Why is there a Danish village in the center of Santa Barbara County? The simple answer is our sunny year-round climate.
By Laura Kath
At the turn of the 20th century, three Danish-Americans from Iowa—Rev. Jens Gregersen, Rev. Benedict Nordentoft and Professor Peder Pedersen Hornsyld—sought a place in California where land was plentiful and their culture could prosper under the golden sun. On October 1, 1910, they incorporated the Danish-American Colony Company; and on January 23, 1911, paid $75,000 for almost 9,000 acres of Rancho San Carlos de Jonata, an original Mexican land grant, just 35 miles northwest of Santa Barbara. They named their new community Solvang, which means “sunny field” in Danish.
Initially, the founders thought Solvang could be built on the northern end of their acreage along modern-day Ballard Canyon Road. Lacking plentiful water there, instead they chose a site closer to the Santa Ynez River adjacent to Mission Santa Ines. This answers the oft-heard question—why is there a Spanish-Colonial mission in the center of a Danish town? The mission was there first, founded in 1804 and named for Saint Agnes (Ines in Spanish), the 19th of 21 missions established by Franciscans in coastal California.
The founders’ vision of Solvang’s “sunny fields” almost washed away the in torrential rains of early 1911. Arriving via train to Gaviota or stagecoach to Los Olivos, and then slogging on horseback through mud into Solvang, early Danish settlers were unfazed and stayed in tents or rented houses nearby. According to Elverhoj Museum of History and Art, a venerable repository of Solvang heritage, the first building was the Solvang Hotel, opening in June 1911. By November, the first folk school was completed at 473 Alisal Rd., home now to Bit O’ Denmark Restaurant.
Atterdag College, successor to the original folk school, opened in 1914 on a hill overlooking the town at 636 Atterdag Rd., offering a variety of courses from gymnastics to mathematics until 1952. Now it’s the site of Atterdag Village of Solvang, a continuing-care retirement community.
Bethania Lutheran Church at 603 Atterdag Rd., Solvang’s first true Danish building in the Bishop Grundtvig style, features a model wooden ship aloft in the sanctuary. Dedicated on July 8, 1928, Bethania attracts visitors from around the world and continues to serve as a vital house of worship, preschool and community center.
In 1936, Solvang celebrated its 25th anniversary with a three-day festival and a tradition was born: “Danish Days,” still held annually on the third weekend of September. Reporter Dean Jennings from The Saturday Evening Post was touring the California coast in September 1946 and discovered a Danish-style town just five miles east of Buellton. His article in the January 18, 1947, magazine put Solvang on the international map as a cultural tourism destination—popularity that has never abated. It stated, in part, “Solvang…a spotless Danish village that blooms like a rose in California’s charming Santa Ynez Valley. Old country charm and customs have been successfully fused with the American way of life. Nowadays…the quaint village is busy living up to its affectionate name, ‘Little Denmark.'”
In the 1950s, Danish street names were adopted (for example, Main Street became Copenhagen Drive).
Structures were built or remodeled in the Danish provincial style. Roofs were made of simulated thatch, tiles or copper; walls were half-timbered; attractive dormers, stained glass windows and decorative ironwork were added. Wooden storks perch on roofs for good luck.
In September 1974, dedicated community members built the 700-seat outdoor Solvang Festival Theater at 420 Second St. It is still in proud use, the home of PCPA (Pacific Conservatory Theater) and host to dozens of concerts and community events.
The wine industry emerged in the area beginning in the 1970s with vineyards established alongside existing farms and ranches. Wine touring and tasting became popular, increasing after the 2004 Oscar-winning movie Sideways was filmed on location in the area. Solvang currently has 22 tasting rooms just within the village.
Solvang’s bronze replica of Denmark’s famous “Little Mermaid” statue (located in the fountain at the corner of Mission Drive and Alisal Road) since 1976, is the only one authorized by heirs of sculptor Edvard Eriksen, who created the original in 1913 that still graces Copenhagen Harbor. On May 1, 1985, Solvang became legally recognized as a California city with an authorized image of the Little Mermaid on its seal.
Old Mission Santa Ines was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1999 and continues as an active parish today, serving the community and visitors with a museum, gardens and programs. In 2009, Solvang was awarded “Preserve America Community” by the national Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. Solvang’s centennial was celebrated throughout 2011, including a royal visit by Henrik, Prince Consort of Denmark, on June 11, which also happened to be his 77th birthday. Solvang has also welcomed Danish royalty on three other occasions in 1939, 1960 and 1976.
Solvang’s Hans Christian Andersen Museum is the only one in the U.S. celebrating the Danish “Father of the Fairytale,” author of such classics as The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling. His massive bronze bust watches over Solvang Park (at the corner of Mission Drive and First Street), the site for many community events and gatherings.
Fast forward to 2016, with Solvang celebrating 105 years of Danish-American heritage during the annual Julefest (pronounced Yule-fest, Danish for Christmas festival). Named one of Time Magazine’s “Most Christmas-y Towns in America,” Solvang truly sparkles from December 1 through January 6, 2017 with more than 100 decorated trees throughout the village. Julefest events include the community tree-lighting ceremony; Julefest parade; nativity pageant; free visits with Santa; Shop, Mingle & Jingle weekends; holiday wine & beer walk and the annual Christmas tree burn in the fields of Old Mission Santa Ines, supervised by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. This powerful spectacle heralds the end of Julefest and ignites the new year.
Now into its second century, Solvang’s 5,200 residents (10% Danish), along with 1.5 million annual visitors, continue to enjoy the founders’ vision—warm, sunny weather, authentic Danish heritage, hospitality and old-world charm around every corner in “Little Denmark.”
This story was originally published in the winter 2016/17 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.