Archive for the ‘The Heirloom Murders’ Category

Special Old World Wisconsin Tour — And Tickets Giveaway!

May 13, 2012

Old World Wisconsin is the premier outdoor history museum in Wisconsin, and one of the very best in the country. If you have ever visited Old World, then you know what I mean. If you haven’t yet, then a memorable experience awaits you.

Starting in 1982, I spent twelve years there as an interpreter and curator. When I wrote my first two Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery books, Old World Murder and The Heirloom Murders, I set many of the key scenes in the museum’s public and private areas that I knew so well.

If you’d enjoy seeing where many of those scenes take place, and discussing them, then please join me for an exclusive, before-hours/behind-the-scenes guided tour through the historic buildings that make up a big part of Chloe’s world.

You’ll also have the special opportunity to hear about the historic buildings from Old World Curator Marty Perkins, who knows more about the historic site than anyone else.

The inaugural tour will be held Sunday morning June 10th. Attendance is limited to facilitate Q&A. Prior registration is required. In addition to the tour, tickets provide access to a group reception, and to the museum for the rest of the day. This is a fundraiser — all proceeds go to support Old World. For additional details, including how to sign-up, click HERE.

Want to attend, but the gas pump ate your ticket money?

Don’t despair! I’m giving away one free pair of tickets to the June 10th tour. If you’re 18 or older, you could be the lucky winner. To enter the contest drawing, just send me an email at k.ernst at (replace “at” with @). I’ll announce the winner next Monday, May 21st, so reply before then (just one entry per person please).

I hope to see you on the tour!

Frieda’s Kitchen

March 14, 2012

If you’ve read the second Chloe Ellefson novel, The Heirloom Murders, you’ve met Frieda Frietag.  Frieda is an elderly woman of Swiss descent, living in an old family farmhouse in Green County, WI.  Based on reader response, Frieda and her husband have become favorite characters.

In the book, Chloe meets Frieda in her kitchen:

Martine led them through the house to the kitchen.  The room was hot enough to take Chloe’s breath away, but also welcoming in a cluttered and comfortable way.

“Gran?” Martine said.  “Here are the visitors I was telling you about.”

A tiny wren of a woman with stooped shoulders turned from an iron-and-enamel cookstove.  Markus made introductions.  Frieda beamed at him, then turned to Chloe.  “Gruetzi!”

“Hello,” Chloe said.  “I’m afraid I’m not fluent in your first language.”  She’d tried hard to scour all things Swiss from her mind, and her command of the language was rusty at best.

“No matter,” Frieda assured her.  “I’m glad you’re here.”

I like to pin my books on real places to the extent possible.  The inspiration for that kitchen came from a display at the Swiss Historical Village and Museum in New Glarus, Wisconsin.  THM takes place in 1982, so I thought this kitchen might not be too far from what a traditional woman, well advanced in years, might have.

Most people pass on without leaving diaries or reminiscences handy for curious novelists.  But sometimes, the essence of a time and place can be sensed in the objects that  people owned, used, made, cared for, and left behind.  My favorite artifacts in the kitchen?  These embroidered storage bags, which provide a hint—just a hint—of the woman who made them.  I hope she’d be pleased to know that they have a place of honor in the museum.

Giving Thanks

November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I enjoy good food; even more, I enjoy pausing to celebrate bounty. So this week I thought I’d re-post some thoughts about the simple pleasure of homemade  bread.

Bread dough raising in a coiled rye straw basket at Old World Wisconsin.

Two of German farms that have been restored at Old World Wisconsin, setting for my Chloe Ellefson mysteries, were home to immigrants from Pomerania. The 1860 Schulz Farm represents a newly-arrived family. Heavy rye bread is baked in a brick bakeoven.

That's me at the Schulz Farm...

The Koepsell Farm has been restored to its 1880 appearance—when the family was prosperous and well settled in Wisconsin. Interpreters there prepare lighter wheat bread in a cookstove. By visiting both farms, guests can see for themselves how life changed over the years.

...and at the Koepsell Farm.

I worked in the German area for most of 1982—my first year at Old World Wisconsin.  On the last day of the season I suddenly realized I should have copied all of the recipes we used.  One of my friends, Jean Hornburg, scribbled down the basic recipe for the Koepsell wheat bread on an Exhibit Building Report (kept in the houses so interpreters could notify curators of any problem.)

Thirty years later, I still treasure the recipe. The bread is good. Even better are memories of sharing meals with good people who thought that working at Old World was a special thing to do.

By the way, Jean still sometimes works at the site. I had the chance to see her when I went back to launch The Heirloom Murders in September.

