By Wava Petersen
How did a sixty-foot high windmill from Denmark ever come to Elk Horn, Iowa? It all started with Harvey Sornson, an Elk Horn area farmer of Danish origin. Harvey had been fascinated since childhood by the stately old windmills that graced the countryside in Denmark. On a visit to his ancestral homeland in 1975, Harvey learned that many of the old mills were in a state of disrepair and feared that his beloved windmills would deteriorate into nonexistence. Returning from Denmark, Harvey became obsessed with what his better judgment told him was a crazy idea, an absolutely crazy idea: He wanted to save an authentic windmill by moving it from Denmark to Elk Horn.
Harvey cautiously broached his idea to a few Danes in the community who agreed that yes, it was a crazy idea. And besides being crazy, it was impossible!
Being a “stubborn Dane,” Harvey continued to pursue his impossible dream. He showed up at the Danish Inn one day with more on his mind than just a morning cup of coffee. Calling Warren Jacobsen aside, he began to unfold his crazy idea of a way to preserve a part of our Danish heritage. Warren, also a man of vision, thought it was an excellent idea and presented it to the Better Elk Horn Club. Club members, very receptive to the suggestion, spread the idea around and soon the entire community caught the vision of Harvey’s dream. Possible benefits as a tourist attraction were evident; it would make a wonderful Bicentennial project for 1976; but most of all it would be a way to honor the forefathers of Elk Horn who put so much toil and sacrifice into founding a thriving community.
In August 1975, Milo and Mildred Andersen were visited by Milo’s cousin Harry Pedersen and his wife from Denmark. They were excited about the Windmill idea and went home with the mission of finding a mill for Elk Horn. In her story of “Harry Pedersen and Our Windmill,” Mildred Andersen related how Harry’s cousin thought Harry must have over-imbibed when he told her of his mission. And how she called Harry’s sister in Copenhagen to tell her she was sure Harry was drunk because he talked something about buying a windmill to be sent to America.
Some days later Harry spotted a mill in Norre Snede, Jutland. As Mildred relates, “Stopping at Julius Hansen’s house at noon in his work clothes right from the fishing harbor, Harry came to the door. When Julius’ wife, Karstian, answered the knock, Harry asked if the mill, built in 1848, was for sale.”
Julius was taking his noon nap, but Harry insisted on talking with him. Karstian awoke her husband, but told him she didn’t know what to think of a man down from the fishing harbor at Esbjerg who wanted to buy a mill.
Eventually a deal was struck and a contract was drawn up in order to secure the mill. Harry Pedersen had to trust that his friends in Elk Horn would back him on the deal or he would have been stuck with a windmill. Telephone contact was made with Mildred Andersen who frantically initiated arrangements to immediately send $30,000, which had been made in pledges, to purchase the mill. The banker was hesitant to accept the payment; he couldn’t believe anyone in America would buy a Danish windmill.
Dismantling the Windmill took a month, with three or four men coming 40 miles from Esbjerg each day. Many days it was too rainy to work. A blowtorch being used in dismantling the wings accidentally set one wing on fire, which burned unchecked when the local fire fighters didn’t dare to climb up with the water hose. Eventually Harry’s son climbed out on the wing to extinguish the flames and save the mill. Each piece of the mill was carefully numbered; a 10:1 scale model standing six feet high was built to correspond to the original mill.
Even before the precious cargo was shipped from Århus to the United States, new snags developed. The shipping company insisted on prepayment of the overland freight charges and requested a bill of lading. The first check never reached the destination and a second one had to be issued. The U.S. Customs Department demanded $2,000 before allowing the mill to be moved. The mill had suffered fire damage when it was used as a lookout tower during World War II and Customs contended that duty should be paid on parts less than 100 years old. (The money was later refunded.)
Next, carriers refused to haul the mill to Iowa as the 66-foot sails were deemed to be too long for U.S. highway travel. The only solution was to cut the two huge wings in half and build replacements. After thirty days on the dock and $680 in storage charges the Mill, loaded on two huge trucks, was bound for its destination in the Midwest. On February 4, 1976 under a white Cadillac escort, the old windmill finally arrived at its new home in Elk Horn, Iowa.
Quoting from a booklet, Danish Windmill, by Warren Jacobsen, “The dream had arrived. It was in pieces and still dusted with sea salt, but it was really there. Gudrun Jacobsen’s father, 87-year-old Peder K. Pedersen, was one of the “Danes” in the crowd. He had come to America when he was 21 years old, and had never seen his original homeland again. He brushed a little ocean salt from one of the old mill’s timbers and put his finger to his lips. The tears welled in his eyes as he tasted the distant sea.”
