'During Nordic Fest, everybody's Norwegian'

Decorah to host 50th annual Scandinavian celebration

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DECORAH — Jerry Aulwes, 81, has German heritage, but that didn’t stop him from helping plan Decorah’s first Nordic Fest in 1967.

This year, he’s proud to know the festival still is going strong — the 50th annual celebration of Scandinavian culture starts Thursday and continues through Saturday.

As Aulwes can testify, Nordic Fest is also a recognition of Decorah’s community spirit, no matter from where one’s ancestors hail.

“During Nordic Fest, everybody’s Norwegian,” he said. “I don’t think anybody pays much attention to where they’re from. They’re all here for good times and to share with each other.”

Before the first festival, Aulwes and five others had heard of a similar event in Oregon and decided Decorah should have a celebration of its own.

“We thought, ‘Why not, let’s try it,’ ” he said. “We dove into it. Apparently it worked, because we’re still at it.”

They formed the original planning committee, along with their wives. They built and painted seven booths themselves that first year, where volunteers served traditional Norwegian food. A children’s parade and Scandinavian music and dancing helped round out the activities.

The festival has grown a lot since then. About 8,000 people live in Decorah, with another 2,000 students at Luther College, but organizers are expecting about 15,000 people to attend this year’s Nordic Fest. The event is put on by its own non-profit, in partnership with the Decorah Area Chamber of Commerce, the Winneshiek County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum and a host of local businesses and individuals. Twenty board members and hundreds of volunteers come together to make the event possible.

Visitors have come all the way from Norway for the festival, some to reconnect with long-lost extended family, others to see how their culture has been preserved and translated in America. Some traditions that have fallen out of practice in Norway, like devotion to lutefisk, cod soaked in lye, have been passed on in the United States.

Charlene Selbee, executive director for the Winneshiek County Convention and Visitors Bureau, is in charge of publicity.

“We’ve maintained the culture from the time when the immigrants came over,” she said. “People didn’t want to give up what they brought with them.”

She remembers attending her first Nordic Fest when she was 9 years old. She is Norwegian on her father’s side and said her family has always embraced its heritage.

“Dad is 101 now, and we attribute it to eating lutefisk,” she said with a laugh.

She admitted lutefisk makes some wary, but she encourages everyone to try it. Her family eats it with lefse — flat potato pancakes — and butter.

“I tell everybody not to be scared of it,” she said.

Over the years, the festival’s offerings have grown along with its crowds. Traditional Scandinavian music has been supplemented with contemporary music and entertainment. Church basement dinners, a staple of Midwestern culture, remain an important part of the festival, but this year’s two traditional Scandinavian dinners are joined by a taco buffet at the First United Methodist Church on Saturday — with the option to substitute Norwegian salmon or whitefish for ground beef and use fried lefse as a taco salad shell.

“We’re sharing the Scandinavian culture, but also everything else that makes up the beauty of the area — the scenic beauty, the town, the other cultures that live here as well,” Selbee said. “It’s about not just what happened in the past but what’s going on now in the present and into the future.

“We’re combining the past and the present.”

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