Lacemaking in Belgium

November 13, 2018

As someone who gravitates toward folk arts, I knew almost nothing about Belgium’s lacemaking industry before starting research for The Lacemaker’s Secret. But one of the best parts about writing the Chloe Ellefson mysteries is learning new things, and this topic was no exception.

The mystery includes a strand of historical fiction featuring a Belgian farm girl, Seraphine. When Seraphine and her sister Octavie are orphaned at a young age, they find a home at a convent and lace school, The School of the Apostolic Sisters, in Bruges.

 

“A Lace School at Bruges”, The Art Journal, 1887, Rose G. Kingsley.

Women have made bobbin lace in Belgium for centuries, especially in the northern region of Flanders. Bruges is famous for it.

Historically, nuns ran schools in an effort to preserve the lace industry, and to teach girls a trade that would bring a bit of income. Most students were local girls “from the very poorest and lowest families” who came daily for lessons. For some, a bowl of soup at midday was their only meal.

A young Belgian lacemaker at work. This postcard image postdates Seraphine’s girlhood, but it helped me imagine her busy at her pillow.  (Nels, Bruxelles)

Outside convent grounds.

Seraphine experienced the city for the first time when she traveled to Bruges. Walls surrounded the convent itself.

“Bruges: Beguinage, A Corner of the Cloister.”  A beguinage housed religious women who lived in community but did not take vows.  Originally the complex was a convent, but the two terms diverged.  (An. Thill, Bruxelles)

I don’t have an interior photo of a workroom, but a visitor in 1887 described the scene:

The room was full of young women and children sitting in rows of three.  Each had a little stand before her, and on it a sloping cushion with hundreds of pins and scores of wooden bobbins; while down the centre of it where the pins were covered by a strip of calico, lay the precious filmy lace growing under the flying fingers. Our entrance, though it created evident surprise and interest among the sixty workers and the three white-coifed sisters who sat in charge of them, caused no cessation in the work…  The bobbins clattered, the pins were pricked into the holes on the patterns, the delicate fingers…worked on ceaselessly, as we moved up between the lines of dentellieres to meet a pleasant sister, who welcomed us with charming courtesy in perfect French.  (Rose G. Kingsley)

Ms. Kingsley said the lacemakers were “of all ages from seven years old and upwards,” but the little girl in this picture looks younger. (“Lace Manufactory, Chs. Berbigette, Antwerp”)

There were several other lace schools in Bruges, and over 900 in Belgium. The students could stay as long as they wished. Although some remained in the Beguinage as adults, most participated in lacemaking as a cottage industry. It was common for Belgian women to finish their own chores, then move outside to make lace in the sunshine, often visiting with friends and neighbors as they worked.

(Ern. Thill, Bruxelles)

Many different types of lace were made in Belgium, and in the 1800s, perhaps 150,000 women earned their living with their bobbins and pillows. But as other industries grew, women started taking better-paying jobs in factories.  Many people feared the knowledge of particular styles or patterns might be lost. In 1900, thousands of women in Bruges and other Flemish cities still supported themselves by making lace. By 1975—close to Chloe’s time—only a few hundred of them were left, mostly older women looking to earn some extra money.

Fortunately, some younger women have helped inspire a bit of a revival. And notably, one of the old convent lace schools (the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception) has been turned into a lace museum:

The Bruges’ Lace Centre is a private cultural institute which aims to preserve the lace handicraft for future generations. It manages a museum and a specialized library, organizes courses and lace workshops as well for youngsters as for adults, trains lace teachers and publishes, apart from the international magazine “KANT”, other publications. The Bruges’ Lace Centre’s ambition is to develop itself to the real knowledge centre of lace in Bruges and to a reference institute in the world of lace.

I hope to get there one day!

Chloe Tours at Vesterheim!

October 21, 2018

Exciting news!  Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum has scheduled two special tours based on the fourth Chloe Ellefson mystery, Heritage of Darkness.

Here’s the scoop on both tours:

November 10, 2018 | 1:00-4:00 p.m.

Location: Begin at Vesterheim’s main building lobby

Join us for mystery and intrigue at the museum!

This tour is for fans of Kathleen Ernst’s Chloe Ellefson Mystery Series. Kathleen’s fourth book in the series Heritage of Darkness, is set at Vesterheim Museum.

The special tour includes:
• Vesterheim Museum admission
• Guided tour to see Vesterheim artifacts and buildings featured in the mystery
• Special presentation Norwegian Courtship & Betrothal Gifts by woodworker Rebecca Hanna  (Note from Kathleen – Rebecca is wonderful. You’ll love her!)
• Treat break with Norwegian sweets mentioned in the book.