Reality was quickly restored as the crowd was immediately advised that there would be a $100 per day charge from the time the trucks arrived until they were unloaded. It was a cold, miserable day, but local businessmen and farmers wasted no time in loosening the chains and tie-downs, then pitching in to unload the two big loads of 44,000 pounds. There was no equipment on hand to lift the huge gears but Vern “Slim” Jensen of Southside Welding in Audubon responded immediately with his boom truck to a call for help…and with the cooperation of many helping hands the trucks were unloaded before nightfall. From that point on there was no stopping the community spirit that mobilized to fulfill Harvey’s dream.
Every day until the mill was completed weather permitting, volunteers organized into work crews by banker Lamont Christensen (from six to sixteen people each day) donated their time and talents to reconstruct the mill. A site at the lower end of Main Street would be the permanent home of the Windmill. Carl Bonnesen, retired mason, directed operations as trenches were dug, forms were built and concrete footings were poured. Challenges were many, not the least of which was translating metric measurements on the instructions provided by the Danish carpenters into English feet and inches. One hundred yards of concrete were required for the heavy footing and wall, which is 12 feet underground and 16 feet above.
Dirt needed to landscape the site was provided by Bennie Elmquist, local grain elevator operator. Spirits were high as site preparation came to an end.
There were some who looked at the pile of old timbers, some of which were rotting away, and pronounced the project a disaster. The popular local phrase, “There’s something rotten in Denmark” was quickly changed to “There’s nothing rotten in Denmark. They shipped it all to Elk Horn!” There were no blueprints, just the six-foot model that arrived in a box atop the pile of timbers. It was up to the Elk Horn construction crews to figure out how to get the pieces back together again. It wasn’t just locals who were skeptical; as the truck load of mill parts left Denmark, the head carpenter stood shaking his head in farewell, “Old Mill…the American Danes will NEVER be able to rebuild you without our help.”
But the Elk Horn Danes would prove the skeptics wrong. Four semi-retired men, all with a background of many years of construction experience and a lot of common sense headed the project: Gerald Brewer, Carl Bonnesen, Harvey Sornson and LeRoy Christensen. Their right hand man was Jim Sporleder, an “honorary” Dane who was head of the local Iowa Public Service utilities company. Jim was also elected president of the Danish Mill Corporation that was formed in 1975 as a non-profit corporation to handle windmill matters. Other members of the first Mill Board were Milo Andersen, Harvey Sornson, Carl Bonnesen, Earl Madsen, Warren Jacobsen and Gerald Brewer. Membership in the corporation was and remains open to any interested party.
After considerable scratching of heads, the crew went to work on Gerald Brewer’s suggestion to build interior scaffolding the height of the mill as a starting point. A New Yorker, Herman Christensen, who came from a mill-building family in Denmark read about the project and offered to come and help. He put his stamp of approval on the scaffolding plans and the crew proceeded to pull the heavy beams to the necessary height with block and tackle in order to secure them in place with wooden pegs.
When the main timbers were raised, looming some 50 feet in the air, the structure was crowned with a “Rejsekrans,” A Danish good-luck symbol. This symbol is often placed atop buildings under construction in Denmark. It is composed of three evergreen wreaths in concentric circles around a flag of Denmark. On top of the resurrected mill, the American flag flew along with the Danish.
The eight-sided structure, which is about 30 feet wide at the base, was covered with wood shingles and a concrete floor was poured. The two-ton, 10-foot spurwheel was lifted by a boom truck about 30 feet and positioned at the third level of the mill. It would serve to transfer power from the main drive shaft to the millstones.
Although the mill was not yet completed, it was decided to hold the dedication ceremony on Memorial Day, 1976. Thousands of well-wishers watched the parade and enjoyed a noon meal in the city park. Dr. Clifford Madsen, a former president of Dana College, Blair, Nebraska spoke during the dedication.
In July, several huge pieces of machinery were hoisted to the top of the mill. These included the massive wind shaft and brake wheel, the counter shaft and gear and the fantail section that served to turn the windshaft into the wind.
The fantail section, with a combined weight of 10 tons, was lifted into place courtesy of the Elk Horn Bridge Construction Company owned by Stan Forde. The many spectators who had gathered to watch held their breath as the unit slowly creaked skyward. Heavy ropes held by individuals on the ground guided it into place and the comparatively small cogwheel fit exactly into its grooves. With a shout of relief and triumph the workmen threw the carrier straps to the ground and the crowd applauded the accomplishment.
The “hat” was placed on the very top of the structure and interior work continued. Giant fir timbers from the state of Washington were shipped in to reconstruct the main section of the wings. The six-foot tips of each wing had been salvaged from the original mill. Warping and shaping these 66 foot beams to form four wings (sweeps) and constructing the 80 cross shutters (patent sails), 20 on each wing, was a tremendous challenge. It took two months of hard labor to complete the building of the wings. On November 14, 1976, the men who had worked so hard for nearly a year gathered to crown their achievement. A huge crane and a bucket lift stood by and the long cross beams lay on the frozen ground. Men on the ground kept the 3500-pound crossbar steady with ropes attached to each end and the crane lifted it into position 60 feet in the air. Jim Sporleder leaned from his IPS bucket lift, caught the tip of the crossbar and guided it into the heavy iron holder. Gary VanderVegte, hanging precariously from the dome, gave instructions as the crossbar was carefully threaded through the “needle’s eye.” The second beam was placed and dozens of men began the work of placing the seven-foot long shutters at regular intervals along the beams. By the next day, all 80 louvers were in place. On November 17, 1976 the wings on the Mill turned for the first time in America, one year from the date that ground was broken for the foundation.
