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Swedish Heritage in Door County


Välkommen till Door County!

Kids parade around in Swedish garb at Fyr Bal.The Upper Midwest is home to a large number of Swedish descendants, and Door County is no different. Scandinavian architecture, customs and traditions are present across the county and it doesn’t take much effort to find yourself a jar of lingonberries or a painted Dala Horse. If you search hard enough, you might even find and establishment serving pickled herring and aquavit!

Midsommar in Door County

A sunset bonfire during Fyr Bal.Apart from Christmas, midsummer is the most important holiday in the Swedish calendar, and it is the most obvious celebration of Scandinavian heritage that happens in Door County. Each June in Ephraim, near summer solstice, the village of Ephraim hosts the annual Fyr Bal Festival.

The event welcomes the arrival of summer by the burning of the “winter witch” — a ceremony represented by large bonfires set along the shoreline of Eagle Harbor. During the day, the entire village comes alive with fun activities such as live music, dancing, crafts, art stands and more before the fires are lit at sunset.A spectacular fireworks display over the water concludes the celebration.

Practicing Hygge

“Hygge” is Scandinavian word meaning a mood of coziness and comfort, with feelings of wellness and contentment. It’s put into practice by acknowledging or embracing the special moments in life that bring joy, charm and a certain sentimentality. Whether ordinary or extraordinary, these moments are worth taking pause to enjoy.

A woman relaxes with hot tea at a spa.

Embracing the idea of hygge and famous hospitality of the Scandinavian countries, are lodging establishments like the Scandinavian Lodge in Sister Bay. Open year round, the unique setting accommodates a variety of needs from a romantic and peaceful getaway for two, to a serene and spacious place for family and friends to gather. There’s even an indoor and outdoor pool and banquet hall space for larger groups.

Another cozy lodging option with plenty of hygge to go around is Little Sweden in Fish Creek. Rentals and time-share options are available, giving you access to the the wide array of recreational options that keep you busy year round. The amenities list boasts indoor and outdoor swimming pools, whirlpools, saunas, hiking and cross-country ski trails, ice skating, tennis courts, shuffleboard, basketball, ping pong and a nine-hole golf course.

Swedish Comfort Food

A plate of Swedish pancakes smothered in cherry sauce and whipped cream.For many, comfort comes in the form of food. Cherished memories and cozy moments are almost always tied in some way to a good meal or cup of something warm, and the Swedish are no different.

Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant has been a Door County favorite for many families over the years, beginning in 1949 when Al Johnson first opened the restaurant doors in Sister Bay. The menu consists of a variety of authentic Swedish fare, from pancakes with lingonberries to Swedish meatballs, whitefish, sandwiches, salads, and a variety of hot and cold plates. The waitresses wear traditional Scandinavian outfits called "dirndls" as they serve you your food.

Servers at Al Johnson's wear traditional Swedish dresses and pose beneath the roof goats.

The restaurant is also famous for the grass roof which often can be viewed with goats grazing on it during the summer. 

In 1973 the restaurant was remodeled to add a Butik, a Scandinavian giftshop, and at the same time added a sod roof. A friend of Al Johnson placed a goat named Oscar on the roof as a joke, and thus spurred the idea of incorporating goats in to the restaurants appeal. The idea is now trademarked, making the restaurant the only one in the United States with goats on the roof.

The other traditional Swedish eatery is north of Sister Bay township in Rowley’s Bay at Grandma’s Swedish Bakery. This quaint bakery offers recipes that have been passed down through the decades and are hailed as being some of the best baked goods in the county. 

The ½ pound cinnamon and pecan rolls are a notable fan favorite, along with the cardamom coffee cake, cherry granola cookies and limpa bread.

Architecture and a Reminder of “Home”

One of the reasons that Door County became a large Swedish settlement, is because the land and scenery reminded Swedes of their homeland. From red barns with white window frames to rolling fields bordered by wooded forests and shoreline, the Door County peninsula offers a familiar landscape. 

A Swedish-inspired sign at Bjorklunden.

While exploring the county, you will see hints of Scandinavian heritage often — look for Scandinavian flags, straw horses, red Dala Horses, gnomes or signs with rosemåling detail. Additionally, there are several buildings open to the public that make you feel as though you truly are on Swedish soil.

One is Björklunden, a beautifully preserved property that includes meadows, woods, and more than a mile of unspoiled waterfront. Swedish for "Birch Grove by the Lake,” the land is a 425-acre estate on the Lake Michigan shore just south of Baileys Harbor. Now owned by Lawrence University, the school preserves and maintains the land and buildings while also utilizing the space for seminars and educational classes.

One favorite building on the property to visit and tour is the Boynton Chapel. Built in a late 12th-century Norwegian stave church (Stavkirke) style the small building is now a popular site for weddings and a favorite stop among Door County tourists. The chapel contains 41 hand-painted frescoes and numerous exceptionally fine carved-wood furnishings.

The Boynton Chapel in forest surroundings.

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