Gratitude Giveaway!

November 22, 2015

Congratulations to Patty Collins, Theresa Echols Haack, Nancy Gielow Hawkins, Amy Laundrie, Mary Luchsinger, and Audrey Tollefson! These names came out of the hat as winners in my Gratitude Giveaway. Thanks to everyone who entered.

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In thanks for the wonderful support you’ve given me this fall, six winners will receive a signed and personalized Chloe mystery of their choice.


To enter, leave a comment below before midnight, Monday 11/23. One entry per person. Six names will be chosen at random from all entries here and on my Facebook Author Page. Winners will be posted on Tuesday, 11/24.

To learn more about the Chloe Ellefson mysteries, check my website.

Good luck!

Laura Land Tour: Pepin, WI

November 19, 2015

Thanks for joining me for a blog tour of Laura Ingalls Wilder homesites!  Whether you’re an armchair traveler or planning your own road trip, I hope the tour helps you envision the many places Laura called home.

Replica of the Ingalls family cabin near Pepin, WI. (Kay Klubertanz photo.)

Replica of the Ingalls family cabin near Pepin, WI. (photo by Kay Klubertanz)

Laura was born seven miles north of Pepin, in western Wisconsin’s wooded hills above the Mississippi River. Many decades later she immortalized the location in the first book in her Little House canon, Little House in the Big Woods.


1932 edition. (Wikipedia)

Today Pepin, which marks the starting point of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway (linking Laura sites across the Midwest) is often the first stop for fans.

For those steeped in the setting Laura described, the initial glimpse of the Pepin homesite can be a bit of a shock.  In my new mystery, Death on the Prairie, protagonist Chloe Ellefson and her sister are taken aback when they arrive:

Chloe felt a puppy’s tail happy wiggle inside when she saw a sign for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Wayside. She pulled into the small lot and parked.

Little House Wayside, Pepin, WI

Then the inner happy wiggle subsided. “But…where are the woods?” she asked. The Wayside was a grassy picnic area, with a replica cabin representing the home were Laura was born. The few saplings sprinkled through the grounds were too young to provide shade. Picnic tables were scattered about, most occupied by other Laura sojourners wearing sunglasses and hats.

“Evidently the Big Woods have become the Big Cornfields.” Kari’s voice was hollow.

clipping, Museum Pepin WI

Clipping showing the Wayside as it looked in 1979 during the official dedication. Death on the Prairie is set in 1983, and the landscape would have looked more stark to Chloe and Kari than it does to visitors today.

The Wayside was created on a triangle of land that had been part of a large modern farm.


Countryside beyond the Wayside.

Of course I wish that the woods remained,  but on my first visit I was soon caught up in the magic of simply being right there—the place where Laura and Mary played. I wrote a blog post about that visit titled “Looking For Laura,” a phrase I later used as name for the fictional conference Chloe attends in Death on the Prairie.

Laura fans need a place to linger, and the Wayside is important. If you can, take a picnic and give yourself a chance to savor the day.Wayside

Dedicated volunteers in Pepin have also created the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in downtown Pepin. (Open May – October.  It’s always a good idea to check hours before traveling.)

LIW Museum Pepin

Visitors can see Wilder family heirlooms and artifacts relating to local history.

Rose Wilder Lane doily

Rose Wilder Lane was Laura’s daughter.

The Pepin beach and Marina are just a few blocks away.  Although the beach area has changed dramatically since Laura was a child, it’s still a pretty place to stop and reflect.

Lake Pepin is actually a wide stretch in the Mississippi River. Historians believe that the Ingalls family crossed the ice-covered lake a bit north of Pepin (closer to Stockholm) when leaving Wisconsin.

Alfred Waud, 1874

This 1874 print by Alfred Waud suggests the local landscape as it was in Laura’s day.

If you can, take drive along the river on Highway 35, which is quite scenic. If you’re coming from the east/southeast, leave Highway 94 at Osseo and take Highway 10 west, which is also lovely.

Mississippi River backwaters near Pepin

And if you want the true Chloe experience, you can stop in Osseo for coffee and pie at the famous Norske Nook .


There are other Nook locations, but Osseo is where it all started.  (Photo by Carol Highland, Library of Congress.)



A waitress told me that the Cream Cheese-Maple-Raisin pie is one of the favorites. The things I do for research…

If you’re eager to visit Pepin, the Museum will also be open Saturday, December 5, 2015, for Pepin’s Hometown Holiday celebration.  Or, put Pepin’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Days (held annually the second full weekend in September) on your 2016 calendar. This festival is also an all-volunteer effort, and it’s charming.

DSCF0705 - Version 2

Some of the excited young “Lauras” at the 2014 event.

