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The Heartland’s International Legacy

Throughout our nation’s history, Europeans who settled communities in the Midwest brought their culture, art, cuisine and architecture as they forged a new life for themselves. Those communities have continued to pass down their heritage. Today, thanks to their diligence, your group can partake in traditions from around the globe without leaving the continent.

Next year, the charming Swedish town of Lindsborg, Kansas, will celebrate its 150th anniversary; the celebration will begin New Year’s Eve and will continue throughout 2019. Spring tulips and architecture reminiscent of the Netherlands charm visitors in Pella, Iowa. Throughout the state, Nebraska’s small towns celebrate their Czech and Swedish heritages with festivals, food and fun. Amidst rolling hills, farmland and pastures, the Swiss-inspired town of New Glarus, Wisconsin, rolls out the welcome mat. And visitors can explore German heritage in the charming town of Hermann in Missouri’s own Rhineland.

Lindsborg, Kansas

Lindsborg nurtures its creative community of 60 working artists and nine public working studios and galleries. Next year during the town’s sesquicentennial, 36 newly created Dala horses will be displayed throughout Lindsborg in addition to the more than 50 pieces of public art that now decorate street corners, neighborhoods and building facades. On the Bethany College campus, the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery showcases Sandzén’s artwork and offers tours of his former studio. And the Small World Gallery showcases National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson.

“We’re happy to customize a tour for any size of group and length of time, ranging from several hours to three days,” said Holly Lofton, director of the Lindsborg Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Itineraries can focus on culture, art, history, photography or the outdoors.”

After a complete remodel this winter, the Swedish Country Inn will reopen in March. Reminiscent of small inns found throughout Sweden, it boasts Swedish decor and imported furniture. Included with an overnight stay is the inn’s Swedish breakfast buffet.

Lindsborg claims the nation’s longest-running, continual performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” now in its 138th year. On Easter Sunday, soloists from all over the globe participate. Choir members practice for 11 weeks, some driving from as far as three hours away. On Palm Sunday, groups can take in a related musical performance. During Holy Week, various musical performances and installations celebrate the arts.

“The ‘Messiah’ is a beautiful piece that offered the area’s Swedish immigrants a sense of community and relief from the drudgery of life on the plains,” said Lofton. “Today, Handel’s masterpiece is sung by more than 350 voices, and the choir has performed it in venues such as Carnegie Hall.”

Pella, Iowa 

Pella transports groups to the Netherlands on its brick streets lined with narrow European storefronts and galleries. Shops sell intricate Dutch lace, hand-painted delftware and more. In warm weather, patio dining is in full swing along the canal. Groups can tour the 150-year-old Scholte house museum and gardens, home of Pella’s founder. Restoration of the Scholte house and gardens will be completed by midsummer, and several windmills have also undergone face-lifts.

The first full weekend in May, Tulip Time coincides with Pella’s beautiful blooms. Daily afternoon and lighted evening parades feature elaborate floats, marching bands and residents in authentic Dutch costume. Demonstrations, performances, a craft and vendor fair, and quilt and flower shows round out events.

“Tulip Time is our busiest celebration,” said director Jill Vandevoort at the Pella Convention and Visitors Bureau. “But if groups really want to see our community and enjoy the beautiful tulips and architecture, late April is also an excellent time to come.”

Second in popularity to Tulip Time is the Christmas Tour of Homes. This year, Pella will host its first Christmas market, the Kerstmarkt. This market will mimic those in the Netherlands, serving dishes like Gouda cheese, hot spiced cider, Dutch spice cookies and oliebollen, which is a doughnutlike deep fried bread. Shoppers can purchase unique gifts and take photos with Sinterklaas.

“We researched markets in the Netherlands and around our region, and we’re coordinating with other regional Christmas markets to create a Midwestern Christmas market itinerary,” said Vandevoort. “Our market will be held in open-air huts on Molengracht Plaza, somewhat like those at Chicago’s Christkindlmarket open-air market.”

Verdigre, Nebraska

“Nebraska has a wide variety of fun events and destinations where groups can celebrate the different cultures represented in the state,” said Nebraska Tourism Commission executive director John Ricks.

