I don’t think the folks at the Danish Windmill in Elk Horn, Iowa would approve of this title. They are too kind. But I think it’s ok to push things a little on this topic. See, whenever I post a photo of the Danish Windmill in Elk Horn, Iowa, I label it with ” The only working Danish windmill in the United States”. That’s exactly what it is.
Most people understand that. However, a few respond back with, “You forgot about Pella.” I certainly didn’t forget about Pella. In fact, if you follow Iowa Road Trip, you know I spend a lot of time promoting the dutch community in central Iowa. However, the problem is that Danish and Dutch are not the same.
Perhaps it’s time for a quick geography lesson:
- If it’s from Denmark, it is Danish.
- If it’s from the Netherlands, it is Dutch.
Now that we have cleared that up, let’s move to the crazy story of how this came to be the only working Danish windmill in the United States.
History of the Danish windmill in Elk Horn, Iowa.
In the 1970’s, Elk Horn resident Harvey Sornson visited Denmark several times. During his journeys, he saw a number of windmills and became hooked on the idea of moving a Danish windmill to Elk Horn. Why Elk Horn? It’s the largest rural Danish population in the county.
As word spread of Harvey’s dream project, various local groups and individuals joined the planning. In Sept 1975, they received a letter stating that a suitable windmill was available in Nørre Snede, Denmark. The windmill was originally built in 1848 but had not been operating for the past ten years. They were presented with the following costs:
- $11,000 to buy the mill
- $14,000 to dismantle it
- $8,000 to mail to the US
It only took the town of Elk Horn a few days to raise the $30,000 needed.
A local in Denmark was hired to dismantle the mill. It was a very time-consuming process and there were two things that he did to set the stage for reassembling the mill in the US.
- As the mill was taken apart into small enough pieces to be mailed – these pieces were numbered/labeled
- He created a small-scale model of the mill.
After it was dismantled, the individual parts of the windmill were then mailed to Elk Horn, Iowa.
The Dane hired to dismantle the mill was expecting that he would be hired and sent to Elk Horn to lead the effort to reassemble the mill, but that did not happen. Instead, volunteers from Elk Horn gathered and took on the take of reassembling the mill with only the scale model as a reference.
Taking a tour of the Danish Windmill in Elk Horn, Iowa
Address: 4038 Main St, Elk Horn, IA 51531
Check on their website for hours and admission. I recently visited during their annual TivoliFest, held during Memorial Day Weekend. The admission was only $3 and starts with a short film that tells the incredible story of finding, dismantling, and reassembling the 60-foot windmill. The tour of the mill starts on the base floor where you’ll see the actual replica built by the Dane who dismantled the mill in 1975 and the locals used to piece it all back together. The base floor also has the flour chute where the final product is bagged. You’ll have the opportunity to climb a few more (and rather steep) stairs to the second floor to see the grindstones and the catwalk (the catwalk was closed on the day I toured).
Take your time in the windmill
In fact, they are very generous with time during the tour. They will guide you to the first floor, and then invite you to tour the second and third floor on your own – and you are welcome to stay as long as you like. During my tour, most individuals went to the second floor and a subset then went to the third floor. I remember being on the third floor, looking up through all the gears and levers related to the mill. For quite a while, there was only me and one other gentleman. We were hoping that the sails would be turning, as that means you get to see all the gears and levers moving within the structure. In fact, your tour guide tells you that you should listen, as the windmill will talk to you. Unfortunately, it didn’t talk to us on that specific day, but I can see how this mill is the perfect road trip for those who like engineering and architecture – as they will love the story of how the locals of Elk Horn, Iowa stood in front of what might have been the world’s largest mail order jig jaw puzzle. And with only a small wooden scale model and a long list of upcoming challenges, they probably belted out the classic Midwest line, “Hold my beer. We got this”
It really is one of a kind
After the town of Elk Horn, Iowa assembled the windmill, the government of Denmark passed a law forbidding the sale or export of Danish windmills – so it truly is one of a kind windmill.
While you’re also in town, be sure to stop by the Museum of Danish America.