Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Danish Day in Elk Horn, Iowa

I have a relatively (ahem!) long list of genealogy road trips on my wish list. Many of them are one-day trips and yesterday I was able to visit the Museum of Danish America in Elk Horn, Iowa. If you have even an ounce of Danish blood in you, this is a museum and community you must visit as part of your genealogy journey. Elk Horn is a community of 662 people as of the 2010 census. It's about a two hour drive from my home in Lincoln, Nebraska, so I have been waiting for a warmer and sunny day to make the trip. My genealogy pal, Judy Shutts of Voices in Time, is always eager for a road trip and we were both ready for a getaway.

We left Lincoln about 8 a.m., which seems to come way too early since I've been retired. This month marks the third anniversary of my retirement from public service with the state of Nebraska. Wow, how time flies! That put us into Elk Horn about 10 a.m. and our first stop was the Museum of Danish America.

The Museum of Danish America
With the cold Iowa wind blowing, it was a bit chilly, so we quickly got some exterior photos of the museum as we left.

I'm looking forward to a return visit during warmer weather so I can see the 30 acres of prairie surrounding the museum in the Jens Jensen Prairie Landscape Park. I'm sure it will be an amazing experience, as compared with the windy 40 degree temperatures we experienced yesterday!

I really didn't have a huge expectation of what information I might discover about my Danish heritage. Mostly, I wanted to learn more about what motivated my people to immigrate to America. My Danes are the only line of my heritage that I've been able to track "across the pond" - mainly due to the exceptional census records available on the Danish Demographic Database. Because of these records, I've gone back to my fourth great grandfather, Povel Madsen, in the 1700s.

The flags of Denmark and The United States
of America fly proudly outside the museum.
It was pretty exciting a few years ago when I found my ancestors on a passenger list on One must always think outside the box when doing genealogy. My family came to the U.S. via Canada with the intent of settling in Waterloo, Black Hawk county, Iowa. Based on what I know about migration patterns, I still assume that there must have been someone they knew who had already come to Waterloo - or some reason that they knew that was where they were headed. I didn't get the answers on this research trip, but it continues to be one of the questions I'm pursuing in tracking my family from Denmark to the United States.

The Museum of Danish America is a wonderful museum dedicated to the Danish in America. The exhibits are well curated and provide a lot of history about the Danish in America. I often have the tendency to rush through the museums I visit, but I took my time in reading the explanations about immigration - I really wanted to learn more about why my ancestors came to the U.S. when they did.

Choosing a New Land
These explanations at the museum provided some background on what motivated the Danish to come to America.

The lower level of the museum includes a glass enclosed case of many family heritage artifacts, including the iconic blue plates (we had a few of these in the family at one time), knick knacks, musical instruments, china and household items, items specific to the Danish Brotherhood of America. There was no public access to view the items in the collection close-up. I imagine that it might be possible to observe these under the supervision of museum staff. I didn't ask.

The "cocoa set" that belonged to
my great grandmother Caroline Petersen
Among the heirlooms passed down to me is what my Dad referred to as a "cocoa set" which may also be called a "chocolate pot." It includes a tall pitcher, a bowl, four cups and four saucers. I currently display this set in my "family heritage center" in my home.

Judy and me at the museum
Here's a composite photo I made for Instagram of Judy and me at the museum and the signs at the genealogy center which is on Main Street, a couple blocks from the museum.

After our visit to the museum, we had lunch at Larsen's Pub. I only had to see that one could have a burger with Havarti cheese to know what I wanted for lunch! That's been one of my favorite cheeses for a long time, and knowing it originated in Denmark made it even more special.

After finishing lunch, Judy asked the proprietor where the genealogy center was located. This was a pretty good question in a small community. Immediately, he replied, "Right next door!" Wow. We didn't even have to move the car!

An afternoon of research

As mentioned earlier, I didn't have a lot of expectations of what I might find at the genealogy library. I had taken along some printouts of family group sheets with the information I have collected on this line of my family history. As an afterthought, I tossed my Kindle Fire in my bag, with the Ancestry app. Several times I had to refer to my family tree to get specific information on names and dates.

The ladies in the library were extremely helpful. As I read through books on Cedar Falls, Iowa and Black Hawk county, I found some information about what attracted the Danes to this part of America. It was the kind of information I had been looking for. After a while, the ladies showed me the original documents from Denmark they had discovered about my family! Not only had they found birth, baptism and marriage records, but also photographs of the churches where the baptisms and marriages had occurred. Part of the service they offer to researchers is to transcribe the Danish records into English. I really felt I had hit the mother lode of family history research! To say that I did the "Genealogy Happy Dance" is an understatement!

These are the original documents (in Danish) that the staff printed
and translated for me, as well as photographs of the churches
where the baptisms and marriages occurred.
I found this death record information about my 2nd great grandfather,
Peder Jeremiasen, in a book published by the Iowa Genealogical Society.
I didn't want to be on the road too long after day turned in to night, so we left the library about 4 pm. We still wanted to visit the Danish Windmill, so we stopped there on our way out of town.

The Danish Windmill

Danmark Sweatshirt and
some Carlsberg Elephant Beer

I've been wanting to get a red sweatshirt (without Go Big Red on it), and I found this at the Danish Windmill. I've never had Danish beer before, so I bought a six pack of Carlsberg Elephant Beer. The taste is quite similar to Corona. You've got to have Danish beer at least once in your lifetime!

What can I say? It is SO COOL to go somewhere where they know that your surname is spelled with "sen" rather than "son." !!! Rock On!

Kudos to Michele at the Museum of Danish America library for her exceptional help and the translations, and teaching me how to pronounce Jeremiasen properly! And to the other ladies who helped with my research yesterday. Yes, I will definitely be back! And today, I submitted my payment for membership to support the museum. Yesterday's Genealogy Road Trip far exceeded my expectations!

Michele asked to photocopy my Family Group Sheets so they could begin a file on "my people." It was a no brainer for me to oblige. I plan to compile a binder of the information I've gathered so far, with printouts and copies of documents. I want to leave behind some bread crumbs on my family line for future researchers.

I always thought that my Danish line would be the most difficult to track because of the patronymic naming system - changing surnames with each generation. Who knew that it was going to be the easiest and the first of my ancestral lines I would find "across the pond"?

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a wonderful day Susan. My ancestors lived in Mitchell County, about 4 hours north of Elk Horn. I hope to get there one day and have the success you did.