Winding past the bluffs and down into the valleys of southwestern Wisconsin reminds me that the Midwest is not so flat after all. Still, it seems a far cry from the steep Norwegian fjells towering above the fjords, but that didn't stop immigrants from western Norway from farming here. Norskedalen is a living museum for modern visitors to learn about how these settlers survived in this "driftless area" that escaped the glaciers that leveled the rest of Wisconsin and Minnesota. The rolling hills with deep valleys proved perfect for Norwegian settlers who were used to farming on steep pitches and even told tales of tying rope around their children's waists so they didn't fall off the edge of the mountains back home.
WHAT TO DO
Norskedalen, literally "Norwegian valley," is a few miles north of the small town of Coon Valley, which is just southeast of La Crosse, Wis. The farmstead at what would become Norskedalen was donated in 1977 to the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse and has grown considerably since then. The 13 pioneer buildings represent how Scandinavians set up their farms: Rather than one giant pole barn, they made many "outbuildings" to avoid a catastrophe in case one of them caught fire. The restored Bekkum pioneer cabin dates back to the 1890s and the airy, open space makes visitors want to settle in for a while.
The Thrune Visitors' Center at the top of the hill provides a thankfully concise display of artifacts from the Norwegian settlers. Alongside the hand-stitched bunad national Norwegian dresses and the requisite rosemaling on antique furniture, shelves hold bizarre old cures such as bloodletting devices that were used well into the last century. Old wives' remedies passed down possibly from the Vikings included curing a cough with a shot of turpentine and getting rid of warts with a slice of salt pork that must then be placed under a stone during the full moon.
The staff and contributors to Norskedalen wanted to show the younger generation the hardships and joys that their ancestors experienced in this unfamiliar world. Many activities that have been lost to most of us survive here, such as intricate woodcarving, tobacco drying, threshing and grinding ice for fresh ice cream. The calm, relaxing farmstead is an escape from the modern world and offers 6 miles of walking trails through the lush wooded hills. If traveling all the way to Norway may be prohibitively expensive, why not see a bit of the authentic Scandinavian experience right in our own back yard?
WHERE TO STAY
Visitors can rent out the classic Paulsen cabin on the grounds; it sleeps up to six in the cozy loft. The restored cabin dates to 130 years ago but offers a full kitchen with a stove, refrigerator and microwave. In the evening, have a cozy fire at the outside fire ring. Rent the whole house for $95 a night during the week and $215 on a weekend night (www.norskedalen.org or 1-608-452-3424).
WHERE TO EAT
Near Norskedalen are Westby and Viroqua, towns founded by Norwegians that offer gift shops and Scandinavian restaurants. For authentic small-town Scandinavian cuisine, stop at the recently renovated Borgens Café in nearby Westby opposite Dregne's Scandinavian Gifts. Don't forget to leave room for pie. (109 S. Main St., Westby.)
I loved the classic, dark Viking Inn Supper Club in Viroqua with the loaded salad bar complete with herring and the buttery garlic bread at your table. Yes, this is a classic Wisconsin supper club (113 N. Main St., Viroqua; 1-608-637-7398).
Vegetarians and healthful eaters should stick to the fantastic Viroqua Food Co-op, which has a great deli (609 N. Main St., Viroqua; 1-608-637-7511; www.viroquafood.coop).
IF YOU GO
Norskedalen is open nearly every day, but is often very quiet during the week. For more action, stop by during special events, such as the Midsummer Festival June 23-24 and the popular "Ghoulees in the Coulees" spooky Halloween events, Oct. 25-26. Admission is $6 for adults and $3 for children. Find more information at www.norskedalen.org or 1-608-452-3424.
Eric Dregni is the author of "In Cod We Trust" and "Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America."