Welcome to America

July 3, 2014

Scott and I spent Independence Day at Genesee Country Village and Museum in New York last year. Having celebrated the 4th of July in 1876 style at Old World Wisconsin for 12 seasons, I was eager to see how another large historic site interpreted the holiday.

The first special event of the day, however was not an historic reenactment or period activity. It was a citizenship ceremony that took place in front of the town hall in the Village square.

Town Hall Genesee Country Village

The presiding judge told of his father and grandfather, who had immigrated from Italy. He spoke eloquently of visiting Ellis Island. He assured the newcomers that this was a country where they could keep cherished cultural traditions from their homeland while embracing their new status as American citizens. He reminded them that as citizens, they have a responsibility to help govern; to be involved.

Genesee Country Village

Thirty-two people recited their oath of allegiance. They represented twenty-three countries:  China and Somalia, Australia and Russia, Sri Lanka and Honduras, and many more.

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Then each came forward to receive their certificate of citizenship. Some wore something traditional from their homeland. Many clutched American flags.

Genesee Country Village

I had a lump in my throat. I could think of no better way to begin celebrating the Fourth of July. And I could think of no better place to hold a naturalization ceremony than at an historic site like Genesee Country Village.

Many of the participants stayed at the site for the day. They were in the crowds as interpreters reenacted celebrations from 1836 and 1876.

Genesee Country Village

Reading the Declaration of Independence.

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And patriotic music.

And the site had lots of opportunities for guests of all ages to simply have fun. Period activities included sack races and a pie-eating contest.

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A rather chaotic egg toss.  A good time was had by all.

But the ceremony lingered in my mind. Modern immigration is part of the continuing story. The juxtaposition of period reenactments and modern ceremony reminded everyone, I think, of some of the principles that formed our nation, and continue to do so.

Genesee Country Village

Interpreters at the 1830s festivities…

Genesee Country Village

And Civil War Veterans at the 1876 celebration.

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A 94-year-old visitor/veteran of World War II—such a wonderful storyteller that he became an impromptu interpreter himself.

Historic sites are, of course, by definition largely about the past. And my personal philosophy of interpreting historic places is generally narrow. I’m usually not a fan of interjecting anything contemporary into an historic setting.

But historic sites also exist to help us all understand how we got to be here, now. Watching these modern immigrants, I thought of my own paternal grandparents, taking similar vows almost a century ago after they left Switzerland. I thought about how hard people have struggled for over more than two centuries to create and maintain a democracy. I was reminded that for all its heartbreaking flaws, the United States of American is still a beacon for, to paraphrase poet Emma Lazarus, the tired, poor, and huddled masses on distant shores, yearning to breathe free.

That’s interpretation at its best.

Genesee Country Village

A New Look—and a New Book!—for Caroline

June 17, 2014

As some readers know, American Girl is giving the Caroline books, and books about their other historical characters, a new look.  Here’s the scoop.

A company spokesperson explains the update:  “Our new BeForever books feature our beloved historical characters in a new format designed to appeal to girls who like high adventure and contemporary fiction.”

The first six Caroline books will be repackaged as two longer volumes. Meet Caroline,  Caroline’s Secret Message, and A Surprise For Caroline will be presented  as Captain of the Ship:  A Caroline Classic.

CarolineCaptainOfShipCover

And Caroline Takes a Chance, Caroline’s Battle, and Changes for Caroline will be presented as Facing the Enemy:  A Caroline Classic.

CarolineFacingEnemyCover

Those titles will be released on August 28.

On the same day, American Girl will release my brand new Caroline book!

Have you ever wished you could travel back in time and meet Caroline? A modern girl gets to do just that in Catch The Wind:  My Journey With Caroline.

Catch The Wind

What if you suddenly found yourself in Caroline’s world, right in the middle of the War of 1812? How would it feel to know your home is under attack—and how would you stay strong during such a scary time?

Join Caroline on adventures where the two of you could find ways to help the Americans win, confront a possible spy, or even plunge headfirst into ice-cold Lake Ontario! Your journey back in time can take whatever twists and turns you choose, as you select from a variety of exciting options in this multiple-ending story.

I’ll have lots more to share about Catch The Wind as the publication date draws closer. And as always, you can find information, photos, and behind-the-scenes news about the books on the American Girl page of my website. Happy reading!

 

About Those Trailers…

June 12, 2014

Readers sometimes wonder if I exaggerated the artifact storage conditions when I wrote Old World Murder. Well, here is one of the trailers Chloe discovers when she begins her job. (When collections care was tacked onto my job as curator of interpretation at Old World Wisconsin in the 1980s, this is what I inherited.)

