By Jennifer McDaniel, for the Lincoln Sentinel
As Debra Parmenter reaches the crest of the hill, she brings her white SUV to a stop along the dusty, country road.
For just a moment, she pauses to take in the view.
“As I come over this hill, I just have a sense of peace and belonging,” Parmenter says, looking across the sweeping dale. “And I think about the early settlers, mostly of Danish descent, and how they looked down across this valley, and how it reminded them of their homeland. That’s why they named it Denmark. It reminded them a lot of the topography of the area they were from.”
Soon, she takes her foot off the brake, easing the vehicle down the hill toward the agricultural community originally settled in the 1870s.
But today, the town of Denmark is only a mere shell of its former self.
Abandoned limestone buildings stand as reminders of a once-thriving community. For years, these buildings were left to fade away, taking with them the small town’s history and heritage.
But if Parmenter has anything to say about it, she will keep the community’s legacy alive.
After years spent watching Denmark’s buildings fall into disrepair, she decided to do something about it.
In November, she acquired a building across the road from the rural fire department. The structure, which was originally designed to house five individual businesses, had been neglected for years. A month later, she formed the Denmark Preservation Foundation, and in December, work began to clear away trees crowding the building’s personal space.
Earlier this month, Parmenter hired brothers, Edward and Craig Rowe, of Dorrance, to begin dismantling, demolishing and removing pound after pound of debris from the structure.
For Parmenter, preserving the community’s past is something she takes personally because her family’s roots run deep in the Denmark soil.
Her maternal great-great grandfather, H.P. Andresen, immigrated to the United States in the late-1800s and settled near Denmark. Her mother, Audrey, grew up in Denmark and later married Debra’s father, Charles Smith, of Vesper, in the Denmark Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1955.
Just down the road, not far from the building she’s trying to preserve, is H.P.’s original homestead. His name can still be seen, carved in a section of stone above the doorframe.
“I’ve been watching the buildings of Denmark decay, and so my first project started when I bought the hotel and fixed it up,” she said.
“I loved it, and the community, and it had a heritage I was tied to. I thought it was such a shame to see these Post-Rock buildings were fading into oblivion, and I wanted to do something to make a difference, and help ensure these buildings would still be available so younger generations would know about this era.”
When Denmark was settled in the 1870s, residents began planning how their new settlement would look. Soon, land was plotted into parcels and building began. By 1875, the community featured a store, blacksmith shop, a school and post office. By 1880, construction was completed on the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which, at that time, stood at the crossroads of the community.
The community would continue to grow steadily through 1885. But by 1916, Parmenter said, town officials learned the Salina and Northwestern line of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was being built to the west of the settlement. As a result, town officials decided to shift their community development plans, and moved the settlement to the west. The area pioneers first settled as Denmark, Parmenter said, would be known as Upper Denmark, while the newly established town was called Lower Denmark.
Soon, the community’s population exploded in late-1916. Census figures at that time indicated 200 families lived in Denmark, and several new businesses were being built, she said. By the 1920s, the town had two schools, a church, a mercantile store, community hall, post office, hotel and a bank as well as several other businesses. But just as the community grew, it would soon begin a downturn it could never quite recover from. Financial losses from the Great Depression, a drought and the loss of jobs proved too much. Soon, the population began to decline.
By the 1950s, businesses like the Allis-Chalmers implement business that Parmenter’s uncle, Penny Andreson, owned with his father, moved to Lincoln in 1951.
“At that time, the last business had left, and everything else was gone,” she said.
Decades later, the building that once housed the same implement business is being restored little by little in the hopes of breathing new life into the community.
Constructed in 1916, Parmenter said, the building housed a mercantile called The Leader Store, a grocery called the Denmark Cash Store, a garage for repairs and welding, a creamery/ice cream store and a pool hall. The garage, she said, was later home to her uncle’s implement business.
As the project has progressed, the original storefronts, doors and windows and other salvageable items were removed and are being kept in storage so they can eventually be restored and put back in place. On Wednesday afternoon, the Rowe brothers stood among the debris covering the basement floor of two of the building’s west units – the first phase of the project.
A stiff, winter wind whipped the smoke from a burning pile of wood and trash as the two continued clearing scraps of what remained. Discarded gears, an old light bulb, a rusted-out service sign and a liquor bottle were among the day’s treasures.
Watching from a distance was “Junior” Sorensen, who serves as vice president of the foundation board.
“It’s quite a thing, isn’t it?” Sorensen said. “And I sure hope she can get this going, and get it done.”
While the building is merely a skeletal frame, Parmenter can already visualize what she hopes will become a cultural center displaying Denmark’s history. Her intent is to educate visitors about Danish-American culture and art. And she has other ideas as well.
“Someday, if we could get this fixed up, we could be a destination for people to stop and visit,” she said. “They could come here to see our history, and learn about the people who were once here.”
Renovations are nothing new to Parmenter. About 11 years ago, she purchased the former hotel, which was built in 1917. At the time, she said, the hotel was already a private residence. Still, it took three to four years to fix it up. The former hotel serves as her private residence when she isn’t in San Diego. The retiree splits her time between Kansas and the West Coast, where she pursues one of her passions, rescuing and fostering cats through the Southern California Siamese Rescue.
“That’s my California passion, but preserving these buildings … that’s my Kansas passion,” she said. “I feel like I have a sense of belonging that this is the right thing for me to be doing.”
Project expenses have so far been covered through donations, but even more money is needed. Parmenter said she would like to be able to have the first phase completed to draw visitors to the center, which could encourage more donations to further the project.
To raise money for the endeavor, the Denmark Preservation Foundation is hosting an invitation-only dinner on Feb. 5. A $100 donation treats guests to an authentic Danish meal at the Spillman Creek Lodge. A project-related presentation is planned for a later date at the Lincoln County Historical Museum, and another event is also scheduled in conjunction with a pioneer memorial dedication in August in Denmark.
Parmenter said she does not have a time frame to complete the project’s first phase, adding it will all depend on the number and amount of the donations she receives.
More information can be found on the foundation’s Facebook Page, Denmark Preservation Foundation. A website is currently under construction as well. The foundation’s email address is [email protected].