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Arts & Life

Rural Traditions Revive with New Generations

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At the lonely junction of two country crossroads sits a tall white church. It’s a typical rural South Dakota scene but there is something different going on here….    A large parking lot overflows; a line of people trails from the main entrance, and the prairie wind carries the sound of Swedish folk songs.

It’s the 148th Midsommar celebration at Dalesburg Lutheran Church north of Vermillion.  Ron Johnson is a longtime member of the Midsommar Church Committee.

"Midsommar is a Swedish holiday. It came to Clay County, South Dakota, Clay County Dakota Territory in 1869, that’s when we think the first Midsommar celebration was. It’s an old Swedish Holiday, probably going back to the Vikings."

The Summer Solstice Midsommar celebration reveals the area’s Scandinavian roots. Dalesburg was never a large community, seated, as it is, 15 miles from any neighboring town.  Settled by a group of Swedish immigrants, it was bypassed by the railroads in the late 1800s and over the century that followed, it dwindled to the handful of buildings and a ballfield that remain today.

But as the settlement approaches its 150th year, Dalesburg Lutheran Church president Nick Oyen sees a change in fortune:

"You know, we’re growing. It’s revitalizing, I think is a great word to use. We have young families that are starting to be a part of the community that have really just latched onto our church and the traditions that we still have are what these families are excited to be a part of."

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Traditional Dala Horses decorate the grounds of Dalesburg Lutheran Church during Midsommar.

Those traditions give life to the church’s Midsommar celebration. Banners with the Swedish word ‘Velkommen” adorn the church inside and out. A Swedish flag flutters in the breeze alongside the stars and stripes - and a Midsommar pole entwined with fresh flowers stands ready to be raised at evenings end.

Volunteer Don Josko is a Midsommar veteran.

"Midsommar is a gathering of all peoples and their celebrating life, they’re celebrating nature, they’re celebrating community..faith. It’s very much entwined into your spirit."

The spirit of that Scandinavian “Velkommen” is best experienced in the smorgasbord supper being served in the church’s basement dining hall. Diners buy tickets weeks ahead of time to feast upon Potatis Korv, frut suppa, and, of course, Swedish meatballs.  Food traditions tie the small congregation together and help cement its relationships with the next generation. 

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The Midsommar smorgasboard, replete with Swedish Meatballs.

"What’s so much fun is to watch the older generations helping the younger generations and now we’re actually having some of the children and come and want to be a part of it. And they’ll sit there and they’ll chop apples for the fruit soup and you know it’s passing on some traditions instead of play video games all the time."

Oyen says multi-generational interaction is a big reason the congregation is experiencing a period of growth.

"We have so many volunteers-we have 80-year-olds sitting down with an 8-year-old to work on crafts to work on crafts and to do coloring projects and art projects.  We have older volunteers who are taking care of Sunday School classes. And it’s been amazing to see this generation taking care of what, I guess would be my next generation. There’s a big gap between the two."

And while tradition has been an attraction to families old and new, the church also reaches out in new ways.

"Facebook was a big jump. We’re embracing social media a bit more. We’re trying to get more family-friendly activities. Every month we have one or two different events where have a dinner, a game night or a bingo night.  We have baseball going on Tuesdays in the summer. Just a lot of different things for people to be a part of a community and to really engage."  

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The Midsommar crowd enjoys the Swedish folk music of the Vidonia Trio.

Although South Dakota’s busiest city is less than an hour away, Oyen says sometimes it’s worth not making the drive to Sioux Falls.

"It’s about making community. I was a commuter, I commuted up to Sioux Falls every day for work for years and years and years. And I really didn’t get to know my neighbors.  So what we’re really trying to do with this church is to make sure our neighborhood knows that we can be a community again. We can back to what people used to do 50, 60 years ago and we can make it relevant again today. And that’s really what we’re trying to with this church."

At the end of the day, whether a person attends a single Midsommar celebration or becomes a member of the country church, it’s the sense of community that keeps people coming back.

Learn more about Dalesburg Lutheran Church and their annual Midsommar celebration by visiting their website: http://dalesburglutheran.org