Kolach Days in the town of Verdigre, in Nebraska’s northwestern corner, takes place the second weekend of June. Kolaches, yeast dough pastries with fruit fillings that originated in eastern Europe, are a favorite Czech and Slovak dessert. Verdigre’s Czech heritage comes to life during the festival with the crowning of the Kolach King and Queen, a kolach-eating contest and more. After Sunday’s Grand Parade, groups can dance the polka at the Royal Ball or delve into Czech heritage at the Verdigre Heritage Museum complex and gristmill.

Also held the third weekend in June, the Swedish Midsommar Festival takes place on the town square in Stromsburg, the “Swede Capital of Nebraska.” Founded in 1872, Stromsburg traces its roots to Sweden, and the town takes its name after a neighborhood in the town of Ockelbo. During the festival on Friday and Saturday evenings, A Taste of Sweden serves up locally made Swedish meatballs, rye bread and ostkaka, a cheesecakelike dessert topped with lingonberries. Saturday morning, the breakfast serves Swedish pancakes. In addition to enjoying the Swedish fare, groups can learn about Viking life from the Skjaldborg Vikings re-enactors, enjoy Swedish dancing, watch the parade featuring “Stromsburg Past and Present” and check out Sunday’s annual car show.

The official “Czech Capital of the USA,” Wilbur lies 36 miles southwest of Lincoln. In August, its annual Czech Days celebrates polka and kolaches. Prefestival activities include a beer garden and free dance at Hotel Wilber. Czech music, food, arts and dancing are featured throughout the weekend.

Hermann, Missouri

Eighty miles west of St. Louis lies the quaint town of Hermann. When German immigrants settled in Missouri more than a century ago, they brought their passion for winemaking with them.

Almost half of Hermann’s 150 historic buildings offer lodging as bed-and-breakfasts, inns and guesthouses. They range from cozy and historic to luxurious.

Late spring into early summer, the region’s gardens burst into full bloom, and avid gardeners will find it a lovely time to visit. Groups can tour the Deutschheim State Historic Site, an early German-American settlement of restored 1840s and 1850s buildings with furnishings reflective of Missouri’s midcentury German families.

“Groups can take a 90-minute tram tour narrated by docents in full costume throughout the Living History Farm’s 200 acres, and they also have a wonderful gift shop,” said Kay Schwinke, group tour coordinator for the Hermann Area Chamber of Commerce. “A tour highlight is the Settlement Village with restored 1850s homes.”

Hermann held its first Weinfest in the fall of 1848, a tradition that continues today on the first four weekends in October. On those weekends, downtown’s Hermannhof Festhalle resembles an authentic German hall, featuring German bands and bratwursts from locally owned Swiss Meats. Outdoor patios and gardens beckon with live music and al fresco dining.

Stone Hill Winery sits atop one of the world’s largest labyrinths of underground cellars and offers in-depth tours. In 1873, the winery won the first of eight World’s Fair gold medals in Vienna. Today, the on-site Vintage Restaurant, located in a restored horse barn, features Old World dishes such as onion tarts, slow-cooked sauerbraten and pan-fried schnitzel.

New Glarus, Wisconsin

Step into Swiss heritage in New Glarus, dubbed America’s “Little Switzerland.” A steady stream of Swiss immigrants has sustained the community’s Swiss-German language, folk traditions and music since 1845. Adding to the picturesque architecture, flower boxes filled with blooms grace many of the buildings in the historic downtown.

Authentic cuisine created by Swiss-trained chefs at the New Glarus Hotel Restaurant features dishes such as Cheese Fondue à la Neuchatel, Beef Fondue Bourguignonne and Rösti Potatoes. Friday and Saturday evenings, live polka music entertains diners.

“When groups stop for lunch or dinner at the restaurant, they can arrange for a Swiss entertainment package featuring a Swiss group who yodels, plays the Alp horns and performs Swiss singing,” said Susie Weiss, director of the New Glarus Chamber of Commerce. “Before or after the meal, a costumed, step-on guide can lead a tour highlighting our town’s history and culture, which also stops at our Swiss Historical Village Museum.”

Groups will want to leave time for browsing several blocks of unique shops that stock imported gifts. More than 100 years old, the New Glarus Bakery creates scrumptious treats worth a stop. Visitors can rent bikes at the chamber office for cycling the Sugar River Bike Trail, an abandoned railroad line that spans 24 miles with 14 trestle bridges that cross over the Sugar River and its tributaries.

“My favorite time of year is Oktoberfest in September, when the leaves are changing and the air is cooling down,” said Weiss. “There’s live music and dancing and good food, including brats made from our two meat markets in town.”

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.