- Associated Press - Saturday, April 15, 2017

POTTER, Neb. (AP) - Five generations ago, Rasmus and Christine Nielsen and their two children arrived in a Union Pacific Railroad immigrant car to claim a homestead in a rural community known as Little Denmark.

They built a sod house. Their neighbors were several dozen other Danes and Norwegians on little farms scattered across more than 64 square miles of treeless prairie in the high and dry Nebraska Panhandle.

The Nielsens were among 300,000 Danes who immigrated to America between 1850 and 1920. While that was fewer than the numbers coming from Norway and Sweden, it still represented more than 10 percent of Denmark’s population at the time. Yet the story of that emigration has largely faded out of Danish memory.

Now, however, a Danish filmmaker is poking into a few pioneer stories for a Danish television documentary about immigration to America from the Scandinavian country in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The project’s working title is “The Pursuit of Happiness.”

Nebraska and western Iowa are settings for the project.

About 10,000 Danes came to Nebraska and thousands more to Iowa. The Danish belt across America generally stretched from Racine, Wisconsin, and Chicago through the Omaha-Council Bluffs-Blair region to Dannebrog, Cordova and Minden in central Nebraska. Dannebrog bills itself as the Danish Capital of Nebraska.

More Danish-Americans lived in Omaha than any other U.S. city at the turn of the 21st century. Still, people reporting Danish ancestry amounted to only 3.1 percent of Nebraska’s population; in Iowa, it was 2.3 percent.

Mark Halstead, 30, a great-great-grandson of Rasmus and Christine Nielsen who farms in the footprint of Little Denmark, said there was a time when he wished his ancestors hadn’t settled in western Nebraska - far from the richer soils and more plentiful precipitation of the eastern end of the state. His disenchantment with his ancestors’ decision 125 years ago, however, is long evaporated.

Now he marvels at the courage and grit of the Little Denmark settlers southwest of Potter.

“For them to come over, build a house, get a well … took an unbelievable amount of work and endurance,” he said. “They had to hand-dig a well … it’s 200 to 300 feet to water here. We get upset if there’s a sunspot and we lose our GPS signals and have to drive our (automatic-steering) tractor.”

Like his Danish ancestors, Halstead said he has found happiness. He and his wife, Ashley, a speech pathologist, have a 2-year-old son, Luke, who is the sixth generation of the family in Little Denmark. They farm with Mark’s parents, Bryce and Linda Halstead.

Mark Halstead was one of several descendants of Little Denmark settlers recently interviewed on their ancestors’ homestead for the documentary.

The three-part series will tell the stories of five immigrants and the Danish culture they created in America, Peter Kryger of Vordingborg, Denmark, who is writing and directing the film, told the Omaha World-Herald (https://bit.ly/2oYYhjh ). Kryger and cinematographer Jarkko Virtanen of Helsinki, Finland, spent seven days in late March interviewing and filming in the Midlands.

Sites included the Danish American Archive and Library and former Dana College campus in Blair; the Museum of Danish America in Elk Horn, Iowa; downtown Omaha; the Danish communities of Dannebrog and Nysted in central Nebraska; and the Potter area.

The Nebraska filming focused on immigrant Julius Nielsen, whose homestead launched the Little Denmark settlement. Nielsen was a 48-year-old bankrupt farmer and carpenter when he and his wife, Sophie, left their home in the village of Kulby and brought eight of their nine children to America in 1886.

Nielsen paid an $18 filing fee to claim a 160-acre farm under the Homestead Act of 1862. He actively encouraged other Danes to take up homesteads and join his family and create a Danish colony. Among those who responded were Rasmus and Christine Nielsen.

John Mark Nielsen of Blair, director emeritus of the Museum of Danish America and no relation to either Rasmus Nielsen or Julius Nielsen, said immigrants effectively promoted Danish emigration in letters to newspapers - especially Den Danske Pioneer published in Omaha - about their new lives in America.

“The Pioneer is so important, because it published stories from local communities, so readers came to know these places in western Iowa and Nebraska and Omaha and they were drawn to these areas,” he said.

Little Denmark - like many western Nebraska communities in general - never had a population that rivaled settlements farther east. Little Denmark was concentrated in Kimball County, and spilled into Cheyenne County. Only 219 people in the two counties currently identify themselves as having Danish ancestry, according to the 2015 American Community Survey.

To compare, Audubon and Shelby Counties in western Iowa - the buckle of the Danish belt across America - reported 1,570 and 1,760 Danish-Americans, respectively. They are home to two of the most “Danish” places in the United States, the villages of Kimballton and Elk Horn. Nearly 53 percent of Kimballton’s population claimed Danish ancestry in the 2000 census. Nearby Elk Horn was second with 41.3 percent.

In addition to telling the story of Julius Nielsen and the settlers of Little Denmark, plans call for the documentary to feature, August Rasmussen, an 1856 immigrant to Greenville, Michigan, who enticed 36 others from his village to join him the next year; Kristina Beck, a 16-year-old who trekked across Nebraska to Utah Territory in 1868 as one of the more than 18,000 Danes converted by Mormon missionaries; Christen Madsen Rørmose, a repeat offender in Denmark who was shipped off to America as punishment in 1876 and who eventually became U.S. marshal for Oklahoma; and Jens Jensen, who designed key elements of the Chicago park system, worked with architect Frank Lloyd Wright and became a leading figure in landscape architecture in the early 20th century.

The project was inspired by the 2014 Danish best-seller “Rejsen til Amerika” (“The Journey to America”) by journalist and author Ole Sønnichsen. The book caught the attention of award-winning documentary filmmaker Lars Feldbelle-Petersen and his Film & TV Compagniet. Other partners include the Rebild National Park Society in Denmark and the Museum of Danish America. The museum helped raise about a third of the project’s $600,000 budget from the A.P. Møller Foundation in Denmark and the Scan Design Foundation in Seattle, Washington.

John Mark Nielsen said other elements of the project include a short documentary film for museum exhibits, interactive materials for museum educational programming and websites.

The documentary is scheduled for airing in Denmark in August. Nielsen said talks continue about producing a dubbed or subtitled version for U.S. public television audiences.


Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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