by Christine Karren
A few years ago, with a photocopy of my Danish grandmother’s genealogy book in hand, we took a family road trip up to the Danish peninsula and its accompanying islands. Upon departure from our home in Holland, we had images in our minds of viking ships, the Little Mermaid, and the modern interiors of Danish design; but what we found in Denmark was much more personal.
Having traveled with small children before, we knew that our home-base in Denmark for a week had to be a rental house with its own kitchen and a large garden. After all, happy children, with lots of room to play, equals happy parents! We found quite a picturesque accommodation in Jutland, right near the coast, complete with a thatched roof, large grassy yard, and vegetable garden. A traditional Danish bell pull, embroidered with the names and figures of past residents, hung near the front door. We could tell by the names that all of them were ancestors of our hosts, lined up family-tree style, in cheerfully colored stitches.
My own Danish family history was contained in a stack of legal-sized papers, photocopied from typewriter-set pages filled with vital family information. It was collected by a Danish genealogist, paid by my grandmother in the 1970s, to find our family’s past. Now it lay on my seat in the car, tucked into a worn manila envelope.
My grandmother Luella was half Danish and half Swedish. She was born in America, just after 1900, to immigrant parents looking for a new life in a new faith. The family they left in Scandinavia didn’t agree with their reasons for leaving, and subsequently cut off all ties. This little immigrant family, newly arrived in America, left behind not only their land and family, but also their language and the painful memories they associated with it. Grandma Luella grew up as an American child, without much knowledge of the Danish language or her cultural roots. Later in life, after the passing of her parents, her curiosity about her Scandinavian heritage prompted her to spend a small fortune to bring to light our Danish ancestry.
Having arrived in Jutland early in the evening, we settled ourselves in. The guesthouse owners gave us the tour and explained the best and easiest ways to get what we needed. Though none of us could speak any Danish, we immediately felt like we were among family in Denmark. The warm and welcoming older couple who were our hosts, the perfect English which everyone could speak, and the fact that everyone looked like a relative of mine certainly contributed to that sentiment. Though there are exceptions, Danes generally have lighter hair and features, rounder faces and shorter statures than other Europeans. That’s me to a T.
Our first day trip was out to the coastal city on the other side of Jutland called Aarhus. Born as a viking settlement, Aarhus is now the second largest city in Denmark, and is a large hub for business and culture. Its university is the largest in Scandinavia, and the city is, both historically and currently, a treasure trove of jazz and rock music, fostering iconic bands and yearly festivals. Our reason for stopping in Aarhus, however, was not to hear the latest sounds, but to visit its historic village museum, ‘The Old Town,’ called ‘Den Gamle By‘ by the Danes.
Den Gamle By is quite a tourist attraction. Having received all three possible stars in the Michelin Travel Guide, it is a charming collection of old buildings, assembled and displayed with their accompanying signs, carriages, textiles, furniture and tools. It was set up to resemble a small town, complete with town square, mill, school, homes, ateliers and shops, carriage houses and a theater.
Everything was arranged to make each building and its surroundings look as authentic as possible so that history might be ‘recreated.’ Mansions and cottages were lined up in rows, up and down the streets, as well as such businesses as carpenters and builders, a tobacco processing structure, a pharmacy, fabric dying halls, and other types of industry. A main square, or ‘Torvet,’ was laid out in the middle and surrounded by stately mansions, while a festival park on the edge of the village provided opportunity for old-style outdoor games and fun.
I took a number of pictures there in which I tried to focus on things our ancestors might have seen or used. I knew from my records, for example, that some of my forefathers were carpenters, seamen, ship builders, farmers, and railroad workers. Many were shoemakers, and when I first found a small replica of a shoemaker’s dwelling and shop, I became excited and stepped inside.
A fire was burning in the fireplace of the small but neatly divided space. We stepped from room to room, noticing the details and signs of life. Coarse bread and homemade butter was laid out on the table. A ‘shoemaker’s daughter’ sat near the fire knitting socks. It felt like we had stepped back 300 years into my own family’s history. My soul was penetrated by some deep recognition that brought out my emotions–the knitting girl could have been my grandmother. She was not, of course, and I shrugged off the sentiment, but my heart swelled with gratitude for my grandmother Luella, whose dream it was to link this world with mine.
