Decorah, Iowa

Going old-school in America's most Norwegian town.

Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa
Photo by Katherine Harris
Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm

Oh, Pioneers

Prior to the First World War, one-third of Norway’s population left for America, a fact that still astounds me. Imagine Minnesota if its 15 most populated cities pulled up stakes for a place halfway around the world! Many Norsk pioneers ended up around these parts, of course, but some—including my great-grandmother’s family—settled in what is now Iowa’s Winneshiek County, eventually building (along with more Lutheran churches than you can shake an ugly sweater at) the city of Decorah.

Though it isn’t as Norwegian as it once was, Decorah still makes a charming show of its heritage, the kind even my middle-school boys will put up with. The city’s cultural anchor, the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, includes samples of rosemaling, a painting technique that local artisans kept alive even as it faded in the mother country. True, the kids snored through that stuff, but they perked up for the 25-foot wooden sailboat, and the story of the Norwegian brothers who sailed it to the Chicago World’s Fair.

It helped that downtown Decorah is adorably walkable. In one afternoon, we skipped from museum to quilt shop to art gallery to food co-op to 1950s-esque ice cream parlor. We also explored Luther College, one of the prettiest campuses in the country, where the choir is so Nordic it’s officially called “the Nordic Choir.” So take that, St. Olaf.

To get a taste of what my immigrant relatives went through, we stayed at the Pepperfield Project, a nonprofit teaching farm. Proprietor David Cavagnaro fed us vegetable varieties only available to pioneers, plus a goat cheese brie he made in the basement—but only after we helped him milk the goat. Great-grandma Nelson would have been so proud.

—Stephanie Wilbur Ash

Our favorite stops in and along the way to Decorah, Iowa. Stay at a hotel (or a farm!) and discover plenty of things to do around town with the family.  

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