December 7, 2023 in California

A Danish Delight in California: The Story of Solvang

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Early History

The city of Solvang was founded in 1911 by a group of Danish immigrants led by Benedict Grøndahl and Niels Rasmussen. The original settlers purchased 9,000 acres of land in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley with the intention of establishing a Danish colony.

They named their new settlement Solvang, meaning “sunny field” in Danish. The location was chosen for its similarities to the climate and terrain of Denmark. The Santa Ynez Valley also promised fertile soil suitable for farming.

In the early years after its founding, Solvang grew slowly. The Danish immigrants laid out roads, planted orchards and vineyards, and built churches, schools, homes and businesses. By the late 1910s, Solvang had a population of around 300 residents and its own newspaper printed in Danish.

The community retained a distinctly Danish character during these early years. Danish was the primary language spoken and residents celebrated traditional Danish holidays. The original settlers were intent on recreating a small piece of Denmark in central California.

Growth and Development

Solvang was founded in 1911 by a group of Danish-American educators from the Midwest seeking to establish a Danish-style colony on the West Coast. The town was incorporated in 1985 after years of gradual growth.

Some key events and milestones in Solvang’s early decades:

  • In 1913, the Bethania Lutheran Church was constructed, becoming a center of community life. The church remains a Solvang landmark today.
  • By the late 1910s and early 1920s, more Danish immigrants were settling in Solvang, establishing businesses like the Solvang Meat Market, Solvang Shoe Shop, and Solvang Dry Goods.
  • The Atterdag College was founded in 1911 as a folk high school offering classes in Danish history, language and culture. It helped attract Danish settlers and preserve Danish heritage.
  • In 1947, a major boost to Solvang’s economy came when the scores of travelers on Highway 101 were rerouted through the town due to the construction of the Cachuma Dam. Businesses catering to motorists flourished as a result.
  • Danish Days, a festival celebrating Solvang’s Danish culture, began in 1936 and became a major annual event drawing thousands of visitors by the 1950s. This boosted Solvang’s tourism industry.
  • By the 1970s, Solvang’s Danish architecture, windmills, bakeries and shops had turned it into a globally famous Danish-themed tourist attraction. Tourism became a mainstay of the local economy.
  • In 1985 Solvang was officially incorporated as a city, cementing its status as a destination community with a unique Danish-American heritage.

Danish Heritage

The Danish heritage of Solvang is evident throughout the city. Its architecture and design are modeled after a traditional Danish village. Many buildings feature traditional Danish elements like thatch roofs, timber frames, and decorative scrollwork. The Danish-style architecture creates a distinct aesthetic not found elsewhere in California.

Solvang has done an excellent job of preserving Danish cultural elements over the years. You’ll notice Danish flags flying and hear Danish music playing in the streets. Danish pastries, sandwiches, and other treats can be found in local bakeries and restaurants. The city celebrates Danish traditions through events like the Solvang Danish Days festival. This annual September event features aebleskiver pancake breakfasts, dancing, parades, and more.

Some of Solvang’s most beloved Danish traditions include visiting the replica Copenhagen Round Tower, dining on Danish open-faced sandwiches called smørrebrød, and buying sweet treats like kringle and pølsehorn. The city’s Danish heritage shapes everything from the architectural details to the food and the overall welcoming, hospitable atmosphere. Exploring Solvang truly feels like stepping into a little piece of Denmark.

Tourism Industry

Solvang’s tourism industry began in the late 1940s when a group of business owners sought to increase visitors to the town by promoting its unique Danish heritage and architecture. They formed the Solvang Village Improvement Association (SVIA) and commissioned the construction of a copy of Copenhagen’s famous Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen Square.

The SVIA began actively marketing Solvang as a Danish village, touting its windmills, thatched roofs, and bakeries as reminders of the old country. Travel writers picked up on the town’s Danish theme and shared it with readers across the country. Tourism steadily grew over the next few decades as the town put on Danish festivals, parades, and special events.

Today, key attractions bringing visitors to Solvang include the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum, the Elverhøj Museum of History and Art, and the Hans Christian Andersen Museum. The town’s Danish-themed hotels, restaurants, and shops also attract tourists interested in experiencing a bit of Denmark in California. Major events happening annually include Danish Days in September and Julefest, a Christmas-themed festival each December.

Marketing Solvang as a “Danish Capital of America” has proven highly successful in making it a popular tourist destination. Over 1.5 million people visit each year, primarily drawn by the promise of enjoying Danish architecture, cuisine, culture and hospitality. Tourism spending generates around $100 million in revenue annually and provides the bedrock of the local economy.

Arts and Culture

Solvang has a vibrant arts and culture scene that reflects its Danish heritage. As the population grew in the early 20th century, creative locals started establishing cultural institutions to celebrate their history.

The Solvang Village Band formed in the 1930s and still performs traditional Danish music during local events and functions. The Solvang Festival Theater opened in the 1970s in a renovated veterans memorial hall, hosting plays and musicals for the community. More performance spaces sprouted up over the years, like the Solvang Festival Theater and the recently built Maverick Saloon theater.

Danish folk dancing is a cherished part of Solvang’s culture. The Solvang Village Folk Dancers formed in 1948 and hold practices and performances dressed in traditional costumes. Kids can learn traditional Danish dancing and arts at the Danish Days Children’s Program every September.

Literary arts are also important in Solvang. Local poets and writers formed the Solvang Village Poets society in 2005. They host poetry readings at the Book Loft and publish poetry collections celebrating the town’s culture.

Solvang has inspired creatives like painter Elizabeth Hansen, who depicted local landscapes from her Red Garter Gallery studio. Famous Western novelist Louis L’Amour did some writing in Solvang before gaining literary fame. The natural beauty of the surrounding Santa Ynez Valley has drawn artists to capture it over the years.

