Archive for the ‘HISTORIC SITES’ Category

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.

Pioneer Winter

March 1, 2014

I’ve been reading a lot about winter lately. While working on a book project for the Wisconsin Historical Society, I’ve dug out a lot of primary accounts from European and Yankee immigrants settling in the Upper Midwest in the 1800s. Not surprisingly, the most poignant accounts describe the earliest days of white settlement.

When I worked at old World Wisconsin, one of my favorite buildings to interpret was the 1845 Fossebrekke Cabin. The Fossebrekkes, like many immigrants, opened their home to late-fall arrivals who had nowhere else to go. Some visitors couldn’t imagine surviving a winter in such a small building.

That's me in warm weather, heading into Fossebrekke, 1983.

That’s me heading into Fossebrekke, 1983.

But when Knudt arrived in Wisconsin, he had nothing. He worked as a laborer and spent his first winter in some kind of a shelter dug into the side of a hill. So I imagine that he and Gertrude Fossebrekke took enormous pride in their sturdy cabin.

I haven’t found a first-person account describing life in a dugout through long, dark, bitterly cold months. However, here’s a story shared by a descendant of a Norwegian immigrant who joined forces with two other single men. The three spent their first winter in a dugout…and their second winter as well:

A large log house was built on Nils Gilderhus’ land in the summer of 1841, but as they did not get it ‘clinked’ (sic) between the logs before cold weather set in, they continued to live in the dugout that winter.

Here Andres Lee and his wife, Gunvor, a sister of Nils, came from Norway late in 1841 and lived with all the rest in the dugout, as did a man named Andres Fenne. Later in the winter, Tore Kaase was also welcomed to live in the same dugout, there being no other shelter, which made a family of six men, one woman and two children, all in the same small dugout.

(“Mrs. Styrk Reque Tells History of Early Pioneers of Gilderhus Clan,” Capital Times, September 7, 1930.)

Those who barely managed to build some kind of free-standing structure often didn’t fare much better:

The winter was severe, and the house being enclosed by foot wide boards, but neither plastered or sealed the green boards warped and left great cracks, and the water froze in our glasses on the table, and if a little spilled on the floor it would freeze before we could wipe it up.

Renee Fossebrekke

Fossebrekke interior.  (Renee is making flatbread.)

We had no crib for the baby and had to keep him tied in  a chair. Our mother was sick all winter and we hung quilts and blankets around the stove pipe and fixed her bed in the enclosure; our money was nearly gone and we had to plan closely to get provisions but by hook and crook we managed to keep alive.

(Hannah L. Parker, “Pioneer Life in Waushara County,” Wautoma Argus, February 13, 1924.)

And here’s one more:

Only those who have experienced it can imagine the loneliness of the first winter 30 miles from a post-office. One inconvenience was the lack of matches. One wild, windy night Mr. Gardner’s fireplace went out. Soon Mr. Salisbury came. He, too, had lost fire. Together they started for Moses Smith’s to borrow coals. Mr. Salisbury fell into a river when crossing on a fallen tree.

Schulz cooking nook Old World Wisconsin

Cooking nook, Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin.  Without matches, fire could not be taken for granted.

While Mr. Salisbury remained at Smith’s to dry his clothing, Mr. Gardner started homeward. After going some distance he thought the pail seemed light and found that the bottom had melted and the fire was gone. Returning he borrowed an iron kettle, filled it with coals, and succeeded in reaching home with it, and a good, comfortable fire greeted Mr. Salisbury on his arrival.

(Helen Hicks, “Pioneer Settler of Spring Prairie was New York Man,” Racine Journal-News, January 15, 1932.)

Last week, while on a writing retreat, I stayed in a cabin built in 1853. I’ve stayed there before, and it’s a good space for me.

Fern Hollow Cabin

Fern Hollow Cabin in NE Iowa, owned by Liz Rog and Daniel Rotto.

Fern Hollow Cabin

From the family album–Fern Hollow Cabin before restoration in 1989.  Liz’s great-great-great-grandparents raised six children in this home, and Liz and Daniel later raised their own two children here.

