Past fields, strip malls, and rotting pumpkins, we fought white-knuckled against the wind to arrive in Dannebrog, Nebraska on a Thursday. Founded in the nineteenth century by Danish farmers who lovingly named the village after the Danish flag, this is a place with personal resonance. Some of those frontier Nebraska Danes were my great-great grandparents, the Ericksens. My great-grandmother departed from her village with a carpetbag to become a maid in San Francisco. Just as Marie Ericksen left the familiar, Danish-speaking, environs of the Midwest for the big city as a teenager, I left California at age 17 for Minnesota.
I’ve long felt I should visit, but I never really thought that I’d actually make it here to Nebraska.
Built by homesteaders willing to brave the elements and the dangers of quiet isolation, Dannebrog has held steady at a population of about 300 folks since 1871. Fewer and fewer people are around to throw the annual Danish summer parade, Grundlovsfest; everyone has to work these days, most in larger, nearby cities.
The winds were howling through town when we arrived, rolling empty garbage bins across the streets. K’s Korner downtown, a purple and blue establishment, drew first our eyes and then our feet. The space is filled with early photographs of the Danish Brotherhood and Sisterhood, unfortunate creek floods, farmers putting together homes and raising enormous families, piles of snow, and lonely prairies.
We were told by K’s shopkeep and namesake that she gets a couple of people like us every year, intrigued by a whisper of a Danish settlement in the middle of the country, eager to look up long-lost ancestors from the old country. She brought out two binders of newspaper clippings and photographs from times past. After perusing these remnants, learning of local lunatics and antiquated laws, we were then pointed towards The Danish Baker at the end of the street and encouraged to have him sing us a song.
When asked, the bakery proprietor was indeed willing to serenade us – he played two original tunes on a guitar he keeps near at hand, stowed behind the counter. The first was a confessional song, tender and written for his wife of 36 years. When he finished, we thanked him and introduced ourselves as fellow musicians, a traveling band of sorts, and ended up reciprocating his hospitality by playing him some songs of our own. We had three captive audience members, bakery regulars who’d come for the unlimited coffees while eagerly awaiting Thursday’s pizza night. They requested some Everly Brothers, but we settled on Peter, Paul and Mary. Our host told us about a time the Danish Baker sold 206 pies in one night on a Thursday evening several summers ago — enough to feed the whole town and then some.
Small town pride is thriving in this Danish town. “I’m too old for those big cities,” one man told me. The baker relayed to us the story of a Harry Chapin song: a musically inclined launderer sings beautifully in his shop every day, then leaves for the big city to sing on the stage, only to have his dream ruined. He returns to his shop never to sing again. It sounds to us like a cautionary tale about cashing in on one’s dreams only to reap sadness, the profound risk of reaching for the moon only to fall among the stars.
We left Dannebrog against the wind and with no time to visit the town’s cemetery, likely filled with long-forgotten family.
Driving back to the freeway, we passed through Cairo, Nebraska (pronounced Care-o), one small town over from Dannebrog. We found out later, this is where my boyfriend’s Greek grandfather grew up farming sugar beets. We heard that, every summer, as a young man he attended the Danish parade in Dannebrog.
I’m not sure what it means, but that feels like some sort of full circle.
California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson.