Twenty years ago, Paul Wilson's wife Mary Abendroth thought he was crazy.
Wilson wanted to start a Scandinavian music festival in the lakes area. One day, he and Abendroth drove past the Nisswa Pioneer Village and Wilson knew at that moment this would be where the festival would take place-in the majestic, towering Norway pines of Nisswa.
It was then the Nisswa-stämman Scandinavian Folk Music Festival was born. The first festival was presented June 2000 with about 60 folk musicians, who mainly came from the Twin Cities metro area, and about 800 people attended-a nice crowd for its debut. Since then, the festival has grown to feature more than 150 folk musicians from all over the country, with about 1,700 people attending annually.
Now in 2019, Wilson and Abendroth are busy gearing up for the 20th anniversary of the festival scheduled next weekend, June 7-8. The festival has grown to musicians performing on four stages, day-long dancing opportunities, dance instruction, a cultural children's activity tent and Scandinavian food.
There will be special events to celebrate the milestone year, including an additional large tent in the open area of the village to have another stage for musical groups. There will be more musicians, with a goal to bring one musical group from each of four Scandinavian countries-Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland.
Scandinavian heritage runs deep with festival founders Wilson and Abendroth. The two played music well before moving to the lakes area 36 years ago from the Twin Cities metro area. Wilson taught himself to play the fiddle and the accordion. Abendroth has a musical background, which includes singing while she was in the Peace Corps.
"My mom is very musical," Wilson said during an interview last week. "She is Swedish and my dad is Norwegian. We always had music in the house. (My mom) played the piano, played music.
"I played the drums in grade school," Wilson, 67, said with a childish smirk. "I played the guitar for years and took piano lessons."
Wilson became interested in Scandinavian music in his late 20s, during the folk revival taking place in the United States and Europe. Wilson played folk songs and music from the '60s including music from Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. He enjoyed international folk dancing as a recreational hobby.
The couple played in a five-piece group called Skålmusik, which eventually grew to a group called Skål Klubben. In addition to performing music, they share their love and knowledge of Scandinavian music and culture at schools and libraries across the region.
The couple performed with local small musical groups, playing at a variety of festivals-including a spelmansstämmor-which is a Swedish word for folk musicians' gatherings. The purpose of the gatherings are to bring musicians and dancers together to learn from each other and to perform for an audience. The gatherings are hosted at historic farms with log buildings in Sweden and Scandinavian folk music was performed.
This is the same concept Wilson wanted to bring to the lakes area 20 years ago and having the festival in the pioneer village was perfect, as the atmosphere is similar to the one in Sweden.
The couple had no problem securing the village.
Lee Anderson, who has Swedish heritage, owned the village property at that time before later donating it to the Nisswa Area Historical Society.
"I got his email address and I told him what I wanted to do and he wrote right back and said this is a great idea and here's $5,000 to get you started," Wilson said. "He also said, 'I'm looking forward to the smorgasbord.'"
Anderson said the pioneer village property was purchased over time starting in 1943 by his father, Reuben, who was 100 percent Swedish. His parents came to the United States from Orebro, Sweden.
"Paul suggested the idea of a stämman, which I thought would be great," Anderson told the Echo Journal. "Over the years I have attended most of the events. I love the people and the children. For many of us, it supports and reinforces our Swedish heritage."
Dick Carlson of the Nisswa Area Historical Society recalled Wilson saying all those years ago the pioneer village property was ideal for a stämman and asking if the historical society would like to participate.
"Saying yes was a no-brainer, and we did," Carlson told the Echo Journal. "To this day, it remains as one of the best decisions we ever made."
Wilson and Abendroth received immediate support from the local historical society, the city of Nisswa, national Nordic American organizations, donors, volunteers and Wilson's friends-many of them artists who perform each year at the festival.
The festival still remains popular and its purpose has not changed-bringing Scandinavian and Scandinavian/American folk music and dance to the lakes area in an event designed for the whole family. The festival has always begun with a Friday night concert kicking off the weekend of Scandinavian folk music and a fiddlers' parade along the Paul Bunyan State Trail through Nisswa to the pioneer village started Saturday's festivities.
In 2006, organizers offered a workshop hosted at a volunteer's private home. Since then, the number of workshops, hosted Friday morning before the night concert, has grown to about a dozen. The workshops are led by musicians with specific Scandianavian music skills. Wilson said the concept of the workshops is to give people a chance to learn a specific skill and to also bring people to the area to boost the economy.
This year the workshops include Danish and Swedish fiddle tunes and West Coast Hardingfele tunes with Bjørn Kåre Odde.
Wilson said there is a nice partnership through the workshops and festival with area residents who volunteer their homes as host families to the traveling musicians.
Wilson said the success of the festival over the past 20 years is thanks to Anderson's support and word of mouth. Musicians were telling other musicians about the Nisswa-stämman and eventually musicians in Sweden knew about it and were emailing Wilson about their interest in performing in Nisswa.
In 2009, the Swedish ambassador to the United States visited the festival, and Wilson was honored with the Swedish Council of America's Award of Merit.
This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through the Minnesota's State Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund supported by the Minnesota Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment. The festival also is supported by the Swedish Council of America and the American Scandinavian Foundation.
Wilson said the Nisswa-stämman is a genuinely nice family event for people of all ages.
"It's a good place for people to come and turn off their cellphones and enjoy the day," he said.
"One of the neat parts of the festival is there is no litter at all after this event."
Wilson joked his wife may still think he is a little crazy, but she is always there to help him with the festival.
If you go
The schedule of events for the Nisswa-stämman Scandinavian Folk Music Festival 2019 is as follows:
• 6:30 p.m. June 7, Gala Opening Sampler concert, Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa. Tickets are $15. No advance sales.
• 10 a.m.-5 p.m. June 8, festival, Nisswa Pioneer Village. Tickets are $15, no advance sales.
• 4:45-6 p.m., June 8, Sm'rgåsbord, Nisswa American Legion Post. Tickets are $20 and may be purchased in advance at the Nisswa Chamber of Commerce.