It was cold during this stay—often below zero. The cabin’s only source of heat is a small wood-burning stove.

Fern Hollow Cabin

That’s a slab of soapstone on the top right side of the stove. After heating it up, I’d wrap it in a towel and take it up to bed in the loft.

I got a lot of work done, but the status of the fire never really left my awareness. A rhythm developed:  fetch wood, tend the stove, write. Fetch wood, tend the stove, write.

Fern Hollow Cabin

All the essentials—laptop, companion feline, and stove. Not shown: steaming mug of cocoa.

I was also acutely aware of how easy I  had it. I did not cut the wood, or stack it. When I had to leave for several hours, my hosts kindly stoked the stove. And I knew that if I did “lose” my fire, all I’d need to do was crumple newspaper and light a match to get it back.

This has been a long winter for most of the country. I will savor the first warm days of spring as much as anyone. But the accounts of pioneer winters have helped me keep the season’s challenges in perspective. It’s snowing as I write this, and I can’t help thinking that I have a lot to be grateful for.

Fern Hollow Cabin

Fern Hollow Cabin.

We can never truly imagine how our ancestors experienced winter, while struggling to build a better life for generations to come.

Winter in Mineral Point

February 6, 2014

Mineral Point, in southwestern Wisconsin, is one of my favorite towns. A lead mining boom attracted early prospectors. In 1829, the population of Mineral Point was greater than Milwaukee and Chicago combined! In the 1830s, experienced miners from Cornwall arrived and settled in.

I’ve traveled to Mineral Point many times to visit Pendarvis, a state historic site that preserves the homes of several Cornish immigrants. But until recently, I’d never visited in winter.

Mineral Point Pendarvis

Early stone cottages preserved at Pendarvis.

That changed in January of 2013, and again this past January. Thanks to Shake Rag Center For the Arts and the Council for Wisconsin Writers, I was granted a weeklong residency both years. The temps were cold—this year below zero, at times. But I discovered that winter is a great time to visit Mineral Point.  Here are some of the things I enjoyed:

Peace and quiet. The ambiance was perfect for contemplation and writing.

Mineral Point Gundry House

Wonderful restaurants. I spent most afternoons writing at the Gray Dog Deli, which has a great menu, very nice staff, and your choice of tables or comfy sofas.

Mineral Point Gray Dog

This gray dog has watched over the building since 1867.

It’s also my tradition to visit the Red Rooster Cafe whenever I’m in town.

Mineral Point Red Rooster

Mineral Point Red Rooster

The Red Rooster has a long history of serving comfort food and traditional Cornish favorites.

Mineral Point Figgy Hobbin

I recommend the Figgy Hobbin.

Shake Rag Center For the Arts. A sale of hand-crafted Valentines took place while I was there.

Mineral Point Shake Rag

The lively arts center has programs and classes going on year-round. Their workshop listing is diverse. Wouldn’t a class provide a great pick-me-up in the middle of a cold winter?

Yarn Painting 2

A yarn painting class is scheduled for late February. So cheerful!  Shake Rag Center photo.

Architecture. You can’t take a walk in Mineral Point without seeing lots of great old buildings.

Mineral Point Washington

I stayed in this lovely home, 219 Washington.

Mineral Point Gundry House

And I walked by this beauty, Orchard Lawn, every day.

Mineral Point Shake Rag

This cottage and cabin are preserved at Shake Rag Alley.

Art.  The town is a well-known artist’s colony. Yes, some of the shops were closed—but others weren’t. (Another of my traditions is to buy a new pair of earrings whenever I start a new Chloe Ellefson mystery.  Lots and lots to choose from at the Johnston Gallery.)

Mineral Point Johnston Gallery

The Johnston Gallery photo.

The landscape.  Mineral Point is nestled in the beautiful rolling hills of Wisconsin’s Driftless Region. If you like snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, you won’t have to go far. Check out a recent post on High Street Beat blog.

Mineral Point High Street Beat

Taken by my friends Lisa and Don Hay on a recent cross county ski excursion. High Street Beat photo.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to spend two weeks in this lovely town. Huge thanks to everyone who made it possible.