One of the best things about writing the Chloe Ellefson mysteries has been reconnecting with friends!

This Thanksgiving I’m grateful to have good food to eat, and family and friends to share it with. I’m also grateful to readers!  I wish you and yours a peaceful holiday.

Vessels of Tradition

October 19, 2011

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.


August 29, 2011

The Heirloom Murders is officially in print. It was published a little earlier than expected, actually. That means I’ve already had the pleasure of hearing from readers.

Book 2 in the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries.

For the most part I don’t blog about my own books, but I do want to say how much I appreciate all the personal connections that the two Chloe Ellefson mysteries have brought into my life.

I’ve had the chance to re-connect with many friends from the 1980s and 1990s. Most recently, I did a program at Muskego Public Library. I was greeted by the president of the Friends group, which had sponsored my visit to Muskego. She was someone I’d worked with years ago, but hadn’t seen in many years. I’ve had similar, equally wonderful surprises at several programs.

Sandi Snyder and me, Muskego Library (photo by Patricia Nakamura)

I’ve also learned new things about friends and acquaintances.  I never knew how many people had cherished pieces of Norwegian folk art in their own homes, often created by an ancestor, until Old World Murder was published. (OWM features a missing carved and painted ale bowl.) A couple of people sent photos, which I loved receiving.

I’ve heard from people I’ve never met, but who once lived in Eagle or New Glarus and wrote to tell me how much fun they had picturing places as they read.

And I’ve made new friends—readers who come to programs and take the time to let me know about their own interest in history. One person sent me an article she’d written. Another sent poetry.  How cool is that?

So for everyone who has been in touch—in person, here at Sites and Stories, on my Facebook page, via email or letter—thank you.

Finally, congratulations to the three winners in the Heirloom Murders pre-order contest.  Lori O. of Bismarck, ND, chose a personalized copy of Putting Down Roots:  Gardening Insights From Wisconsin’s Early Settlers; Jennifer R. of Andover, MA, choose a bookstore gift certificate; and Barb J. of Eagle, WI, chose a gift certificate from Seed Savers Exchange.

Willkommen to Volksfest!

August 11, 2011

Since Swiss heritage is a theme in my latest Chloe Ellefson/Historic Sites Mystery, The Heirloom Murders, my husband Scott and I have spent the past couple of years poking around the lovely communities in Green County, WI. Towns in this area have a strong Swiss presence. New Glarus, which proudly claims the title of “America’s Little Switzerland,” was settled by immigrants from the Canton of Glarus in 1845.

An iconic image.

Last year Scott and I attended the Green County Cheese Days festival in Monroe. It was great fun, and I had the chance to confirm a few details needed for my book. It was also big and boisterous.

This summer, we made plans to attend Volksfest in New Glarus, the community’s celebration of Swiss National Day. The observance commemorates the birth of the Swiss nation on August 1, 1291, when three Alpine cantons swore an oath of confederation.  In New Glarus, Volksfest has since 1929 taken place in a small park just north of town.

It’s a peaceful, lovely spot. Guests sit in the shade of magnificent old oaks. Rolling farmland is visible beyond the stage.

Music from the Green County Alphorns drifted over fields that Swiss-Americans have farmed since 1845.

The program featured a variety of Swiss entertainment:

The New Glarus Kinderchor was a big hit.

So was the Jodlerklub New Glarus.

Special guest Emanuel Krucker, visiting from Switzerland, played the Hackbrett (a folk instrument, similar to a hammered dulcimer).

A few of the New Glarus performers celebrating Volksfest were born in Switzerland. When the MC asked “How many of you are Swiss?” about half of the people in attendance raised their hands. I did; my father’s parents were born and raised in Switzerland, and I’m proud of that part of my cultural identity. But it really didn’t matter where the performers and visitors came from. Everyone enjoyed the afternoon.

After the performance, all were welcome at a dance held in the nearby barn.

Many communities in the Upper Midwest have a strong ethnic flavor, instilled by whatever cultural group was predominant among early European settlers. National celebrations like this were once observed by immigrants who remembered the old country.  Later they were observed by the American-born descendants of those immigrants.

In many towns that ethnic heritage has by now evolved into a celebration of community, rather than personal, history. Some people fear the traditions might fade away altogether. In New Glarus, at least, Swiss traditions are still going strong.

This little guy is starting on ethnic attire–his jaunty cap–at a young age.

One of the guest speakers summed up the mood well:  “I’ve often felt Swiss-American. Today is the first time I’ve felt Swiss in America.”

