A little bit of Norway -- in the middle of Wisconsin
Few know about the place, but tucked away in a remote valley in Wisconsin about 25 miles west of Madison is one of the world's best glimpses into the rural Norway of 300 years ago.
The valley and restored Norwegian farm is called Nissedahle or "The Valley of the Elves," but is more commonly called "Little Norway."
Little Norway is both an outdoor and indoor museum comprising a dozen log buildings, most built in the 1850s, containing furniture, household items, ingenious handmade tools, and clothing made and worn by a Norwegian immigrant farm family which settled there just after the Civil War. Later a "stave" -- or early Norwegian Christian -- church was added to the setting, housing more elegant items from the rich Norwegian culture of the 17th and 18th centuries.
You come upon Little Norway almost by accident if you drive west of Madison on I-18, since the present owners seem to shun advertising. So much the better for the weekend vacationer who is looking for an out-of-the-way and not overly touristed place.
Four miles west of Mount Horeb, worth a visit in itself for its homes and shops embellished with Scandinavian artwork, Little Norway welcomes you into a Norwegian farm world where the clock seems to have stood still, as for the Scottish village in "Brigadoon".
The log cabins are furnished and articles are placed about on tables and beds as if the original settlers of the valley farm were just away for the day and are coming back. Most items on display are heirlooms brought to this country in the last hundred years or so by Norwegian immigrants in this area. They were donated to Nissedahle by their descendants in order to provide a lifelike settting of Norwegian culture, history, and everyday life.
All the buildings are open to the public each day from May through October, and guided tours for about $2 are conducted by well-informed, charming Norwegian-American women and girls dressed in the rich red and snow-white costumes of various regions from their homeland.
The valley first was settled in 1856 by Osten Olson Haugen, a Norseman who brought his bride, Berget, from their native village in Telemarken, Norway, and raised a family of four daughters. He built on the order of Norwegian farms in the old country, with several buildings, each with its own special use.
For the first few years, Haugen and his wife lived in a roughly constructed, tiny log house he built into the side of one of the hills. Later he built a larger two-story house consisting of two rooms, each the size of a bedroom today , and one on each floor.
The buildings Haugen put up have been restored and assembled with most of the things the family built and lived with. After the Haugens died in the early 1920s, the valley became deserted until 1926 when Isak J. Dahle of Mount Horeb bought the place and added more land -- so today it includes 465 acres. He also had 5,000 fir trees planted to add to the thick, natural forest.
Dahle hired local Norse workmen and artists to restore the original buildings and transformed the old stable, barn, and granary into peasant cottages, adding his own collection of Norwegian antiques and handicrafts. Soon others began contributing their heirlooms.
The first building on the tour is the former tool shed and granary, which later became a cottage. Next is the old horse barn, with farm implements hanging inside and out. Crossing a small stone bridge and stream which cuts through the valley, you come to a cottage with a sod and grass roof similar to ones on which goats graze today in rural Norway.
Next is the former barn, later the main house. The living room contains handmade dishes, old chests, rocking chairs carved from solid logs, and rare triangular corner cupboards decorated with rosemaling,m the colorful and ornate Norwegian designs.
The sheep barn in the rear became the kitchen.A huge homemade table there opens up to form an extra bed.Dozens of crude utensils made by Haugen and his wife and children hang on the walls and from the rafters. Upstairs, two bedrooms stand side by side with no wall between, reached by climbing a three-step stile over the dividing logs.
Atop a hill is an old stavkirkem (early Christian Norwegian church) which had been built in Norway in 1855 for the Paris Exposition. Later it became a part of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and eventually was reconstructed at Little Norway and filled with many rare and fascinating Norwegian artifacts, including handmade dolls and manuscripts of Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Grieg.
Little Norway is worth the visit in itself, but a trip there can be combined with a tour of Blue Mound State Park, just north of Mount Horeb; Taliesen, the home of Frank Lloyd Wright at Spring Green, and the Shangri-la House on the Rock. Excellent Norwegian dining is plentiful in area hotels and restaurants, and campgrounds are nearby.