Or, simply wait for some soft spring day, and go relive some memories from a favorite childhood book.

KAE cabin

Laura Ingalls Wilder And The Power Of Place

November 9, 2015

A strong sense of place is an essential element of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic books. Thematically, the series is all about place—finding a place to call home.

Kathleen Ernst Laura's Travels Map

Laura excelled at evoking her settings for readers. Yes, I know her books were edited by her daughter Rose. But some of Laura’s original, unedited writing is rich with vivid detail. I suspect that her descriptive skills were honed after her sister Mary went blind.

When I was a child growing up in suburban Baltimore, she brought the Big Woods and endless prairies to life in my imagination. These days I reread descriptive passages for pleasure and inspiration. Consider these examples:

Far away the sun’s edge touched the rim of the earth. The sun was enormous and it was throbbing and pulsing with light. All around the sky’s edge ran a pale pink glow, and above the pink was yellow, and above that blue. Above the blue sky was no color at all. Purple shadows were gathering over the land, and the wind was mourning.  (Little House On The Prairie)

Kansas Prairie Laura Homesite

Kansas prairie at Little House On The Prairie Museum.

Now plums were ripening in the wild-plum thickets all along Plum Creek. Plum trees were low trees. They grew close together, with many little scraggly branches all strung with thin-skinned, juicy plums. Around them the air was sweet and sleepy, and wings hummed.  (By The Banks Of Plum Creek)

plums, Plum Creek

Plums growing by Plum Creek. One day I’ll catch them when they’re ripe.

It was so beautiful that they hardly breathed. The great round moon hung in the sky and its radiance poured over a silvery world. Far, far away in every direction stretched motionless flatness, softly shining as if it were made of soft light. In the midst lay the dark, smooth lake, and a glittering monolith stretched across it. Tall grass stood up in black lines from the snow drifted in the sloughs.  (By The Shores Of Silver Lake)

Silver Lake

After several false starts, I finally found Silver Lake, on the outskirts of DeSmet, SD.

Laura fans often feel compelled to visit such places. Happily, due to the hard work of dedicated people in the communities Laura once called home, there are homesites to explore in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Kansas, and Missouri.  (Not to mention her husband Almanzo’s home in New York.)

Masters Hotel Burr Oak IA

Laura did not include the family’s time in Burr Oak, IA, in her classic canon. However, the Masters Hotel is the Laura’s only childhood home that remains on its original site, and is well worth a visit.

I am in awe, actually, of how hard many people have worked to provide a special experience for those who come looking for Laura. One of my own favorite Laura stops is the Dugout Site in Walnut Grove, MN. When Garth Williams was hired to illustrate new editions of the books, he searched for–and found—a depression that marked the spot along Plum Creek where the Ingalls family lived.


As I’ve heard the story, the farm family which owned the property was surprised when Mr. Williams knocked on their door and explained his discovery. Since then, the family has made the site accessible to visitors.

Quilt at Plum Creek

Laura and Mary worked on their quilt blocks in On The Banks Of Plum Creek. When Linda Halpin  made me a (gorgeous!) quilt featuring the blocks mentioned in Laura’s books (and in my mystery Death on the Prairie), we felt compelled to photograph it at the Dugout Site.

Something similar happened at the Kansas homesite, which was identified much more recently. Laura fans owe these generous people a debt of gratitude.

Little House on the Prairie Museum, Kansas

Prairie restoration, Little House on the Prairie Museum, KS.

It would be easier to fund a single, central Laura Ingalls Wilder museum, but that would never do. We want to experience the landscape for ourselves.

There is also something powerful about walking the ground where Laura and her family walked.

Ingall Family's Cottonwood Trees

Ingall Family’s Cottonwood Trees, near DeSmet, SD.


Version 2

I love this – make a purchase at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes gift shop in De Smet, and your bag will be adorned with a twig gathered from downed sticks in the cottonwood grove.

When I began planning Death on the Prairie, the 6th Chloe Ellefson mystery, I knew I needed to get Chloe on the road. Chloe and her sister Kari had long dreamed of making the tour, and the need to authenticate a newly discovered quilt once owned by Laura spurs the sisters  to visit the primary Laura homesites.

For those readers who savor armchair travel, I’ll be posting about each place in the coming weeks. If you’ve visited the sites, I hope you’ll share some memories!

Laura Ingalls Wilder: Book or TV?

October 24, 2015

Are you familiar with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s bestselling tales of life on the frontier of white settlement? And if so, were you introduced to the stories on the page, or on the screen?

My older sister and I read (and loved) the books as a child in the 1960s.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's books

Well-loved copies on display at the Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, IA.

The television series Little House on the Prairie began a decade later, with a pilot movie that aired in 1974. The series starred Michael Landon as Pa and Melissa Gilbert as young Laura.

