When James and Courtney Swanson planned their wedding, there was an undeniable inspiration: “Our ultimate goal was to showcase our personalities and make every guest feel like they were part of our love story. We wanted our wedding to feel like the best dinner party we’ve ever thrown. We love entertaining and wanted our day to feel warm, whimsical, and colorful.” From the planning details through the ceremony and reception, the couple integrated tailored, thoughtful, and refreshing twists on their day.
Courtney grew up near Lanesboro, while James was a city boy from Rochester. In September 2009, at the start of their sophomore year at Luther College, the two were introduced by mutual friends at dinner. “James was the only guy in a group of seven or so girls,” remembers Courtney. “He was such a nice guy. He is the kindest and most patient person I have ever met. He always puts the needs of others above his own.”
Equally impressed by Courtney, James found her funny and easy to talk to. “The conversation was easy. Sometimes it’s not always that way, but with her it was comfortable,” he says. “If I’m being honest, I was also a little intimidated. She had a great sense of who she was; was really confident,” he adds. “She is incredibly thoughtful and generous to those around her and the most creative person I’ve ever met.”
Two years later, at the end of their junior year, James mustered the courage to tell Courtney how he felt. Planning to study abroad in England for the summer, he couldn’t leave without telling her. During lunch together, James looked at Courtney and confessed his crush. With time whittling down before his departure, Courtney said, “We’re going on a date,” which they did the following week.
“We’d been friends for several years, so when we finally got the courage to go on an actual date we were both a bit nervous about how to act around each other. That subsided pretty quickly and we had a ton of fun,” recalls James. The two got a drink at the Redwood Room in downtown Rochester, walked around Silver Lake, and had dinner at Prescott’s. “The best part of the night was definitely dessert,” says Courtney, laughing. “James was taking a bite of his whipped cream-laden dessert just as I was telling a joke and he laughed so hard that he spit his dessert out all over me.” Luckily the charming pair is equally forgiving and humorous.
For Courtney, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment she knew he was her other half. “Just a few weeks after we started dating, James went to study in England. He sent me a package with several smaller packages inside it to open, one for each week he was away. All of the packages pertained to things he liked about me, like my taste in music or my love of gardening, and I think I was just blown away that he put so much time and effort into something like that! His thoughtfulness and romantic nature has continued to impress me, even seven years later,” she says.
James, too, can’t recall an exact moment, but he does remember dreaming of Courtney walking down an aisle in a white dress even before the two officially began dating.
The proposal reflects the thoughtfulness and simplicity of the couple. The Rochester Farmers’ Market is one of their favorite places and the two planned a bike ride to the market. Stopping at a bench to relax and grab a drink of water, Courtney was surprised to find James down on one knee. “It was a complete surprise and he had sneakily set up a camera to capture the whole thing on video. It was simple and perfect; just the two of us and some geese,” she laughs. “I knew we were going to get married one day, but for some reason I didn’t expect us to get engaged at that point in our story.”
Thinking about how they wanted their guests to enjoy the day, the two took to finding the wedding and reception site even before they set a date. Searching a bit online, they quickly narrowed down the type of site they wanted and made plans to visit two. “We knew we wanted to be close to nature and have a really cozy, intimate event,” says Courtney. “The second place we visited, Coop’s Event Barn, in Dodge Center, is a beautiful farm with a historic barn on the property. We fell in love with the venue as soon as we saw it and chose their only available date for the upcoming year, October 21. It worked out perfectly because we wanted a fall wedding. The owners were really accommodating, wanting us to make it our home for the weekend. We actually still stay in touch with the owners,” she adds.
With the site in place, the couple moved onto the other details. “We worked really hard to make all of the details unique to us,” they add. One nod to tradition with a fun, modern variation was including blank recipe cards on the back of the invitation RSVP where guests were directed to include a favorite family recipe. The couple scanned each card and compiled them into a collected cookbook that was part of the wedding program. “It featured over 80 family recipes and we added recipes from our late grandmothers as a way to honor them,” says Courtney.
The love of food was carried through the décor as well. “I had a big, bold bouquet of colorful flowers that incorporated real artichokes. We had artichokes, pomegranates, and olive branches decorating on the tables in addition to beautiful flowers and candles,” she adds. Other imaginative decorations included vintage silver platters decorated with letter magnets as a welcome sign, Spring Grove Soda Pop in an old bathtub filled with ice and topped with rubber duckies, and a gourmet cotton candy vendor to serve champagne-flavored cotton candy. The aged, wood barn was adorned with overhead strings of lights, long family tables, hundreds of candles, and colorful flowers.
“It rained very hard on our wedding day, which initially broke our hearts because we wanted to get married outside, but my fabulous father-in-law organized a tent for us to get married in and it ended up being so cozy. We even put vintage crocheted blankets on the seats for folks to snuggle up with,” she adds.
