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Little Norway: A Unique Norwegian Treasure With Nisse in Wisconsin

I spent my early childhood in Wisconsin and another four years when my husband's job took him there. It is a beautiful and scenic state!

Little Norway Buildings in Wisconsin

Little Norway Buildings in Wisconsin

An Original Norwegian Pioneer Homestead

20 miles west of Madison, Wisconsin, in the southwestern part of the state is a charming little wooded valley that houses an outdoor museum filled with original structures (log cabins) built back in 1856. It is called Little Norway and it is definitely a unique Wisconsin treasure.

The person who decided to purchase 40 acres of land and settle there those many years ago was Osten Olsen Haugen from Telemarken, Norway.

Many other Norwegians also came and liked this region of Wisconsin because it reminded them of their homeland in Norway. The terrain in this part of Wisconsin has hills and valleys and happens to be near the highest elevation in the state, which is over 1,000 feet.

Little Norway grounds in the fall season of year.

Little Norway grounds in the fall season of year.

Blue Mounds, Wisconsin

Blue Mounds is the nearest town. There is also a jewel of a cave called Cave of the Mounds, which has been designated a national landmark, nearby. Mr. Haugen was unaware of this beautiful cave when he decided to settle and rear his family in this area, as the cave was discovered long afterward.

The first abode was carved into the hillside and the cave sheltered them from the weather especially the cold winter. Anyone visiting this outdoor museum can see the location of where this family first lived.

First place in which they lived (cave in the ground) until the houses were built at Little Norway.

First place in which they lived (cave in the ground) until the houses were built at Little Norway.

As time went by, trees from the area were chopped down and made into log cabins. Not only was wood used for lodging, but it was also fashioned into furniture and eating utensils.

Wandering the grounds at Little Norway

Wandering the grounds at Little Norway

Wisconsin was a long way from Norway, and although a few treasures might have accompanied them on their journey into a new life, much of what they had was created by hand.

These old Grandpa & Grandma cloth dolls date back to the 1800s. On display at Little Norway

These old Grandpa & Grandma cloth dolls date back to the 1800s. On display at Little Norway

A freshwater spring was on the property and they protected this source of clear water and natural refrigeration with a covering to keep it unadulterated.

Farming and raising some cows, sheep, chickens and pigs is what sustained them for over 60 years. The acreage was expanded to about double the original size over this period of time.

Food was stored on a raised foundation of logs in a little cabin to keep rodents away and also protect it from the weather.

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The Stabbur (storage house) used to protect food at Little Norway

The Stabbur (storage house) used to protect food at Little Norway

Slowly over time, more buildings were erected to house not only the farm animals, but the growing family. Mrs. Haugen's brother lived there and eventually had his own space.

Speaking of space, note the doorways as you look at these photos. Anyone of normal stature would have to stoop to enter these cabins if one wishes to avoid hitting one's head.

Note the height of the doorway!

Note the height of the doorway!

While people may have been shorter over a century ago, the space restrictions continue in how they lived inside their dwelling. The rooms were not large and the beds were very short. Pillows were piled high and the people back then (at least in this homestead) slept in a semi-sitting up posture.

One of the interesting twin beds, the frame of which was constructed out of logs, was fit into a corner of the room. The two conjoined beds fanned out adjacent to the two walls with one large square pillow in the corner. Four children we were told would have shared those two beds. In the center of where the beds met was a wooden seat to the front.

During the day, this seat and the beds would have offered seating for the family. This was an ingenious use of space!

As one takes a tour of these buildings hosted by guides dressed in authentic Norwegian clothing, the various Norwegian antiques which are appropriate to that era are on display.

Guides in period costuming at Little Norway

Guides in period costuming at Little Norway

The guides are able to explain the uses of some unusual looking wooden tools which were used for cooking as an example.

A bowl with two handles was used for drinking beer, we were told. Notches on the inside of the bowl were used for measurement.

Beer drinking bowl at Little Norway

Beer drinking bowl at Little Norway

Embroidery and carvings and rosemaling are all examples of the arts and crafts the people back then utilized to enhance and decorate their furnishings.