Interested in a getaway of your own?  You’ll find lots of information here.  Enjoy!

An 1812 Gunboat

January 20, 2014

When I began planning the Caroline Abbott books for American Girl, I quickly decided to make Caroline’s father a shipbuilder. The war in the Great Lakes was largely a naval war, and I wanted Caroline and her family to be part of it.

There was a large and well documented naval shipyard in Sackets Harbor, New York. Builders there worked on huge ships like the Oneida.

Although this photo was taken many years after Caroline's time, it clearly shows the natural harbor.  Caroline's Papa knew the harbor would make the perfect spot for a shipyard---and once the War of 1812 began, US Navy officers  knew that too.

This photo was taken many years after Caroline’s time.  The US Navy’s shipyard produced ships that towered over the village.

I squeezed the fictional Abbott’s Shipyard just down the shore from the naval yard in Sackets Harbor. It wouldn’t have made sense to have the men at Abbott’s also building enormous vessels. Instead, I decided that Caroline’s family shipyard would produce gunboats.

While writing the series, I studied pictures of gunboats. Recently, however, I got to see a real one! Part of one, anyway.

Fort Wellington Gunboat

That’s me looking at the remains. You can get a sense of the boat’s size.

A sunken British gunboat was discovered decades ago in a small inlet on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. Only the bottom, or hull, remained. Over the years, shifting ice likely tore the upper wood away.

The location is about 30 miles from the eastern end of Lake Ontario. (Sackets Harbor, where Caroline lives, is very close to that eastern end of the lake.) Naval historians believe this boat was built during the War of 1812.

Parks Canada Underwater Archaeology Service raised the remains of the shipwreck in 1967. As you can imagine, it was tricky work!

gunboat.1966 fort wellington

The shipwreck being raised in the 1960s. Parks Canada photo.

The remains are now safely exhibited at Fort Wellington National Historic Site of Canada, which is a wonderful place to learn more about the War of 1812 in the area were the Caroline books are set.

Fort Wellington gunboat

Parks Canada Conservator Flora Davidson secures loose parts of the gunboat wreck at St Lawrence Islands National Park in Mallorytown in preparation for its move to Fort Wellington in Prescott, Ontario. Parks Canada photograph.

Gunboats were of vital importance on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812. They were shallow boats designed to carry one or more guns that could fire on other ships or on targets along the shoreline. They were also used to carry supplies or troops. Gunboats had sails, but they also carried long oars called sweeps, which required six or eight men to row.

The gunboat at Fort Wellington is displayed in an exhibit that includes this marvelous painting, making it easy to imagine how it was originally used.

gunboat Fort Wellington

Exhibit artwork by David Kanietakeron and Peter Rindlisbacher.

gunboat fort wellington

And here’s a model of what this gunboat probably looked like.

You can compare the model and the painting with what’s left of the vessel.

fort wellington gunboat

fort wellington gunboat

Other exhibits tell different parts of the War of 1812 story, and helped me imagine life during Caroline Abbott’s time.

Fort Wellington

Jarvis Hanks was a young drummer boy from Vermont. Lavinia York was the wife of the sheriff of a border town in New York. Letters and other writings left by people who lived during the War of 1812 provide wonderful glimpses of the past.

Fort Wellington

Original nails, tools, and a man’s boot—just as Caroline might have seen them.

Fort Wellington

This exhibit painting suggests what a home in Prescott, Ontario (Upper Canada) might have looked like. (It reminded me of Caroline’s cousin Lydia’s farm in Upper Canada!) Prescott is right across the St. Lawrence River from Ogdensburg, New York.

After reading about and thinking about and imagining gunboats, it was exciting to see the bones of a real one on display! If you have a chance to explore Sackets Harbor, New York, I highly recommend a sidetrip to Fort Wellington National Historic Site in Prescott, Ontario.

Lefse

October 28, 2013

Since a lefse pin spattered with blood is on the cover of my latest Chloe Ellefson mystery, Heritage of Darkness, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the murder weapon is. . . you guessed it, a lefse pin.

