One Family’s Commitment to Vesterheim’s Bold Future

For BJ Nichols, the connection to Norway runs deep. Most of his great-great grandparents came from Norway, specifically the areas of Toten, Gjøvik, and Oppland, and those familial branches found fertile soil to take root in the Decorah, Iowa, area. Like many early immigrant families from Norway, his ancestors became farmers, proud to call the Decorah area their new “western home.” BJ’s great-great grandfather Halvor Baardson and his son Hans Halvorson helped build the Rovang Parochial School that is now part of Vesterheim’s collection and on display in Vesterheim Heritage Park. A set of cross-country skis is on display in the schoolhouse to this day. The skis were made by Halvor so that the schoolteacher could get back and forth to school in the winter. 

BJ, a member of Vesterheim’s board of trustees who now lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife Laura and three children, recalls with fondness how so many of his family’s treasured Norwegian traditions are kept alive within their extended family. In large part, those traditions connect to food and togetherness. As a family that loves to prepare traditional recipes like lefse, kringle, and krumkake, they value the experience of making these recipes together and the joy of eating them together at special family gatherings like Christmas. Now, these same recipes are being shared and savored by the next generation, preserving not only the recipes, but also the stories and experiences. 

When reflecting on why Vesterheim means so much to his family, BJ can’t help but think of his grandparents, Virgil and Margaret Stortz, and how happy and proud they would be that these family traditions that came to America with their ancestors are not only appreciated but are continuing with each generation. 

The Nichols and Stortz families bring their heritage to life in many wonderful community ways too, like being a part of Nordic Fest, the annual celebration held in Decorah during the last full weekend in July. The Nordic Fest parade starts at the east end of Decorah. Growing up, BJ’s family lived in a house near the queue of this highly anticipated parade, and BJ and his brother Benji have fond memories of being outside with their Norwegian flags ready to wave as the parade passed by their home. Their mother worked at the church smorgasbord, and their father drove parade entries. During his school years, BJ participated as a Nordic Dancer and can still recall those traditional dance steps. As adults, both BJ and Benji served on the Nordic Fest board. It has been a family commitment, but also a joy to serve their community. 

BJ and members of his extended family decided to come together to support Strong Roots | Bold Future, the Campaign to Grow Vesterheim that is currently underway at the museum and includes two major components: Vesterheim Heritage Park and Vesterheim Commons. In recognition of their generous family gift to the campaign and in tribute to their forebears, the stone staircase in Vesterheim Heritage Park that leads to the amphitheater will become the Halvorson Stortz Family Staircase. 

When asked about the significance of honoring his family’s history in this way, BJ shared, “The magic of this campaign is that, through this stunning Vesterheim Commons building designed by Snøhetta, these experiences rooted in Norwegian-American culture can be offered now across the country and beyond, as well as enhancing Vesterheim’s ability to bring those traditions to life right here in Decorah, as it will be a place to bring people together. It made it easy to extend an invitation to my extended family to be a part of ensuring that Vesterheim’s legacy would continue for future generations.” 

Vesterheim is grateful to the Nichols and Stortz families for their belief in the museum’s mission and commitment to the museum’s bold future. 

If you would like to learn more about how you can support Vesterheim, contact Vesterheim Vice President of Donor Relations Diane Wagner at, or 563-382-9681, ext. 103.