Solvang I: Denmark has the Corner on California

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Welcome to a corner of California that is forever the home of Hamlet and Hans Christian Andersen: windmills, half-timbered houses, painted panels, Danish pastries, and even The Little Mermaid.

Solvang is surely different from other Californian places. The street traffic seems restrained and the people less hurried — and around you stand what appear to be pieces of a Mother Goose village. Who says you can’t go home again? This is home. You are visiting Grandmother’s, or you would be if your grandmother lived a hundred years ago in Denmark.

Welcome to a corner of California that is forever the home of Hamlet and Hans Christian Andersen: windmills, half-timbered houses, painted panels, Danish pastries and even The Little Mermaid, wistful perhaps for her Copenhagen.

Solvang’s history is laid out all around you. On the walls of its restaurants, in its shop windows and especially in the rooms of the Elverhoj Museum of History and Art, a mere five blocks south of Mission Drive, the main drag.

The Elverhoj Museum is housed in the former home of two gifted artists, the older one Viggo Brandt-Erichsen who was born in Denmark in 1896, studied in Paris and became a friend of Pablo Picasso. He came to the United States in 1926. His wife, Martha “Patt” Mott, was born in New York City in 1905, trained in art schools in Boston and Rome and taught art in Solvang.

They built and decorated the house themselves from the dovetailed and pegged ceiling beams to the pretty patterns on the bricks.

“It was,” says Tara, our guide, “their 1949 to 1952 American Story.”

Later, Viggo and Martha donated their home to the town as its museum. The kitchen is gaily decorated with cheerful hand-painted panels, and clogs are set out to air under the 1850 Voss kitchen stove. A doll’s house stands beside a bassinet decorated with scenes from Hans Christian Andersen stories.

One-third of Denmark’s population emigrated to the United States in the half century from 1861 to 1910. In the 1880s alone 90,000 hardworking persons came because they could not find employment in their country’s depressed economy and they did not care to live “under the Prussian rule that followed the war of 1864.”

They came to America for the same reason “the Prussians” had come in the previous century: to escape Europe’s insufferable feudal system and find work and a better life. And to discover more freedom and a greater social equality. The U.S. Homestead Act of 1862 that offered land to immigrants was a huge inducement also.

The museum rooms show the fastidious nature of the original Danish housewives even to the presence of weights worthy of a chemist’s shop with a prominent spot in the kitchen. One can imagine the care required for those European belongings to look as pristine as they do almost a century later.

The Danes brought their lifestyle with them.

“They were used to the rural life, to austere living,” Tara says. “Sometimes there was only one room for the family and, next door, a small barn for the animals.”

Many of the baby clothes on display, says a museum placard, were made on board the ship bringing the families to California in the fall of 1880. Danish immigrants, like all newcomers to America, were drawn to existing national colonies and clung to each other for “mutual support and ethnic identity.”

Solvang was the dream of three Danish immigrants who were living in America’s Midwest. They formed a company in 1910 to buy land in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. The plan they successfully followed was to subdivide, sell and farm the land with profits being used to build a Danish-style folk school.

In the photograph above (courtesy of the Elverhoj Museum of History & Art) the land agent is standing on our left beside Professor Hornsyld, who has two ministers over on his left. It sure looks like the town will get its school and a church! Today how Solvang feels about its history is apparent in the Lutheran church, where the hanging tributes mention both the past and the future. It would seem all very solemn except there is a pride and joviality, a sense of fun, in the streets in the shop windows.

Solvang doesn’t want to change too much. There are no chain stores in town, not if they have more than five stores in the United States so, for sure, there’s no Starbuck’s. No fast food shops (the exception is a Subway that got grandfathered in), but it does have needlecraft and quilting shops and four wine bars with 13 tasting rooms and several cheese-making stores. It has five windmills, none functioning as such and it has five museums within two square miles, one being the Mission.

The Old Mission Santa Ines was founded in 1804, the nineteenth in the chain of missions the Catholic Church ran up the coastline of what became California. The Mission has endured political turmoil and financial reverses “to emerge as one of the most successful of the southern Californian Missions.”

On display at the Old Mission Santa Ines are vestments reputedly worn by the celebrated Fr. Junipero Serra who lived from 1713 to 1784 and dynamically established the Californian Mission chain (and a chain it was for the natives). The Mission, a National Historic Landmark, is dark and a little intimidating as old buildings often are. In contrast the Bethania Lutheran Church, built in 1928, is light and open. Every year a Dec. 23 service is held in Danish.

“What do you think Solvang offers visitors?” we ask a local sitting near us in Olsen’s Bakery. She thinks for a moment, brushes some pastry powder from her lips and says, “A different way of life — at a slower pace. It’s easier to see things at that pace. For example, just yesterday, I said to a friend, ‘Haven’t those clouds been just beautiful?’ and she knew exactly what I was talking about.”

So do we — and we’ll tell you about Olsen’s next week.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.