Inside the Santa Ynez Valley Magazine Winter 2002 Edition

Settling Sunny Fields:
Solvang's Unsung Hero
by Brooke Comer

Downtown Solvang, circa 1920, near the present-day corner of Copenhagen Drive and Alisal Road, Solvang General Store&emdash;Marcus Nielsen, the original Nielsen's Market, on the right. The store's motto was: "We've got it, we'll get it or it's not to be had." Although automobiles are clearly a part of daily life, a hitching post in place in front of the store is still a convenience for customers on horseback or using horse-drawn buggies.

A haven. A pastoral sanctuary, a refuge from the real world. That's how newcomers describe the Santa Ynez Valley. But to the real natives, third and fourth generation residents whose Danish ancestors founded the town, it IS the real world. It's home, says Roger Nielsen, the patriarch of Nielsen's Market, who with his father Axel turned a mom and pop grocery into a successful supermarket.

Nielsen and his father grew up here, part of a grocery family. Marcus Nielsen, Nielsen's grandfather, arrived in Solvang in 1911. A native of Askov, Minnesota, he'd made his money in cotton in Danevang, Texas another Danish colony. But he packed up his family and left the southern Texas area when his gins succumbed to hurricanes once too often, heading for the milder climes of California's Central Coast.

Solvang was just developing when my grandfather came to town, says Nielsen, and he was a big part of that development. Nielsen's cotton money helped start the first water company, and the Santa Ynez Valley Bank (now MidState Bank). He also donated the first organ and the bells to Bethania Lutheran church, which he helped to build, and where Nielsen's son Rodney was married.

By 1928, Nielsen and Petersen were partners in the same location, with a fancier store front. The same mission-style arches are still on Copenhagen Drive today, only a Danish-style roof and bell tower have been added. Mission style was a common architectural style in early downtown Solvang.

Margaret Knudsen Nielsen, wife of Marcus, in a 1918 photo taken in front of her husband's store; the Nielsen's horse and buggy is in the background. Margaret Nielsen sang later that day, during dedication ceremonies for the town's new flagpole.

Rodney Nielsen is now the store manager of the thriving supermarket at the corner of Alamo Pintado and Highway 246 (his sister Betina is the mother of three young daughters), carrying on the family tradition.

In 1914, Marcus Nielsen bought a general store from Sophos Olsen, that sold everything from shoes, groceries, clothing, hardware and dynamite. In those days, you had to carry all kinds of supplies, says his grandson, because there was nowhere else to shop.

Nielsen's father Axel began working in the store at age eleven. When his sister Clara married George Petersen, the store became known as Nielsen-Petersen Grocery, until Petersen and his wife concentrated on Buellflat Rock, the Petersen family business in Solvang. Later, Axel Nielsen would take over the Mission Theater from his wife's uncle and make it a success, securing a deal to get three films a week. My mother sold tickets, and I popped popcorn. Popcorn, he reminisces fondly, is still my favorite food.

Life in Solvang's early days was simple, and often difficult, but the Danes were resourceful, and knew how to have a good time

In 1958 when Nielsen's supermarket opened, the 10,000 square foot tin building was "out in the boondocks," which is the same spot as today's Nielsen Market.
Jordanos, Safeway and Williams Brothers all said the Valley population was too small to support a supermarket.

My father Axel was a great practical joker, his son recalls. He once got a fine for calling the fire department and reporting a fire at the elementary school. When the fire engines got there, there was a big sign that said April Fool!' He went before the judge. Not everyone thought that was funny, but he did. He was also the life of every party. Social events took the place of television then, and Nielsen would often hear, the morning after, that his father had cut loose on the dance floor. People would tell me that he'd really been enjoying himself, that he'd tied one on. But he was a teetotaler. He didn't even drink.

Children who grew up in Solvang in the 1940's and 50's remember how Axel Nielsen would round them up and give them free movie tickets, popcorn and candy after they first gathered litter from the side of the roads. He always mixed fun with business, says his son.

Axel was also the local Santa; he built a holiday toyland each year, a pavilion full of toys so parents could shop locally; there weren't any toy stores then, and it was a long drive to Santa Barbara.

Axel Nielsen was also in charge of deciding how Santa would arrive in town; one year, Santa parachuted out of an airplane and landed where Copenhagen Square is now. To amuse spectators, Ray Paaske once dressed up as an old woman, who surprised everyone when she flew off in the plane. Paaske was a pilot in World War II, but he made a very convincing woman, says Nielsen, because he was a mortician, he was good with hair and makeup.

Roger Nielsen's father Axel met his future wife, Margaret Knudsen, at Atterdag College, but the Danish folkschool no longer existed by the time Nielsen graduated from high school, so he was sent instead to Danish Lutheran-run Grandview Junior College in Des Moines, Iowa. It snowed so hard that winter, that I didn't leave my dorm for ten days, he recalls.

A biographical profile included in the 1939 History of Santa Barbara County refers to Marcus Christian Nielsen as 'Solvang's chieftain' partly because he was involved in the early founding of three Danish settlements in the United States: the first at Tyler, Minnesota, the second at Danevang, Texas and the third at Solvang, California.