Heritage of Darkness 1

Which has led some readers to ask, What the heck is lefse, anyway?

Lefse is a round flatbread usually made with mashed potatoes (which used up old potatoes, and kept the bread soft) and baked on stovetop or griddle. It was a staple in the diet rural Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans in the 19th century.

LEFSE

This old stereocard image shows a Norwegian woman making lefse on an outdoor griddle. A lefse stick is used to turn the paper-thin round of dough.

I was introduced to lefse when I worked at Old World Wisconsin. Lefse was frequently made at the Fossebrekke cabin, home to young Norwegian immigrants.

KAE at Fossebrekke Web

That’s me at the 1845 Fossebrekke cabin in 1982.

potato masher

Hand-cranked potato masher, Fossebrekke cabin, Old World Wisconsin.

The heavy wooden pins used to roll the dough were deeply scored or grooved, which helped reduce air bubbles, pulverize any bits of unmashed potato, and keep the rounds of lefse quite thin and pliable.

lefse pins - Version 2

Two pins on exhibit at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum.

lefse pin

This pin’s groove’s are nearly worn away. (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum Exhibit)

In Norwegian-American communities it can still be found in local stores. . .

Schuberts Mount Horeb lefse

Schubert’s Diner and Bakery in Mount Horeb, WI.

. . .often folded into quarters and offered fresh or frozen.

lefse sale

Oneota Co-Op, Decorah, Iowa.

Although fewer and fewer people make lefse at home, it still holds a special place in good Norwegian-American hearts. Many people have memories of mom or grandma boiling Russet potatoes and making lefse on special occasions.

Last year my friend Martha invited me to the local Sons of Norway – Valdres Lodge Norwegian Constitution Day Dinner on May 15, held at the Washington Prairie Lutheran Church outside of town.  (Learn more here.)

On the way, she told me that when the church needed a new roof, several elderly members of the congregation made hundreds of lefse. They announced sales, to be held at a bank in town. Sales were brisk, and the money raised helped buy the new roof.

DSCF5941

A few weeks later at Nordic Fest, a celebration of Scandinavian heritage and pride held in Decorah each summer, another small army of  lefse bakers reported for duty.

lefse Nordic Fest - Version 2

Warm rounds of lefse are delivered from the griddle to eager buyers, who add whatever toppings they prefer.

lefse Nordic Fest

I’ve read that 10,000 lefse are served at Nordic Fest each year.

lefse Nordic Fest

Me, I love lefse spread with butter and brown sugar, then rolled up tight. Maybe a touch of cinnamon. Or lingonberry jam.

Decades ago, I bought a lefse pin at an antique store.  I don’t know how old it is, or who used it, but I liked to wonder. Who once used it to roll out a bit of home or heritage on a flour-dusted table?

lefse pin

My lefse pin is much larger than my regular rolling pin.  Heavier, too.

And one year, while working at Old World Wisconsin, the Norwegian-area interpreters gave me this lovely rosemaled lefse pin at the end of the season. While I treasure the stick, I must admit that I’ve never made lefse at home. After learning how on an antique stove in an 1845 cabin, it just wouldn’t feel the same.

lefse pin

This stick has had a place of honor in my kitchen for 25 years.

At the launch party for Heritage of Darkness held at Mystery To Me (in Madison, WI) I witnessed lefse’s popularity all over again.  My talented baker friend Alisha brought a gorgeous cake.  She also brought a plate of lefse made by Lutheran church ladies, and rolled up with butter and cinnamon and sugar—the combination she’d learned from her Norwegian grandmother.

People who’d never tried lefse were eager for a sample. People who had their own fond memories of lefse munched happily, reminiscing.

Alisha with lefse

This plate of lefse disappeared fast. Really fast.

I think the generations of long-gone lefse makers would be pleased.

Ballads of Antietam

September 17, 2013

Wherever I am on September 17, I pause to remember the horrific battle that raged in and around Sharpsburg, Maryland, on this day in 1862.

