Judith Dale: 1920s Solvang - Becoming Danish Capital of America
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Judith Dale: 1920s Solvang - Becoming Danish Capital of America

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This is the bookend article to looking back at Buellton during the decade of the 1920s. This article looks at the establishment of Solvang during that same time.

In 1910, three Danish men incorporated the “Danish American Colony” (DAC) and decided to look for a location to establish a Danish community in the western U.S. After searching sites in Washington, Oregon and California, they chose the Santa Ynez Valley for the same reason that the Spanish chose the location for the Santa Inez Mission in 1804: a good source of water (the Santa Ynez River), good climate and good farmland.

Looking back

In 1911, Pastor Benedict Nordentoft, Pastor Jen Moller Gregersen, and Professor Peder Pedersen Hornsyld signed an agreement to purchase an 8,882-acre parcel of the Mexican land grant Rancho San Carlos de Jonata for $338,000. The land had been sold by Rufus T. Buell in 1877 to the Santa Barbara Land and Water Company to pay off his debts.

The founders’ goal was to establish a Danish community with a folk school and church, where the Danish language, culture, and arts could thrive. They came up with the name “Solvang” which means sunny field in Danish. To sell lots and entice Danes to move to the area, they advertised in all the Danish-American newspapers. Land prices varied from $25 to $130 per acre.

Within four months a hotel was established to house and feed new arrivals while their homes were being built.

Later that year, Sophus Olsen opened the first retail business in Solvang – a general store in which he partnered with grocer D.D. Davis of Los Olivos.

In 1912 Marcus Nielsen bought out Davis and in 1914 bought out Olsen. (Nielsen’s Market continued in the family until 2019 – a 107-year run. It was tied with the Solvang Post Office and Solvang Library for the honor of being the longest continuously operating businesses in Solvang.)

Since early settlers were predominately single men, a pool hall that offered a bath, a shave, a cigar, and good beer was established in 1912 by Peder Madsen. It was one of the most popular new businesses in town. More new businesses continued to be added.

In 1913, the Solvang Garage was built to provide a machine shop and service for the few people who had automobiles. The first bank, Santa Ynez Valley Bank, also opened that year. Since many new residents came from a diary background, many new settlers established dairies and creameries.

Mission Bakery built around 1914 was the first of many bakeries in town which helped to establish Solvang as the place to get great baked goods.

The 1920s

By 1920, Solvang’s population was 420 residents. Not all of the 8,882 acres had sold, and some had to be returned to the Santa Barbara Land and Water Company due to the fact that the founders refused to sell land to non-Danish people. However, 5,828 acres of the original purchase were sold, securing the future of the Danish community.

With the arrival of electricity and the automobile as well as the hard work and “can do” spirit of the new Danish settlers, the town continued to grow in the 1920s.

Many new businesses started and paved the way for Solvang to truly become a town. Solvang even had a newspaper by 1925 and was called the Santa Ynez Valley News. The “little Danish community” was becoming the focal location of the Santa Ynez Valley.

The heart of the town was laid out very similar to today. Many businesses had located on Main Street (today’s Copenhagen Drive) and Gaviota Road (today’s Alisal Road). Most of the residences were built along the Lompoc Road, which is today’s Mission Drive (Highway 246). 

Architecturally, until 1927, Solvang looked like any other small town in the western United States. Most stores had wood frame construction and Western-style false fronts. In 1926 the rounded arcade on Main Street (Copenhagen Drive) was added – a nod to the neighboring Santa Inez Mission.

The first truly “Danish” building was Bethania Lutheran Church which was built in 1927. It was styled after traditional rural churches in Denmark. The church existed from the beginning as the town fathers envisioned the community having three pillars: home, school, and church.

Before 1927, the church was very active, but lacked the money to build its own facility. The congregation met in various places, mainly in the folk school. Bethania was completed in July 1928 at a cost of $15,311. Along with Atterdag College, Bethania became the focal point of the community. With the completion of the church building, the goals of the town’s founders were now complete.

By the end of the 1920s Solvang had become more ethnically diverse. Danes were now ⅔ of the population, not 100% (by 1950, it would drop to half.)

In order to stay in business in the late 1920s the shopkeepers had to learn to speak English. Even Bethania started delivering some of its sermons in English. The community was becoming more Americanized and many of the young people welcomed this as they wanted to be American Danes, not just Danes.

Solvang – The Danish Capital of America

By the 1930s, Solvang had become the largest town in the Santa Ynez Valley. It had businesses to meet every need – not just grocery stores and bakeries. Lumberyards, blacksmith shop, bank, movie theater, drugstore, meat market, feed stores and car dealerships all were added to serve the growing population.

However, by the late 1940s town leaders knew Solvang was losing its economic momentum. Jobs were available only in agriculture and small retail shops. Many young people were moving out of the area due to lack of job opportunities.

The idea of tourism was born to keep Solvang growing. Businesses began to remodel their storefronts in the Danish style and windmills were added.

In 1947, the Saturday Evening Post magazine wrote an article about the Danish community of Solvang. The title of the article was “Little Denmark”. The article gave Solvang instant popularity as the magazine was in almost every American home.

The rest is history – Solvang became the Danish Capital of America. Due in no small part to the vision and dedication of its business community, Solvang has been successful in building its rich history and cultural heritage into a popular year-around tourist destination.

In addition, it is a great place to live.

Former mayor of Buellton, Judith Dale built her career in education and continues to serve the local community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board and board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation. She can be reached at judith@hwy246.net

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