May 29, 1976

May 29, 1976 – Michael Landon with his three TV daughters. (Melissa Gilbert on left)

I remember watching the first few seasons with my younger sister, and we enjoyed them. Sure, some liberties were taken—starting with the fact that Laura’s book Little House on the Prairie is set in Kansas, and the television series is set in Walnut Grove, MN (the real setting for the book On The Banks of Plum Creek.) Michael Landon did not look like Charles Ingalls (and once, I’ve read, stated that nothing would induce him to wear an “ugly” beard.) But all in all, the programs I remember from the mid-70s captured the spirit of the books.

Only recently, when working on my new Chloe Ellefson mystery Death on the Prairie, did I discover how strongly some book enthusiasts dislike the series.

A docent at one of the Wilder homesites told me she’d had to break up an argument between “book people” and “TV people.” Another, at a different homesite, told me that she’d had children break into tears when they discovered that in real life, Mary Ingalls (Laura’s older sister, who lost her sight as a child) never married.

July 14, 1979 – Michael Landon, Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary), and Linwood Boomer (Mary’s husband Adam)

I hadn’t realized how far from the original books the programs had strayed until very recently, when I sampled a few of the final programs.

I will always love the books the best. The books introduced me to Laura Land, and I like knowing that the stories are presented as Laura wanted them.

KAE w/ LHBW - KK Photo

My original hardcover copy, still treasured.

But there is another important side to the debate. Someone who works at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, MN, explained that most people in her community embraced the television series and its legacy—even though she often has to gently help visitors understand that not everything they watched on TV was true.

Version 2

As many Laura fans know by now, everything in the books is not true either. While largely autobiographical, the books are presented as fiction, with details changed, enhanced, or deleted to serve the purpose of the stories.

The first time I visited the Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, IA—a location omitted from the books entirely—a family from France was on my tour. Dad explained that he’d grown up watching Little House on the Prairie on French television, loved it, and wanted to share his enthusiasm with his wife and children.

This is the original building where the Ingalls family lived.

The Ingalls family briefly lived and worked in this building.

I might wish that the television series had not wandered quite so far from the original material. But I remember studying the principles of effective heritage interpretation in college. Freeman Tilden, author of the classic Interpreting Our Heritage, wrote that “the chief aim is not instruction, but provocation.”

If the television programs provoke viewers to learn more, to read Laura’s books, to read Laura historians’ books, to visit the sites—that’s a wonderful thing.

And as a mystery author, the complexities of studying and celebrating Laura Ingalls Wilder’s literary legacy provided rich material to explore. In Death on the Prairie, Chloe—who’s not me, but is a lot like me—tours the homesites. While trying to learn more about a quilt believed to have been owned by the author, and solving a murder or two, Chloe is forced to confront the differing perspectives and opinions within the Laura community. (Her sister Kari, for example, reveals that Little House on the Prairie is her daughters’ favorite television program.)


If you’re a Little House fan, what ignited your interest?

The Ones Left Behind

September 23, 2015

Scott and I recently spent two weeks in Norway (lucky us!) and I thought a lot about the conditions that prompted so many people to leave in the 1800s.

I also thought a lot about the people who did not emigrate—from Norway and elsewhere. How wrenching it must have been for parents or grandparents to watch their loved ones leave home for a distant continent.

The Emigrants by S. V. Helander (1839–1901): a young farmer bids a sober farewell to friends and relatives. (Swedish)

In The Emigrants, a young farmer says farewell to friends and relatives.  (painting by Swedish artist S. V. Helander.)

We heard a story of several men who left a rural Norwegian village, bound for America. Several years later, one returned to recruit more settlers. About two hundred people chose to follow him—leaving eight residents behind.

The youngest son's farewell - 1867

The Youngest Son’s Farewell. (Painting by Norwegian artist Adolf Tideland, 1867.)

Eight people left from a village of over two hundred! I imagine that most were elderly, too frail to face the arduous journey. How quiet and empty the days must have seemed.

One of the letter collections I mined while working on A Settler’s Year: Pioneer Life Through the Seasons involved an extended German family, the Frank-Kerlers. Siblings began immigrating in 1848, settling in  Wisconsin and Michigan with the expectation that their parents, John and Auguste, would follow.

The absent children (and their own growing families) were never far from the parents’ minds. Plans to follow their children were thwarted in 1851, and again in 1852. That year John wrote, “Today is the 5th of July, a sorrowful day for us as you began you fateful trip…”

The Emigrants' Farewell

Abschied Der Auswanderer/The Emigrants’ Farewell (painting by L. Bokelmann,1883)

In February of 1853 their mother, Auguste Frank, provided a clear picture of her ambivalent feelings about the journey when she wrote, “You have no idea how often I long for you, but then comes the fear of the big trip. But if our dear God and Father wills it, it will be done and I must submit.”

