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The History of Solvang, the Heritage of Denmark  

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Solvang, founded in 1911, began as a dream of three Danish immigrants: Reverend Benedict Nordentoft, Reverend J. M. Gregersen, and Professor P. P. Hornsyld. They planned to raise money to buy a large tract of land on the West Coast and subdivide it into plots for farms, homes, and a town for Danish immigrants. Profits from the sale of land would be used for building a Danish-style folk school. Also planned was a Lutheran church.

Solvang Founders
Solvang founders: Pictured (left to right) are Mads Frese (land agent), P. P. Hornsyld, Benedict Nordentoft, and J. M. Gregerson.

In January, 1911 the Danish-American Colony corporation bought almost 10,000 acres of prime land in the Santa Ynez Valley, California. The new colony was named “Solvang” (meaning sunny field) and glowing advertisements were placed in Danish-language newspapers. Early buyers, almost all Danish, came from California, the Midwest, and Denmark.

Solvang 1918
“Rock” Sorensen and his roadster, 1918.

Settlers soon arrived and began establishing necessary businesses. The Solvang Hotel opened in July, 1911. A general merchandise store soon followed, as did a creamery, a bakery, a bank, and a butcher shop, among others. The little town was growing.

Copenhagen Drive 1919
Solvang's Main Street, 1919 (now Copenhagen Drive).

Most of the early settlers were farmers. They quickly built barns for their livestock and farming equipment, then houses for their families. Irrigation systems were started in 1912, and a variety of crops were grown year round. Dairy farming, a tradition in Denmark, flourished. Some of the men worked on nearby ranches.

Hay cutting
Horses provided the power for many farm tasks in early Solvang.

True to the founders’ plan, Solvang built a folk school, which opened November 15, 1911. Designed for young adults as a “school for life,” it offered a broad range of courses, from Danish arts and crafts, singing, folk dancing, and gymnastics, to bookkeeping, history, English and Danish language classes, and more. Out-of-town students lived at the school.

Atterdag students
Atterdag College students.

In 1914, the folk school moved to its new home, an imposing white structure on a hill overlooking the town, and took a new name, Atterdag College. For years Atterdag was the heart and soul of Solvang. It was used as a folk school, a community meeting hall, a performing arts venue, a gymnastics center, a summer school, and a boarding house (see the 18-minute video about Atterdag College that Elverhøy Museum helped produce).

Atterdag College
Atterdag College building.

Atterdag College also provided church facilities. (Although the Bethania Congregation was formed in January 1912, a church was not built until 1928.) When the college finally closed its doors in 1952, its site and some of its facilities were used by the Solvang Lutheran Home, now called Atterdag Village of Solvang.

Bethania 1929
Bethania Lutheran Church in 1929.

The Danes of Solvang rapidly became acculturated. They learned English, followed American ways, and sent their children to the local grammar school. But they also kept Danish traditions. They spoke Danish amongst themselves and formed Danish fraternal organizations. They cooked Danish food and pastries. They celebrated Danish holidays and kept alive Danish folk dancing and singing.

In 1936, the 25th anniversary of Solvang’s founding, the people in Solvang decided to throw a party. The three-day celebration (June 5-7) included a torch-light procession, plays, pageants, a parade, folk dancing and singing, a concert, barbecue, and a street dance — and was a huge success. In 1937 Solvang put on another celebration and the tradition of Danish Days was born.

Folk dancers
Danish folk dancing at Atterdag College, late 1940s.

The 1940s brought great anxieties to the Danish colony, as well as great changes. Nazi Germany occupied their former home, Denmark, and their new homeland was actively fighting in World War II. Danish-Americans signed up for military service, and the home front went all out in the war effort.

In January 1947, the Saturday Evening Post magazine published a feature article about the “spotless Danish village that blooms like a rose in California’s charming Santa Ynez Valley.” The enticing article with its stunning photographs started a stream of visitors to Solvang, which became known as the “Danish Capital of America.”
Solvang decided its look should reflect the town’s Danish culture. New buildings were constructed in the Danish provincial style; older buildings were remodeled; Danish-style windmills were built. “Main Street” became “Copenhagen Drive,” and other streets were given Danish names. See Danish Street Names [PDF file] for translations of Solvang street names.

Copenhagen Square
Copenhagen Square was designed by Ferd Sorensen and built in 1947 by Ray Paaske and his brother Erwin "Youngie" Paaske.

On three festive occasions Solvang has welcomed Danish Royal Family members. Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Ingrid of Denmark visited Solvang on April 7, 1939. Princess Margrethe visited on June 5, 1960, and then returned on May 23, 1976 as Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, this time accompanied by her husband Prince Henrik.

Princess Margrethe
Princess Margrethe on her Solvang visit in 1960.

Solvang has forged strong cultural ties with Denmark. Danes are familiar with and intrigued by the Danish community in California. Many Danish Americans consider Solvang their cultural home and visit regularly. Denmark’s ambassador to the United States recently visited and cultural exchanges are on-going.

Solvang CentennialOn September 22-24, 1961, Solvang celebrated its Golden Jubilee with a banquet, torchlight parade, dance and song fest, bleskiver breakfasts, folk dancing, gymnastic performances, a barbecue, art exhibit, a street dance, and a colorful historical pageant parade. In 2011 Solvang will celebrate its Centennial with a year-long series of activities and events. For more information, visit solvang100.com or solvangusa.com.

As Solvang grew, it added more amenities: a continuing care retirement home (now Atterdag Village of Solvang); enlarged public schools; a hospital (now Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital); the outdoor Festival Theater; Hans Christian Andersen Park; and the Elverhøj Museum of History and Art. New home developments, new businesses, more civic organizations, and more volunteer programs also added to Solvang’s vitality.

Beauty and the Beast
A performance of Beauty and the Beast at the Solvang Festival Theater.

Ever since its founding, Solvang had been governed by Santa Barbara County, but its citizens wanted more local control. In 1951 the Solvang Municipal Improvement District (SMID) was formed, which had some of a city’s basic authority. In 1985 Solvang incorporated as a general law city, with the entire SMID Board elected as Solvang’s first city council.

Today Solvang is a charming town of approximately 5,400 residents. Despite tourism, it has kept its small town atmosphere. Although only 10% of the residents now claim Danish ancestry, the Danish heritage is part of the texture of everyday life that gives Solvang its unique look and atmosphere. 

Solvang, California

See also The History of Solvang’s Danish Look.

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