$20 per person

Spoiler alert: Read the book in advance—the ending will be revealed during the tour!

Reservations are due November 3, 2018
To sign up, contact Karla Brown at 563-382-9681 x107, or kbrown@vesterheim.org.

 

Heritage of Darkness Tour

November 30 | 2:00-5:00 p.m.

Location: Begin at Vesterheim’s main building lobby

Join writer Kathleen Ernst for mystery and intrigue at the museum!

This tour is for fans of Kathleen Ernst’s Chloe Ellefson Mystery Series. Kathleen’s fourth book in the series Heritage of Darkness, is set at Vesterheim Museum.

The special tour includes:

• Vesterheim Museum admission
• Guided tour to see Vesterheim artifacts and buildings featured in the mystery
• Special presentation given by Kathleen Ernst “The Chloe Ellefson Mysteries: Behind The Scenes!”
• Treat break with Norwegian sweets mentioned in the book.

 

$25 per person

Spoiler alert: Read the book in advance—the ending will be revealed during the tour!

Reservations are due November 23, 2018
To sign up, contact Karla Brown at 563-382-9681 x107, or kbrown@vesterheim.org.

# # #

I hope you can enjoy one of these special tours. Vesterheim is an amazing museum! I’ll also be signing Chloe books in the gift shop on December 1, from 1-4 PM during Vesterheim’s Norwegian Christmas celebration.

Belgian Pies

October 15, 2018

There are lots of fun things about writing a mystery series that celebrates ethnic heritage. One of those is the chance to explore food traditions.

When I started researching The Lacemaker’s Secret, which focuses on Belgian immigrants in northeast Wisconsin, I quickly discovered the importance of Belgian pies.

Belgian pies are a staple of Kermiss, the annual celebration of thanks for a good harvest:

“Then came the baking, which in the early days could only be done in outdoor ovens. …The Belgian pie! What would the Kermiss be without the famous delicacy, the crust of which was made of dough, spread over with prunes or apples and topped with homemade cottage cheese. So tasty it was that one bite invited another.”  (Math S. TlachacThe History of the Belgian Settlements.)

The outdoor bake ovens could hold as many as three dozen pies. Children were charged with the huge jobs of pitting and grinding prunes, peeling apples, washing dishes.  It wasn’t uncommon for several women working together to produce hundreds of pies. In fact, Belgian pie-making dwindled in recent years because many of the recipes handed down were for enormous proportions.

Photo on display at the Belgian Heritage Center, Namur, WI.

My husband and I first sampled Belgian pie while attending the Kermiss held at the Belgian Heritage Center.

Belgian Pies

An efficient storage system. They were going through the pies fast.

 

An enthusiastic thumbs-up from Mr. Ernst.

Belgian pies are smaller than American pies. Most consist of a yeast-raised dough, a fruit filling, and a top layer of cheese. Traditional flavors are apple and prune. Rice pies are also traditional. Those are topped with whipped cream instead of the cheese.

To learn more, I signed up for a class taught by Gina Guth in Door County. Gina has deep Belgian roots on her mother’s side, and has been making pies for years.  In addition to baking for Kermiss, her mom made thousands of pies for customers at the family tavern.  Gina has adapted recipes for home use.

This wonderful photo of Gina’s mother appeared in the Appleton, WI’s Post-Crescent newspaper, 1969.

During class, Gina provided four types of pie for us to try:  apple, prune, Door County cherry, and rice.

The cheese topping is made with cottage cheese sweetened with butter, sugar, and egg yolks.

Gina demonstrates squeezing excess liquid from the cottage cheese.

The dry curds.

Each student got to make two pies. I chose to make cherry and rice. The dough is pressed into the bottom of pie pans, then almost covered with the topping.

If you live within driving distance of Sturgeon Bay, WI, I recommend Gina’s class at The Flour Pot bakery.  Individuals can also register through the St. Norbert College Outreach/Cooking Class program.


As is true in any community, local bakers don’t always agree on the elements of a traditional Belgian pie. For another take, with recipes, see Edible Door County.

If your book group is reading A Lacemaker’s Secret, why not make a Belgian Pie?

You can also find them, fresh or frozen, at Marchant’s Foods in Brussels, Wisconsin.

piesign

frozenpies

Happy reading, and happy baking!

The Lacemaker’s Secret Giveaway Winners

September 14, 2018

Congratulations to KAREN AGEE, PHYLLIS NOONAN, CLARISSA PETERSON, LESLIE ROBINSON, and AMY OLSON SULLIVAN! Each has won an Advanced Review Copy of the 9th Chloe Ellefson Mystery, The Lacemaker’s Secret.

