August 19, 2022
The story of the largest Dala horses in the world: from Sweden to America. Scandinavian wooden horses: from toys for Viking children to Swedish national cultural symbols.
The Dala horse, also known as Dalecarlian or Swedish folk art painted horse, was born several hundred years ago as an amusement and toy for Viking children. Loggers worked hard for long periods in the forest and at the end of a hard working day, they carved wooden horses by the log fire. The wooden horses were first intended to be presents for the loggers’s children who waited for their fathers to come back home after long periods of absence.
Another legend says that Viking soldiers in the Dalarna region carved Dala horses as gifts for their hosts that would offer shelter during harsh winters. Viking soldiers painted the horse statues in bright colors and decorated them with a saddle and bridle in other contrasting colors such as yellow, blue, green, and white.
It is believed that the oldest preserved wooden horse dates back to the 16th century.
Horses were valuable friends and companions of Viking families. They worked alongside families in the fields, carrying heavy stuff, took families to various places like the church, or surrounding towns or villages.
Economic problems hit Sweden in the mid-19th century and many struggling households began making wooden horses at home to supplement their income. They painted the horses in vivid colors and traditional patterns, inspired by paintings on furniture in the Swedish countryside.
The Dala horse became really famous when it was presented outside the Swedish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The height of the horse statue was 2.8 meters. The Fair is considered as the place where the Dala horse was introduced to America and it marks the start of a new era for the Dala horse. From a children’s toy, it became a national symbol and popular souvenir. Similar Dala horses were later presented in Minnesota and Michigan– both states having considerable Scandinavian-American populations.
Today, Dala horses are still carved and painted by hand by artists in their homes.
Today, the world’s largest Dala horse is located in Avesta, Sweden. The famous horse was unveiled on December 13, 1989 and is situated at the entrance to the Dalarna region, where highroads 70 and 68 intersect, in Avesta. It is about 90 minutes drive from the city of Stockholm. The statue is made of concrete and measures 13 meters high and 13 meters long. The weight is 67 tons.
The Dala horse statue is painted in red and has a detailed bridle, harness and saddle in colors yellow, white, blue, and green. Every year, a lot of tourists from abroad and Sweden travel to Avesta to see the famous Dala horse.
The famous Dala horse statue belongs today to the local municipality, who took over the ownership in 2019.
One of the most beautiful and biggest Dala horse statues is called Fågelsjöhäst (Bird Lake Horse) and it originates from a legendary Swedish farm called Fågelsjö Gammelgård. It is one of the famous Hälsingland farms that was recorded within the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2012.
Fågelsjö Gammelgård is a well-preserved traditional Swedish farm with roots dating back to the Finnish settlement in the 17th century. Until about 1840, the village was part of the township of Mora and it is recorded in church records as "Mora Finnish lands".
The farm belonged to the same Finnish family for several generations, the main farmhouse being built in 1818. In 1895 Kristina, the daughter and only child of Jonas Olsson, took over ownership of the farm.
Kristina married Mårten Persson, who owned a general store in the village of Fågelsjö. Mårten did not want to be a traditional farmer and wanted to plunge into the new ways of life and business, emerging during those times. He studied bookkeeping in Stockholm and then returned to Fågelsjö and became a shopkeeper. He was the first in his family and the village to walk away from the traditional ways of life. It was a new era, full of changes - the forests have become even more valuable as people started to realise that there were other means of earning money besides farming. Mårten took on these new ways of doing business and became a prominent figure in his village.
Mårten and Kristina lived in Gammelgården until 1910. They then moved to a new house which had new furniture and utensils and they left the old ones in the old farm house in Gammelgården. They wanted to keep the old farm as it was in the old days, for future generations to see and remember how and where it all began. The couple did not have any children, so they left the farm to the Loos Municipality, as it was called then. Today it is called Ljusdal Municipality and it is still the owner of the beautiful Fågelsjö Gammelgård.
The beautiful Dala horse Fågelsjöhäst, which is located on the old farm, reflects this rich history and traditions.
2. Nils Olsson Dalahästar booklet, Nunäs Sweden
3. Fågelsjö Gammelgård Bortom Åa, https://www.fagelsjo.nu/
4. Shya Beth, https://artofthehorse.net/2015/12/26/the-dala-horse-of-sweden/
5. Andrea Immel, https://blogs.princeton.edu/cotsen/tag/new-york-worlds-fair-1939/