Thirty-six years ago, when song-leader and homesteader Liz Rog —on a serendipitous college visit with a friend— first stepped foot into the Midwestern hamlet of Decorah, IA, she knew with immediate, visceral certitude that this was the place she would make her home. Painted with bubbling trout streams, rolling hills, agricultural fertility, it is no wonder that the landscape spoke to a young idealist who wanted to live simply and off the grid. Moreover, the calling was sparked long before Liz learned that her own great, great, great grandparents had lived in and raised their own family in Decorah in the mid-1800s. Eventually, Liz and her partner Daniel would go on to purchase land and relocate her ancestors’ two-room log cabin to a scenic spot on their own piece of land. There, sheltered among trees and overlooking a grassy meadow, the strong log walls of the ancestral home saw the births of two beautiful daughters and became the place where Liz’s dream of family, land, and community took root.
Deep ties to land and history permeate the landscape and heritage of Decorah where, nestled into the rolling hills and limestone bluffs of Iowa’s driftless region, the prominence of Norwegian heritage and small-scale agriculture percolate through the culture.
The Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum is the largest museum in the country devoted to a single immigrant group, taking up a full block of Decorah’s downtown Main Street. Through carefully curated exhibits and elegant storytelling, the Vesterheim brings emotional resonance to Nordic heritage and the plight of Norwegian immigrants. The town also hosts an annual “Nordic Fest” in July, featuring rosemaling, folk dancing, Viking re-enactments, plenty of delicious krumkake, and bustling folk school that operates year round.
In addition to the strong Nordic influence, the importance of small scale, sustainable agriculture can be felt throughout the community, the heart of which can be found at Seed Saver’s Heritage Farm. Situated on 890 organic acres, Seed Saver’s is considered one of the country’s largest non-governmental seed banks. Since the mid-1970’s the organizers at Seed Saver’s has been tenaciously working to preserve heritage seeds — bringing national attention to the importance of healthy soils, biodiversity, and sustainable agricultural practices, in addition to the food culture surrounding them. The stature of sustainable farming and commitment to local food is reflected in the booming Oneota Food Co-op, a bastion of the community, two restaurants —La Rana and Rubayiat each of which dish up creative, toothsome dishes sourced with as many local and seasonal ingredients as possible. The nationally acclaimed Toppling Goliath, and top-notch Pulpit Rock breweries stand across the street from each other attracting beer aficionados and young people from all corners. Third wave coffee roaster Impact Coffee also call Decorah home.
Furthering efforts in sustainability, The Pepperfield Project “promotes the health and development of body, mind, and spirit through food and gardening in harmony with nature,” while the Luther College Center for Sustainable Communities provides campus and community outreach with the recognition that “sustainability goes hand in hand with a just, equitable, and prosperous society.” Luther College is noted by The Princeton Review and The Sierra Club as a leader in green initiatives among universities.
This strong sense of pastoral rootedness should not, however, fool visitors into thinking that the town is a dusty relic of times gone by. Artists, entrepreneurs and young dreamers are abundant and add a creative spirit that reverberates throughout the town. With outstanding artists in virtually every domain of art or craft, from music and theatre to fine arts and D.I.Y. A local webpage —Decorah Now (Decorahnow.com)— is dedicated to “building local community through Arts, Cultural, and Recreational Events, and the Exchange of Goods and Services.” The town is home to Brian Andreas’ Story People, and Luther College brings in many first-rate visiting artists —with them, an added punch of vitality.
Last, but definitely not least, I would be remiss not to mention the vibrant outdoor culture of Decorah. The forested hills, cut through with limestone bluffs and the Upper Iowa River, deliver a fertile playground for outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes. Known for excellent road and mountain biking, canoeing, kayaking and fly-fishing, hiking, cross-country skiing and the outstanding ice cave, residents and visitors alike can stay entertained in all seasons.
While Decorah has ample beauty, entertainment, and values rooted in the land, my friend Liz remarks that it is the young people who keep the creative spirit so vibrantly alive. “Decorah is a place that attracts young adults with dreams. They sense that we are ever in the process of recreating goodness here, and that we need every voice, every way, every good idea to be realized and made real. People who’ve been here a long time know how much the visions and voices of young adults matter. We want to listen to them and we want to help support them. They were born just at the right time, with exactly what we need. They work with land and food, with art and culture, with creation and innovation. They’ve come to earth, and then to Decorah, with a can-do attitude. They are makers and doers. They are willing to help with what’s already here and they are willing to make new stuff up. They have made bike trails and races, gardens, farms, websites and businesses. They have potlucks and they play ultimate Frisbee, they dance and they make music. These young, energized creatives are our future.”
Elevation: 865 feet
Avg Temp in January: 27/09
Avg Temp in July: 84/61
Known for: Sustainable Agriculture, Community Singing, Vesterheim Museum and Norwegian Heritage, Seed Saver’s Exchange, Luther College, Arts, Crafts, Local Foods, Hiking, Biking, Entrepreneurial Spirit, Community Activism