In 1961, Gale Fletchall, a doctor of Swiss descent, hatched a scheme to attract visitors to the dying town of Junction City, Oregon. But the real story began in the year 1902 with a man named A.C. Nielsen.
Nielsen, a real estate dealer from Tyler, Minnesota wanted to bring Midwest Danish immigrants to Junction City to establish a religious and cultural center for them on the West Coast. He took an option on a 1,600 acre ranch located east of town near the Willamette River and began advertising in Dannevirke, a Danish weekly newspaper published in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
The ranch was divided into 40 to 60 acre parcels, considered too small to be functional by his contemporaries’ standards, and Nielsen sold them to the families that began arriving. Despite the size of the farms, the families that settled on them began a thriving, diversified, agriculture industry. Most of the first settlers were Danish-born and had learned to make the most of small plots in the old country.
But the Danish culture Nielsen had hoped to preserve became diffused and its influence dwindled. The second generation, who learned to speak Danish at home, found English more of a necessity. Though relatively little of the cultural influence was still felt in Junction City by the late fifties, the Danish community, now in its second and third generations, still remained on many of the original farms. It was this continuing presence of the original Danish community, and the wish to revive some of the folkways of the first settlers, that helped prompt the first festival in 1961.
The festival was the brainstorm of Dr. Gale Fletchall. The idea came at a time when Junction City’s future seemed uncertain at best. Interstate 5, which opened in the late fifties, diverted most of the traffic going through town on Highway 99.
“When that Highway opened it was just like you had shut off a valve,” he said in 1970, recalling how Hwy. 99 had suddenly been emptied of traffic. “The town seemed dead. One morning I took a walk downtown. There were twelve store buildings empty, a gutted theater, and brambles growing all around. The community seemed heartless, and there was no prospect for things getting any better.”
Dr. Fletchall searched for a rallying point for community spirit. He thought a city wide celebration would be ideal, but was stumped for a theme. He studied dozens of possibilities before considering the most obvious one – the very real, very dormant, Scandinavian heritage.
Fletchall’s proposal for a four day festival built on the culture of the four Scandinavian nations: Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, was accepted by the Chamber of Commerce and underwritten with a modest financial guarantee to cover initial expenses. The decision plunged the community into a frenzy of activity. Community classes in Scandinavian dancing and singing were organized and church and civic organizations were persuaded to operate food and craft booths.
In August of 1961 the first annual Scandinavian Festival opened in temporary booths in downtown Junction City. Dr. Fletchall expected maybe two thousand visitors; he got twenty-five thousand. The rest is history.
The success of that first festival in unifying the community and developing interest in the Scandinavian culture led to the formation of the Junction City Scandinavian Festival Association. By its second year the festival was functioning with a board of directors who understood Dr. Fletchall’s unspoken guidelines: no admission, no beauty pageants, no commercial displays, no carnival rides, and cemented them into place.
Still, the Festival has changed much over the years. It expanded when grounds were purchased at the corner of Fifth and Greenwood in 1964, the same year a nightly play, called a pageant for fun, was added to the program. Authenticity in food and costumes has also been gained, and the Junction City library now houses a large collection of traditional costume books.
But for all that’s been gained, some has also been lost, including competitive Scandinavian horsemanship events and epic tug-of-war competitions.
And like any other community institution, the Festival has known its rocky moments. There was the year of the great Ableskiver price war, when the question of two-for-15-cents vs. three-for-25-cents had the community divided. There was also the 1977 conviction of a festival board member for the theft of more than $4,000 of the organization’s money.
There was also a period of controversy in the early 1970’s when long-haired artisans began peddling their wares at the Festival. And while there were political overtones in those years and not everyone was happy with the decisions made, it did lead to a significant upgrade in festival crafts, and now anyone who wishes to be a vendor must go through a jurying process.
Attendance is something else that has changed over the years, and Festival now sees upwards of 100,000 visitors each day. But for most of the people who walk through the archway to enter old world Forbindelsestad, it isn’t about attendance or the price of Ableskivers. It’s about the chance to experience a community rising together to bring about something larger than themselves; to realize that your town isn’t just where you live, it’s your family, your friends, and your home.
~ By Amelia Githens