Archive for the ‘HISTORIC SITES’ Category

Colonial Girls At Work

February 23, 2017

While doing research for Gunpowder and Tea Cakes:  My Journey With Felicity, I discovered that a few girls in colonial Williamsburg may have been doing work I once thought was open only to boys.  Cool!

Certainly, girls were involved in traditional roles. I had the chance to ask interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg questions about cooking, for example.

The kitchen at Great Hopes Plantation.

The kitchen at Great Hopes Plantation.

And I saw several young women working in a dressmaker’s shop. Milliners specialized in making hats, and mantua-makers stitched gowns and accessories. Like all skilled trades, this work usually required an apprenticeship.

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An experienced seamstress would hire younger women, and teach them her skills.

Colonial Williamsburg has a modern program that allows men and women to become apprentices and learn a specific skill.  After learning the basics, apprentices graduate to journeywoman or journeyman status. The most skilled may one day become masters and run a shop.

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Hard at work.

 

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An example of the fashions produced in such a shop.

I also saw several women who were apprentices in nontraditional roles. The young woman below was in the 2nd year of a 7-year apprenticeship at a joinery.  Joiners produced things like window frames, doors, and shutters.

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Apprentices usually started at age 14. They had to be tall enough to work at the bench, and spent 12-hour days in the shop.

 

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A master craftsman would rule a shop like this. A journeyman, who had some skills but had not finished his or her apprenticeship, would help train the apprentices.

I discovered female apprentices learning to make wagon wheels,

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An apprentice watches as the master craftsman checks her saw.

 

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The final product.

and tinware.

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The man interpreting here told me that he’s not aware of official female tinsmith apprentices in the colonies, but he has seen women mentioned in records—probably all family members who learned the trade from their husband or father.

 

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Some of the finished products, ready for sale.

And this woman was helping a man make a saddle in the military artificer’s shop.  (An artificer, pronounced ar-TI-fi-cer, had the skills to make different items the army needed.)

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“There were women in almost all the trades, if help was needed and they could do the work,” one interpreter told me.

If you had lived in colonial times, would you have wanted to become an apprentice? What skill would you like to learn?

* * *

Gunpowder and Tea Cakes

To learn more about Gunpowder and Tea Cakes:  My Journey with Felicity, click here

 

Bringing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Stories to Life in Quilts – Part 2

February 21, 2017

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWebI’m proud to have talented quilt teacher, designer, and historian Linda Halpin visit Sites and Stories. Last time, Linda wrote about how she came to study the quilts referenced in the famous Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

She also helped me out when I decided that a quilt would be at the center of Death on the Prairie, the 6th Chloe Ellefson mystery.

 Here’s Linda’s story.

* * *

It turns out my connection to Laura wasn’t done. Many years after Quilting With Laura was published, I met Kathleen Ernst in one of my classes. Kathleen had written several books for the American Girl company. My daughter was a big fan of American Girl. It was a line of book characters and dolls that taught history through different eras. Their stories were rounded out by books on cooking, period clothing, and current events. The dolls encouraged imagination as they taught history.

Fast forward several years after that first encounter to when Kathleen contacted me about a new project she was working on. She had expanded her writing to include books for adults with a line of mystery books based on a woman named Chloe Ellefson. Chloe worked at a living history museum, and like the American Girl characters, she brought artifacts to life by studying what life was like when the artifacts were used, who used them, how they were used, what life was like at the time.  It was all the things I loved about Little House and American Girl, but this time geared towards adults.

Chloe Ellefson mysteries

I love Kathleen’s story telling style. She interweaves story lines back and forth from historical to present day as Chloe investigates her artifacts. Kathleen’s new project was a story in which Chloe is given a quilt said to have been made by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and she sets out to investigate if this could really be true. What Kathleen wanted from me was a quilt that could help tell Chloe’s story, one that incorporated the blocks Laura talked about in her books.

My prior investigation told me that there were only three patterns Laura mentions by name:  Nine Patch, Bear’s Track, and Doves in the Window. My quilt research taught me that at the time Laura was learning to quilt, patterns didn’t have specific names the way they do today. They were simply called ‘patchwork.’ It wasn’t until 1889 that patterns began to be identified by different names, mostly as a marketing tool for Ladies Art Company, a mail order catalog where people could order patterns.

Prior to that, patterns were spread person to person, or blocks were printed in women’ magazine of the day, such as Godey’s Ladies Magazine. Interestingly enough, sewing was so much a part of every day life that only an ink drawing of the blocks were given. No templates, no directions. Women were able to draft their own patterns and figure out the construction on their own just by looking at the pictures.

Goody's Lady's Book, 1840 (Wikimedia Commons)

Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1840 (Wikimedia Commons)

When Laura was learning to quilt in the 1860s and ’70s, patterns weren’t identified by specific names. By the time she sat down to write her stories in the 1930s and on, pattern names were widely used. What she called Doves in the Window in her stories could have been one of several different designs, as several different patterns share that name. When writing Quilting With Laura, the intrigue for me happened when I tried to determine just which Doves in the Window pattern Laura had used for her wedding quilt. There was no real quilt to look at. Very early on in their marriage, a house fire destroyed most of Laura and Almanzo’s belongings, including her wedding quilt.