Antietam cannon

Last year I was fortunate enough to spend the 150th anniversary weekend at Antietam National Battlefield and nearby Harpers Ferry. Several of the guest speakers mentioned that their initial interest in the Civil War was sparked during the war’s Centennial commemorations, 1961-1964. Many of my reenactor friends also began their life-long hobby during that time.

Betty Bauer,  a writer and friend who lives in Kansas, surprised me a year or so ago by sending a book of poems that her mother, Ora Ann Ernst, published in 1960. We’re not related, and until then I had no idea that Betty had Maryland roots.

Ballads of Antietam

The poems are lovely, and I was delighted when Betty said I might share some here.

Antietam poem 3

Ora was a teacher, reporter and editor, and historic preservationist who lived on a beautiful farm in Clear Spring, Maryland—not too far from the Antietam Battlefield.

Ora Ann Ernst

Photo published in Hagerstown’s The Daily Mail, December 24, 1990.

When she died in 1983, her eulogist noted that Ora “used her gifted pen to record little-known facts of history of the county she called home.   . . .The closing achievement of her journalistic career . . .  was in behalf of historic preservation in the Clear Spring area—her legacy to a cause so dear to her heart.”

Antietam Poem

In honor of her many gifts to her community, a Clear Spring Park and Recreation Area was dedicated to her memory. But as her poems show, her reach extended beyond Clear Spring to the rolling fields around Sharpsburg.

Antietam Poem 2

In the many years I spent prowling Washington County archives while researching Too Afraid To Cry:  Maryland Civilians In The Antietam Campaign, I somehow never came across Ora’s booklet of poems.  I love this glimpse into her thoughts and emotions as the 100th anniversary of the battle approached.

Like Ora, I’ve often found myself “with ghost men all around” when walking over the field.

Why Vesterheim?

September 13, 2013

“Why is the new Chloe book set in Iowa?” The question came in an email. “Why is Chloe crossing the border? Why not explore other sites in Wisconsin?”

Heritage of Darkness 1

I have no intention of having Chloe leave her job at Old World Wisconsin. Roelke McKenna, suitor and local cop, will remain in the area as well.

But I do plan to get Chloe out and about from time to time. She can travel to other sites for professional and personal reasons, finding mystery and mayhem and historical echoes wherever she goes. Variety will help keep the series fresh. It also gives me the chance to showcase other sites that I find particularly appealing.

That happens in Chloe #4, Heritage of Darkness. Chloe, Mom, and Roelke head to Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, for a week’s vacation. So. . .  why Vesterheim?

Vesterheim wikipedia

It’s a stellar museum. Vesterheim is the most comprehensive museum in the United States dedicated to a single immigrant group. The collection is phenomenal.

Vesterheim trunk

Local historians began collecting artifacts over a century ago. The Norwegian government—believing Norwegian-Americans should be able to learn about their heritage—also contributed original pieces to the museum.

Vesterheim

It is not, however, a museum only of interest to those with Scandinavian heritage.  Vesterheim’s mission is to “explore the diversity of American immigration through the lens of Norwegian-American experience.” I can attest to that. I have no Norwegian heritage, but I find that each visit helps me reflect upon what my own Swiss, Dutch, and Irish ancestors experienced.

Vesterheim knitting

The Open Air Division of the museum contains twelve buildings, ranging from the tiny homes of new arrivals to a huge commercial mill. I only recently learned that Vesterheim’s collection has special significance. Sten Rentzhog, in his book Open Air Museums: The History and Future of a Visionary Idea (2007), notes that “The oldest American outdoor museum appears to be Vesterheim. . . “

Vesterheim Valdres snow

I had visited Vesterheim several times since moving to the Midwest in 1982, but returned with special purpose in 2005 while doing research for Old World Murder, the first Chloe mystery. That mystery centers on a missing antique ale bowl, and I made arrangements to visit collections storage so I could study Vesterheim’s bowls.

Vesterheim ale bowls

I thought I’d visit, say thanks, and that would be that. Instead, I’ve gotten more involved. My husband and I have returned to enjoy a variety of special events.

