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Better citizenship through folk schools: Tyler, Minnesota’s Danebod

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Danebod Lutheran Church, c.1950.

Part of a Danish settlement near Tyler, the Danebod church and folk school have been a center of Danish-American life for over a century. Danebod is a Danish word meaning “one who mends or saves the Danes.” The Danebod community is home to programs that preserve, teach, and celebrate Danish-American culture on the Minnesota prairie.

The first Danish settlers in Tyler were Grundtivigians. Grundtivigians followed a sect of Danish Lutheranism that emphasized Danish language, art, and culture. They believed that all people needed an education to make them good community members. Thus, they established folk schools throughout Denmark. These schools were designed to teach Danes, particularly rural youth, about arts and culture, politics and Danish history.

In 1884, the Grundtivigian’s Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church arranged to buy land from the Winona and St. Peter Railroad company. On July 27, 1885, the first group of settlers left Lake Benton for their settlement site just south of Tyler. The community chose Reverend Hans Jørgen Pedersen as their first pastor, a decision that would fundamentally shape the growth of Danebod.

Pedersen, educated at a folk school in Denmark, was eager to establish one in Tyler. Before constructing a church, Pedersen urged the congregation to build a folk school to educate the community’s youth. The Danebod Folk School was completed in 1888. Young people from Tyler and surrounding communities came to Danebod for classes, men during the winter and women in the summer.

After constructing the folk school, the congregation wanted to build a church. However, Pedersen convinced the community to build a gym hall instead. A gym, he argued, could serve temporarily as a church, but a church could not serve as a gym. Farmers from the area brought stone from the shore of nearby Swan Lake, and two Folk School students handled the construction. The Stone Hall was completed in 1889, and it was used for church services, community meetings, dances, and physical education.

By 1893 the congregation had outgrown the Stone Hall and began construction of a church. The Cross Church at Danebod was dedicated on June 16, 1895. The sanctuary includes beautiful hardwood interiors and round porthole windows. Lutherans in Denmark lived close to the sea and often likened their churches to boats on the ocean. The Cross Church at Danebod was designed to look like a ship on the rolling prairie, and a miniature ship is suspended in the nave.

The Danebod campus also included a large Gym Hall, built in 1904, as well as a parsonage, parochial school, and orphans’ home. In February 1917, the school building burned to the ground. Before the ashes had cooled, the community was planning to construct a replacement. A second folk school building was completed in the fall of 1917.

Danebod was the heart of the Danish community in Tyler. Many credit the unity that the church and school created with the success of the immigrant settlement. Members of the community joined together to weather difficult times on the prairie. The Danebod Folk School offered an education and allowed immigrants to keep Danish culture alive in their new home. Holidays were celebrated at Danebod along with the weddings, baptisms, confirmations, and graduations of the community.

Danebod continued to be a haven of Danish culture well into the twentieth century. The church did not offer any English language services until 1943, and they held a weekly Danish service until 1961. As the years passed, folk school enrollment declined. During the 1930s, a combination of low enrollment and financial pressure forced the Danebod Folk School to close its doors. After World War II, the Danebod community decided to renovate and reopen the school. They offered a summer folk school meeting in 1946, drawing 500 Danish-American young people from Minnesota and across the United States. Danebod also began hosting a yearly summer family camp in 1947.

The Danebod Folk School, Church, Stone Hall and Gym Hall buildings were recognized for their architectural and cultural significance when they were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. The site continues to host family events, summer camps, and yearly folk meetings.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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