Huge thanks to all who entered—we had almost 500 entries here and on my Facebook Author Page, which was a record. It warms my heart to know there’s so much interest. Official launch date is October 8, and I’ll have lots more news to share soon.

The Lacemaker’s Secret Giveaway!

September 12, 2018

How would you like to read my new Chloe Ellefson mystery, three weeks before it is officially released?

“In this heartfelt tale of labor and love, Ernst produces one of her most winning combinations of historical evocation and clever mystery.” —Kirkus Reviews

Lacemaker's Secret ARC-Giveaway

Publishers prepare Advance Review Copies (ARCs) in order to get some buzz going prior to publication. And I have five to give away.

The five winners will be randomly selected from all entries here and on my Facebook Author Page. Each will receive a signed and personalized paperback ARC—which I will send via priority mail.

Enter to win by leaving a comment below before 11:59 PM (Central US time), Thursday, September 13, 2018. One entry per person, please.

The winners’ names will be posted here the following day. Good luck!

Why Belgians and Lace?

September 3, 2018

The 9th Chloe Ellefson Mystery, The Lacemaker’s Secret, is set in Green Bay and southern Door County, Wisconsin. It features the Belgian immigrants who arrived there in the 1850s.

The primary settings are Heritage Hill Historical Park in Green Bay, where a gorgeous Belgian-American farmhouse has been relocated and restored, and the Belgian Heritage Center in Namur, a wonderful history and cultural center.

Readers often ask how I choose locations, historical topics, and (in most cases) ethnic groups to showcase in each new Chloe Ellefson mystery. This isn’t always easy, as I have a long and ever-growing list of historic sites and museums I want to write about.

So how did Belgians and lace rise to the top of the list?

First, I only write about places I think readers would enjoy hearing about, and perhaps visiting. Heritage Hill Historical Park has preserved some phenomenal buildings, and my favorite is the Belgian Farm.

Massart Farm, Heritage Hill

The lovely Belgian Farm at Heritage Hill Historical Park previously belonged to the Massart family in Kewaunee County, WI.

Also, the Belgian Heritage Center in Namur is an incredible example of what a group of dedicated volunteers can do to preserve and share their history and cultural heritage. I first considered the Center a research stop, but decided I wanted to feature it in the book itself (even though I had to fictionalize its time of establishment to do so.)

BelgHeritageCenter

The Belgian Heritage Center is located in the former St. Mary of the Snows Catholic church, located in the community of Namur, in Door County, WI.

The other critical factor is how well the setting/topic of a new book can help reflect the personal journeys that main characters Chloe Ellefson and Roelke McKenna are taking in the series—together and individually. I think a lot about where they are emotionally at the end of the previous book, and where I want them to be by the end of the new book. I try hard to make the place and mystery plot reflect that.

One of the first things I learned about Belgian immigrants was that faith played a big role in their lives and communities.

Le Mieux Chapel, UWGB

It was common for Belgian immigrant families to build small chapels on their properties. This is the Le Mieux Chapel, in Green Bay, WI.

At the end of the previous book, Mining For Justice, Chloe and Roelke needed to consider what “having faith” meant in their relationship.

Despite all this careful thinking and planning, sometimes pure serendipity plays a role in book development as well. While attending a mystery conference a couple of years ago I met Bev, an avid mystery reader who knows a lot about lacemaking, and works with the lace curator at the National Museum of American History. She asked, would I be interested in touring the collection? Why, yes, indeed I would.

Karen

Karen, lace curator, shows me one of the many fabulous pieces in the National Museum of American History’s collection in Washington, DC.

I knew nothing about Belgium’s bobbin lace industry before my visit. The pieces of lace I saw were amazing. The stories I heard were compelling. Ideas about how bobbin lace might be featured in a future Chloe book started taking shape in my mind.

I hope The Lacemaker’s Secret might serve as a quiet tribute to the courage and tenacity of the early Belgian immigrants. Many of their descendants still live in northeast Wisconsin.

During the coming weeks I’ll share more behind-the-scenes information about the book, and its topics and themes. I’m excited about readers finally getting the chance to dive into The Lacemaker’s Secret

To learn about the book’s launch events, see my online Calendar.

Mining For Justice Giveaway Winners!

August 23, 2018

Congratulations to SHIRLEY HYING, DIANE JOHANSON, and SUE SMITH! Each won a signed, personalized copy of Mining For Justice in this month’s 8 Books in 8 Months Giveaway. Winners were chosen at random from all entries here and on my Facebook Author page.

Thanks to all who entered! Stay tuned—Mr. Ernst and I have more fun planned for September.

