TOWN OF BLUE MOUNDS – Scott Winner knows it’s time for a new chapter in the Valley of the Elves.
This quaint, secluded, one-of-a-kind spot called Nissedahle but known by most as Little Norway may soon have new caretakers. Running a private museum isn’t cheap and the costs in recent years have far exceeded the revenues. That’s why Winner and his wife of 18 years, Jennifer, are trying to sell the 40-acre property that has been cared for by four generations of his family since 1927 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Little Norway closed in the fall of 2012 so Winner, who spent Saturday removing roadside signs for the business, no longer has employees to pay and tours to give, but things like insurance and an annual property tax bill of more than $22,000 remain.
“The idea of selling something that has been in our family for so long is very emotional; however, I have to be realistic about all of this,” Winner said as we paused last week during a tour of the grounds that include a spring with a healthy crop of watercress. “It’s expensive to maintain.”
In May, Winner began selling and donating most of the 7,000 Norwegian artifacts that filled many of the log buildings here. Some have gone to the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend, the Mount Horeb Historical Society and to the Norwegian Heritage Center under construction in Stoughton.
Private collectors have bought items, including an original manuscript of a composition written by Edvard Grieg in 1873. About 600 pieces will soon be sold by Jackson’s International Auctioneers and Appraisers in Cedar Falls, Iowa, which specializes in antiques and fine art. Family members have claimed sentimental pieces, including Winner, who has a corner cupboard from 1765 and a 250-year-old wooden drinking bowl in the shape of an Eider duck.
But Little Norway’s signature building, a large model of an early Christian Norwegian stave church, could be headed back to the Motherland.
Winner has been in contact with a few Norway residents who are trying to raise $1 million to cover the estimated costs of buying the church, taking it apart, shipping it to Norway and putting it back together. One of those involved in the project is a man whose grandfather did some of the carvings around the main entrance door of the church.
“They’re all bananas about the idea,” Winner said. “They said they have a beautiful spot for it, and they’re very serious about it.”
The 121-year-old building, complete with dragon heads on its multiple peaks, has had quite a journey.
Referred to as the Norway Building, it was built in Trondheim, Norway, taken apart and then shipped to Chicago for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition. After the six-month World’s Fair event, the building was again disassembled and moved to the sprawling Wrigley estate along the north shore of Lake Geneva.
In 1935, the church, with no pews (the congregants stood) was purchased by Winner’s great uncle, Isak Dahle. He had it taken apart again and shipped to his property between Blue Mounds and Mount Horeb that was settled by Osten Olson Haugen in the mid-1800s.
In 1937, two years before the discovery of the nearby Cave of the Mounds, the church, along with several log buildings constructed by Haugen, opened to the public as a tourist destination designed to help tell the story of rural Norwegian life.
“I would love to have it stay right here on this property,” Winner said of the church. “But if it can’t, wouldn’t it be amazing to see it go back to Norway?”
The future of the church and Little Norway are a bit unclear as the property is for sale for $1.9 million. It was recently featured in the New York Times, which learned about the property from a story in DagensNaeringsliv, a daily Norwegian business publication.
“It just has to strike the right chord in someone,” said Jenny Johnston, the real estate agent for the property.
Ideas for a new owner could include turning it into a bed and breakfast, a spot for weddings or a corporate retreat. Located near Tyrol Basin Ski & Snowboard Area, it could become a lodge or a home for someone with a love of history and all things Norway.
“Museums you go to today are very different than this sweet old little setting here,” said Jennifer Winner. “Now it’s all interactive and they want you to push buttons. It will take someone with vision.”
The property was offered to the state after World War II for $1 but was turned down due to the on-going maintenance that was required, Scott Winner said. Over the last two years, attempts to sell the property to the Wisconsin Historical Society or to get a foundation to purchase and operate the site never panned out.
“We danced with some of the biggest named foundations in Wisconsin,” Winner said. “It looked extremely promising, but it didn’t work out. The state of Wisconsin doesn’t have the money to invest. Just to keep their own sites running has been a challenge.”
The 15 log structures, seven of which were built by Huagen in the mid 1800s, include a cabin, a barn, bachelor’s cabin, chicken coop, outhouse, spring house and the Stabbur, a storage house on a raised foundation designed to protect food from rodents and moisture.
The price tag also includes Winner’s 5,000 square-foot home that is also a pretty good story but was never part of the tour.
The house, with a 28-foot-high living room ceiling and 12-foot-wide fireplace, was built over the course of two years by Winner’s grandfather, Asher Hobson in the late 1950s. Hobson, who took over management and eventually ownership of Little Norway shortly after Dahle’s death in 1937, was the head of the agricultural economics department at UW-Madison.
The stone for the house came from the remnants of the old Chadbourne Hall that was built in 1871 but torn down and replaced with a new structure in 1957. The red and white oak found throughout the home and the black walnut that is prolific in the home’s large library was cut from the woods that surround the valley and milled on site.
Winner grew up on Madison’s West Side near the intersection of Hammersley and Gilbert roads. His father was an attorney and his mother helped out her family at Little Norway. In 1981, after studying marketing at Madison Area Technical College, Winner came to cut the lawn and never left.
Winner, 54, has spent almost his entire adult life not only living here but making sure that the historic structures remained true. He replaced foundations, fixed the roofs and knows every corner and cranny of the property.
Now, he’s ready to pass it on to a new steward of history.
“It’s sad but, boy, was it great the years that we did it,” Winner said.
“It isn’t tragic. It’s the end of an era, and it was great to be a part of it,” he said.