Trailers II

In a former, happier life, the trailer had served as Wisconsin’s Historymobile, as celebrated in this recent image from a Wisconsin Historical Society newsletter.

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The Historymobile was retired as Old World Wisconsin was being developed, and it was repurposed at the site for collections storage. It wasn’t adequate, but with no proper facility, it had to do.

Trailers III

However, soon after I left the site, the situation improved. For the first time, a full-time collections curator was hired for Old World. And the modern storage facility that Chloe (and Ralph Petty) dream of in the book became a reality. (Photos courtesy Old World Wisconsin.)

Coll Bldg II

Coll Storage

While I confess to missing the good old days at times, it’s nice to remember the things that have improved! For a long time now, Old World Wisconsin has had a dedicated Curator of Collections and proper storage for the site’s huge collection of artifacts. Even Ralph Petty would approve.

Old World Wisconsin in Chloe’s Day

May 19, 2014

I’m sometimes asked why the Chloe Ellefson mysteries are set in the 1980s. The main reason is that my own museum career started in 1982. I write from my memories of Old World Wisconsin, and the historic sites biz. (I also think it’s nice to give modern visitors some space between the site they visit now and murder and mayhem, even if fictional.)

I sometimes forget how much Old World Wisconsin has changed in the past few decades, so I thought it would be fun to share some photos of the site in the early years.

The  site opened in 1976, with far fewer buildings than guests see today. A reader shared this photo from 1980.

Old World Wisconsin, 1980

I believe the crew was reconstructing the Hilgendorf Barn at the Koepsell Farm, in the German Area. Below, that’s me and Otto Hilgendorf, who donated the building, in 1982.

KAE and Otto Hilgendorf

This 1983 photo shows the stable in the background, part of a functional farmyard.

KAE Koepsell garden 1983

I took this photo of the Schottler House 1981, when I visited the site for the first time. No gardens, no summer kitchen.

Schottler, 1981

The crossroads village looked pretty spartan then too. Here’s the Four Mile Inn, restored but not yet open.

Four Mile Inn, 1982

The Hafford House looked quite isolated.

Hafford House, 1982

As the years went by at the site, gardens were planted, outbuildings moved and restored, fences added, old-breed livestock introduced. Visitors today enjoy the tangible results of decades of research and work.  If you haven’t had a chance to visit for a while, you’ll be amazed.

By the way, if you have any photos of Old World Wisconsin from the early years, I’d love to see them!

Special Events for American Girl Fans

April 28, 2014

I’ve got some great events scheduled for American Girl fans in June, and I’d love to see you!

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June 6, American Girl Place, New York City

I’ll be meeting readers and signing books from 11 AM – 1 PM.

 

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June 7-8,  Sackets Harbor Battlefield Historic Site, Sackets Harbor, New York
I’ll be participating in a Lawn Party on June 7th, and leading a workshop for young writers on June 8. Come see Caroline’s home town!

Pre-registration is required. To register for either of these events: 315-646-3634; Constance.Barone@parks.ny.gov

Kathleen Ernst Sackets Harbor

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June 14, Fort McHenry National Monument, Baltimore, Maryland 
I’ll be participating in a special program, and signing books, from 10 AM – 12 PM. There will be other festivities as well. Come celebrate Flag Day at the site that inspired our national anthem!

Tickets are required. Visit the Friends of Fort McHenry site for more information.

Fort McHenry NPS

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June 15, Riversdale House Museum, Riverdale Park, Maryland
I’ll be joining readers for a party at 1:30. Riversdale, a National Historic Landmark, was built between 1801-1807, and guided tours are available. I’m excited about visiting a beautiful home that was standing during Caroline’s time!

Registration by June 2 is required for the tea party. Call 301-864-0420.

 

RiversdaleHouseMuseum

I’ll be visiting a handful of other American Girl stores this summer, so watch my calendar page for more information.  I hope to see you soon!

 

 

Chip Carving

April 22, 2014

I knew Roelke McKenna needed to accompany Chloe and Mom to Decorah in Heritage of Darkness. Signing him up for a woodworking class wasn’t hard, either; I’d already established in an earlier book that he enjoying carving. The question was:  what style of carving should he pursue?

Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum’s collection includes exquisite pieces of different styles. The museum’s workshop schedule offers lots of diversity as well.

