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Owner of Nielsen’s Building Materials, Ken Andersen is the winner of the Santa Ynez Valley 2015 Man of the Year award.

Ken Andersen’s life is steeped in Solvang tradition.

Donning Danish garb, he performed traditional folk dances for the Queen of Denmark as a child during the city’s Danish Days festival in the 1970s. He remembers running to his living room window on crisp December mornings to see Santa Claus being towed through the neighborhood in a handmade wooden sleigh. The sound of farm animals clomping about and crowds of people cheering when he won his first 4-H competition at age 16 still rings in his ears.

Now Andersen, too old to take part in those traditions, is giving back.

Instead of wearing his Danish Days costume, he passes it down to his children. Rather than rushing to his front room window to see Santa, he’s the guy towing him through the Valley in the days leading up to Christmas. And while the cheering crowds at the county fair are still vivid in Andersen’s mind, he’s now the one rooting on Valley kids at 4-H competitions.

“It’s little stuff. It’s traditions you’ve grown up with, and it’s kind of awesome that you can take that over and be part of it again,” Andersen said.  

A fourth generation Valley resident, Andersen’s family purchased property in Buellton in 1910 before a commission of Danes founded Solvang. About 30 years later, Andersen’s grandfather, C.V. Nielsen, founded Nielsen’s Building Materials, which remains family-owned and operated.

Despite moving away to San Jose after graduating from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the Valley kept calling Andersen back, he said. Two years of working for an underground pipeline company was all Andersen could stand before his father gave him a call asking him if he was ready to move home.

“It’s amazing. I was living in downtown San Jose with a million people, and at times I didn’t know anybody, then you come here to a Valley of 25,000 people and you know everyone. It was time to move on,” Andersen said.

Since coming back, Andersen has become a fixture at holiday parades, Fourth of July events and the annual Danish Days Festival, a celebration of Danish heritage beginning in 1936 that became one of Solvang’s first tourist draws in the 1950s.

Floats he helps craft bearing oversized replicas of Solvang’s iconic windmills, aebleskiver and even a red clog that doubled as a slide for kids, coast down Mission Drive annually during the Danish Days festival.

“I was born into it,” Andersen said.

Founders of the Danish Family Folk Dancers, Andersen’s parents raised him with traditional Danish folk dances. At five years old, he would march throughout the Village Center while performing gymnastics for tourists.

The traditions have not been lost on his children.

His daughter Emma was named Danish Maid in 2013, a position akin to being a pageant queen carrying on the legacy of a Danish heritage. She wore a dress embroidered with lace crocheted by her great-great grandmother.

“It’s a lot of work to do these festivals, but it’s important for the bonding of the community and traditions to keep things going,” Andersen said. “Even handing down the outfits, it keeps you all connected.”

Harold Pierce covers the Santa Ynez Valley as a reporter for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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