Archive for the ‘AUTHORS’ Category

The Runaway Friend

April 13, 2013

 

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THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

After I started writing for American Girl, I always hoped that my editor would invite me to write a Kirsten book. The story of European immigrants moving to the Upper Midwest is very close to my heart.

In the spring of 1982, I moved to Wisconsin to take a job at a large historic site called Old World Wisconsin. This outdoor ethnic museum helps visitors gain insight into the lives of many ethnic groups which began settling here in the mid-1800s.

Author Kathleen Ernst 1982

Old World Wisconsin does not have any Swedish buildings, but a lot of the experiences I had there helped me appreciate Kirsten’s story. The photograph above shows me knitting in the doorway of the 1845  Fossebrekke cabin, home to Norwegian immigrants. I loved helping visitors imagine the challenges and rewards of leaving Europe and making a new home. So I went into the Kirsten project with a fair amount of knowledge about European immigrants coming from Scandinavia to the Upper Midwest.

I needed to focus in on Swedish immigrants to Minnesota in the 1850s. I began at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. The Society houses a museum, library, and archives (and a very nice cafe!) under one roof.

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The Minnesota Historical Society.

I looked at exhibits, read old books and magazines, and studied old newspapers preserved on microfilm.  My best find was a huge collection of unpublished reminiscences about the pioneer era.  A lot of the details in The Runaway Friend came from those accounts.

I also visited the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. The museum located in this beautiful old mansion documents the Swedish-American community through photographs, diaries, and immigrant artifacts.

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The Institute is especially lovely when decorated for Christmas!

It was also important to visit the area where the first Swedish settlements in Minnesota were founded.  Kirsten’s family, arriving as they did in 1854, would have been among the earliest Swedish families to settle here.  I went in search of clues that might help me imagine her life!

The Chisago Lakes area, home to many of the early Swedish immigrants to Minnesota, is a short drive northeast of the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.  Historical signs and markers helped me locate significant locations, such as Taylors Falls.

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Can you imagine traveling up the river on a steamboat like the one pictured above?

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It was easy to picture the landscape found by the early immigrants.

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Stone walls still visible in a few yards in Taylors Falls were made by Swedish immigrants.

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From the river, lucky immigrants may have traveled to their new homes by oxcart, such as the one pictured in the sign below, to their new home. Others, like Kirsten’s family, had to walk.

Scandia was the site of the first Swedish settlement in Minnesota. In 1850, the first log cabin was built there, on the shores of Hay Lake.  I knew I needed to visit Scandia!

I headed first to the local museum.  “Gammelgården” means “Old Farm” in Swedish. Here visitors can step back in history and experience the lives of early Swedish immigrants in the only open air museum devoted to Swedish immigration in the United States.

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I had the chance to see a number of artifacts.  What can you learn by looking at these objects?

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One of the guides kindly took a moment to show me this old sleigh.

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You’d want to wrap up in lots of cloaks and blankets before setting out in an open sleigh during a Minnesota winter!

A number of old buildings have been moved to Gammelgården.  On the day I was there, children were participating in the museum’s “Coming to Amerika” program.

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It was fun to see the kids participating in activities that helped them imagine life as it would have been for Kirsten in the 1850s.

The next town I visited was Lindstrom, “America’s Little Sweden.”  I found lots of clues to Lindstrom’s cultural heritage just by walking down the main street!

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A famous statue of a Swedish immigrant couple is in Lindstrom.

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Why do you think the man and the woman might be looking in two different directions?

This statue depicts Karl Oskar and his wife Kristina, fictional characters in a famous novel called The Emigrants, by Wilhelm Moberg.  Karl Oskar is looking ahead to the future.  Kristina, always homesick for Sweden, is looking back over her shoulder.

Before leaving the area I visited Glader Cemetery.  It was moving to read some of the gravestones.  They told stories of real people who had lost loved ones, often children.  I can’t imagine how they must have felt.  The cemetery is on a beautiful spot, overlooking a lake, and I hope the natural beauty provided a little solace to those who buried family members there.

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My last stop was at nearby Center City.  According to this sign, a Lutheran church was founded here in 1854. That tells me that faith was important to many of the early arrivals.

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The original church—log, no doubt—was replaced in 1882 by a brick structure.

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A memorial, with Swedish and English text, celebrates the church’s heritage.

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The first Swedes to settle in Minnesota arrived over one hundred and fifty years ago! Still, it wasn’t hard to find evidence that helped me imagine their experience. I hope The Runaway Friend helps you imagine that time, too.

Rocky Ridge Farm

March 29, 2012

Books have the power to change lives. One of the first to touch my life was Little House in the Big Woods. That’s why I’ve been visiting historic sites that relate to Laura Ingalls Wilder. (See my posts about Pepin, WI, and Burr Oak, Iowa.)

In 1894 Laura, husband Almanzo, and their young daughter Rose left De Smet, SD, to find a new home. A friend had given Laura an apple grown near Mansfield, MO, which Laura found to be especially sweet. The family traveled by covered wagon to Mansfield and purchased 40 acres (later quadrupled) for a dairy, fruit, and poultry farm.  They named their property Rocky Ridge Farm.

Last September my older sister and I visited Mansfield. I was curious to see the place where Laura had written some of the Little House books, but since this site didn’t appear in the series, I didn’t expect to connect on an emotional level.

I did. It was touching to take the tour, imagining Laura cooking in the kitchen, tending Almanzo though his final illness in the bedroom, writing at her desk. Certainly this came partly because of the affection I feel toward Laura—both the author and the main character.

Almanzo built this home.

He included fossils when he built the chimney.

Almanzo built the home with her comfort in mind—positioning kitchen counters to suit her height, for example. The home looks as if Laura just stepped out.

Photos weren’t permitted inside the home proper. This is a covered porch off the kitchen.

Upon reflection, though, I realized there was more to it. As a child, Laura lived an almost nomadic existence. Readers journey with Laura as her family moves…moves…moves again. The constant upheaval makes for fascinating reading. The Ingalls’ restlessness, and the adversities they encounter, make Laura an easy person to care about. So it was unexpectedly comforting to see tangible proof that after so many childhood challenges, Laura had a beloved and stable home. Laura and Almanzo lived in this simple farmhouse for over sixty years.

In 1928, daughter Rose—a successful writer in her own right—gifted a new house to Laura and Almanzo. She evidently hoped to provide more modern conveniences for her aging parents. Laura and Almanzo lived in their new home while Rose lived at Rocky Ridge Farm. But when Rose moved to New York in 1936, Laura and Almanzo moved back to Rocky Ridge. Almanzo died at home in 1949; Laura, in 1957.

The house Rose provided for her parents was close to Rocky Ridge Farm, but evidently never felt like home.

Laura Ingalls Wilder helped spark my lifelong fascination with history. I’m grateful for that. As a writer myself, I’m in awe of her ability to capture the imagination of so many readers, in so many places, for so many years.


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