In October of that year Henry Frank wrote to his parents, “So this longed-for joy of having my old parents around me to the end of their days will finally be fulfilled!” Despite delays and setbacks, plans to reunite the family continued.

Then in 1854 Mathilde, the only child remaining in Germany, got engaged—ending not only her own plans to leave Germany, but her parents’ as well. John broke the news in a letter:  “My dear sons and daughters, the thought will hardly become words, the words do not want to enter the pen…and yet the hard—I believe it is harder for me than for you–words must be spoken.  We are not coming.”

Auguste echoed, “You realize we cannot keep our promise and come now, for we must use our savings to prepare a dowry for Mathilde, our last child.”

Auguste was likely not comforted when one of the American children responded, “You have given up the decision to come to us.  …I must cry, always cry, when I think of it.”

When Auguste died in 1861, one of her children wrote, “…My grief is boundless that she never saw any of her children in America again.”

(All excerpts from German-American Pioneers in Wisconsin and Michigan:  The Frank-Kerler Letters, 1849-1864, collected by Dr. Louis F. Frank, Milwaukee County Historical Society, 1971)

immigrants leaving Ireland

Immigrants leaving Ireland.  In the British Isles, as elsewhere in the 19th century, most of those left behind never saw their loved ones again.  (Artist unknown.)

For many on either side of the Atlantic, only correspondence and a strong religious faith provided comfort. An 1854 letter from three Wisconsin settlers to loved ones in Norway ends with these words: “Live well and if we are not fortunate enough to see one another more in this world may we all meet and go forward with gladness in the next.”  (Gunleik Asmundson Bondal Collection, State Historical Society of WI)


The Lonely Old People, (Adolph Tidemand,1849. Norsk Folkmuseum)


Immigrant Children

September 16, 2015

Immigrating as an adult in the 19th century would have been challenging enough. Can you imagine what the trip might have been like for a young child?

Kathleen Ernst Collection

(Kathleen Ernst Collection)

Or for a parent needing to keep a toddler safe—or an infant relatively clean and comfortable—during the journey?

(Kathleen Ernst Collection)

(Kathleen Ernst Collection)

While collecting accounts for A Settler’s Year:  Pioneer Life Through The Seasons, my primary focus was the New World experience. I wasn’t able to use most of the travel accounts I found—but they’re part of the big picture.

The upheaval of leaving one’s home and everything familiar must have been enormous to a child.

Exhibit, Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum

Norwegian children preparing to immigrate.  (Exhibit, Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum)

Ingeborg Holdahl (Alvstad) was four when she left Valdres, Norway with her parents and five siblings. “My mother was not well and could not cope with all of us all the time,” she wrote later.  Their ship began leaking so badly that all on board might have drowned had not a Portuguese cattle ship come to their aid. “I was let down in a basket [to the life boat] all by myself. There had to be haste and no attempt was made to keep members of a family together.”

Once safe on the Portuguese ship, “What a hubbub on board. No one having any definite place to go. Parents hunting for their children and children trying to find their parents. …I remember being jostled around in a dense crowd of people almost smothering me…  Finally someone picked me up and set me on a long table where I sat, tired and not daring to move. It seemed an endless time of waiting until my father came and found me.”

By 1899, when these women and children from eastern Europe immigrated, they at least had a faster journey than those traveling decades earlier.

LC - [Group of emigrants (women and children) from eastern Europe on deck of the S.S. Amsterdam] Johnston, Frances Benjamin, 1864-1952, photographer Created / Published [1899]

(Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, Library of Congress)

In big families, older children were expected to help tend younger ones. Given the perils inherent in the journey, those eight- and ten- and twelve-year-olds shouldered a lot of responsibility. This Polish mother of nine clearly relied on her oldest girls.

Polish Mother and 9 children. NPS - Ellis Island

(National Park Service, Ellis Island National Monument)

Three of these Dutch girls are holding younger siblings.

Dutch Familys - Version 2

(Interesting that the parents are dressed in current fashion, and the children in traditional attire.)

Still, children are resilient. Perhaps many of those old enough to keep themselves safe enjoyed the adventure.

(National Park Service, Ellis Island National Monument.)

And parents needed only to glance at their children to remember why they left everything familiar behind: to create a better life for future generations.

Precious Papers

August 17, 2015

A museum curator’s job includes studying, preserving, and interpreting historical objects. When I worked at Old World Wisconsin I thought a lot about objects immigrants used in their New World homes. As I was writing  A Settler’s Year, I thought a lot about the things immigrants chose to carry on their journey.

