Get ready to fall in love — just as thousands of others do when they first discover the beauty and magic of Decorah and Winneshiek County in northeast Iowa. Just an hour’s drive from La Crosse, visitors to the area find incomparable scenic beauty, towering limestone bluffs, cascading waterfalls, and stunning vistas of the Upper Iowa River.
The area is also rich in history, fascinating museums and attractions, architectural beauty, quaint shop and boutiques, award-winning restaurants, recreational opportunities, and fun-filled festivals and events.
Nature lovers, canoers, bikers, hikers, anglers and others cherish the area for its recreational offerings. Decorah and Winneshiek County’s extensive and growing trail system is the ideal setting for a romantic evening stroll, power walk, or challenging bluff-side workout. Biking enthusiasts at all levels love the area for its diversity of trails. In fact, mountain biking in the Decorah area was recently named one of the “52 Great American Weekends (under $200) in the United States” by Men’s Journal magazine.
The Upper Iowa River offers some of the best canoeing in the tri-state area, but don’t take our word for it. National Geographic Adventure magazine called it “One of the top 100 adventures in the United States.” This is what their editors had to say: “Sections of the Upper Iowa River have deep, narrow valleys heavily wooded with pine and cedar, maple, birch, oak and hickory. Steep limestone bluffs — some are 300 to 400 feet tall — create massive, craggy backdrops to the river’s tight bends. Cliffs have been carved into unusual palisadelike configurations by eons of weather and water. The most outstanding are the tall, slender conical bluffs, called chimney rocks, about four miles upstream from Bluffton.”
After the days of summer and fall have passed and the Midwest winter is in full-force, the Decorah area is a warm, cozy and romantic escape to make you feel like you are a world apart. With more than eight distinctive bed and breakfasts, the lovingly restored Hotel Winneshiek, and other well appointed hotels, the area is the perfect spot to unwind or rekindle a romantic spark. Excellent restaurants, bistros and tea rooms also abound, and boutique-style shopping offers something unique for everyone.
There is no shortage of enticing events in Winnishiek County. Annual events include Women’s Weekend Out, Laura Ingalls Wilder Days, Nordic Fest, Fort Atkinson’s Rendezvous Days, and the Northeast Iowa Artists’ Studio Tour to name just a few. Museums like the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, with its extensive campus of more than 12 historic buildings in downtown Decorah, also host a wide array of celebrations and folk art classes.
Luther College brings world-renowned acts to the area through its acclaimed Center Stage series. In all these attractions and events lure thousands of visitors each year. For more information about these events, lodging, area history and more, call 800-463-4692 or visit the area’s website at www.decoraharea.com.
Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum
By Courtney Bergey
DECORAH – After being force-fed rommegrot at family reunions and growing up in a home where “wow”, “ouch”, and “jeez” are commonly replaced by “uff da”, visiting the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah seemed like a natural choice for a day-cation.
Upon arriving after my 30-minute drive, I took time to browse through the four floors of the museum. The museum is described as “Norwegian-American” because it is dedicated to the Norwegian immigrants who settled in the New World.
The first room features a life-size log cabin presenting the lifestyle of 19th century rural Norway, where
you can walk through and see how the immigrants lived before making the trip across the pond.
The next room was equally impressive, housing the “Tradewind;” this boat, which sailed from Norway to Chicago, is the smallest sailboat ever known to have crossed the Atlantic Ocean without assistance. Continuing through the museum, you can find authentic furnishings, traditional bunads (costumes), and many other artifacts.
One of my favorite exhibits in the museum displayed a collection of rosemaling, the traditional Norwegian painting technique characterized by swirly lines and ornate flowers. There was also a room solely dedicated to Norwegian silver, where bridal crowns and traditional jewelry are on display. The museum would be an interesting place to take out-of-town guests who want to understand more about our area’s Scandinavian influence, as well as a helpful resource for students studying the region.
Once I was finished looking through all of the Norwegian-American artifacts, I met the rest of my group for the outdoor tour. (Make sure to call ahead for tour times because they are only scheduled once a day.) Most of my tour group was about 50 years older than me, so I felt a little bit out of place; however, everyone was very friendly and eager to tell me the story of their Norwegian roots.
The tour began with a brief history of the museum, where I learned that vesterheim means “western home” in Norwegian. We toured a series of small buildings, which were either shipped in from Norway or built by Norwegian immigrants. The different structures (including several small houses, a school, a church, and a blacksmith shop) came with several interesting stories about its history. My tour group also took a visit to the restored mill, which houses antique farm equipment and building supplies used by the immigrants to establish their new homes in America.
While the outdoor tour might not be too interesting for children, I think they would thoroughly enjoy the museum. There are many interactive exhibits and even places for children to try rosemaling and dress up in traditional Norwegian garb. Before my departure, I took a stroll through the gift shop. It would be the perfect place to buy a gift for your favorite Norwegian, because it is chock-full of interesting knick-knacks, imported foods, Norwegian and English reading material, and traditional Scandinavian sweaters.
After learning so much about Norway and its immigrants, I took on a new appreciation for my Norwegian ancestors: not only did they give me the opportunity to live in America, but instilled in me an unconditional love for lefse.
What? Vesterheim Museum
Where? On West Water Street in Decorah, Iowa, which is about 30 miles south of Preston on Hwy 52
How much? Museum admission and included outdoor tour is $10 for adults, $5 for ages 7-18, $8 for seniors 65+. Museum members are free. First Thursday of each month is free.
Sharing heirloom seeds
Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit, member-supported organization saving the world’s diverse, but endangered, garden heritage for future generations by building a network of people committed to collecting, conserving and sharing heirloom seeds and plants. Known worldwide, this 890 acre heritage farm is working to maintain over 25,000 vegetable varieties. Seed Savers Exchange is the largest non-governmental seed bank in the United States. Visitors enjoy display gardens, trial gardens and a children’s garden. You may also wander through an extensive 8-mile trail system or select heritage garden seeds, books and gifts at the garden shop. Open April – December. Call for hours 563-382-5990. Or, visit us at www.seedsavers.org.