Long-ago immigrants to the United States sought reminders of home and hopes for prosperity in New World landscapes. Within the Midwest are small towns with big pride in their ethnic heritage. These places, population 3,500 or fewer, flaunt and invest in their cultural roots, as others homogenize or disappear with the passage of time.
Here are some of those charming cultural islands:
Elk Horn, Iowa
"Danmark pa Praerien" ("Denmark on the Prairie") is the name that Danish filmmakers gave their one-hour documentary on this village in 2013.
Next to cornfields at the outskirts of town is the Museum of Danish America, which has so many artifacts that storage units are rented off-site. This summer's opening of a $3million addition shows off more than before.
Expect a 30-acre museum park named after landscape architect Jens Jensen, stories about Danish immigration, the late Victor Borge's first piano, a genealogy center and a gift shop with popular Denmark products (Dansk place settings, Piet Hein glassware, Danish Modern home decor, woven Danish hearts).
Also in Elk Horn, 70 miles northeast of Omaha, Neb., is an imported 1848 windmill (60 feet tall and the town's welcome center), a 1908 Bedstemor's Hus (Danish grandmother's house) and a VikingHjem (replica of a Viking blacksmith's home). The Danish Inn (712-764-4250, danishinnrestaurant.com) routinely makes pretzel-shaped kringle (pastry with almond filling) and serves a Sunday buffet of Danish foods (open-faced sandwiches, braised red cabbage, medisterpolse sausage).
The June 21 Sankt Hans Aften, a midsummer celebration since Viking days, means singing and folk dancing around a bonfire. More elaborate are a re-created Viking encampment and a procession of locally chosen royalty at Tivoli Fest in late May. New this year was the leverpostej (liver pate) recipe contest.
Kimballton, population 322 and three miles north, is home to a sculpture garden with fairy tale themes: The biggest replicates "The Little Mermaid" by Hans Christian Andersen. 712-764-7472, danishvillages.com
Facing the Mississippi River 60 miles southeast of Dubuque, Iowa, and near the Great River Road is a 90-foot-tall windmill constructed in the Netherlands for this little town, whose first Dutch settler arrived in 1856. The building sits atop a river dike, above the 62-mile Great River Trail, a biking/hiking path that follows the riverfront from Rock Island to Savanna, Ill.
The windmill's grinding stones each weigh at least a ton and rotate to produce buckwheat. The flour and Delft pottery are sold at the Windmill Cultural Center (815-589-4033, tinyurl.com/fultonwindmill), home to 22 much smaller, European-style windmills.
Metal fabricator J.T. Cullen added a bigger-than-life happy fisherman wearing big wooden shoes. Look for the Blue Moo (painted in the blue-white Delft style for Chicago's 1999 Cows on Parade) at the Fulton Journal newspaper office.
For sale at Fulton Meat Market (211 11th Ave., 815-589-3213) are sweet-salty licorice, tea rusk (biscuits for dunking) and other Dutch treats.
Local historian Barb Mask has long orchestrated Dutch Days during the first weekend every May; among parade highlights are street scrubbing, ethnic dancing and a Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) visit. 815-589-2616, cityoffulton.us
Hillside vineyards flank this Missouri River town of brick buildings, set up in 1837 by the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia as a place to preserve German heritage and culture. Though the spot resembled the Rhine Valley, grapes were a crop of practicality more than sentiment: That's about all immigrants could grow on the rocky land.
Before Prohibition, production at the 1847 Stone Hill Winery was the nation's second highest. Then it closed for 30 years. Now seven wineries in 20 miles form the Hermann Wine Trail (800-932-8687, hermannwinetrail.com), and some products earn national awards.
At least 150 downtown buildings form a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. Inside the Deutschheim State Historic Site (tinyurl.com/germanhistoricsite) are the 1840s houses of town founders with gardens of heirloom plants, such as an arbor of century-old grapevines.
The many lodging options include the 1840s Adam Puchta Homestead Guesthaus (573-486-5596, adampuchtahomesteadguesthouse.com), a stone cottage near a fish-stocked lake and hiking trails, and the hilltop Alpenhorn Gasthaus (573-486-8228, alpenhorngasthaus.com), which offers four-course wine dinners.
The 1878 Concert Hall and Barrel (573-486-5065, concerthallandbarrel.com) claims to have been in business longer than any tavern west of the Mississippi River, and Hermann Wurst Haus (573-206-3559, hermannwursthaus.com) grinds out many kinds of sausage, blutwurst (blood sausage) to schwartenmagen (head cheese). The next German-style party is Oktoberfest, on weekends in October. 573-486-2744, visithermann.com.
The Rev. Olof Olsson in 1869 led his Lutheran flock from Varmland, Sweden, to the agriculturally rich Smoky Valley. It is 70 miles north of Wichita.
