By Clay Riness —
The little ridge town of Westby has a definitive charm. The city’s decorations, lawn ornaments and street signs leave no doubt that its heritage is Scandinavian, and the folks who live there seem a happy and friendly lot. They are also fiercely proud of that heritage.
In the late 1840s, Norwegian immigrants began settling what was known as Coon Prairie, immediately southeast of what is now Westby.
They came, not because it reminded them of home as many believe, but because the land was fertile, productive and considered perfect for farming. A man named Even Olson Gullord is widely considered as the first to claim land there in 1848, and he had a vision of building a settlement. Of course, others followed.
While it’s likely that early Coon Prairie settlers felt they had found a piece of heaven, their lives were filled with many hardships. They lived in shanties, 12’x12’ log cabins and even dugouts. Water was scarce on the ridge, and they ate what they could grow, catch or kill. Long days of arduous work were routine. Commercial items had to be purchased in Prairie du Chien, a 100-mile round trip, often on foot. (The early 1850s saw the opening of stores and mills in La Crosse, easing that burden to 50 miles.) In spite of the difficulties, according to an early source, “a cordial feeling pervaded the little settlements, and the settlers were always ready to assist each other.”
In 1869, Ole T. Westby, a 29-year-old Civil War veteran (and nephew of Gullord) purchased some land where the city of Westby stands today and built a store/home. Seizing upon the success of his mercantile, he built a separate home in 1872 and a larger store in 1874. By then, a regular stage was running between Sparta and Viroqua bringing passengers and mail. Coon Prairie was suddenly more than a settlement. And then, in 1878, the Chicago, Minneapolis and St. Paul Railroad began laying track from Sparta to Viroqua. On Aug. 13, 1879, the first train passed through.
The railroad platted the town and opened a station which it named … Westby, in honor of Ole T. Westby.
The railroad brought a boom of economic development including a dozen businesses by 1883 and four times that by the end of the century.
Modern day Westby has a few other historically relevant eggs in its basket. The Snowflake Ski Club, founded in 1922, hosts an annual ski jumping tournament that attracts world-class athletes from all over the globe. The club is still going strong today and the jump is the only hill (and event) in the U.S. that is maintained solely by volunteers. The jump itself has seen improvements in design over the decades, but community adoration for the beloved event has never waned.
While the complex is home to four smaller hills for training junior jumpers (10-, 20-, 40- and 65-meter hills), the Olympic-sized hill is a full 118 meters, the seventh largest in the U.S. That’s over 387 feet.
And then, of course, there is Westby Syttende Mai, an annual May celebration of the city’s heritage, which has been held every year since 1969. A colorful and family-friendly event, it features city residents in traditional dress, street vendors, a troll hunt, horse-drawn trolley, a golf tournament, bicycle tour, a 5K walk/run and half-marathon, demonstrations, kids’ events, exhibits, music and so much more. The shining star of the weekend, of course, is the Grand Syttende Mai Parade, featuring another local and beloved favorite, the Westby High School Band.
Westby, however, is making history again.
The Fine Arts Foundation of the Westby Area (FAFWA) just got the green light via referendum to build a 498-seat auditorium/performing arts center which will serve generations to come. Now that’s historic … especially for a town of just over 2200 residents.