Vesterheim syttende mai

Vesterheim Christmas

Another part of Vesterheim’s mission is to “showcase the best in historic and contemporary Norwegian folk and fine arts, and preserve living traditions through classes in Norwegian culture and folk art, including rosemaling (decorative painting), woodcarving and woodworking, knifemaking, and textile arts.”

Vesterheim rosemaling

I’m a heritage arts junkie, and have enjoyed classes in painting, fiber arts, and foodways. Vesterheim’s combination of top-notch instructors and behind-the-scenes access to artifacts for study is unparalleled.

Kate demonstrating the basic stitch.

Vesterheim Laurann

When I took my first rosemaling class, the Education Specialist spoke of “the Vesterheim Family.” It does exist. There’s a special sense of sharing and camaraderie that helps explain why so many people return to Vesterheim again and again.

Writing a Chloe mystery involves several years of thinking, researching, and writing. I can only pick locations that I love—and that I believe readers will love too.

KAE ale bowl Vesterheim

The Empty Meadow

September 3, 2013

I had intended to write a novel “just” about Pottawatomie Lighthouse in Rock Island State Park. Why look any farther? Pottawatomie has it all:  a fascinating human history, a stunning location, an impressive and beautifully restored structure. My husband Scott and I have done stints as live-in docents for the past five years, so we know it well.

pottawatomie lighthouse

I write the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery series. Chloe is a curator at Old World Wisconsin, the large outdoor ethnic museum in Waukesha County where I once served as curator. A series about historic places, the magnificent lighthouse…it was inevitable. Clearly Chloe needed to spend time at Pottawatomie.

So I began planning the mystery novel that would become The Light Keeper’s Legacy. The basic premise:  Chloe travels to Rock Island as a guest curator, charged with developing a furnishings plan during the restoration process. Her peaceful island idyll gets off to a rough start when she discovers a body on the beach.

I wrote the first few chapters. Then something unexpected happened. During a non-docent visit to Rock Island, Scott and I explored the southern end of the island—something we’d never done.

While doing so we visited the site of a former fishing village.

meadow

At one time, perhaps three hundred people lived there.  This interpretive sign suggests what some of the buildings might have looked like.

Fishing village sign

Illustration Rock Island State Park, Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources; artwork by Benjamin Tollefson.

The village didn’t last for long. As men had to go farther from shore to fish, they needed bigger boats and deeper harbors.

Chester Thordarson, the wealthy inventor who purchased most of Rock Island in 1910, restored a couple of the small cottages and cabins still standing at the village site, intending to use them as guest accommodations.

Thordarson-oldest log home in Wis

Photo from Thordarson collection, courtesy Washington Island Historical Archives.

Rock Island oldest log002 - Version 2

Note the same cabin, barely visible on the north side of the cove. Photo from Thordarson collection, courtesy Washington Island Historical Archives.

The same spot today.

The same spot today.

Now, nothing physical remains.  A few shallow depressions—suggesting long-gone foundations—are all that can be seen of the fishing village.

DSCF5063

Yet something does remain, something intangible but compelling. As I walked through the peaceful meadow, I imagined the bustling activity it once held.

DSCF8963

I could almost see the little cabins, almost hear the thuds of a cooper’s mallet and the sweet tones of a Danish lullaby. I could almost smell the smoke of wood fires, the tang of new-caught fish, the wet green scent of drying nets.

Danish wife

As I wandered around the shallow harbor it was easy to imagine English and Irish and Icelandic and Norwegian fishermen hauling their boats onto the cobbled beach.

Danish fishermen

And, as sometimes happens when I’m writing, my vision for the book changed. I created an historical plotline featuring a family of Danish immigrants who settled on the fishing village in 1869. Ragna Anderson, a fictional woman from the Hedebo region of Denmark, became a major character.

Danish women

Ragna’s story is woven with Chloe’s more modern experiences. The two are linked by the lighthouse, and by one of the real families who lived and worked at Pottawatomie Lighthouse. Emily Betts appears in Chloe’s research, and as a character in the historical plotline. My novel is much richer because of the inspiration I found in that “empty” meadow.

