Danish Days In Solvang
by William Etling
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Solvang will celebrate the 72nd annual Danish Days from Friday, September 19, through Sunday, September 21.
The event is sponsored by the Danish Days Foundation and honors the establishment of Solvang by Danish-American educators in 1911.
What was it like to be an early settler in Solvang? The first wave of Danes came to a treeless plain as dry and dusty in summer as a lunar landscape. A Swedish doctor visiting the Mission in 1846 said, "The great want of shade and trees does not make it a pleasant residence. The winds are very troublesome."
Rev. B. Nordentoft, Rev. J.M.Gregersen, and P.P. Hornsyld formed the Danish American Corporation in October 1910, and bought around 9,000 acres of the Rancho San Carlos de Jonata (St. Charles of the wooded place) for $40 an acre.
Escrow closed in January of 1911, and Mr. Frese and the first settlers, Mr. and Mrs. Sophus Olsen, Hans Skytt, John Petersen and John Ahrenkild, arrived on January 28. They planned to establish a colony patterned after the Danish college of Grand View in Des Moines, Iowa. The first hotel and folk school were southwest of the corner of Mission Drive and Alisal Road, on what was then the main highway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Mamie Goulet was living with her uncle, Father Buckler, across the road in the Mission Santa Ines when the Danes arrived. She didn't think they'd stick.
Early settlers had their own doubts. When Paul Iverson arrived on November 20, 1911, riding in on the narrow gauge to Los Olivos from the Black Hills of South Dakota, he thought, "I won't stay in this Godforsaken country." Fifty years later, farmer Iverson was still there.
Mrs. Johanna Albertsen arrived in 1911, coming by train to Gaviota. "There was a wagon there with four horses. Eleven of us got in it with all our boxes and suitcases to come to Solvang," she related in 1961. "I cried when I came to Solvang," Mrs. Albertsen admitted. "I liked my house in Iowa. I always wanted a bigger house, but I never got it."
Astrid Lauritzen said, "We carried our water. No electricity, no plumbing, nothing. We had a meat safe in a tree."
A somewhat cheerier Axel Nielsen was 13 when he arrived in November of 1911. "All that was there was the Mission, the hotel, the folk school, the store, a barn, the Jensen residence, and the Sorensen house," he recalled in 1961. "We had to gather the wood, as we all had wood stoves in those days. I milked the cow morning and night...The river bottom was our playground," said Axel, whose father, Marcus, founded Nielsen's Market, still in the family today.
"We swam and fished and had school picnics there. We had an old swimming hole and it makes me sick to see it go. We took our horses and dogs and fish poles along whenever we went...There were three or four stores in Santa Ynez then - that was the big town," he recalled. Axel drove the team to Gaviota and picked up some newcomers. "On the way to Solvang, I can remember the oldest Olsen girl asking, Is Solvang in America? The stage passed us. The girls thought it was quite exciting."
Young Ella Albertsen Christensen waited tables at the Solvang Hotel and helped the first cook, Betty Rasmussen Skytt. They served 25 for dinner, "like one big happy family," she remembered.
Mrs. Skytt baked bread in two big wood stove ovens, Monday through Friday. 'You wouldn't believe me if I told you how many loaves were baked each day," she told the Valley News. It was a full house. Overflow guests were sleeping on the floor between the tables in the dining room, and in the barn out back.
"I will never forget how funny it was whenever a new girl came to Solvang," reminisced Margrethe Wulff. "All the bachelors fell over each other trying to be the first to meet her."
There were deadlier country customs. Mrs. Wulff left baby Hans in his carriage outside the front door of their cottage. Some boys across the street then used the buggy for target practice. Hans was rescued in time. "I promise never to do it again," swore Harold Campbell.
"I planted barley and oats, dry farming," said Niels Petersen. Originally from Denmark, he heard about the new venture in Fresno and drove a lumber wagon and two teams to Solvang. "One-third of our crops went to the ground squirrels. Jack rabbits ate lots of crops. Deer lived in the brush and came out at night and ate the crops. There were lots of coyotes," said Mr. Petersen.
"Quail, cottontails and lots of fish," George Scheldt said. "The river ran practically all year."
The venture teetered on the edge of bankruptcy in 1912. J.C. Burchardi nominated Pastor Gregersen to mount a sales drive through Nebraska and Iowa. The Reverend closed 3,000 acres, saving the day.
The first community mailbox stood on a post near Mission Drive and Alisal. The stage came through at 9 am from Los Olivos and 4 pm from Gaviota. Around 1913 the horses lost their job to a car.
As late as 1927, the telephones were part-time. When the operator went home, the lines shut down for the day.
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William Etling is a 41 year resident of Santa Ynez, and the author of Sideways in Neverland: Life in the Santa Ynez Valley.