1912.
Every piece of open ground was used to plant crops. The front yard of the Niels Rasmussen home on Laurel Avenue sprouted beans.
The winter of 1912-13 brought a drought that led to yet another poor harvest, devastating the reputation of the fledgling colony, which was harmed further by unfounded stories of mismanagement.
By August 1913, the DAC had managed to bring in only $15,000 for the year, far short of the $100,000 needed to fulfill its contract. Disaster loomed.
Admitting defeat, the DAC directors were forced to return all unsold land – 2/3 of the 8,883-acre parcel – to the Santa Barbara Land and Water Company which put the land back up for sale.
Nevertheless, they didn’t give up. The crisis led J.M. Gregersen, one of the town’s three founders (pictured front left in photo with founders and friends on Santa Ynez River bridge in Solvang), to step down as pastor to focus solely on finding the funds Solvang needed to survive.
Gregersen pulled in every favor, twisted every arm and even traveled to the Midwest to find the money needed to save the new town. In just two months, he managed to find 25 investors who provided enough funds to buy back 5,828 acres, retire the debt, and settle with the investors. The town was now free and clear and in Danish hands as originally envisioned.
Early view of town center. The newly constructed Solvang Hotel stands behind plowed fields. Ynez School is to the right beside a tent that accommodated overflow settlers waiting for their homes to be built.
Having averted failure, the town’s leaders focused on building a thriving community and the folk school at its heart.
Learn more when we continue in March!
Missed last month’s history email? Catch up now.
With appreciation to Ann Dittmer for historical research
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Elverhøj will celebrate Solvang's founding in 1911 and its 110th anniversary using the theme “Skål Solvang – Celebrating 110 Years of History & Culture” for a series of emails highlighting community milestones and, when permitted, in-person special exhibitions and events.
Visitors to Solvang today are welcomed by a picturesque downtown of half-timber Old World, Danish-style buildings and windmills. The story behind the downtown facades is a fascinating and unique story that dates back 110 years.
Travel to the isolated Santa Ynez Valley in the early 1900s was difficult and circuitous. The Pacific Coast Railway, shown approaching its final stop in Los Olivos, brought northern travelers from Harford's Wharf near San Luis Obispo. Horse drawn carriages or wagons took them the rest of the way.
After an extensive land search in northern California, they arrived in Los Olivos riding the narrow-gauge railroad. The land they saw had once been part of the sprawling Mexican-era Rancho San Carlos de Jonata land grant. Later it had been purchased by R.T. Buell, who ranched it until a drought hit and he was forced in 1890 to sell 10,000 prime acres to the Santa Barbara Land and Development Company.
Even though the Santa Ynez Valley was then a remote area, the founders saw possibilities that made it a viable location for a new town and Danish folk school. The soil looked promising for agricultural production, the sizable Santa Ynez River flowed nearby, and best of all, the price – $338,000 – was within their reach.
They incorporated their informal land-search committee as the Danish American Colony (DAC). On January 12, 1911 they signed an agreement offering a down payment of $5,000 and a promise to pay installments of $100,000 per year for the first three years.
Within a month, settlers began to arrive and a name was selected for the new town: Solvang, literally “sunny field” in Danish.
To begin the daunting task of selling land to would-be settlers and investors, the DAC immediately advertised in all the major Danish-American newspapers. The founders sent letters and brochures to their wide network of friends and supporters, encouraging them to buy stock or land in the new colony (at prices that ranged from $25 to $130 an acre), and inviting Danish youth to attend the first co-ed folk school in the nation. The mild California winter climate was an added incentive.
Danish and American flags fly briskly in front of the folk school (left), constructed in 1911 on Gaviota Road (present day Alisal). Adjacent is the Solvang Hotel, while behind the school stands a white tent that accommodated overflow settlers waiting for their homes to be built.
The DAC founders wasted no time. After four months, the colony had built a hotel to feed and house new arrivals while their homes and barns were being constructed. The Solvang Hotel and its busy kitchen would become the center of activity during that first year. Then, on November 15, 1911, the founders opened the Danish-American folk school (the last such school built in the United States).
Early residents gather in front of the Solvang Hotel. The building was funded, in part, through stock certificates.
By the end of 1911, 80 adults were residing in Solvang, and because of robust land sales, the DAC was successful in meeting its first $100,000 payment. The first residence – the H.P. Jensen home – had been built, the folk school was a resounding success, and the nucleus of a strong business community was forming. The Lutheran church held its first services. And Solvang’s first baby had been born to the wife of the town surveyor in late summer.
On the surface, Solvang was living up to expectations. But this idyllic beginning soon began to show signs of stress.
Learn more when we continue in February!
With appreciation to Ann Dittmer for historical research.
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Elverhøj is honoring Solvang's founding in 1911 and its 110th anniversary using the theme “Skål Solvang – Celebrating 110 Years of History & Culture.” This is the third in a year-long series of emails highlighting community milestones.
In 1911, Solvang’s founders established an agricultural town based on the deeply held principles of community and education. Building a town from nothing was a massive undertaking that was stressful at best. But the new arrivals endured and remained committed to the founders and their vision that Solvang was to be the West Coast center for education focused on Danish culture and arts through the formation of a Danish-American folk school.