Vesterheim Gallery

Acanthus carving, featuring ornate and flowing leaf designs, is perhaps the most popular style. Acanthus carving dates back centuries. The style of relief carving started in Greece and spread to other area.  

Vesterheim Gallery

Chip carving takes a different approach. Small, precise cuts produce elaborate geometric designs. (They remind me of quilt patterns.)

Vesterheim Gallery

 

Vesterheim Gallery

Some wood carvers produce figures…

Vesterheim Gallery

…or spoons.

Vesterheim Gallery

Which style was right for Roelke? He’s really not a free-flowing kind of guy. He does appreciate precision and order. I decided that chip carving best suited his personality.

I turned to Vesterheim’s chip carving instructor, Ellen Macdonald, for help.

Ellen Mcdonald

She helped me understand the basics of chip carving. We also talked about what Roelke would have experienced in a week-long class.

Ellen Mcdonald chip carving

One of the things many carvers like about this style is that is requires only simple tools, and is very portable.

Ellen Mcdonald chip carving

Ellen’s work is gorgeous. It was easy to imagine Roelke aspiring to such craftsmanship.

Ellen Mcdonald chip carving

Roelke ran a finger over his work. Geometry…maybe that was it. His cousin Libby had called him “rigid” more than once. He preferred “meticulous.” Either way, the precision of chip carving appealed to him.

 …He wanted to learn how to design and carve rosettes. He wanted to design and carve rosettes with, as his classmate Lavinia had observed earlier, stunning energy and symmetry.  And maybe, if Chloe played her cards right, he’d carve something special just for her.

Ellen Mcdonald's candleplate

Vesterheim is open year-round, so you can visit anytime and tour the exhibits.  Click HERE if you’d like more information about the museum’s folk-art classes.

Pioneer Woman

March 29, 2014

What image does the phrase “pioneer woman,” evoke for you?

That was the question posed in 1926 by E. W. Marland, a wealthy oil guy in Oklahoma, when he hired seventeen prominent sculptors to create three-foot statues depicting a quintessential Pioneer Woman settling the American West. From those, a winning design would be chosen and a large-scale statue commissioned.

The only two women artists on Marland’s list declined the invitation, and three of the male artists did as well. Marland suggested to the twelve sculptors who did participate that each woman wear a sunbonnet, and that the statue include a child.

Once the artists completed their work, Marland  arranged for a twelve-city tour of the models. Citizens viewed the choices and voted for their favorite.

Here are the twelve. Bearing in mind that all were created by white men in the 1920s… which would you have voted for?

Adventurous

Adventurous, by F. Lynn Jenkins

Faithful

Faithful, by Arthur Lee

Heroic

Heroic, by Mario Korbel

Self Reliant

Self Reliant, by Alexander Stirling Calder

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Self Reliant detail

Determined

Determined, by Maurice Sterne

Pioneer woman

Confident, by Bryant Baker

Confident - detail

Confident – detail

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Trusting, by Jo Davidson

Challenging

Challenging, by Herman A. MacNeil

Challenging - detail

Challenging – detail

Affectionate

Affectionate, by James E. Fraser

Protective Pioneer Woman

Protective, by John Gregory

Protective - detail

Protective – detail

Sturdy

Sturdy, by Mahonri Young

Fearless

Fearless, by Wheeler Williams

Marland made clear that he had the right to choose the ultimate winner, and his favorite was evidently Trusting. (It’s not clear to me if the names/attributes were given to the sculptors from the beginning, or applied after the models were complete.) However, the voting public chose Confident by a wide margin. Marland graciously bowed to popular sentiment.
In 1930, Baker’s 27-foot bronze statue was unveiled in Ponca City, Oklahoma.  It was dedicated to all pioneer women of the United States: “In appreciation of the heroic character of the women who braved the dangers and endured the hardships incident to daily life of the pioneer and homesteader in this country.”
Forty thousand people came to the tribute to Oklahoma’s pioneers, which included a speech by Will Rogers.
Pioneer statue unveiling
Today the statue still stands to remind all passersby of the role Euro-Yankee women played in Western history.
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Pioneer Woman
I think the voting public chose well.
The statue can be seen at the Pioneer Woman Museum in Ponca City, Oklahoma.  Copies of the original models, shown in the photos above, are on display at the nearby Marland Mansion and Estate.

Seneca Falls

March 18, 2014

The Seneca Falls Convention—the first open women’s rights convention in the US—was held July 19-20, 1848. Organizers wanted to discuss “the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women.” The meeting launched the women’s right movement.

