Elk Horn, Iowa, may be best-known for its 19th-century Danish windmill and all-things Danish, but the town of about 600 has even more attractions to draw people to its quaint digs. From a Viking house to restaurants that can compete with the best in the big cities, there may be close to a dozen reasons to visit the western Iowa community.
VikingHjem – A Viking house
Let’s start with the Viking house. Located in the town’s park next to the Danish windmill, the longhouse replica represents life in a Scandinavian country. Since Vikings were only part of a Scandinavian community, they resided alongside blacksmiths, traders, farmers and other occupations. The Elk Horn house would have been common for a middle class to an upper-class family. It’s likely the family occupying it would have had servants (yep, that’s what we’ll call them). Living under the same roof, they would have had separate sleeping sections. We enjoyed the company of a Viking reenactor, who discussed the role of a Viking, which really didn’t extend much past invading and pillaging villages. They were a rough lot. (Personal aside: Based on my DNA test results, the 2-15% Scandinavian DNA I have is likely the result of the time the Vikings invaded and occupied Ireland, so there’s that part of the family…)
Riding in history and story of a hero
Mike Howard is a local businessman, who may have singlehandedly saved any military vehicle that served during World War II. Seriously, Howard has acquired a major collection of Army vehicles, from a tank to jeeps, ambulances and weapons carriers. In fact, he escorted our group between Elk Horn and neighboring Kimballton in a weapons carrier. As six writers sat in the open-air back of the vehicle on a chilly morning, it didn’t seem cold at all. I mean, we were riding in history. It seems each vehicle has quite the story, from finding their way to Iowa via Australia or one vehicle that was built in Iowa but acquired from a junkyard in New Jersey.
Howard has an interesting story, himself. A successful businessman in the area, with one company that worked with NASA, Howard became a military reenactor to honor his father, who served in the US military during World War II. He believes it’s an honorable way to keep his father’s memory alive. He serves as a captain in an airborne group based in Oklahoma. Having made at least 50 jumps, Howard was among Americans who parachuted over Normandy Beach last June as part of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion by Allied forces. That operation changed the flow of the war and in a little more than a year, the Nazis and Axis powers were defeated. Indeed, the men and women who served during that time were the Greatest Generation.
Elk Horn honors locals who have served in the military with a memorial, as well as a mural, in a downtown park. I’ve previously mentioned I enjoy visiting veterans memorials and monuments. I like how communities honor those who have served our country.
Agribusiness success stories
Calling Elk Horn home, two agriculture businesses look for ways to provide stewardship to the land. Brun Ko Farm raises organic, chemical-free crops, such as tomatoes, peppers and corn, as well as livestock, including hogs and cattle. The farm’s owners sell their products at local farmer’s markets in Atlantic and Elk Horn, as well as directly to customers.
Danish Countryside Vines and Wines raises 15 varieties of grapes on five acres. Planting the first crop in 2003, the winery has grown to become a popular destination in the area, offering 20 varieties of wine. Sampling some of the wines, I lean toward sweet whites, so I was definitely intrigued by their Pear-A-Dyce, with an excellent note of pear.
Since Elk Horn’s main attraction is the 1848 Danish Windmill, a visit to the spot is a must. It welcomes you as you drive into town from the south. The windmill, which was taken apart and reassembled in Iowa, is a true architectural and cultural wonder. The windmill started Elk Horn’s tourism industry full-force. It proves that a historical item, such as a train depot or old bank building, can become a major tourism draw and provide the foundation for a community’s growth.
Museum of Danish America
Since Elk Horn and Kimballton have one of the largest Danish-American populations in the country, it seems fitting that Elk Horn would be home to the Museum of Danish America. With a selection of permanent exhibits (such as a Lego town), as well as special exhibits (portraits of nobility and commoners), the museum is home to items such as old dolls, weapons, pipes, clothes and more. It’s an interesting walk through history.
Since the museum is a few blocks west of town, you may want to take a stroll along the Friendship Walk. The path takes you from downtown to the museum. Along the way, you’ll appreciate the view of the rural scenery, from prairie grass and flowers to farm fields. It’s about three-quarters of a mile, so not very long, but definitely worth it.
Built in 1908, Bedstomer’s House was intended to serve as the home of the owner and his true love. He turned down his proposal, and it’s not clear if he ended up living in the house. After a few other families lived there, it was eventually donated to the museum. Today, you can visit the home and see what life may have been like in the early 20th century.
A couple more blocks downtown, the museum’s genealogy center helps people research their family trees. Some prove successful, while other people find out their ancestors may not have been who they thought they were or changed names and life stories when emigrating to the United States. The staff is very well-versed in Danish history and can spend several hours researching names.
Food and Drink
A visit to Elk Horn requires sampling its outstanding restaurants. From breakfast and tea at the Pleasant Thymes Tea Room. Serving the Queen’s tea or coffee (for non-tea drinkers), Sherry Gerlock realized a lifelong dream of having daily tea parties when she and husband Bill opened the tea room in 2018. A popular destination, Gerlocks serves a four-course meal, which includes an entrée as well as freshly-baked scones. During your visit, you’ll learn the proper way to eat your scone.
The Norse Horse is based on Odin’s eight-legged horse. Serving sandwiches, soup and salads, Norse Horse is located along the town’s main street. As they were renovating the restaurant, the owners found a couple of murals that had been covered by wallpaper.
Nearby, the Kringle Man bakes some of the best Danish kringles you will ever eat. With choices including apple, strawberry and almond, the pastry makes for a delicious breakfast item or an afternoon snack.
Enjoying ravioli and pizza at The Flour Mill, our party definitely enjoyed the visit. Or, it could have been the local wines we sampled (LOL). The downtown restaurant is a must when visiting Elk Horn.
We enjoyed both dinner and breakfast at The Danish Table: Hygge Kitchen. With a dinner menu featuring both traditional Danish items, as well as American dishes, there’s something for everyone. Our group was intrigued by an appetizer that included chilled cauliflower. It rates as one of my favorite uses for the vegetable. My entrée was the Frikadeller (Danish meatballs and potatoes). I also enjoyed a side of jellied beets and pickles.
For breakfast at the Hygge Kitchen, we enjoyed the traditional aebleskiver, a ball of dough baked to perfection. Top it with sugar, jam or syrup and you have a tasty breakfast. The restaurant also makes an excellent cup of coffee.
Kimballton is about a 10-minute drive from Elk Horn and continues the area’s Danish story. Home to Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid,” a replica to the Danish author’s 1837 fairy tale, she anchors a water fountain attraction that also features a sculpture garden of his most notable tales. From “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to “The Ugly Duckling,” as well as “Thumbelina,” the sculpture garden encircles the fountain.
Home to Audubon County’s Freedom Rock, the art piece recognizes the area’s Danish influence, as well as the people who have served in the military. “Bubba” Sorenson created the Freedom Rock in appreciation of people’s military service. He created the first one, now a major tourist draw near Greenfield on Interstate 80. He later painted one for each of Iowa’s 99 counties. Sorenson works with locals to identify the subjects of that county’s rock.
During our visit to Elk Horn, we stayed at the Tivoli Inn and Suites, which is centrally located near the windmill and other attractions.
While Elk Horn may be a small town, it’s packed with a lot of history and culture, as well as an outstanding culinary scene. We recommend putting this western Iowa community on your travel bucket list.