People & Places

Decorah shows off its Norwegian heritage on Day 6 of RAGBRAI

Northern Iowa town also hosting Nordic Fest through Saturday

DECORAH — It had been 18 years since Decorah welcomed cyclists taking part in the annual Register’s Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa.

But the city’s residents showed Friday they didn’t forget how to give RAGBRAI riders a warm, Norwegian welcome. “We put out the welcome mat, no doubt about it,” said Charlene Selbee, director of the Winneshiek County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “That’s what Norwegians do in this area, we open our doors.”

With a population of about 8,000, the northeastern Iowa community is familiar with tourists, especially this time of year when the annual Nordic Fest celebration rolls around. A Norwegian welcome sign reading “Welkomen til Decorah” greeted visitors Friday and vendors were out early selling Lefse, Kringla and Krumkake, among other Norwegian foods.

“It is exciting to host the state, country and the world and show off more than our little town,” said Decorah City Manager Chad Bird. “But also, we get to show off our tradition and heritage.

“We’re pretty proud we can show off our rich, Norwegian culture.”

With folks in town for RAGBRAI and Nordic Fest — which continues Saturday — the number of people in town Friday was expected to triple.

Selbee said the city typically doesn’t apply to take part in RAGBRAI, but when organizers asked in January if Decorah would be a meeting town, officials said yes.

“Being a pass-through town is always a great opportunity,” she said.

College Spirit Day

Day 6 of the 411-mile RAGBRAI trek across Iowa began in Cresco and was to wrap up more than 60 miles later in Waukon. Riders depart from there on Saturday for the final leg of the ride, a 44.8-mile journey to Lansing.

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Friday was College Spirit Day on the route and there was plenty of representation from the University of Iowa and Iowa State University with and out-of-state schools and smaller, private colleges thrown into the mix, including Luther College, which calls Decorah home.

“Luther College has certainly jumped on board and knowing it is College Spirit Day, even more so,” said Bird, who noted riders could participate in a special Luther Loop upon arriving in town.

Jack Schroeder, 72, of Rochester, N.Y., and Norm Engstrom, 72, of DeKalb, Ill., were both representing Cornell College in Mount Vernon.

Roommates freshman year, Schroeder and Engstrom are riding alongside 23 other Cornell alumni and said RAGBRAI — along with social media — has helped them reconnect.

Each year, the two ride the route — Engstrom since 1987 and Schroeder since 2003.

A Good Ride

Engstrom said Decorah and New Hampton have been his favorite cities on this year’s route. Schroeder added this year’s northern route across Iowa has been a good ride.

“These northern routes are really nice,” he said. “The towns are better, richer.”

Decorah Mayor Don Arendt said RAGBRAI allows for a different audience — with hundreds from other states and foreign countries participating — to gain exposure to Iowa, specifically the hilly, northeast portion of it.

“It’s different from corn and beans, corn and beans, corn and beans,” he said. “And anybody that comes to Decorah, they say it’s such a beautiful place.”

Plus, they have Lutefisk.

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“It’s exciting for everyone in (Winneshiek) County,” added Selbee. “We have the hills, we have the trails. It’s fun to be able to show that off.”

Among all the Norwegian flavor on Friday, the festivities still had a distinct Iowa feel.

Surrounded by RAGBRAI riders and Decorah natives alike, Mollie Busta asked for a little audience participation Friday morning as she performed with Mollie B and the Jim Busta Band.

The tune was familiar — The Chicken Dance.

A RAGBRAI rider turned and spoke to the person next to him:

“Only in Iowa.”

If you go

• What: Nordic Fest

• When: Saturday

• Where: Decorah

• Highlights: 7:30 a.m., Elvelopet 5k and 15k races; 10 a.m., Grand Parade; 10 p.m., Fireworks.

• Info: For more information and a complete schedule of events, go to nordicfest.com.

l Comments: (319) 368-8531; alexandra.connor@thegazette.com

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