Danish delight: Museum highlights Danes' arrival in Alberta

A "treasure in the middle of nowhere" is how some describe the Danish Canadian museum in tiny Dickson, Alta., some 90 minutes north of Calgary.

Thousands visit Alberta hamlet of Dickson annually to step back in time

Danish Museum in Dickson, Alberta

5 years ago
The Danish Canadian Museum in the hamlet of Dickson, population 60, is a 5.2-hectare oasis amidst the farms and wheat fields of central Alberta — about a 90-minute drive northwest of Calgary. 1:56

This story was originally published on Nov. 14, 2016.

A venue that features a Viking ship, a children's "garden of imagination" based on the beloved stories of Hans Christian Andersen and artifacts marking the arrival of the Danes to central Alberta over a century ago is a "treasure in the middle of nowhere."

The Danish Canadian Museum in the hamlet of Dickson, population 60, is a 5.2-hectare oasis amidst the farms and wheat fields of central Alberta — about a 90-minute drive northwest of Calgary.

Faye Kjearsgaard, curator at the Danish Canadian Museum, opens the windows at the 'Naust,' or boathouse, in Dickson, Alta. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

The museum is located on the original grounds of the Verbena Dormitory, which served as a boarding house for high school girls from pioneer farm families in the area.

There's a replica of a turn-of-the-century Danish church, walking paths, trees, flower beds, a man-made lake and a working reproduction of a small Viking ship known as a skib.

The Dagmar Pioneer Church is reflected in a pond at the Danish Canadian Museum. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The 16-foot-long ship, Freydis Joanna, with four oars and a small sail, was built at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark and brought to Canada in 2009.

"These are the little ones that they would use to go on rivers or to go inland — they carried these on the bigger ships so they could go onto land — a landing craft," said museum curator Faye Kjearsgaard.

"It is one of the key attractions."

The Freydis Joanna Viking ship in Dickson. The museum says these types of smaller vessels gave the Vikings easy access along the coastlines. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Kjearsgaard isn't a fan of the Canadian-Irish TV series, Vikings, saying it's too "gory." But the museum's executive director, Brian Desjardins, thinks the historical drama keeps the public's interest in Viking lore at a high level.

"I would say the shows like Vikings, that I'm into, definitely does generate some attraction. Certainly for us it does give us some more appeal to people," said Desjardins.

Thousands of visitors

He said about 8,000 people visit the museum each year, but the bulk of them show up for special events — most notably Viking Days in August.

"Visitors are going to see Viking re-enactments. We have a group, Odin's Ravens from the Edmonton area, and they come here and they set up for two days," he said.

Visitors explore the boathouse at the museum located about 90 minutes from Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

"They set up a camp of how they used to live. They put on mock Viking battles and that attracts the most attention. We do rope it off because they are actually fighting with the real swords and shields."

Odin's Ravens also invite like-minded groups from other areas to take part, he said, including a Viking group from Minnesota last year.

Priority on authenticity

Kjearsgaard said visitors can be assured everything is authentic.

"Those groups that come out and do performances? They are authentic. They've done their research."

The Danish Canadian Museum operates on donations but makes enough money for full-time staff, who along with volunteers, dress in traditional costume to conduct interpretive tours during the summer.

The museum building itself, the former girl's dormitory, has upstairs rooms containing a wealth of artifacts and archives documenting the pioneer experience, as well as storyboards outlining the histories of local pioneer families.

Desjardins, who grew up in the area, said he knew about the Danish roots of Dickson but had no idea what it was like before going to work there in the past year.

"This is like a treasure in the middle of nowhere," he said.