On Rock Island, it is very easy to focus only on the magnificent lighthouse, and the equally magnificent Viking Hall and Boathouse built by Chester Thordarson.

boathouse, Rock Island

But those structures present an incomplete picture. Many people came and went from Rock Island without leaving any still-lingering physical evidence behind—European and Yankee fishermen, Pottawatomie and Menomonee and Huron travelers, French traders and explorers.

The same thing is true, of course, throughout Door County—and elsewhere. Next time you travel your favorite back roads, use your imagination and a guidebook or two to explore the landscape. Imagine who might have once peopled the peaceful forest; the tranquil field.  You never know what—or who—you might discover.

Bonanza Farms

August 21, 2013

Harvest has started.  Now there will be no rest for man, woman, or beast until frost comes.  - Mary Dodge Woodward, August 11, 1885

It’s harvest-time, which reminds me that I had no idea what threshing grain involved until I moved to the Midwest in 1982.

Old World Wisconsin showed the evolution of threshing technology at its three restored German farms, from hand tools to horse-powered machines to the mighty steam engines that powered an enormous threshing machine.  Last fall my friend Marty sent me photo below, which had surfaced in some old files.

That’s me talking with one of the visiting crew, with the Koepsell Farmhouse visible in the background, in 1983.

When I visited the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, MN, I was again reminded of threshing days. The museum is wonderfully tucked within the ruins of an old flour mill. Many of the exhibits focus on the technology of milling. It’s difficult to present industrial history at an historic site, but the Minnesota Historical Society has done an amazing job of engaging guests in creative ways.

Good interpretation helps visitors make connections. In the context of a flour mill, that meant educators and exhibit designers had to find a way to help people consider not just the mill workers, or even the farmers who raised the grain, but the women who baked with it. Those things had been tangible at Old World Wisconsin. I was curious to see how an indoor museum, without fields of grain and threshing machines and working farm kitchens, would present those concepts.

As it turned out, quite well! A steam engine stands in one corner of the main exhibit floor, near a life-sized photograph of a threshing crew.

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A cast-iron cookstove sits nearby, with pans of (faux) food waiting for kids to put in the oven.

These kids got into the spirit by pretending to cook for the threshing crew.

These kids got into the spirit by pretending to cook for the threshing crew.

A long table is set for a threshing dinner.

Threshing crew table, Mill City Museum

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Hanging on each chair is a card with a short quote from a man involved with harvest work. And sitting on each plate is a quote from the diary of Mary Dodge Woodward, a widow who moved from Wisconsin to a 1,500-acre “bonanza farm” about 8 miles SW of Fargo  in the Dakota Territory in 1882.

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Mary Dodge Woodward, 1880s; from Dodge Genealogy, 1904.

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An interpreter portraying Mary Dodge Woodward helped guests understand the enormity of the task facing women who cooked for enormous threshing gangs.

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When the Northern Pacific Railroad was being built, politicians wanted settlement along those tracks, and huge tracts of land were claimed in the name of progress. But when the railroad didn’t pay the dividends some investors had expected, the government stepped in and made huge parcels available—with the promise that all absent landlords needed to do was hire a manager and crew, grow wheat, and reap the financial rewards. The first of these bonanza farms were established in the Red River Valley in the Dakota Territory and Minnesota.

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Mary Woodward gives a clear picture of the enormity of feeding the men needed to work a huge wheat farm. Not only did she cook food in colossal proportions, but for three years, she didn’t leave the farm. Books, magazines, and newspapers provided her only links to the outside world. (Her keen observations about the annual agricultural cycles have been published as The Checkered Years:  A Bonanza Farm Diary, 1884-1888. I recommend it.)

When I talk with kids about historical research, I encourage them to approach their topic from as many different directions as possible. It’s a lesson I learn over and over again. While those years hearing and smelling and tasting and watching threshing time at Old World Wisconsin made an indelible impression on me, visiting the Mill City Museum gave me a whole new appreciation of women’s work when the threshing gang arrived.

 


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