The Elverhøj Museum of History and Art opened in the 1970s as a nonprofit gallery and archives chronicling Solvang’s history through paintings, photographs, and artifacts. It provides an important space to preserve and celebrate the town’s Danish heritage through arts and culture.

Businesses and Economy

Solvang’s economy has historically been driven by agriculture and tourism. In the early 20th century, the city was an important producer of apples, apricots, and walnuts. Major agricultural cooperatives like Sunmaid were founded in Solvang during this period.

As tourism grew over the decades, services and hospitality became the largest sector of the local economy. Many independent shops, restaurants, hotels, and wineries thrive today catering to visitors. The largest private employer is the Chumash Casino Resort, which employs around 1,100 people.

Other major employers include healthcare providers like the Santa Ynez Cottage Hospital, educational institutions like the Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District, and utilities like the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District.

The median household income in Solvang is approximately $68,000, which is above the national median. However unemployment rose to around 9% during the COVID-19 pandemic as tourism declined, indicating the importance of this industry to the city’s overall economic health.

Demographics

Solvang has experienced steady population growth over the past decades. According to census data, the population grew from 4,584 in 1990 to 5,245 in 2010, representing a 14% increase. The most recent estimates put Solvang’s population at around 5,900 residents.

A large proportion of Solvang’s residents are of Danish and northern European ancestry. This stems from the town’s founding by Danish-Americans in the early 20th century. Today, over 40% of residents report Danish ancestry. There are also notable numbers of residents with German, English, Irish, and Swedish roots.

In terms of age breakdown, Solvang has an older population compared to state and national averages. Over 20% of residents are aged 65 or older. The median age is 46, significantly higher than the US median of 38. Solvang is popular as a retirement destination given its mild climate and Danish-inspired architecture and amenities.

The median household income in Solvang is around $68,000, on par with the national median. However, there is a sizeable income gap, with over 12% of residents living below the poverty line. Educational attainment is generally high, with over 95% of adults having graduated high school and 40% holding a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Solvang has become more ethnically diverse in recent decades. Hispanics and Latinos now make up around 35% of the population. Many work in the town’s hospitality and agriculture industries. There are also small Asian, Black, and Native American populations of less than 5% each.

Government

The governance of Solvang has evolved over its history. Initially founded by a small group of Danish settlers in the early 20th century, the town was largely self-governed in its early years. As Solvang grew into a sizeable community, more formal local government structures emerged.

Key political issues have included balancing Solvang’s Danish heritage and tourism focus with practical governance needs. Striking the right balance between preserving Solvang’s unique character while enabling necessary development and infrastructure has been an ongoing discussion.

Notable political figures include mayors such as Ken Palmer, Jim Richardson, and Ryan Toussaint. These mayors have overseen Solvang during different eras, guiding policy and community priorities.

Local services provided by the city government expanded as Solvang grew. Police and fire protection, parks management, roads, water services, and other municipal functions developed over time. Solvang contracts with Santa Barbara County for law enforcement through the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office. There are discussions about potentially creating an independent police department in the future.

Managing tourism growth and its impacts on residents’ quality of life has been a major responsibility of city government and leadership. As a top tourist destination, balancing these factors remains an important focus for Solvang’s elected officials and administrators.

Overall, Solvang’s government has evolved to meet the needs of a community that has transformed from a small agricultural colony to a bustling tourism center anchored by its Danish heritage. Good governance continues to play a key role in shaping Solvang’s future.

Education

Education has long been an important part of the Solvang community. The first schoolhouse opened in 1911 just two years after the founding of Solvang. It was a small one-room schoolhouse called the Atterdag School, named after the ship many of the Danish settlers arrived on. The school served students in grades 1-8.

In the 1920s, as the population grew, additional schools opened including the Solvang School in 1922 and the Santa Ynez Valley Union High School in 1927. Enrollment continued to grow in the post-war years. Solvang Elementary School opened in 1953 and the current Santa Ynez Valley Union High School campus opened in 1956.

Today the Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District serves students from Solvang, Santa Ynez, Ballard, and Los Olivos. Enrollment is approximately 1,100 students. The District operates Santa Ynez Valley Union High School, Solvang School, Ballard School, and the College and Career Readiness Center.

Notable alumni from Santa Ynez schools include professional football player Dan Lauria, astronaut Joseph M. Acaba, and celebrities Zac Efron, Taylor Atelian, Blake Michael and Karla Montana. The schools have also produced successful business leaders, doctors, engineers, teachers, and local figures who have given back to the community.

Notable Events

Solvang has experienced several noteworthy events throughout its history.

Julefest

One of the most popular annual events in Solvang is Julefest, the town’s Christmas festival. Julefest takes place every December and includes parades, concerts, craft fairs, and even a reenactment of the Nativity story. Locals and tourists alike flock to Julefest to embrace the Christmas spirit.

Wildfires

Solvang has faced multiple destructive wildfires over the years. In 1985, the Santa Ynez Complex fires burned over 118,000 acres in Santa Barbara County, including parts of Solvang. More recently, the 2017 Thomas Fire and 2018 Holiday Fire prompted evacuations in Solvang and threatened structures in the area. While Solvang avoided major damage, the fires highlighted the wildfire risks faced by the community.

Mission Santa Inés Controversy

The Mission Santa Inés in Solvang became the center of controversy in 2004 when a local Chumash tribe filed a lawsuit seeking the return of ancestral artifacts and human remains from the mission. While the Catholic Church maintained possession of the mission and its contents, the legal dispute stirred debate regarding ownership of the historic mission and sensitivity to native people. Despite some tense protests, the parties eventually reached a settlement allowing the Chumash to rebury ancestors on mission grounds.




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