The Danish-American colony of Solvang was founded primarily through the efforts of three men: Benedict Nordentoft, J. M. Gregersen, and Peter Hornslyd. These three met in San Francisco in 1910 and formed the Danish-American Corporation with the intent of establishing a Danish colony in California. The heyday of Danish immigration to the U.S. had occurred in the last four decades of the 19th century, and there were a number of Danish communities scattered throughout the country, primarily in the Midwest, but none as yet in California.
The three men searched for a suitable site and heard that a portion of the old San Carlos de Jonata land grant in the Santa Ynez Valley was for sale. In January 1911, the Corporation bought up almost 10,000 acres for about $40 an acre from the Santa Ynez Development Company, which had been instrumental in founding the towns of Santa Ynez and Los Olivos. The three founders named the colony Solvang, “Sunny Fields.” By the end of the year, there were some 40 settlers.
From the beginning, there was a deep interest in preserving Danish traditions and culture. The two keys to this effort were Atterdag College and the Bethania Lutheran Church. The school opened late in 1911 under the name Ungdomsskolen I Solvang, “Young People’s School in Solvang.” Atterdag, a larger facility, opened in 1914. Atterdag means “There shall be another day.” Nordentoft became the first principal. The emphasis at the school was on intellectual and cultural enrichment, and it drew students not only from the local population but from other Danish-American communities throughout the country. Boarding students paid $6 a week, while students living off-campus paid a weekly rate of $2.
The early years of the college were not without controversy. There were some pedagogical and philosophical differences among the colony’s three founders. Nordentoft pushed for the preservation of Danish as a primary language, while the other two founders favored a quicker transition to English. This and other issues caused Nordentoft to resign his post at the college in 1921 and eventually return to Denmark. The college operated until 1952, and the building survived as a Solvang landmark until razed in 1970.
The Lutheran congregation organized early in 1912, eventually erecting a dedicated church building in 1928. As virtually the entire town belonged to the church, Sunday services were important not only spiritually but as social occasions, binding the community together.
The Danes showed themselves to be innovative farmers. They used a heavier plow than many of their neighbors, and this brought up deep nutrients, allowing for better crop yields. It is said that for a while, a Danish farmer had the only windmill in the Santa Ynez Valley, used for irrigation. Although subject to the fickleness of nature, as all farmers were, by and large Danish farmers’ efforts were successful.
Others turned to opportunities that the town offered. One of the first businesses to open was a hotel, in 1911. Within a few years, Solvang had two general stores, a blacksmith shop, an auto garage, and a post office. The famous open beam style of architecture, so identified with Solvang, did not really catch on until after World War II, in large part due to the promotion of tourism. Architecture in the town’s early days was strictly utilitarian.
Solvang incorporated in 1985, and its population rests at something over 5,200 today. Its Danish origins are still evoked in its architectural ambiance and in the annual celebration of the festive Danish Days.
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.