So apparently, there’s a little town in Iowa of some 600 people where half the people have Danish roots, and a large part of them celebrate this fact vigorously. Much less known than its Californian counterpart Solvang, Elk Horn, Iowa was featured in a Danish documentary aired last night on DR1.
For all its quirkiness, it was a wonderfully made and very honest film. The old people of Elk Horn think they’re speaking Danish with each other (they are to a degree, but with many broken words and a heavy South Jutland accent). The main staples of the town are aebelskiver and medisterpolse, eaten together for breakfast (which never happens in Denmark, I can tell you that much). And while the film portrayed a town in slow, but gradual decline, the one thing that seemed to tie these people together was their perceived Danishness, their common heritage.
This is normal in America, of course. Since everybody originally came from somewhere else (except the Indians they killed), the link to the old world and, for some people, memories of the Atlantic crossing is a big part of your identity. There is no doubt that the shared heritage plays a large part in tying this community together, as also highlighted by several characters in the film. That’s a good thing. But there are also downsides worth mentioning.
One thing is how quickly a shared memory veers so far from the original that it’s almost impossible to see any resemblance, apart from a few obvious elements (like the flag or the ubiquitous mermaid). The few Danish food items they have chosen to retain or the elements they see as typically Danish are hardly representative, nor are they in any way in tune with the reality of Denmark today. Many of the town dwellers have actually visited Denmark, but we hear two of them talking about what the country is like, based on a visit to Struer (in the rural west) in 1979, as if nothing has changed since then. In Elk Horn, nothing has seemingly changed since the town was first settled in 1901. This is laughable, perhaps, not also quite harmless.
Worse, in my opinion, is the notion of moving to a new place but keeping your feet so firmly planted in the soil you left behind. In Elk Horn’s early days, everybody was Danish, and everyone who was not ended up moving elsewhere. Even today new settlers to the town are quickly asked if they are Danish, and have Danish culture (Elk Horn style) thrust upon them. Is that something to be proud of? Why is it that many Danes are so proud of the Danish enclave of Solvang where a group of immigrants have refused to integrate, when they are so adamant that immigrants to Denmark should shy away from their old culture and adapt that of their surroundings? These people left their homeland for a reason – shouldn’t you be a part of the world you live in?
And the point is that in spite of Elk Horn’s Tivolifest and Danish windmill, these people are actually full bred Americans. Take politics. Iowa is notoriously a swing state, but even so, in the presidential election of 2012 the voters in Elk Horn precinct sided overwhelmingly with Mitt Romney (61% of the 643 votes). Similar figures were the case for House (60% Rep.) and Senate (65% Rep.). You can look this kind of stuff up online. And while it’s just one data point, it’s a pretty clear sign that in terms of real culture and opinions, Elk Horners (?) are probably more American than Danish.
On a personal note, one other thing struck me when watching the film. For although I am Danish, I also grew up in the rural Midwest, in a small town in Michigan. And there were many things I could recognize about this place with an unsettled sense of melancholy. For most purposes, rural towns no longer exist in Denmark. But here in the old American heartland, apparently they do. I do find some comfort in that.
I’ve been reading Bill Bryson lately, who famously began one of his travel books with the phrase “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” Bryson left his childhood home of Iowa and live abroad for many years, but coming back to Iowa, for all its seeming drabness he still felt that he belonged.
In a small town in Iowa, he philosophized: “I was seized with a huge envy for these people and their unassuming lives. It must be wonderful to live in a safe and timeless place, where you know everyone and everyone knows you, and you can all count on each other. I envied them their sense of community, their football games, their bring-and-bake sales, their church socials. And I felt guilty for mocking them. They were good people.” (The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, 1989, p. 193)
For the people of Elk Horn, I think – and hope – that this passage holds true. Who are we to judge? But do watch the film, if you understand Danish. It’s really good, and you can catch it online here.