Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center, located in rural Coon Valley, offers visitors a unique opportunity to take a step back into time to experience the lifestyles of Norwegian immigrants in the mid-19th century.
Norskedalen, which means “Norwegian valley,” began in 1977 as an outdoor laboratory and arboretum when Dr. Alf Gundersen and his wife Carroll donated the 112-acre Gundersen farm to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Foundation. They established an arboretum in memory of Alf’s mother, Helga Isaksaetre Gundersen.
In 1982, the name changed from Gundersen Arboretum to Norskedalen, and in April of that year, a ground-breaking ceremony was held for the Thrune Visitors’ Center. The first buildings were moved to the site (what’s now the Bekkum Homestead) and restored during the summer of 1982 from neighboring farms. Nearly all of the artifacts were donated by local families with major financial support provided by Owen and Dorothy Bekkum.
The Bekkum Homestead is an example of a typical Norwegian farm in the late 19th century. The homestead is set in a “tun,” or horseshoe. The homestead includes the Engum family home and outbuildings.
In 1995, Norskedalen became independent of the UW-L Foundation and became a nonprofit corporation.
From the beginning, volunteers have played a vital role at the nature and heritage center.
“Volunteers make Norskedalen special because we wouldn’t exist without volunteers,” said Lori Dubczak, executive director. “Volunteers are the lifeblood that make is a unique place.”
In addition to the Bekkum Homestead and Thrune Visitors’ Center, the primary property includes hiking trails, a shelter, an amphitheater and a shelter house. The visitors’ center houses “The Immigration Story” exhibit, which outlines why the immigrants left Norway, why they settled in the area, and how agriculture and industry developed as a result.
The Norwegian immigration story continues at the Norskedalen Thrunegaarden (which means Thrune farm). The open-air museum is located on the west side of Coon Valley along Hwy. 14/61. The 43-acre property was given to Norskedalen by Lloyd and Agnes Thrune and Lloyd’s sister Ruth Thrune in 1983.
Dubczak said Thrunegaarden includes the Nils Skumsrud cabin, the oldest cabin in Vernon County, and tells the story of three generations of the Skumsrud-Thrune family. The property also includes the Erickson Schoolhouse, the first schoolhouse in the area, and the Skumsrud-Thrune Museum, which includes the artwork of Lloyd and Agnes Thrune, and Ruth Thrune.
“Native Americans camped on the creek and the Skumsruds had a friendly relationship with them,” she said. “On the north side of the road is (the site of) the first CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) camp. There is so much history.”
The museum, formerly the Skumsrud Heritage Farm, was renamed a year ago. “It’s a personification of the immigration story. The prior name caused confusion,” Dubczak said.
Thrunegaarden is open by appointment only.
Numerous special events are offered throughout the year, beginning with February’s Candlelight Snowshoe Hike and March’s Treats ‘n Treasure Sale.
“The Treats ‘n Treasure Sale is held in the Coon Valley Village Hall and it supports Norskedalen programs,” Dubczak said.
In April and May student groups come for the education programs. Dubczak said this year 771 students came to Norskedalen during the six-week period.
June includes Midsummer Fest, which was celebrated June 22, and Music in the Valley, which is held Wednesdays from 5:30-7:30 p.m. until Aug. 14. Music in the Valley features different musicians each week, and Borgen’s brings dinner.
“It’s beautiful as the day winds down,” Dubczak said. “There’s free admission.”
Art Fair on the Farm is held at Norskedalen Thrunegaarden on the Sunday after the Fourth of July. This year’s event is July 7 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
September always features the Twilight Tour, with a theme and a farm-to-table dinner. This year’s tour is Sept. 8.
October includes a Civil War Reenactment, Family Friendly Trick or Treat and Ghoulees in the Coulees.
The Civil War Reenactment, which falls on Oct. 12-13 this year, includes Friday as an education day for students. Dubczak said 600 students take part in the programming.
The third weekend in October is when volunteers come to Norskedalen to carve 500 pumpkins that have been grown at Thrunegaarden. The pumpkins are used to add to the atmosphere of Family Friendly Trick or Treat, which is held on the Thursday before Halloween, and Ghoulees in the Coulees, which falls on the fourth weekend of the month. This year’s Ghoulees in the Coulees takes place Oct. 25-26.
Dubczak said Family Friendly Trick or Treat is “the most adorable evening of the year. Kids trick or treat in the homestead.”
“November is a little bit quieter because of deer hunting,” Dubczak said.
Activity ramps up again the first Saturday of December when Norskedalen hosts Old-Fashioned Christmas. The event features such things as horse-drawn wagon rides, a yule log hunt, a bell choir concert in the Benrud Little White Chapel at the end of the day, and a Christmas meal in the visitors’ center.
Dubczak said the meal includes a lefse bar, where diners can choose their own toppings for the Norwegian flatbread, which is made by volunteers.
Dubczak said about 20,000 people visit Norskedalen each year. That number includes school groups, Wednesday programing, Norskedalen members and those who attend special events. “That’s substantial.”
Dubczak said Norskedalen has been awarded a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board to have workshops throughout the fall, winter and spring months of 2019-2020. The workshops will be opportunities for those who want to develop rosemaling and other Norwegian art skills to work with teachers on an ongoing basis.
A new conservation program is also in the works.
“We are trying to do education on conservation in our daily lives,” Dubczak said. “It’s early in the planning stages.”
Norskedalen worked with Discover Wisconsin to create a special episode featuring the nature and heritage center. The episode aired March 9 and 10.