A few years ago I enjoyed a behind-the-scenes tour of some of the artifacts in storage at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. Chief Curator Laurann Gilbertson showed a collection I’d never considered—immigrant wallets.

A drawer full of wallets.

Wallets carefully preserved.

As she talked about them, I realized how important these wallets were for those traveling from Europe. Immigrants painstakingly calculated expenses, and money had to be meted out with care.


In addition to money, these wallets often held precious papers. According to a museum exhibit, these papers might include a “passport” giving a traveler permission to leave, a statement from the local church attesting to his or her good standing, and certificates of vaccination for “cow pox” or other diseases.

Document on display at Vesterheim.

Travel document on display at Vesterheim.


Travel document on display at Vesterheim.

Given the importance of what was to be carried in these wallets, it’s not surprising that some show real craftsmanship.


They conjure images of immigrants carefully tucking away their precious documents and money. I imagine men patting their pockets from time to time, reassuring themselves their wallets were still there. I imagine women slipping wallets under their pillows at night for safekeeping.


Immigrant literature includes many tales of theft, or swindlers waiting in every port to take advantage of newcomers. But with good planning and some luck, the wallets and their contents would see the immigrants safely to their new homes.

Old World Wisconsin: A Photographer’s Paradise

August 11, 2015
I am delighted to welcome Loyd Heath to Sites and Stories today!
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Most of the photographs in Kathleen Ernst’s latest book A Settler’s Year: Pioneer Life Through the Seasons were taken by me at Old World Wisconsin, an outdoor living history museum located in Eagle, Wisconsin. Kathleen invited me to write this post about my interest in Old World, some of my thoughts about photography, and how I got involved in this project.

Loyd Heath

Although I have lived in the Seattle area for over 50 years, my late wife and I are originally from Wisconsin. When we retired in 1998 we took a road trip to Wisconsin to revisit some of our old haunts. Old World was not one of them because it didn’t open to the public until 1976, long after we had left Wisconsin. But after discovering Old World on the web we decided to stop. Our visit was brief but when I discovered the ten working farms, the Yankee Village, the farm animals, and the interpreters and farmers dressed in 19th century period costumes going about their daily activities, I said to my wife “this is a photographer’s paradise, I’m coming back.” I did, and I’ve been coming back to photograph several times every year since.

Kathleen used many of my Old World photos in A Settler’s Year to provide a glimpse into pioneer life but I have many that didn’t make the cut for various reasons.

Although I have photographed all of the farms at Old World, I probably have more shots of the Fossebrekke farm (located in the Norwegian area of the museum) than any other. Several of them are included in the book but the Fossebrekke farm is so photogenic that I have taken hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photos there. The one room cabin is small and spartan but it tells much about how early immigrants to Wisconsin lived and is located in such a beautiful setting with so much activity that I return to Fossebrekke again and again.

Fossebrekke farm in the Norwegian area.

Fossebrekke farm in the Norwegian area.

An interpreter cooks a pancake in the 1845 Fossebrekke (Norwegian) cabin.

An interpreter cooks flatbread in the 1845 Fossebrekke (Norwegian) cabin.

Friends often ask why I keep returning to the same place. They want to know whether I get a “been there/done that” feeling at Old World. They don’t understand that the museum is not a static place; it is a living history museum. Activities are constantly changing, the people and animals are constantly changing, and the light and colors are constantly changing. A photo taken today is different from one taken at the same place on another day – or even another hour or minute.

Photography requires great patience. I spend much of my time just observing what is unfolding before me so I can snap my shutter when the elements in my viewfinder appear “just right” to create the image that best conveys what I want it to say. This is what the famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson dubbed the “decisive moment” i.e. the moment when the elements of an image are best aligned and the action is at its best or peak.

Although the farms and 19th century architecture are great subjects for photography, my camera often leads me to children visitors and their activities. The site is filled with school groups on weekdays and families with children on weekends.

A group of schoolchildren on a field trip enjoy a tug of war with Teddy and Bear, Old World oxen while their teacher and parent chaperone watch and photograph the event. Photo taken in the German area at the at the 1860 Schulz farm.

A group of schoolchildren on a field trip enjoy a tug of war with Teddy and Bear, Old World oxen, while their teacher and parent chaperone watch and photograph the event. Photo taken in the German area at the at the 1860 Schulz farm.

A young boy befriends the farm animals.

A young boy befriends the farm animals.

Windows provide many opportunities for photos. They often provide interesting frames. Here’s a shot I used on the cover of an on-demand photo book I designed featuring the windows of Old World.