Breaking from tradition, the couple did a more modern “first look,” to see each other before the ceremony. “Courtney is always stunning to me, but I was shocked by how incredible she looked in her white dress. I had no idea what the dress would look like. The moment was surreal and one that I won’t ever forget; just being frozen in time and feeling so lucky,” says James.
Courtney knew immediately when she found the dress. “I tried it on and immediately started dancing in it,” she remembers. “I felt like myself in it, whereas other dresses I tried on just felt like I was playing dress up.” The dress, with a high neckline and lace back and skirt embellishments, was made in New Zealand using satin fabric that had been sandblasted to make it soft and flowy. “It was like dancing in a parachute!” she exclaims.
In another deeply personal moment, Courtney, the oldest of five, was escorted down the aisle by her two younger sisters, Maddy and Trina. “I’m close with my siblings and I kept thinking of my little sisters. They’re some of my favorite people and I felt it was pretty appropriate to have them there.”
Attended by a large bridal party, with 12 attendants each, James and Courtney were flanked by friends and family. Wanting her attendants to feel comfortable in their own style and showcasing their individuality, each of the bridesmaids’ gowns were chosen specifically for the person in either a floral print or jewel tones such as navy, emerald, or mauve. “It was a highlight for me seeing all 12 dresses together for the first time,” she says. The men all donned three-piece navy suits with a wide color palate of socks patterns for a bit of whimsical fun.
The officiant, Reverend Dave Lieder, is a Swanson family friend who mentored James from a young age. “It was very special to have someone who knew us personally marry us,” says James. Two friends performed the acoustic music for the ceremony, complete with harmonica.
In an Irish tradition, the couple also included a “warming of the rings” ceremony. In it, each guest files through during the ceremony to place their hands on the wedding rings and give the bride and groom a blessing before the vows. “It was a great way to include all of our guests in the actual marriage ceremony and let us look every single person in the eye before we officially tied the knot,” says Courtney. With more than 190 in attendance, surely this could take some time. While one of their initial concerns, people came up largely as families and it seemed to go rather quickly, according to the pair. “It is modeled after communion in church. Everyone commented that it felt special.”
The reception was held in the same space and the meal, too, showed guests a glimpse into the pair’s courtship – an Italian peasant meal eaten communally on wooden planks. “James had the meal while studying abroad and it was the first thing he ever cooked for me,” notes Courtney. Alongside the meal, a traditional Norwegian kransekake was served, as well as cupcakes.
“Our first dance was to the song “Fool for Love” by Lord Huron. We love the band and even though it’s not a traditional slow song, we had fun twirling around to it, and had our friends join us halfway through,” notes Courtney. These same friends, whom the couple sought to give a celebration for the ages, had secretly planned their own surprise for newly wedded Mr. and Mrs. Swanson.
“Our friends organized the most epic surprise flash mob!” laughs Courtney. Well before the wedding, their friends, Seth and Nicole, put together a YouTube video of a choreographed dance and sent it to our friends and family, who helped distribute it to most of the wedding guests. “As we finished our first dance, our guests stormed the dance floor and we were forced into folding chairs as everyone started busting a move,” recalls Courtney. “We had no idea what was going on and probably looked like a deer in headlights, but that quickly changed when we realized what was going on. It was the most fun thing we’ve ever experienced, and knowing everyone took the time to prepare that surprise for us made us feel so loved.”
Following the wedding, the couple honeymooned in Ireland and Iceland. “We love to travel and knew we wanted to go abroad, and neither of us had been to Ireland before. The landscape and culture there is amazing, and the people are so friendly,” says Courtney. “Iceland was a fun adventure on our flight home. We took a dip in the Blue Lagoon, hiked in some spectacular landscapes, and indulged in a local Icelandic feast.”
Looking back, the coordination of schedules and logistical tasks was a big challenge for the couple. “I understand why people hire wedding planners. Luckily we had wonderful friends, family, and vendors who let us boss them around and together we pulled it off. There weren’t many disagreements about the feel of the day, mostly just a lot of brainstorming for tackling logistical issues,” they say.
“I kept joking that I felt like the project manager,” adds Courtney, who serves as a Business and Community Development Specialist for Community and Economic Development Associates (CEDA) in the day to day. “There are so many unique details that we worked hard to pull off, but ultimately I think we accomplished our goal of making everyone feel like they were an important part of our love story. One couple told us that they had been married for 30 years and felt like they renewed their vows with us, which was such a great compliment to get.”
“Don’t be afraid to do things a little differently than you may have seen at other weddings,” they suggest to others preparing to tie the knot. “Our wedding felt like a big creative project and we wanted to take advantage of the moment having all of our loved ones with us—even if we had to use our problem solving skills more than a few times. Hire talented vendors and let them be creative, and make sure to delegate tasks to friends and family so that you aren’t bombarded with questions on your day. “
“Above all, don’t let planning a wedding get in the way of planning a marriage,” they stress. “We learned a lot about each other and our families in the process and ultimately the day felt like the perfect representation of us.”
A video of highlights from the Swanson wedding can be found at https://vimeo.com/245385081.