Of the many hidden gems in the Driftless, this one is particularly delightful. On many a drive to La Crosse, I’d noted the signs for “Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center” while passing through Coon Valley and wondered what this site had to offer. Finally this year, Norskedalen made my summer bucket list. My biking buddy and I embarked on this adventure on a recent Saturday morning. From Viroqua, we followed the winding and scenic County Road B through Esofea to Coon Valley, population 765. We then continued north another 2 miles on County Road P and about another mile on County Highway PI.
Translated from Norwegian, Norskedalen means “Norwegian Valley”. Nineteenth century buildings from Norwegian immigrant farmsteads in the valley were donated and relocated to this central location for the public to view in a beautiful open air museum. The Norskedalen staff offers great guided tours!
On our tour, the first two buildings exemplify the two most common types of a traditional Norwegian immigrant house – the three-room floor plan and the one-room floor plan. “Three rooms” is a generous description.
The first room is the main living space with a stove for cooking and heating the house and a small table. Next to the stove is the butter churn – a household essential!
Back to the left is the master bedroom for the parents and back to the right is a tiny kitchen. Only one chef in the kitchen, please! Kids slept upstairs in the loft which is located up a steep set of stairs (that’s really more of a ladder). The second house on the tour is a one room floor plan where everyone slept upstairs in the loft. Note the chest with an 1857 date. Likely the family used this chest to transport their belongings in the hull of a ship during the months’ long journey from Norway.
Next on the tour is a collection of buildings and artifacts that is called the Bekkum Homestead. This assortment of donated buildings serves as a great model of a real, back in the day, Norwegian homestead.
After the first two houses on the tour, this one is truly a mansion. (Those of you who have seen the movie, Fort McCoy, may recognize it!)
It actually consists of two separate log buildings that were eventually combined into one household. The older part is a one-room floor plan cabin built in 1867, and the new, larger section is a three-room floor plan built in 1890 (www.norskedalen.org). This was truly a prosperous family to enjoy such a home with luxuries like a piano for entertainment.
Despite the larger size of the house, the beds are still quite small by today’s standards. It’s certainly hard to imagine two adults sleeping here, but maybe they were shorter back then? The mattresses were stuffed with straw and typically refilled every fall at harvest time. The protruding wall you see to the right in this photo is the “staircase” (aka, ladder) leading up to the kids’ loft.
We found a different type of butter churn in this house’s kitchen. Butter was clearly a staple for these families.
But how did the family keep dairy fresh without electricity? This is where the spring house comes in. Built with solid walls, over an ice-cold spring, the spring house would stay very cool even in the heat of peak summer. This was also the family’s source of clean drinking water.
There are several other buildings that complete the homestead. Closest to the house is the summer kitchen. This was a separate kitchen for use in the summer so that the stove would not heat up an already warm house. The family also used this building for washing clothes.
Also located close to the house, is the second most important building of the farmstead – the outhouse. You cannot tell at first glance, but this is a very special outhouse. It’s a two-seater! Yes, think about that. It’s actually quite practical for a large house with 10+ kids. First, it helps prevent lines forming. Also, with two holes, it’ll take twice as long to max out the storage space, delaying the need to relocate the outhouse. It was common to keep magazines, such as Sears, inside. These magazines served two purposes – entertainment and sanitation.
Next on the tour was the corn crib, which was intentionally built with notch style logs to allow for air flow needed to keep the cobs dry. The crib sits on piles of rocks, again, to increase airflow and also to decrease rodent access.
In the 19th century, wheat and barley were major cash crops, and the granary was a very common farmstead structure.
This next building was originally constructed as a cabin for new settlers.
Once the family had time to build a bigger house, this cabin was repurposed as a chicken coop. A very spacious one! Note the little chicken door (possibly used by gnomes at one time):
The tour guide is delighted to hear that we recognize the next farm building – the tobacco shed. Tobacco was once a very common crop in the area. One can always recognize a tobacco shed by the hinges on the side panels that swing open and allow for extra ventilation through the shed. If you’re interested in reading more about the history of tobacco farming in the Driftless, check out my article here.
Notice the log scaffolding used to hang and dry the tobacco leaves. People actually climbed up to hang the leaves!
Of course, the homestead must have a stable that likely housed oxen for farm work and goats for milking. Later, horses and dairy cows became common. Only the ground floor walls have mortar between the logs to insulate the livestock. The logs on the top floor were left without mortar to let the stored hay dry out.
This farmstead also features a blacksmith shop. Just like the chicken coop, this building was originally a cabin for new settlers and later repurposed. Go ahead, the tour guide encourages you to pump the giant bellows and imagine the hard work it would take to keep the fire hot!
Finally, to complete the Bekkum Homestead is this beautiful vegetable garden with original storage shed.
Whether you live here or are just visiting, you should seriously consider checking out this magical place. In addition to the tour, there are also several hiking trails to enjoy, and don’t forget to check out the gift shop!