People & Places

Iowa's ethnic museums preserve heritage, treasures and are outstanding places to visit

The Gazette

The Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum is in downtown Decorah.
The Gazette The Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum is in downtown Decorah.

European turmoil in the 1800s changed far off Iowa forever. Early that century our state was a vast wilderness of tallgrass prairie bisected by woodsy river valleys. Only a few people lived here, yet within one human lifespan wild land transitioned into farms and towns connected by telegraph, railroads and roads. Iowa’s human population surged from almost nothing to 2,231,853 by 1900, with many of its residents new to America and speaking a diversity of languages.

Many came directly from Europe, a continent struggling with a population growing faster than economic opportunity. Disease, war and ethnic strife were widespread, while political and religious freedom was frequently unknown. No wonder millions bought cheap steamship tickets, called steerage, and sailed for the New World. They came from Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, Italy and nearly every other country. All shared hope for a bright future in America, and many found it in a land short of people but rich in resources.

Some immigrants stayed in huge port cities along the Eastern Seaboard, but millions more scattered across our vast continent. Immigration peaked at a perfect time for Iowa. Our state needed people to transform the wilderness. Optimistic and energetic new arrivals bought virgin land at bargain rates, and some even acquired it free.

Europeans weren’t the first immigrants. Native Americans were here when Columbus made landfall but they, too, were immigrants. Some 11,000 years ago, North America and South America were devoid of humans but brimming with big game. When people crossed the Bering Sea land bridge they enjoyed the economic opportunity of hunting mastodons, mammoths and other large mammals. This abundant food enabled rapid human population growth, and people spread throughout North and South America relatively quickly. When Europeans arrived, cultures clashed and one of the saddest chapters in American history, the gruesome genocide against Native Americans, began.

Immigration continues today, but only 4.5 percent of Iowans are foreign born, a much smaller percent than a century ago. For most Iowans, coming to America was an experience of distant ancestors. The passage of time and intermarriage between cultural groups gave most Americans mixed ancestry with grandparents and great grandparents native of several countries. My own family is typical.

Born in Denmark in 1861, Ander Pedersen had no chance to inherit the family farm. His career options were to be a servant, join the military, go to sea or move to America. He chose the last two. A seafarer by 1884, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1891 while changing his name to Patterson during the process. Born poor in Europe, he retired as a U.S. Navy lieutenant commander and veteran of both the Spanish-American War and World War I.

Ander married a German-born woman. One of their sons married a woman of mostly German ancestry, and their son married a woman of English origin. I was born a blend of Danish, German, English and maybe other ethnic groups. Like most Iowans, I’m an ethnic mongrel but 100 percent proud American. With roots scattered across Europe, what country should I identify myself with?


Tova Brandt, curator of the Museum of Danish America in Elk Horn told me, “You are what you identify with.”

Because I feel most intellectually aligned with Denmark and it is the origin of my name (although Americanized) if pushed I’d say I’m a Danish American.

Most Iowans are in the same boat. Although ethnically blended they identify as Norwegian, Czech, German, English, or any one of dozens of other countries their ancestors came from. Today about 2.3 percent of Iowa’s population claims Danish origin, 5.8 percent claim Norwegian, 13.5 percent Irish, 35.9 percent German, 4.5 percent Dutch, 9.5 percent English, 3.4 percent African American and 2.1 percent Czech. The rest just claim to be American, although there are small numbers who identify with countries scattered around the globe.

Immigrants settled where opportunity could be found at the time of migration. Danes, for example, mostly settled in western Iowa, Norwegians around Decorah and Czechs near Cedar Rapids. Once a few people settled in a spot, others from their home country followed creating pockets of ethnicity in America. Often native languages and traditions of Europe continued for a while, but as time passed and people moved in and out, foreign culture diminished as we became increasingly blended Americans.

To retain the culture of the home country and interpret the story of immigration and life in America, ethnic museums have been established across the country.

“Many modern Americans still identify with the country their ancestors came from. It can show up as simply as the type of cookie people bake for Christmas, but as years and generations pass this is dimming. Ethnic museums help preserve the traditions of Old World countries, the stories of immigration, and the accomplishments and failures of immigrants’ descendants. The museums remind us of the difficult life in the Old World that pushed people here. Unfortunately, these things still happen in parts of the world, and museums help us remain aware of it,” says Gail Naughton, president/CEO of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids.

Immigration continues today as people come for the same reason our ancestors abandoned their homes and moved. Newcomers seek freedom from poverty, war, disease and strife. Many have settled in the Corridor.

“In the past year the Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids helped immigrants from 52 countries learn English, and other groups help them with language, legal services and housing,” says Wendy Arnold-Rodriguez, education program manager at the Catherine McAuley Center.

Opposition to immigration has become a hot political issue in the presidential campaign, but it’s not new. Prejudice against Irish, Italians, Catholics and other groups once ran at fever pitch.

Ironically, people pushing anti-immigration policy are here because their ancestors came for the same reasons modern humans wish to become Americans.

Iowa has the good fortune to have six ethnic museums that preserve the heritage of immigration and the stories of families who moved here and what their descendants do today: the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library and the African American Museum of Iowa and Cultural Center are in Cedar Rapids; the Museum of Danish America is in Elk Horn; and Vesterheim, the national Norwegian-American Museum and Heritage Center is in Decorah. There’s also the German American Heritage Center in Davenport and a robust German presence in Amana. The Swedish Heritage Museum is in Swedesburg. Other ethnic museums are located around the country. Wherever a person’s ancestors came from, it’s likely there is an ethnic museum or society somewhere.

In addition to education, the museums preserve the Old World culture by archiving documents and objects that reveal the immigration experience and life in a New World. Too often fascinating items get scattered among family members as the years pass and gradually are lost or destroyed.

“We carefully protect artifacts. Often families think the only important items are from people who became accomplished or famous, but protecting the stories of ordinary families is important,” says John-Mark Nielsen, president and CEO of the Museum of Danish America.

Donating family documents and heirlooms to an ethnic museum helps preserve history. To make a donation, contact the curator of the appropriate museum and ask if they are interested.

“If we receive an accurate description of the object and a photo it helps determine if it is of archive value,” says Angela Stanford, curator of collections and registrar at the Danish Museum.

Wishing to preserve the immigration story of my great-grandfather Pedersen, my family has donated documents tracing his life from birth in Denmark to his death in New York. We recently presented the Danish Museum with the sword he wore as a proud officer in the U.S. Navy.


Visiting all six of Iowa’s ethnic museums is a fascinating voyage in history and can be done in a few weekends. With the exception of the Danish Museum in western Iowa, all others either are in the Corridor or a short drive away.

Iowa’s heritage museums

• German American Heritage Center, 712 W. Second St., Davenport; (563) 222-8844,

• National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids; (319) 362-8500,

• Vesterheim-The National Norwegian-American Museum and Heritage Center, 502 West Water St., Decorah; (563) 382-9681,

• Swedish Heritage Museum, 107 Jones Ave., Swedesburg; (319) 254-2317,

• The Museum of Danish America, 2212 Washington St., Elk Horn; (712) 764-7001,

• The African American Museum of Iowa and Cultural Center, 55 12th Ave. SE; (319) 862-2101,

• Rich (Pedersen) Patterson of Cedar Rapids is the former executive director of Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids. He and his wife, Marion, created Winding Pathways, a business designed to encourage and help people create and enjoy wondrous yards.

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