The Heirloom Murders – coming soon!

July 5, 2011

Living history can be murder!

Book 2 in the Chloe Ellefson mystery series, The Heirloom Murders, is off to the printer.  Two months to launch date!  Here’s the scoop:

“Working for Old World Wisconsin, Chloe Ellefson delights in losing herself in antiques and folk traditions—and forgetting her messy love life. Then the outdoor ethnic museum becomes a murder scene. Does the missing Eagle diamond, a legendary gemstone unearthed in 1876, have anything to do with it? Could Simon Sabatola, a rich AgriFutures executive who possibly drove his wife to suicide, be responsible? Chloe learns that some things never change in this compelling mystery of old fashioned greed, Swiss green cheese, and a nearly extinct heirloom flower.”

Publishers Weekly says “Entertaining…  Greed, passion, skill, and luck all figure in this surprise-filled outing.”

The book is available for pre-order now. Publishers love pre-orders.  They send good signals about upcoming releases.

I like to make my publishers happy.  And I like to make readers happy.  I’m grateful to both parties—I wouldn’t have a career without them!

So here’s the deal:  Anyone who lets me know that they have ordered a copy of The Heirloom Murders will be eligible for a prize.  I’ll draw three winners on August 15th.  Winners will get their choice of:

1. A copy of Putting Down Roots:  Gardening Insights from Wisconsin’s Early Settlers, by Marcia C. Carmichael (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2011)

2. A gift certificate for heirloom seeds from Seed Savers Exchange

3. A gift certificate from the bookstore of your choice

And everyone who orders will get my undying gratitude.

It’s easy to order now.  You can go to your favorite local bookstore and make the request. They’ll put the order in and let you know as soon as the book is available.

Or, you can visit an online source such as Amazon or (the Barnes & Noble site) and order.  Either way, you’ll be sure to get a copy when it’s hot off the press.

You can let me know by leaving a comment here, or via email <>, or on my Facebook page,

Many thanks!

The Old Cheese Factory

November 29, 2010

First, thanks to everyone who hosted or joined me on my recent blog tour. It was a whirlwind, but great fun. Still, I am glad to get back to my own blog!

I’ve had two wonderful opportunities this fall to see cheese being made as it was back in the day when little cheese huts could be found on many farms in Green County and surrounding areas. I’m doing research for The Heirloom Murders, Book 2 in the Chloe Ellefson/Historic Sites mystery series. (I know, tough gig.)

In September, Scott and I attended Green County Cheese Days in Monroe, WI. This community festival honors the early European settlers—many of them Swiss—who settled here. Several retired cheesemakers demonstrated the art of making cheese.

This sign says it all.

The cheesemaking demonstration was well attended.

Young cheesemakers giving the process a try.

And I got to try my hand at stirring the curds, too!

I took lots of notes, but my favorite thing about attending Cheese Days was watching the intergenerational sharing that took place in the spirit of honoring, preserving, and passing along tradition.

In October, I had another chance to learn about traditional cheesemaking when the National Historic Cheesemaking Center in Monroe celebrated the grand opening of the restored Imobersteg Framstead Cheese Factory. (See my August 29 post for more information about the factory.) For the first time in over a century, a fresh batch of cheese was made in the old building.


Historically, several local farms often banded together to process milk into cheese. Men brought their milk to the nearest factory in pails, and it was passed into the building through a trap door.

Several cheesemakers helped process the milk into curds and whey.

Current and retired cheesemakers cooperated to get the job done.

The demonstration at the Imobersteg Cheese Factory had a different feel than that at the Cheese Days Festival. I wished for a moment that someone had been assigned to interpret the process for visitors. Then I looked around and realized that the tiny factory was crowded with retired cheesemakers, and farmers who had taken their milk to a neighbor’s farm for processing. These people needed no explanations.

I heard elders reminisce about the time, decades ago, when they too had made cheese in a tiny “cheese hut” on their property. One man told me how a neighbor sometimes brought bad milk, spoiling an entire batch. Another talked of numbering the milk cans to be sure the right ones got returned to the proper farm.

When the curds had been taken from the kettle, one gentleman stepped up and helped himself to a drink of whey. Several more did the same, as they had doubtless done many times over the years.

Around here, quite a few artisanal cheesemakers still buy local milk and carefully process it into fine cheese. As a consumer, I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful that people like me can watch and learn about this important aspect of the region’s cultural legacy at Cheese Days. And I’m grateful that those who remember when had the chance to revisit the process at the Imobersteg Cheese Factory. All too often, old traditions and processes are rescued only when at the point of extinction. Not so here.