“Now it looks like a windmill,” approved Harvey Sornson with a smile. The exterior of the mill was complete. Elk Horn’s skyline now boasted a landmark that would be known far and wide. And Harvey’s crazy dream had become a reality.
The interior workings of the mill, including placing the millstones and drive gears were completed during the winter months. On March 14, 1977 Bertha Andersen held out a Danish wooden shoe to catch the first corn meal ground between the ancient millstones. To celebrate the occasion she took the meal home and prepared a delicious cornbread dinner that evening for Harvey and Dagmar Sornson, Jim and Verna Sporleder and Warren and Gudrun Jacobsen. Warren described it as “a joyful occasion and the ‘taste of success’ was in every bite of cornbread.”
A millhouse, resembling the original one in Denmark was attached to the north side of the Windmill and would provide space for a gift shop.
For two consecutive years, 1976 and 1977, Elk Horn placed first in the Iowa Community Betterment Program category for communities of 721 to 1199 population, winning a $450 reward as well as receiving special recognition for the Danish Windmill and Bedstemor’s House projects. Shirley Ross and Verna Sporleder had volunteered their services as co-managers of the mill for one year. Susan Noon donated countless hours as coordinator of the many volunteers who staffed the mill and gift shop during its formative years. Ross, Sporleder and Noon were given the Governor’s Leadership Award in 1977 for their example of vision and inspiration in providing leadership in the improvement of community and state. A list of volunteers helping with construction and operation of the mill during its early years would include most families in the community. Volunteer involvement had made the Windmill project a success.
The first landscaping committee met April 13, 1977 with Irene Weddum as Chairperson. The group included Juanita Nissen, Grace Leistad, Joann Potts and Clara Johansen. Through the years, a group of “Flower Ladies” as they are called, continued to assist with maintaining the colorful flowerbeds that surround the mill.
The need for full-time management was recognized and on November 16, 1977 Lisa Steen Riggs and Marcia Roenfeld were hired as co-managers. When Roenfeld resigned, Riggs became the sole manager and has continued in that position, guiding the development of the mill as a major tourist attraction. In 1990 the Danish Windmill was named as Attraction of the Year by Iowa’s tourism industry. It continues to attain a very high ranking among Iowa’s tourist attractions each year. About 80,000 tourists per year, including over 80 motor coaches, come from every state in the union and many foreign countries to visit the mill, which is open daily throughout the year except on Christmas and New Year’s Day. The Danish Windmill was designated an official Iowa Welcome Center in 1988. In 1995 Manager Lisa Riggs, along with 1700 other delegates from the travel and tourism industry attended the first ever White House Conference on Travel and Tourism, at President Clinton’s invitation.
The Windmill gift shop includes the largest collection of Danish merchandise in the United States. Manager Riggs makes an annual buying trip to Denmark to purchase items to retail, thus eliminating the “middle man.” The Windmill also does a tremendous catalog mail order sale business; computer generated sales are also increasing rapidly to add a new, large-scale dimension to merchandising. Riggs has a competent full time staff of three employees, and up to ten additional part-time staff to assist in operation of the enterprise.
During 1995 the Windmill received a major facelift. The weather beam, which supports the bearing from the main (or wind) shaft, had deteriorated to the point that it was causing the mill’s cap to sag. This resulted in brining the 66-foot sails too close to the structure. A local independent contractor, Tom Potts, worked with millwright Derek Ogden at Ogden’s workshop in Virginia to assist in constructing a new white oak frame. Accurate replacement parts were built from scratch. Potts then teamed with local carpenter Dale Christensen to remove the old cap frame, and under millwright Ogden’s supervision install the new parts. Repair costs reached approximately $65,000.
The original cost of purchase and reconstruction of the mill had totaled about $100,000. Many donations, large and small, had poured in to defray a large part of the expense, but it was necessary to borrow a considerable sum of money to complete the project. The millhouse gift shop has been expanded and remodeled and a lower level added for catalog sales. Even with the extensive additions and repairs, the Windmill is currently debt free and the Danish Windmill Corporation, while maintaining a reserve for future needs, is able to generously support local community projects.
Harvey Sornson’s crazy idea, the mill that “couldn’t be rebuilt,” stands tall and proud, its sails turning slowly in the gentle breeze, a tribute to Elk Horn’s Danish heritage and a symbol of the determination and dedication of a community that turned a dream into a reality.