Vessels of Tradition

A reader recently asked if the elderly couple in The Heirloom Murders was based on real people.  I was delighted with the question.

She was speaking of Johann and Frieda Frietag, a Swiss-American couple.  Many Swiss immigrants settled in Green County, WI.  Communities like New Glarus and Monroe still celebrate Swiss heritage and culture.  My protagonist Chloe meets the Frietags when she visits their farm:

Johann grinned, and Chloe glimpsed the young man he’d once been.  “People used to call me an old coot,” he told her.  “Then some lady from the historical society came out a year or so ago.  Talked about how important it is to preserve the old ways.  All of a sudden I’m a somebody important.”  He looked pleased.  “She called Frieda and me ‘vessels of tradition.’”

“That’s a fancy way of saying that we’re old,” Frieda said dryly.

Johann and Frieda are fictional characters, but they’re based on a handful of people I met back in the ’80s when I worked at Old World Wisconsin. I have special memories are of meeting some of the elderly people who donated buildings or artifacts to the historic site, or who helped researchers and curators understand life as they had known it.

Elsie Peterson and me, 1990.

Some of these people, although born and raised in Wisconsin, spoke English with an accent because they’d grown up hearing German or Norwegian or Polish.  I was young, new to Wisconsin, eager to soak up everything they had to share.  Without exception they were delightful people, patient with my questions about school activities or domestic crafts or agricultural practices, generous with their memories and information. They were living links to the ideas and themes and activities interpreted at the historic site.

Me and Otto Hilgendorf, 1982.

So Johann and Frieda Frietag became my quiet tribute to the children and grandchildren of 19th-century European immigrants—people who grew up somewhere between old world and new. I got to meet a few of them, and I’m grateful.

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2 Responses to “Vessels of Tradition”

  1. Arletta Dawdy's Blog Says:

    Dear Kathleen,
    You have a talent for drawing fine characters out of the fabric of your life experiences.

  2. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Thank you, Arletta. Most kind!

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