Drive into Spring Grove, and take a wild guess about where its settlers came from.
There's a gap-toothed concrete troll in front of the old creamery, and a grinning Viking known as Tovar the Terrible. There's a heroic bronze Viking in the town park, near the log Syttende Mai Hus, and two daffy characters called Ola and Per. Ja, you betcha -- they're Norwegians. This southeast Minnesota hamlet was the state's first Norwegian settlement and folks still are as Norwegian as rommegrot, the absurdly rich local favorite that makes lutefisk look like health food.
Never heard of Spring Grove? Of course you haven't; Norwegians don't brag. The high ridges and lush, flat-bottomed valleys that surround the town may be the loveliest part of Minnesota -- at least the early settlers must have thought so, as do the cyclists, turkey hunters and trout fishermen who go there today.
Why go now
The best time to rub elbows with the Norwegians of Spring Grove is when they celebrate Syttende Mai, which means May 17 -- the day in 1814 when Norway declared independence from Denmark and adopted a democratic constitution (although it didn't shake off the Swedes until 1905). This year's celebration runs May 15-17. Don't miss the Grand Parade at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. There's also music, dancing, crafts, horse-drawn-wagon rides and Norwegian food (www.sgsyttendemai.org).
More May offerings
See the spring ephemerals in Beaver Creek Valley State Park, especially its display of large-leafed trout lilies, or hunt for morel mushrooms (1-507-724-2107). Tour Amish farms around Harmony (1-800-752-6474; www.amish-tours.com). Ride the Root River State Trail from Houston, about 20 miles north of Spring Grove (www. rootrivertrail.org).
Spring Grove Bottling Works makes this region's tastiest soda pop -- strawberry, cream, orange, root beer, lemon, grape, black cherry and a killer lemon sour. They're made just as they have been since 1895, with cane sugar and in bottles. Want a tour? Call 1-507-498-3424. Every bottle of Spring Grove Soda offers a language lesson: They bear the slogan "Mange Tusen Takk,'' which means "Thanks a million'' (literally, a thousand thanks) in Norwegian.
Who are Ola and Per?
In the town park, two bronze figures seem to be squabbling. They're Ola and Per, best friends who appeared in a beloved comic strip written by Spring Grove native Peter Rosendahl between 1918 and 1935 for the Decorah (Iowa) Posten (the strip also ran in newspapers in Seattle and Minneapolis). Snooty Per was supposed to be the smart one, and Ola was the good-natured bumpkin; the pair's misadventures illustrated the bumpy path undertaken by Norwegian immigrants.
Our little secret
The 12-mile drive to the Iowa town of Dorchester is one of the loveliest in the Upper Midwest. Follow County Road 16 along a ridge that descends to an idyllic valley floor, past a hillside stone church and grotto. Go in early morning or late afternoon, when sunlight slants across the undulating landscape.
Buying good stuff
People who know Spring Grove make detours year-round to buy finely crafted goods from local artisans and hunt for antiques.
All those long winter nights made Norwegians good with chisels, paintbrushes and knitting needles. The Bluff County Artists Gallery features fine woodcarving, rosemaling, painting, ceramics and fiber arts from more than 60 artists and is a stop on this weekend's Bluff Country Studio Art Tour (1-877-742-2278; www. bluffcountryartistsgallery.org). At HIS Business, beautiful cedar-lined chests, Amish-style convertible chairs and hand-knit Norwegian-style sweaters and vests dazzle shoppers. The Ballard House, occupying an 1889 hotel, offers three stories of antiques as well as displays on town history.
Nightlife in Spring Grove, population 1,300? No problem. Ye Olde Opera House premieres "Crime Wave at Blandings,'' an adaptation of a P.G. Wodehouse short story, May 15-16, in the new cinema. The musical "Lucky Stiff'' will run July 15-19. (1-507-498-5859; www. yeoldeoperahouse.org)
It's a scenic 2 1/2-hour drive south of the Twin Cities on Hwy. 52; instead of continuing across the Iowa border to Decorah, take Hwy. 44 east for 15 miles.
EAT LIKE A NORWEGIAN
At festivals, you can try lefse, a flatbread made with grated potatoes, or rommegrot, a porridge made of flour, butter, sugar and cream, which you will be encouraged to top with more sugar, cinnamon and melted butter.
Doc's Blue Moose, a '50s-style café on Main Street, serves burgers, soups, salads, steaks, pasta and ice cream (1-507-498-3627).
WHERE TO SLEEP
You can get a tidy room with fridge, microwave, cable TV and Internet access for $64 at the Village House Motel in Spring Grove (1-507-498-3271). Or be surrounded by nature in the camper cabin at Beaver Creek Valley State Park for $50 (1-507-724-2107). There's also an Americinn in Caledonia (1-507-725-8000).
Other Norwegian strongholds in the Driftless Area also celebrate Syttende Mai. In Decorah, Iowa, 20 minutes to the south, there's a traditional children's parade at 10:30 a.m. May 16, followed by Nordic dancers. Admission is free to the world-class Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum May 16-17 (1-563-382-9681; www.vesterheim.org).
In Westby, Wis., an hour to the east, from May 15-17, there's a bicycle tour, troll hunt, rommegrot-eating contest, old-time music, children's tractor pull and a big parade at 1:30 p.m. Sunday (1-866-493-7829; www.westbywi.com).
Beth Gauper writes about travel at www.midwestweekends.com. She lives in Minneapolis.