Windows also provide beautiful soft light for interior shots. When I first started photographing at Old World I used film. Since most of the buildings are quite dark, I often encountered situations where there was not enough light to shoot without a tripod and tripods are not permitted in the buildings. Flash is a poor alternative because it produces harsh contrasty light that destroys the ambiance of those old structures. It also tends to distract subjects who are engaged in some activity. It makes them look up and “smile for the camera,” another look I generally try to avoid.

But photography has changed. Modern digital cameras are far more sensitive to light than film so I am now able to capture high quality handheld images that would have been impossible just a few years ago. Here are a couple of shots I captured recently using only available window light and no tripod.

Windows provided the Kvaale family with light for doing household chores. Here a window provides light for showing a school group how things were done in the "old days."

Windows provided the Kvaale family with light for doing household chores. Here a window provides light for showing a school group how things were done in the “old days.”

An interpreter prepares food in the kitchen of the Kvaale farmhouse.

An interpreter prepares food in the kitchen of the Kvaale farmhouse.

Special events provide great opportunities for photos at Old World. A Civil War encampment is held each year with reenactors portraying events that occurred during the war. Several years ago the Civil War event included a funeral of a Yankee soldier. His casket, surrounded by flowers, was displayed in the parlor of the Sanford House in the Village and the following day was carried to the church where a funeral service was held and the casket was buried with a 21 gun salute.

Civil War Collage copy

Since I switched from film to digital, I now shoot everything in color. But I love the nostalgic or “antiquey” look of black and white or sepia and it seems appropriate for a 19th century living history museum so I often convert selected images to monochrome. Here’s an example that illustrates the different “feel” I can achieve by converting an image from color to monochrome or “grayscale” as it is now often called. I like both the color and the black & white renditions of this image, but they are very different. The color emphasizes the lusciousness of the spring foliage whereas the B&W draws the eye to the shapes of the main elements of the image, the farmer, the oxen, and the wagon.

Teddy and Bear, Old World oxen, haul a load of hay through the German area of Old World Wisconsin on a wet spring day.

Teddy and Bear, Old World oxen, haul a load of hay through the German area of Old World Wisconsin on a wet spring day.

Teddy and Bear, Old World oxen, haul a load of hay through the German area of Old World Wisconsin on a wet spring day.

Teddy and Bear, Old World oxen, haul a load of hay through the German area of Old World Wisconsin on a wet spring day.

Old World is a great place for portraiture. I like my portraits to have a candid look so I sometimes have to ask interpreters not to pose, but that is never true of the animals. Some of them “moon” me when I approach, but this pig went right on with his bath.

Cooling off on a warm summer day.

Cooling off on a warm summer day.

When organizing my photos I have labeled some of them “artsy.” These are creative images that are often somewhat abstract. They tend to be architectural scenes that I find aesthetically pleasing . Here are a couple of examples:

Mary Hafford's bedroom as seen through her bedroom window.

Mary Hafford’s bedroom as seen through her bedroom window.

Grotelueschen blacksmith shop on the left and Peterson wagon shop on the right, both in the heart of Crossroads village.

Grotelueschen blacksmith shop on the left and Peterson wagon shop on the right, both in the heart of Crossroads village.

Note the different shapes in this image, the triangles, the squares, the rectangles, and even a couple of circles. It is these shapes that attract your eye and make the image interesting.

Friends often ask me what type of camera I use at Old World. High quality images can be captured with almost any type of equipment. When I used to judge the Old World photo contest we often awarded prizes to images shot with “point and shoots,” (sometimes dubbed PHD cameras as in “Push Here Dummy”), and even a few with cell phones.

Yet nevertheless I have to admit that I use high-end equipment (professional single lens reflex cameras and high quality large aperture lenses) because it enables me to be more flexible in my shooting and increases my chances of capturing high quality images.  But that also has a downside.  I am often approached by people who comment on what a “beautiful” camera I have.  I know they are just trying to be friendly and mean well but I have difficulty knowing how to respond because in my world cameras are useful but not “beautiful.”

When one of my photographer friends receives a comment of this type, he often responds by relating the story of a magazine publisher who threw a cocktail party for contributors to a recent issue. During the festivities one of the authors approached one of the photographers and commented somewhat haughtily, “I really enjoyed your photographs; you must have a very fine camera” whereupon the photographer retorted “and I really enjoyed your article; you must have a very fine typewriter.” Moral of the story: although a good camera can help, serious photographers believe there is far more to making a good photo than a good camera.

And I use the term making rather than taking because I believe that post processing (i.e., adjusting color, tonal values, cropping, etc.) of an image after capture is frequently as important as clicking the shutter. He didn’t have the digital tools we have today, but Ansel Adams, the famous landscape photographer, was famous in part because of his post processing of images. (He did it in the darkroom, not on a computer.) He once jokingly said that dodging and burning (i.e, adjusting tonal values) is the photographer’s way of correcting the mistakes God made when He established tonal values.