The first folk school in Solvang opened November 15, 1911 in a new building next to the Solvang Hotel on Gaviota Road (now Alisal Road). Today, the Bit O’ Denmark Restaurant occupies the structure, redressed in Danish Provincial style.
Folk schools were inspired – in part – by Danish theologian and educator N.F.S. Grundtvig. Classes and activities were structured to encourage intellectual pursuits, innovation and imagination in the young adult students. The institutions were non-degreed and emphasized the collective heritage of Danes.
The new school was named Ungdomsskolen i Solvang (Youth School in Solvang), although the name was rarely used. It became the most successful start of any Danish-American youth school in the United States when 41 students arrived in a town with just five buildings and where tents outnumbered finished homes.
Classes were held from November to April, 9 am to 6 pm, six days a week. While class days were long and social rules strict, fun times balanced serious studies. Pictured is an energetic bunch of men students outside a dormitory.
There was a strong shared bond among the students. Every seat will filled daily for classes in Danish and English. Evening activities such as folk dancing, guest speakers, lanterns shows of far-away places, and musical performances were attended by students as well as members of the surrounding communities.
Education that embraced mind and body was a unique part of the folk school philosophy. Gymnastics was taught outdoors every morning – rain or shine. Pictured are women gymnasts in uniform, complete with lace collar, and the men’s gymnastics class. Note the temporary tent housing in the field behind the men.
A new two-room Ynez School was erected in 1915 on Lompoc Road (Mission Drive) for a growing population of grammar school students.
Younger students were also important to the growing town. Unlike the folk school with its open curriculum intended for young adults, children had to enroll in the more structured American public education system. Before the Danish colony was founded, the one-room Ynez School, built in 1906 along Lompoc Road (Mission Drive), served eight local children from throughout the greater Santa Ynez Valley. As more and more children arrived in Solvang, a new two-room schoolhouse was built in 1915.
Although the growing town had to face many obstacles, real progress was visible in the success of the folk school. It quickly became the center of community activity and was soon to make an enormous leap forward – with a move to a new, impressive home on a hill overlooking Solvang and a new name: Atterdag College.
The Solvang story continues in March!
Elverhøj is honoring Solvang's founding in 1911 and its 110th anniversary using the theme “Skål Solvang – Celebrating 110 Years of History & Culture.” This is the April installment in a year-long series of emails highlighting community milestones.
One of the reasons for Solvang's founding was to create a Danish folk school. As we shared in last month’s email, the first folk school was built and classes began in November 1911. (The building still stands today on Alisal Road). By 1914, the town was expanding after facing significant obstacles and averting financial failure. The focus then turned back to growing to the town’s folk school.
In April 1914, Benedict Nordentoft, one of the three founders, became sole owner of the school and promptly made plans to build a larger campus. Peter and Johanne Albertsen, early Solvang settlers, donated six acres of land on a hilltop overlooking town. Nordentoft obtained a loan, solicited friends around the U.S. for donations and in fall 1914 construction began.
When the last rafter for the new college was in place, Solvang celebrated with a rejsegilde – a rafter raising celebration. Following Danish tradition, residents hung wreaths, raised the Danish and American flags, and shared food and drink.
Nearly all of the town's settlers contributed labor or money and the new school soon rose and was given a new name: Atterdag College. It's a Danish expression of hope that means "tomorrow there is a new day." The three-story building was an impressive sight with its peaked roof and gracious front porch.
Atterdag College opened in December of 1914 and the new, gleaming white building became the visual, educational and cultural center of Solvang. It was a place for learning and where young adults made lasting relationships.
The school's park in Fredensborg Canyon became an extension of the campus. Here students listened to lectures, held picnics and performances, and engaged in games and other pastimes. Remnants of the footpaths and hillside stairs remain visible today, although the location of the Talende Eg (Talking Oak, pictured) where lecturers stood on a platform built into the tree, remains a subject of local debate.
Danish folk dancing, which experienced a revival in the early 1900s, was incredibly popular at Atterdag. Nearly every evening, folk dancing would end the day's studies with lighthearted fun. Many students also took part in public folk dance shows around Southern California.
By the 1930s, enrollment in the college was in decline, a sign of the times as folk schools fell out of favor and students chose American universities. Happily, after a year of inactivity, students once again congregated on campus – but now it was youth ages 7 to 16. They came for a popular summer camp run by Viggo and Cora Tarnow from 1938-1951.
Fall through spring, Atterdag served as a much-needed boarding house and hotel for visitors, filling a critical void. The college and adjacent gymnasium were regularly used for community events – weddings, parties, conferences, church activities and local meetings – until the 1960s.
Today the gym is perhaps best remembered by the many students who attended Mr. Tarnow's weekly gymnastics classes, stretching on the bars and vaulting over the “horses,” until it closed in 1970.
In 1950, six acres of the campus were donated for creation of a new retirement facility which opened in 1953, shown in the foreground of the photo. The retirement home, known today as Atterdag Village of Solvang, grew, but for a variety of reasons the college's main building was ultimately left vacant. Disuse led to disrepair and by 1970 the difficult decision was made to demolish the college structure and make room for growth of the retirement home.
Today a plaque commemorating the site of Atterdag College is all that remains. But many of the town's original buildings still stand in the downtown. The structures that housed the first folk school, the meat market, the feed store, the mercantile and other early Solvang businesses live on, re-dressed in Danish Provincial style.
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