GOWEN — One hundred-sixty years ago, at the young age of 26, August Rasmussen commenced on a journey that few would likely fathom enduring today.
With his wife, Ane, at his side, the Danish couple embarked on an adventure away from their homeland, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean for nearly eight weeks to establish a new life in the wild unknown that was the United States.
By sail, rail and wagon, the pair made their way westward, and eventually settled in Gowen, to begin their lives in America, full of opportunity previously unknown to them in Europe.
Little did Rasmussen know, however, that although he and Ane would be part of the first four Danish residents in the area, within one year’s time, the story of their successful journey would lead to a boom of 40 Danish immigrants in the Gowen and Greenville area.
Today, that boom can be directly correlated as the reason Greenville is also known as the Danish Festival City, celebrated annually on the third weekend of the month in which he was named after. Those Danish roots stretch all the way to the very cabin that Rasmussen had built on the land he purchased working at the Gregory and Co. saw mill, making as much as $1.50 a day.
Rasmussen’s story is told time and time again by his descendants today, of which there are many who remain in the area, and soon, it will see a much broader audience.
On Sunday, video journalist Peter Kryger, with TV ØST — a public service broadcasting network in Denmark — arrived to meet with the descendants of Rasmussen.
Taking photos, recording video, and diligently taking notes, Kryger began putting the picture together for a three-episode documentary that will eventually air in August of this year, with Rasmussen possibly being a focal point of one of the episodes.
“Rasmussen’s case is unique, as when he traveled, it was prior to travel becoming more reliable,” he said. “The Danish came by the thousands, but not until years after Rasmussen, when travel was easier.”
Kryger is spending 14 days in the United States, with visits to Chicago, Nebraska — and Gowen — talking to descendants of Danish immigrants from long ago. Based on the information he collects, he will decide which stories to pursue and make a return trip, possibly in March or April, with his documentary film crew.
“Beginning in 1850, for 70 years, 300,000 Danes immigrated — 10 percent of the population — and 70 percent of those went to America. That’s why we are concentrating on America,” he said. “At that time in Denmark, the poor remained poor and the rich remained rich. August Rasmussen was a poor farmer, and that’s why he wanted to come to America.”
Martha Roy, great-granddaughter of Rasmussen, welcomed Kryger to the area Sunday, and surrounded him with nearly a dozen other Rasmussen descendants as they went through hundreds of letters, news clippings and photos dating to his time in the area.
“Looking at this history again, it just tightens the roots of why our descendants came here,” she said. “It was a new land with opportunity, when he was a peasant in a place with nothing else better to offer.”
With the very trunk that Rasmussen brought with him from Denmark sitting in the room, along with his personal journal, Sunday served as a day back in time as Kryger explored the history.
Among those speaking with Kryger was Greenville High School history teacher Tim O’Brien. O’Brien had studied Rasmussen immensely, having written a research paper on the Danish migration to the Greenville area while in college.
“I was curious about our local history,” he said. “Why the Danish? Why the Danish Festival?
In 2001, O’Brien, along with friend Mike Stafford, visited the hometown of Rasmussen, and even entered the church where August and Ane were married, as it still stands today.
“The area where he lived, it looks like Gowen, like Sidney, like Greenville,” he said. “It looks like this area with lots of rivers, swamps, and rolling hills with deer in the fields.”
According to O’Brien, Rasmussen left a life behind in Denmark that featured very little promise.
“They were peasants, without a lot of opportunity for advancement,” he said. “He was mistreated by his employers, and he wasn’t going to be able to buy any land, which was really important to him. They assimilated enough to be successful here, but they still maintained their Danish culture. I wish I had that kind of background with my own family, that’s why I’m so excited about this for the Rasmussen family.”
One of the youngest descendants of Rasmussen, Audra Hardy, 16, said she doesn’t take the vast amount of information on her great-great-great-grandfather for granted.
“I like learning about all of this old stuff, and how different it was,” she said. “I think more people should save their stuff so that kids now would know about it. We have the internet now, everything goes online, but it’s not the same as reading through hard copies and learning about things. This heritage, reading about it, having a whole bunch of it in front of you, it’s nice.”
For O’Brien, it is statements such as Hardy’s that keep the history teacher so focused on making sure his students appreciate their own personal histories.
“I get excited when my students get excited about it,” he said. “Everybody’s got to find an August Rasmussen in their family. Go ask your parents, your grandparents, your relatives. You will make their day if you ask them these things, questions about their history.”
Rasmussen’s original settlement in the area helped to shape the greater Greenville area into the city it is today, and for that, Kryger said he is anxious to help tell his story.
“It’s unusual to come to America for a story, but the Danish footprints they left behind, we want to tell that story,” he said.
Kryger visited the very cemetery in Montcalm Township where Rasmussen is buried, Little Denmark Cemetery. Having passed away in 1919, his gravestone has weathered away almost all visible text, but his impact can be seen in the numerous gravestones that now fill the cemetery.
His letters home helped to inspired the first generation of Danish settlers to call Gowen and Greenville home, and bring forth a culture that helped shaped the culture of the area.
“We can here get a good house to live, and all the stove wood we need free of charge,” Rasmussen wrote in a letter home. “Here are thousands of acres of good farming land to be had almost for nothing. Here is more than enough land for all the people in the county where you live. Here are good and noble people. Think what a good opportunity you can secure for each of your children, while in Denmark, they cannot get a poor shanty … Now, it is for you to make up your mind and start out of the old house. I will do my part. Come out, and bring along our brother-in-law, and your wife’s folks, and as many as you can get. We will provide for you all. I hope to see you once more.”