The shoemakers shop, complete with tools and leather, could be seen on the other side of the cottage. I imagined a grandfather, holding these tools in his rough hands, with the sound of a hammer nailing soles onto shoes.
We continued to wander through the alleyways, taking in all the details. Though most of the the buildings at Den Gamle By were moved to this location after private use in other parts of Denmark, the museum had been set up to represent an actual Danish town spanning several centuries. Each building had its own history to tell.
We saw several carriages with live horses and drivers roam the streets, carrying visitors to and fro, as would our modern cars through a contemporary metropolis.
Villagers in period dress roamed among the tourists, selling their wares, and plying their trade. Their demeanor and conversation fit neatly into the era of their dress.
Several shops and cafes were selling old-style wares and refreshments to visitors, creating lively corners in the village. We stopped at the ice cream parlor for a small refreshing treat, and to take a load off our tired feet. The adjacent tea garden was full of visitors mulling around, chatting, laughing, and relaxing.
How we loved our time at Den Gamle By! My little girl, a perfect Danish blond, matched the town and people as if they were made for each other. Our three children chuckled with the chickens and posed for photos in the houses and streets. This little village was an ideal playground for my family, young and old, and my own sentimental imagination.
A few years after our visit, after I had shared my photos and stories with my extended family, my parents and a few other relatives flew to Denmark from America, with this attraction on the top their list of sights to see. If you’d like to see more, take the virtual tour HERE.
Later in the week we set out to locate the home of a grandfather of mine named Kristian who had lived in a town called Nyborg in the 1760s. Nyborg is on the island of Funen (Fyn in Danish)), near the birthplace of the great storyteller Hans Christian Andersen. Nyborg was first built in the 12th century by the Danish king as a castle-fortress to protect the area from ravage and plundering by invaders (see the Nyborg Slot Castle above). This castle is rather important in Danish history because Denmark’s first constitution was signed here by King Eric V Klipping in 1282, and it became the home of the Danehof, the country’s first parliament.
We had stopped in Nyborg for lunch and a look around on our way to Copenhagen. A number of my ancestors had lived here, and my grandmother’s genealogist had made a note about my grandfather Kristian, who had lived at the address Vester Voldgade #11 in Nyborg in the 1760s. I was curious to see if that address might still exist, so we asked around until we found Vester Voldgade, right in the city center. Finally we found a large old house, now the ‘Borgmestergården‘ Museum (see above), which we believe to be the original #11 on Vester Voldgade. We entered.
The woman at the front desk was quite helpful. She told us that the house had been built by Mayor Mads Lerche in 1601. Over the years the house had served various purposes, and several apartments in the back of the house had been rented to various tenants of differing occupations. Some of the apartments, she said, were used as workshops by the town’s tradesmen. We knew that Grandfather Kristian had been a shoemaker, and we concluded with the receptionist/guide that he had probably lived as a tenant in one of those apartments overlooking Vester Voldgade (see below).
This museum contained many things similar to what we had seen at Den Gamle By: artifacts from Nyborg gathered together and set up to look as they might have when used in this house or another one nearby. One room which I found particularly interesting was the guild room, wherein hung such items as guild chests, hostel plates, “welcome” signs, and seals from various guilds: smith, shoemaker, mason and cooper. My grandmother’s genealogist had noted that Grandpa Kristian had been the president of the shoemakers guild (Skomagerlauget), so I was excited to see an old welcome sign that looked like a boot hanging over the collection of shoemakers’ guild paraphernalia.
Other rooms related to such things as primary education, farming, ship building, toys and fashion. As I wandered through these rooms, I imagined how the lives of our ancestors might have been affected by each of these aspects of life.
Might my grandfather have dined with his neighbors in a hall such as this?
Or watched the children play in the courtyard with their wagons and toys?
Or slept with his child in a neat little room like this one?
The intimate view into everyday life of these people made a deep impression. (Now I understand my own fascination with shoes!) I believe that whoever it was who lived here, whether my own family or not, touched the life of my kin in some way.
Having immigrated to Europe from America myself, I often wonder what curiosity my children–born and raised Dutch–and their children, and children’s children, will have about their American ancestors in years to come. I do my best to share their world with ours, to link the generations with common understanding. Our lives, our bodies, even our views of the world and ourselves are inextricably connected to our progenitors and their experiences, and I was happy in Denmark to find something more of myself.