Old World encourages visitors to bring their cameras (SLRs, point and shoots, cell phones or whatever) and it sponsors an annual contest with significant monetary prizes and publicity for photos taken on site. For more information about the contest click HERE.

And for more information about my photography see

Immigrants And The Erie Canal

August 5, 2015

When thinking about the journey undertaken by 19th-century European immigrants, my mind instinctively conjures pictures of life aboard ships crossing the Atlantic. But when travelers bound for the Upper Midwest reached North America, their journey was far from over. Many traveled to Albany and boarded a boat headed west on the Erie Canal.

Erie Canal Packet Boats -- from: American Traveller, Boston, May 30, 1828

(1828 advertisement)

The canal, which was completed in 1825, linked the Hudson River to Lake Erie. Although originally intended to haul goods and freight, immigrants soon discovered that traveling west was faster and cheaper on the canal than by carriage.

Opening of the Erie Canal, in 1825  / [drawing by] A.R.W. ; [engraved by] Swinton So. -- From an unidentified history text, p. 167 ; approx. 1890?

(Drawing by A.R.W., c. 1890.)

Many Europeans, and Yankees leaving New England, boarded packet boats.

The Packet Boat -- from: Marco Paul's Travels on the Erie Canal / Jacob Abbott (Harper & Brothers, 1852) p. 44

(Marco Paul’s Travels on the Erie Canal, 1852.)

Deck space was limited, so passengers often passed time on the roof when the weather was fair. They had to duck, or even flatten themselves on the planks, when passing under low bridges.

Bridge [with packet boat] / by W. Roberts (from:  Marco Paul's voyages & travels, Erie Canal / by Jacob Abbott. -- Harper & Brothers (New York), c1852. -- p.71)

(Marco Paul’s Travels on the Erie Canal, 1852.)

Some accounts of travel on the Erie Canal are idyllic, with passengers noting pleasant scenery and conversation. Those with extra cash might pay the ship’s cook to prepare their meals. Some men chose to walk along the towpath between one stop and the next, which gave them time for some extra sight-seeing or shopping.

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(Sunday on the Canal, Paul Frenzeny, colorized version of woodcut printed in Harper’s Weekly, 1873; Erie Canal Museum)

But poor immigrants most likely found themselves on crowded boats, in conditions no better than the worst steerage on ocean vessels. Frederika Bremer, a Swedish travel writer, spoke to two young Norwegian immigrants who “complained of uncleanliness and the want of comfort in the canal-boats.”


(source unknown)

Poor immigrants ate cold food they brought on board, or cooked on deck. “Try to find a clean boat that is not too crowded,” Karl Brünhuber advised his brother. (Exhibit, Erie Canal Museum) As many as one hundred people might travel on a packet boat.

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Exhibit, Erie Canal Museum.

Immigrants hauling bulky tools of their trade or other large cargo chose work boats, which were slower but less expensive.

Lumber Boats on the Erie Canal -- from: Forest Preservation in the State of New York / by Cuyler Reynolds.  In: The New England Magazine (Boston : Warren F. Kellogg), New series, vol. XIX, no. 2, Oct. 1898

(“Forest Preservation in the State of New York,” by Cuyler Reynolds; The New England Magazine, Oct. 1898)

“America letters” advised prospective immigrants to plan carefully. “When these sharpers say that it is much cheaper to ride on the canal from Albany to Buffalo, they are perfectly right; but that the freight for goods on these canal boats is shamelessly high—of that they say not a word.” (“Letters and Diary of John Fr. Diederichs, 1848,” WI Magazine of History, March 1924.)

Grain-Boat on the Erie Canal -- from: America Illustrated / edited by J. David Williams. (Boston :  DeWolfe, Fisk & Co., c1883) -- p. 88

(America Illustrated,  c. 1883)

Passengers paid by the mile. When they reached the end of the line, those headed to Wisconsin and beyond paused once again to arrange passage on a steamship that would take them through Lake Erie, Lake Huron, and finally Lake Michigan and on to Green Bay, Milwaukee, Kenosha, or another port.


Many of the immigrants discussed in A Settler’s Year:  Pioneer Life Through The Seasons traveled on the Erie Canal.  You can learn more about this part of their journey at the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, New York.

Erie Canal Museum

In downtown Syracuse, a statue of a mule and his young tender gazes across Erie Boulevard to the Erie Canal Museum.

The museum preserves the only remaining weigh lock building in the US.


A weigh lock checked the freight load a boat carried. The captain was charged accordingly. (Erie Canal Museum)

Today visitors can step aboard a line boat (work boat) in what was once the lock.