The Dala horse, a symbol of Swedish handicrafts, is Lindsborg's official symbol; local artists painted 30 pony-sized Dalas for display across town. In Old Mill Heritage Square are seven historic buildings, including the pavilion that Sweden erected at the 1904 World's Fair.
For rent to travelers: Vetehuset (wheat house, 855-838-3487, vete-hus.com) and Tradhuset (treehouse, 855-872-3487, trad-hus.com), both sleek Scandinavian designs. A room at Swedish Country Inn (785-227-2985, swedishcountryin.com) includes house-made skorpor (a biscuit-crisp bread), served in the lobby and sold by the bag. Overnight guests and others partake in a breakfast buffet of Swedish rye, pickled herring, porridge, waffles with lingonberry syrup and more traditional fare.
Four Swedish specialty shops sell imported fare: folk art, antiques and etched glass. Art galleries add a contemporary spin to Old World techniques. At least three bakeries make Swedish pastries, such as tea ring coffeecakes, and a 3.25-mile trail for walking and bicycling is named the Valkommen (welcome) Trail.
Midsummer's Festival, a national Swedish holiday to celebrate the solstice, means Scandinavian dancing, especially around a festival pole; participants wear traditional costumes and blomkrans (a crown of flowers). The folkdanslag move to the music of local fiddlers.
Order meatballs on a stick or ostkaka (cheesecake) topped with lingonberries during this June 21 event. 785-227-8687, lindsborgcity.org.
New Glarus, Wis.
Bells on Brown Swiss cows tinkle as they graze. There is no shortage of yodelers or 12-foot-long alphorns. Classic chalets with flower boxes prevail downtown. These and other ethnic influences, 100 miles west of Milwaukee, are thanks to an 1845 immigration from Glarus, at the foothills of the Swiss Alps.
New Glarus beat out Chicago and other major cities as the Swiss Center of North America, a nonprofit that collects artifacts and promotes all things Swiss.
Inside the three-floor Chalet of the Golden Fleece Museum (618 Second St., 800-527-6838) are additional Swiss jewels, antiques and folk art. For local history lessons, tour the 14-building Swiss Historical Village and Museum.
Chalet Landhaus (608-527-5234, chaletlandhaus.com) serves traditional pastetli (creamed chicken in puff pastry) and cheese and chocolate fondues. A New Glarus Bakery (866-805-5536, newglarusbakery.com) specialty is marzipan-filled nut horns.
Ruef's (608-527-2554, ruefsmeatmarket.com), an Old World meat market, makes cervelas and schublig sausages.
New Glarus throws a party often, and the 50th Heidi Festival (with play performances) is June 27-29.
Volkfest, on Aug. 3, marks Swiss Independence Day with flag throwing and talerschwingen (a folk music game). At the Wilhelm Tell Festival, Aug. 29-30, are outdoor performances of the classic drama about Swiss independence. 608-527-2095, swisstown.com
Spring Grove, Minn.
Minnesota's first Norwegian settlement (established in 1852) gives ancestry far more than a perfunctory nod.
At the public swimming pool is a tilted Viking-style ship. Velkommen is stenciled onto Main Street flower boxes. In Viking Memorial Park is the Syttende Mai Hus (a log cabin for public gatherings) and statues of Norse explorer Leif Ericson, town founder Mons Fladager and Peter Rosendahl, creator of "Han Ola og Han Per," a long-running newspaper comic strip.
Children in "Norwegian Ridge," as the area is known, attend a four-day summer language camp that also introduces Norwegian weaving, baking, sports and crafts.
Giants of the Earth Heritage Center (507-498-5070, springgrovemnheritagecenter.org) arranges classes for adults, too, in a building with murals depicting life in Norway and a gift shop that sells rosemaling, Nordic sweaters and more.
Bluff Country Artists Gallery (507-498-2787, bluffcountryartistsgallery.org) sells wooden lefse sticks and krumkake rollers for less than $20 and decoratively carved chairs for $2,900. Inside L.J.'s Ye Old Wash & Playhouse (507-498-3902), a funky laundry and resale shop, are carved "Norsky walking sticks," and the Yah Sure You Betcha Shoppe (507-498-3796, facebook.com/YouBetchaShoppe) sells "Lefse Ninja" T-shirts and aprons.
Uffda Fest, Oct. 3-4, marks the arrival of fall colors with a kubb tournament (wooden batons topple wooden blocks on a lawn), quilt sales, Norwegian singing and storytelling. 507-498-5221, springgrovemn.com
Spring Grove is 20 miles northeast of Decorah, Iowa, population 8,217, home to the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. 563-382-9681, vesterheim.orgCopyright © 2015, CT Now