Most of the trim on the buildings are painted blue, which we were told is a typical favorite color in Norway.

Note the color of trim on buildings at Little Norway.

Note the color of trim on buildings at Little Norway.

The natural landscaping with the existing hills surrounding the valley, trees, and water elements make this a resplendent sight to behold.

The addition of blooming flowers with nisse and the pioneer buildings make this a most delightful place to visit while one learns of this one family's pioneer settlement in this location.

Beautiful landscape at Little Norway

Beautiful landscape at Little Norway

Nisse (Elves)

Scattered throughout the pretty grounds of Little Norway are cute little nisse, or elves. Norwegian children have been told stories for centuries about these elusive little figures who can be very helpful or mischievous depending upon how they are treated.

They are most helpful to families who count on them to keep watch over their farms and animals when they are away.

Nisse at Little Norway

Nisse at Little Norway

All they request at Christmastime is a bit of warmed porridge in a bowl dotted with real butter. A daughter from the household was generally the one to take this "gift" and leave it in the barn for the resident nisse to enjoy during the night.

Woe unto the household that neglected this bit of care-taking!

As one wanders the grounds of Little Norway, these cute little figures peer out at one from unexpected places keeping an eye on things!

This Homestead Changes Hands

Three of four daughters who were reared in this pretty tucked away valley married and started lives of their own.

Mrs. Haugen and her bachelor brother and one daughter continued to farm the land after Mr. Haugen had died but soon after 1920 they left. While the land was leased to other farmers the buildings became unoccupied.

In 1926, Mr. Isak J. Dahle purchased the property intending to make it into a summer home for his family. He came from Norwegian heritage and started putting his own vast collection of Norwegian pioneer antiques into these buildings which he had restored.

Naming the beautiful location Nissedahle, or Valley of the Elves, it has since become commonly known as Little Norway.

Mr. Dahle had the sod covered cottage built as well as the spring house. He also improved the drainage in the area, and today a picturesque stream meanders throughout the valley.

The prime attraction of this collection of structures is an early Christian Norwegian church that was built for display in the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. Called the Norway Building, it was constructed in Trondheim, Norway, and after the exposition, it was moved to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

Photo of the Norwegian styled church at Little Norway

Photo of the Norwegian styled church at Little Norway

Why did it end up in Little Norway? It had been purchased by the wealthy Wrigley family of Chicago and in 1935, Phillip Wrigley gave it to his friend, Isak Dahle. One last time it was carefully moved and now sits amidst the other unique buildings in this charming setting.

The church is carved throughout and must be seen to be appreciated. It has high roof lines with dragon heads peering outward from the gables standing guard against evil spirits.

Inside the church are carved faces of past (pagan) Norwegian kings and queens who look down upon visitors from their high positions on the overhead beams.

Some rare antiques are displayed in this church building as compared to the simple homespun and carved utensils found in the cabins. For instance, one can see an Edvard Grieg original manuscript dating back to 1873. In addition, there are fine antique silver, copper and brass items plus glassware, jewelry, china, cabinets, furniture and much more.

Little Norway was opened to the public for viewing in 1937. Millions of visitors have seen this peaceful valley with its unique and historic buildings and furnishings since that time. It is definitely a sight worth seeing and should not be missed if one is ever in that region of the state.

This author has visited Little Norway three times and notices different things each time of her visit. There is so much to absorb in the approximate one hour tour.

Tip: If you wish to spend a little more time in this bucolic setting before or after the tour, take a picnic lunch. Tables are provided and one can soak up the atmosphere a while longer before leaving this quaint and charming valley known as Little Norway.

Little Norway is definitely a unique Norwegian Wisconsin treasure!

Update

Little Norway closed in 2012 due to financial problems. Fortunately, the crown jewel of the display is now back in the country of Norway. You can read more about it by accessing the links below.

I am so glad that I got to view it on several occasions in Wisconsin. These photos will serve to commemorate it for years to come for those who did not get the chance to go there.

Sources:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Peggy Woods

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