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Erie Canal Museum

Notice how narrow the boats were. Passengers had to walk on the roof to get from bow to stern.

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Bunks like these were lowered after the evening meal. Curtains separated the women’s quarters from the men’s. Often the floor was packed with sleepers as well.


Travelers weren’t permitted in the crew quarters at the back of the ship.

And inside the formal museum, exhibits tell the story of the Erie Canal—how it was built, who built it, how it changed over the years.


Model Packet Boat.

You can also learn more at the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, and The Erie Canal website.

The Erie Canal was a commercial success, allowing merchants to get their goods to growing Euro-Yankee settlements west of the seaboard, and farmers to send their produce to market.

But perhaps even more dramatic was how the US population spread after the canal’s completion, when thousands of immigrants boarded canal boats, headed for their new homes.

Immigrant Trunks

July 6, 2015

A Settler’s Year:  Pioneer Life Through the Seasons focuses primarily on newcomers’ experience after reaching their destination. But many of the European immigrants’  diaries, letters, and reminiscences included poignant descriptions of their journey from old world to new.

Museums and historic sites like Old World Wisconsin preserve not only the stories, but bits of the travelers’ surviving material culture. And there is, perhaps, no other object more closely tied to the immigrant experience than the immigrant trunk.

Some were plain, and purely functional.

Chest, trunk. CL*314563.01.

This trunk was constructed of pine, with simple iron fittings, c. 1880.  (Smithsonian National Museum of American History)


This one was used by a Dominican sister from France in 1880. (Smithsonian National Museum of American History.)

Schulz House, Old World Wisconsin

This plain wooden trunk has beautiful ironwork details.  Some immigrants chose trunks with rounded lids, hoping it would keep them from being buried on the bottom of towering stacks of trunks packed in the hold. (Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin, Eagle, WI)

Many trunks were painted with the owner’s name.


(Swiss Historical Village & Museum, New Glarus, WI.)

Add a description…Elk Horn Iowa

(Museum of Danish America, Elk Horn, IA)

Some had a bit of painted decoration…

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(Swiss Historical Village & Museum, New Glarus, WI)


Swedish Immigrant trunk, 1867. (Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

Wisconsin Historical Museum, Madison,

Trunk used by Halvor Anderson Lovaas on his trip from Norway, 1860. (Wisconsin Historical Museum, Madison, WI)

And some, such as these Norwegian immigrant trunks, were exquisitely painted.


(Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Decorah, IA)


This might be my favorite.  (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Decorah, IA)

Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum

Rosemaled trunks in open storage. ((Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Decorah, IA)


Detail on trunk visible in preceding photo. Painted by Ola Eriksen Tveitejorde, Voss, Norway. (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Deborah, IA)

Artistry aside, any immigrant trunk is valuable because it represents the people who struggled to fit their old lives within its confines. How many times did a family pack and repack it in the weeks leading up to departure? What was the most efficient way to pack?

Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum

This exhibit at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum suggests the difficult choices immigrants had to make. What would fit? What had to be left behind?

First must come the essentials: food for the journey, warm clothes, seeds, necessary tools. People didn’t always have accurate information about what was available in America, or how much it would cost.

And surely treasured mementos of home were squeezed in, too.

Kathleen Ernst, Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum

Many ale bowls (which inspired my first Chloe Ellefson mystery, Old World Murder) made their way from Old World to New. Since bowls like this one wouldn’t have been easy to pack, they must have been treasured keepsakes. (Artifacts in storage at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum)

Wisconsin Historical Museum

This trunk, originally brought from Ireland, is shown with items both practical and, perhaps, “for best.” (Wisconsin Historical Museum, Madison, WI)

For the earliest immigrants, trunks served as furniture and storage in the New World.

Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

The Schulz Farm at Old World Wisconsin depicts a family which had only been in the US for a few years, so furniture was relatively spartan and basic.  A huge trunk provides storage and, perhaps, a place to leave a shawl or book if needed.

But in time, trunks often ended in attics or outbuildings, filled with old clothes or pressed into service as grain bins. Gorgeously painted trunks were once so common, I’m told, that even museums with a focus on immigration had to decline many offered donations.

Wisconsin Historical Museum

This lovely trunk got a second life when Per Lysne, who many credit with the revival of rosemaling in the US, painted it in the 1930s or 1940s. (Wisconsin Historical Museum, Madison, WI)

Every trunk saved is a tangible reminder of the often anguished choices people made about what they might carry, what must be left behind.

Fortunately, hopes and dreams took up no space at all.

(Kay Klubertanz photo)

(Kay Klubertanz photo)

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Want to see more trunks?  Vesterheim has a fabulous collection of rosemaled trunks online.


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