Mining For Justice Giveaway

August 21, 2018

This year from January through August I’m holding monthly giveaways of my Chloe Ellefson mysteries. The featured book for August is the eighth in the series, Mining For Justice.

To enter the giveaway for Mining For Justice, leave a comment below before 11:59 PM (Central US time), August 22, 2018. One entry per person, please.

Three winners will be chosen at random from all entries here and on my Facebook Author Page, and announced the next day. Each winner will receive a personalized and signed trade paperback copy of Mining For Justice
Good luck!

Digging for Information

August 20, 2018

It’s challenging to find primary-source information about Territorial Wisconsin. While researching Mining For Justice, the 8th Chloe Ellefson mystery, I was therefore delighted to learn that a few newspapers from 1837 still exist, and have been microfilmed.

Screen Shot 2016-10-21 at 6.56.35 PM

July 28, 1837. How cool is that?

They helped paint a picture of Mineral Point.

MFP - 7.14.37

Advertisements and editorials helped me understand what goods were available, and how much they cost.

MFP - 12/22/37

“Oats are from fifty cents to a dollar per bushel, the whole year round–corn the same, and potatoes almost so. Butter is thirty seven cents a pound, and all other articles in proportion….”

This notice reassured me that it was quite reasonable to have Ruan open his own blacksmith shop.

MFP 7.28.37

“The subscriber informs the public, that he has opened the above business, and intends carrying it on, in all its various branches….”

I found editorials, such as this one about Governor Dodge.

MFP 8.11.37

“We are now perfectly satisfied that Governor Dodge is unfit to be Governor of Wisconsin–and that he should forthwith, immediately, and without delay, resign a station so important to the people, for which he is entirely unqualified….”

And this notice for a missing man helped me write my own.

MFP - 9/29/37

“…Any intelligence of his fate communicated by letter…will be immediately handed to his disconsolate wife.”

I wouldn’t have known these scans existed if the kind and helpful archivist at the Mineral Point Library hadn’t clued me in. Mining For Justice readers will know that I portrayed Midge, the fictional archivist, as a research whiz. I had lots of similar help, and I’m grateful!

The Mining Museum

July 31, 2018

The latest Chloe Ellefson mystery, Mining For Justice, features Wisconsin’s lead mining era.

To learn about the miners’ work, the Mining Museum in Platteville, WI, is a great place to explore.

Touring the 1845 Bevans Lead Mine with a knowledgeable guide is a highlight. The lead region produced over 27,000 tons of lead that year!

 

About to descend into the mine. I’m holding a piece of lead ore, which is heavier than it looks.

Mining Museum staff discovered the exact location of the Bevans Mine, which had long been closed, in 1972. The city of Platteville opened the mine to the public four years later.

Mining Museum, Platteville WI

Mannequins have been arranged along the tour route to depict several aspects of mine labor.

 

Mining Museum Platteville

Just for comparison—same scene without a flash. The guides carry flashlights, and there is lighting in the mine, but spending time there reminds guests in a visceral way that these men worked in dark conditions.

 

Mining Museum, Platteville

Heavy labor.

 

Mining Museum, Platteville, WI

The “man” on the right is holding a gad (used like a chisel to loosen rock) while his partner drives it into the rock wall. This teamwork required trust and skill. Note the sticking tommy with candle in the wall nearby.

 

IMG_0883

I’m looking at a pile of rubble shoved aside and left behind by miners. It helped me picture a key scene in Mining For Justice. Museum Educator Mary is on the left.

In addition to the mine, there are formal exhibits to explore.

Mining Museum, Platteville

This display reminds guests that Native Americans were smelting lead long before white miners arrived.

 

Mining Museum, Platteville

I love this diorama, showing how miners would work down until they found a promising drift of ore. They would then dig horizontally, following the drift until it played out.

 

Version 2

Regulations for miners.

One particularly interesting display was developed by students at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. Historians knew that African American miners were involved in the lead boom, but the students dug out details about freed and enslaved black men.

In addition to touring the mine and museum, I visited one day when Stephanie, former long-time curator at the museum, was demonstrating how lead was heated to a molten state and poured into molds to make ingots.

Mining Museum, Platteville WI

Stephanie melts down lead over an open fire.

 

Mining Museum, Platteville WI

Once in a liquid state, the lead was poured into molds. After cooling, the bar of lead can be flipped out. Lead was made into ingots for ease in transporting.

 

Mining Museum, Platteville

Many thanks to Mary and Stephanie for their help!

The Mining Museum is open May through October. If you plan a visit, be sure to check the website for full details. And it’s a two-fer! You can also tour the city’s Rollo Jamison Museum.