The profile continues: "In partnership with Sophos Olson he established a grocery store. After some years he bought Olsen out, taking in his children as partners and expanding into a general merchandise store. This institution still stands as a monument to his business sagacity."

In 2002, some 63 years after the History of Santa Barbara County was published, Nielsen's Market "still stands," not only as a monument to Marcus Nielsen, but to the business sagacity of his descendants.

After college, he joined the service, was drafted during the Cuban crisis, and spent time as a cryptologist in Puerto Rico. He met his wife, Ann, when she was crowned Danish Maid despite the fact that she was Norwegian at Solvang's 50th anniversary festival.

My father said he had someone he wanted me to meet, and I told him I didn't want to go out with anybody that he picked for me. But Nielsen and Ann were engaged just two months after they met. After a wedding in Norway and an extended honeymoon that brought Nielsen to Denmark for the first time, the couple settled in Solvang.

Nielsen returned from his honeymoon to a career in their new family supermarket in 1958. Back then, people thought we were crazy to build a big store, since my dad's small store wasn't even making money. Before Axel decided to build the a supermarket here, he talked to Jordano's, Williams Brothers, and Safeway. He asked if they'd build a store in the Valley. They said no, the numbers weren't high enough, that it took a population of 10,000 to service a supermarket. Axel told his family he couldn't retire until he was sure the Valley would still have a grocery store.

Roger and Ann Nielsen have been active in the community since the early days of their marriage. When Roger served as Danish Days chairman in 1971, he brought Hamlet to Hans Christian Andersen Park&emdash;an event that sparked the founding of Solvang's world famous Theaterfest. He and Royce Lewellen then guaranteed a $70,000 note to buy the property where the Theaterfest stands today.

He felt a responsibility to the community that there always be a grocery here, and told us that we just had to make it work. Louis Janin of Janin Acres leased him five acres at the corner of Highway 246 and Alamo Pintado, we (Axel, Roger Nielsen and Roger's uncle, Karl Knudsen) built a 10,000 square foot tin building, the biggest one in Solvang. It was more than Axel could afford to spend. There it was, out in the boondocks. And in three months, the store was in the black.

The new Nielsen's Supermarket revolutionized shopping for valley locals. Carol Orton, who with her husband owns the Storybook Inn, remembers the wonder of long aisles full of food. Roger does a lot for the community, and he helps a lot of people privately. He's hired the elderly, the handicapped. No one has any idea how much he's done. He really followed in his father's footsteps. Axel kept the Mission Theater going, even though it wasn't a moneymaker.

The theater closed in 1961, but Nielsen's has grown and expanded. It wasn't easy, Nielsen admits, when Albertson's came in. We feared we would lose our store, which was built on borrowed money and my father's life insurance policy. The Buellton Nielsen's could not survive the competition of a large chain, and closed down, but the Solvang store is going strong. Recent renovations include a lobster tank and new cases in a larger self service deli.

Rodney Nielsen scores the rind of a fresh pork roast known as a Flaeskesteg to the Danes, a Danish favorite for holiday and other dinner celebrations. Flaeskesteg has become difficult to get elsewhere and Nielsen's ships the roasts all over the country. Around Christmas time they get so many calls for orders that all hands get called into the meat department to help; even Roger Nielsen can sometimes be seen behind the counter, scoring a Flaeskesteg. Danish food is popular with tourists; two Solvang cookbooks authored by Danish immigrants, and for sale around town, are in their ninth and 14th printings.

When small Danish stores and restaurants began to close in Solvang, Nielsen began to order Danish specialties like Danish sausage, meatballs, liver pate, rullepolse, which is made with pork and spices and used for open faced sandwiches, imported Norwegian lox, pickled herring, Asher pickles, which is a specialty pickle made from a cucumber that doesn't grow in America, as well as dry goods and candies from Denmark.

He not only sells to local Danes, hungry for a taste of the Old Country, but he has a successful Internet store and ships his goods all over the world. We've also begun to promote Danish foods in Southern California, through magazines like Danish Sisterhood and Bien.

But Nielsen doesn't measure success in cash dollars. When Albertson's came in, we lost 20% of our business. We had an awful time and had to let people go. That was one of the hardest things I've ever done. But things got better. With the help of our employees, we're going to make it. I've never made a lot of money from this store, but it's been one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Roger and Ann Nielsen have two grown children and five grand children; daughter, Betina, (above) with husband Paul Heron and Gabriele, Chistiana and Angelic.
Son, Rodney, with wife Nicole and their two children Natalia and Andrew Marcus Nielsen.

AdvertisingStaff & ContributorsSubscribe Contact Us

Inside Santa Ynez Home Page
All Rights Reserved. Copyright ©2002 by Inside the Santa Ynez Valley Magazine.
Contents are the property of Inside the Santa Ynez Valley Magazine and may not be reproduced in any manner or form without prior written permission from the publisher.