Seneca Falls

The National Park Service is restoring and interpreting key structures in Seneca Falls, New York. The Women’s Rights National Historical Park tells the story “of struggles for civil rights, human rights, and equality, global struggles that continue today. The efforts of women’s rights leaders, abolitionists, and other 19th century reformers remind us that all people must be accepted as equals.”

Scott and I had the chance to visit last summer. At the Visitor Center, we were greeted by “The First Wave,” statuary depicting convention planners and early leaders.

Seneca Falls

The leaders who spoke publicly were courageous. Earlier semi-secret gatherings in other locales triggered outcry, including threat of a fire-bombing.

Seneca Falls

Sojourner Truth, who gave her famous speech in 1851.

We also took time to explore museum exhibits. The artifacts serve as reminders that the struggle for equal rights was contentious…and continues to this day.

Seneca Falls

Seneca Falls

Seneca Falls

Seneca Falls

I was most excited about a ranger-led tour to the Wesleyan Chapel, site of the convention. Built in 1843, it was a congregating spot for  human rights activists. Many were Quakers.

Seneca Falls, Wesleyan Chapel

Only the reddish bricks are original.

In 1871, the Methodist congregation sold the building. Over the years it was used by a variety of businesses, including a skating rink, a furniture store, a laundromat, and an auto dealership (complete with grease pits).

When the park service acquired the site in 1985, almost nothing was left of the original structure.  Architects have stabilized and protected what does remain.

Seneca Falls

The walls were originally plastered. A remnant is preserved under plexiglass. The pockets in the bricks once held supports for a balcony.

Seneca Falls

These original beams show the scars of several fires.

Seneca Falls

These pews date only to 1870, but it’s possible that some of the convention goers who attended this church sat in them. The original wood floor disappeared during the car dealership era.

Although there is little left to physically link visitors to those brave souls who dared openly advocate for women’s rights, I found it powerful just to be in the space, where the reverberations of those hot days in 1848 still echo.

Seneca Falls

Brick Bake Ovens

March 12, 2014

After I posted instructions for making sourdough bread starter from scratch—just as Caroline Abbott might have done—several readers asked about the type of oven Caroline would have used.  She and Grandmother used a brick bake oven.

Women used these bake ovens for centuries.  While visiting historic sites that interpret the period, I talked with several interpreters about foodways during Caroline’s era.

Old fort Niagara Kitchen

This interpreter was cooking in a kitchen at Old Fort Niagara.

For anyone using a brick bake oven, building a fire inside the oven was the day’s first chore. It took hours to heat the bricks.

Old Fort Niagara Kitchen

Can you see the small oven door in the back of the fireplace?

The arrangement at Old Fort Niagara (shown above) made the best use of the fire itself. When the oven was hot enough, coals were raked into the hearth and could be used for other cooking.

Old Fort Niagara bread

These round loaves were probably baked directly on the bricks.

The interpreter at Fort George National Historic Site, in Ontario, had a slightly different arrangement (below). Her oven is off to the side, which meant she didn’t have to lean over the fire to tend the oven.

Fort George

The oven door is the dark shape on the right side of the photo. This was much safer, and more comfortable, than having the door behind the main cooking fire.

Fort George

Using a bake oven was a big job, so smaller things—like these small cakes (cookies)—could be baked on a griddle hanging over the fire.

I learned to use brick bake ovens in my own interpreter days at Old World Wisconsin. In the photo below, the oven door is open. When the oven was hot enough, I’d use a hoe-type tool to rake  the coals and ashes into a chamber below.  (In the photo, that opening is covered with the board below the oven door.)  Later I’d open the little floor-level door  below the oven and shovel the cold ashes out.

Old World Wisconsin Schottler

Old World Wisconsin Schottler Kathleen Ernst

That’s me, explaining the process to visitors.

I used the long-handled paddle leaning against the wall to the left of the oven to place the bread dough into the oven, and remove the finished loaves. The length of the pole gives you an idea of how big the oven is!

Experienced bakers knew how to get the most out of a hot oven. When the bread came out, smaller items such as coffeecakes went in.  When they were done, there just might be enough heat left to bake a pan or two of cookies.

This kitchen is at a farm restored to 1875, which has a modern cookstove. So why would someone still use a bake oven? Perhaps she needed a dozen loaves to feed a hungry farm crew, as we did the day this picture was taken.

Michael Douglass Schottler summerkitchen

All from a single baking.

