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Elk Horn Adventure

09/02/2014 @ 10:07am

A recent speaking engagement found my wife and I traversing the wilds of the Hawkeye State. This wasn’t particularly upsetting as we reside in the wilds of the Mount Rushmore State, which is very similar to Iowa except we have fewer people and receive more snow. Perhaps those things are connected.

We were tooling along I-80 when my wife suddenly and randomly exited the freeway. I secretly hoped that she had perceived the growing anxiety I was experiencing due to the extra-large coffee I consumed earlier. But no.

“Where are we going?” I asked when I didn’t see any roadside facilities.    

“A sign back there said something about a windmill,” she replied.

“I hate to break this to you, but those things are pretty common,” I said as I squirmed with discomfort. “Between the old Aermotors and nifty new electric turbines, windmills are everywhere.”

Before I could express my deep desire to find some tall corn, we pulled up alongside a humungous wooden windmill that looked as if it had been lifted from the pages of a fairy tale!

We were in the town of Elk Horn and were gawking up at a bona fide, 1848-vintage Danish windmill.

Overwhelmed by curiosity and the need to find facilities, we strolled into its gift shop. A very nice little old lady was running the place. She asked if we wanted to take the tour; I would have agreed to anything by then so long as it involved restroom access.

We were soon watching a short historical film regarding the wooden colossus that loomed overhead. One might think that the Elk Horn area had been settled by members of the Elks Club, but one would be mistaken. It was homesteaded mostly by Danes, many of whom had dogs named Great.

Nearly 40 years ago, Elk Horn farmer Harvey Sornson visited Denmark and was saddened to see that many of the country’s iconic windmills were decaying. I’m not saying that Harvey coined the phrase “something is rotten in Denmark,” but some things cannot simply be written off as mere coincidence.

Upon his return, Harvey promoted the idea of purchasing a Danish windmill, taking it apart and shipping it to Elk Horn for reassembly. I would love to have heard his pitch: “C’mon guys! It’ll only take one weekend! Two, tops!”  

There were probably some who thought that Harvey had bumped his head against one too many millstones. But Harvey soon convinced the community that it was a good idea, which is why America’s only authentic functional Danish windmill now sits in the midst of a rural Iowa hamlet.

This was a lot to absorb during one pit stop, but there was more. The nice museum lady informed us that there was a winery nearby and that a live performance of Beatles tunes was slated for that evening.

So we motored a few miles and, at the end of a gravel road, found Danish Countryside Wines and Vines. There we met a gregarious fellow named Loren Christensen.  Loren bartends; works in the 3-acre vineyard; and helps with the grape picking, winemaking, and bottling. He also sweeps the floors.

“This vineyard is here because of the vision and the hard work of its owners, Allan and Carol Petersen,” said Loren, who is in a serious relationship with the Petersens’ daughter.

The winery is housed in a 101-year-old barn that has undergone an epic restoration, a project that probably consumed more time and materials than building the original structure. The barn and the vineyard – a former cattle yard – are perched atop a hill that affords a sweeping vista of verdant, rolling Iowa farmland.

We sampled wine and chatted with Loren and learned his story. How he’d had a career in the military, earned a degree in religion and history and, eventually, become a used car salesman. How life, like the sails of a gigantic windmill, had circled him back to his roots in Elk Horn.

That evening we joined a crowd in the hayloft and listened as Loren strummed his guitar and belted out Beatles ballads. Above us was the barn’s original track and pulley system that had been used to hoist hay. The steel teeth of the hay sling appeared ready to extract anyone who was refusing to have an enjoyable time in the old barn that sits upon a hilltop the midst of rural Iowa.

As Loren played we visited with the McHughs, a nice local couple who, shockingly, aren’t Danish.

“Some of the folks in this area are known as ‘serious’ Danes while others are ‘fun’ Danes,” said Mrs. McHugh.

We didn’t have to ask which kind we had stumbled upon.

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