It took some practice to get the hang of using a brick bake oven. But one taste of hot, crusty bread spread with homemade butter made it all worthwhile.

Baking Bread With Caroline

March 9, 2014

When I was a kid, I read about a girl in colonial times whose family had kept a crock of sourdough going from generation to generation. I’ve been fascinated with the idea of making bread with sourdough starter ever since.

Our great-great-grandmothers used sourdough starter to make bread rise in the days before commercial quick-rise yeasts were available. The starter nurtures naturally-occurring yeasts and bacteria.  This is the type of bread mentioned in Meet Caroline.

Meet Caroline:  An American GirlWant to give it a try? It’s a fun inter-generational project. Working with sourdough requires patience and practice, but the basic process is quite simple.

There are probably as many recipes for bread baked from homemade sourdough starter as there are bakers.  I’m sharing the process that has, after a fair amount of experimentation, worked for me.

Baking without commercial yeast means that the process takes a while. I make starter on a Saturday, tend it for a week, and bake the following weekend.

All you need to begin is flour and water.  Use a good-quality whole-grain flour. Flour which has been heavily processed might contain traces of chemicals that could kill the rise. For your first batch I suggest using distilled water for the same reason.  Once you’ve had success, you can try using tap water or other types of flour.

bread 1

 Day 1:
Stir 2 c. flour and 2 c. water together.

sourdough 1

I use my grandma’s mixing bowl.

Cover with a towel and let rest at in a warm spot—about 70 degrees is ideal. If it’s colder, the microorganisms will grow more slowly.

sourdough 2

My starter lives on the kitchen counter.

Days 2-5:
Stir 1/4 c. of flour and 1/4 c. water into the starter. Cover with a towel.

After a day or so you should see bubbles forming.  The starter will develop a pleasantly sour smell.  It should not change color; if it turns black or takes on a pinkish tinge, discard.

sourdough 4

Day 3.

sourdough 6

Day 5.

The starter should  get a little more active and frothy each day.  The yeast in the air and flour are happily consuming the flour’s natural sugar, and releasing carbon dioxide bubbles.

sourdough 7

The starter is about the consistency of pancake batter.

Day 6:
Remove 2 cups of starter and place in a clean bowl.  Stir in 4 cups of flour, 1-1/4 c. water, 2 t. salt, and 2 T. honey. (You can use sugar if you don’t have honey on hand.)  If the result is too sticky to knead, add more flour a little at a time, just until the mass holds together.

sourdough 8

Ready for phase 2.

Knead the dough on a counter or bread board until smooth, about 5-10 minutes.

sourdough bread 9

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover with a towel, and set in a warm place. Let the dough rise for 8-12 hours. Give or take. I mix the dough right before going to bed and let it rest overnight.

sourdough 9

About two hours into the rise…

sourdough rise

…and after 12 hours. The glass bowl reveals all the action taking place in the dough.

Lightly grease a pie plate and gently place the risen dough in the center. You could use a cast iron skillet, too.

sourdough 10

The dough should feel puffy and active.

Cover with a damp towel and let rise 4-6 hours. Make several slashes about 1/2″ deep in the top of the loaf with a sharp knife. Bake at 350 degrees for 45-50 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and a toothpick tester emerges dry.

sourdough bread loaf

A beautiful loaf!

After you’ve had success, you can experiment by using different types of flour and adding herbs, fruit, etc.

If you want to keep your starter going, spoon what was left in the original bowl into a clean container.  While a dry towel was necessary during the first week to allow wild yeast cells easy access, the starter now needs more protection to keep a crust from forming. Caroline might have used a crock with lid left a bit ajar.  You can  use a bowl covered with a plate.

If you’ve read Meet Caroline, you know that Caroline struggles to succeed at this bread-baking process:

Grandmother was teaching Caroline how to make bread, but somehow, Caroline never seemed able to mix in just the right amount of flour and water, or knead the dough to the perfect silky-smooth texture. Her loaves  turned out heavy and hard.

Like Caroline, I had a few failures on the way to a good loaf of sourdough bread. This is what happened when I didn’t give the dough enough time to rise.

sourdough mistake 1

Doorstop.

And this is what happened when I forgot to slash the top of the loaf.

sourdough mistake 2

Steam split the loaf along the sides.  It tasted OK, but didn’t look nice.

So don’t be discouraged if it takes you a couple of tries to produce a successful loaf of bread with homemade sourdough starter. The results are worth it!

sourdough bread slice

Still warm and spread with homemade apple butter – yum!


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