At the time my book was published, I found what I thought for sure was the correct Doves in the Window pattern. It was one that, like Bear’s Track, had lots of bias edges. It’s the one I could see Caroline making Laura take out over and over again until she had it right. And it looks like doves. Surely that must be the pattern she was talking about.

Doves In The Window

Doves In The Window

Or, could it have been this one, also called Doves in the Window, but that was very similar to Bear’s Track?

Doves in the Window block.

Doves in the Window block.

 

Bear's Paw block.

Bear’s Track block.

That would certainly explain why she called it Bear’s Track in On The Banks of Plum Creek, but Doves in the Window in These Happy Golden Years.

But wait! Could it have been this one –

quilt block by Linda Halpin

– very similar to a block made by Laura on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum in Burr Oak, IA?

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Quilt block on display in the Master Hotel, Laura Ingalls Wilder Park & Museum, Burr Oak, IA.

In making Chloe’s Quilt for Kathleen, I had the opportunity to create a little mystery of my own. For the front of the quilt, I combined Nine Patch, the pattern both Laura and Mary made (and the pattern Mary continued to make even after she lost her eyesight), Bear’s Track, and the Doves in the Window that resembles the Bear’s Track.

I used reproduction fabrics that mimicked the fabrics Laura would have used as a child. I even used the construction technique seen so often in antique scrap quilts of piecing together tiny fragments of cloth until they were large enough to cut out the small pieces needed to make the block.

When I was done, I had created this quilt for Kathleen.

Linda (on the right) and I took the gorgeous quilt she made for me to the Ingalls family's dugout site on Plum Creek (small sign in the background marks actual spot). Just because.

Isn’t it beautiful?  Linda (on the right) and I took Chloe’s Quilt to the Ingalls family’s dugout site on Plum Creek. Just because.

But for my mystery, I couldn’t resist also including the Burr Oak Doves in the Window variation, as I felt it told a story of its own. The back of Kathleen’s quilt shows a variation of the Burr Oak block (lower left in photo below), as well as another Doves in the Window design. The Burr Oak block is very similar to a pattern I discovered in an old quilting book from 1929, where author Ruth Finley collected patterns and stories and recorded them in one of the first books written on quilting. In the Finley book, Doves in the Window appears as the block shown top right below.

Doves in the Window

Is it possible that this was the pattern Laura made? Was she trying to recreate it from memory, thereby making one so similar to the Finley block by making the Burr Oak block? We may never know, but it sure is fun to speculate!

Linda Halpin

* * *

Linda Halpin has been teaching quiltmaking across the United States and Canada for over 40 years. She is one of a handful of teachers certified by the Embroiderer’s Guild of America as a Quiltmaking Instructor. In addition to Quilting with Laura, which focuses on hand piecing, the way Laura would have done, she has also written several other quiltmaking books as well as The Little House Sampler pattern, which is geared toward today’s machine piecing techniques. She was invited both in 2015 and 2016 by Andover Fabrics of New York to make quilts for them using their Little House on the Prairie inspired lines of fabrics, available in quilt shops nationwide. To see more of Linda’s work, or to learn about the classes and lectures she offers, visit her website at www.lindahalpin.com.

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Learn more about Death on the Prairie, and all of the Chloe Ellefson Mysteries, on my website.

Gunpowder and Tea Cakes

February 15, 2017

Gunpowder and Tea Cakes is my first book about Felicity Merriman, the American Girl character who lives during the Revolutionary War. It also features a modern girl who travels back in time and meets Felicity in her home town of Williamsburg, Virginia.

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This was a special project.  I’ve been visiting Williamsburg for a long time!

That's me proudly wearing a tricorn hat in Williamsburg when I was about six years old.

That’s me proudly wearing a tricorn hat in Williamsburg when I was about six years old.

Colonial Williamsburg is a living history museum—the largest in the world! Historians saved many old buildings there and restored them to look as they did in Felicity’s time. Interpreters wearing reproduction clothing help visitors understand what life was like for the people living there over two hundred years ago.

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Williamsburg was the capital of the Virginia colony. Some of the things that happened there led to the Revolutionary War between Great Britain and the American colonies. After American Girl invited me to write this book, I went back to Colonial Williamsburg to do research.

In this picture, a man who is ready to fight the British is arguing with a man who wants to try harder to work problems out peacefully.

A volunteer soldier who is ready to fight the British argues with a man who wants to work problems out peacefully. This type of program helps visitors understand the conflict.

I learned a lot about the Revolutionary War, but I also needed to know everyday things, such as how to describe the city…

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Two riders travel down the Duke of Gloucester Street in front of old homes and shops.

and Felicity’s father’s store.

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The items on the shelves all might have been sold in the Merrimans’ store.

I visited busy kitchens,

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An interpreter demonstrating cooking over an open fire.

and shops.

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The shoemaker at work.

 

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This lady is an expert wigmaker.

I especially wanted to learn what life was like for girls like Felicity in the 1770s.

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Flying a kite on the Duke of Gloucester Street.

 

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The type of doll Felicity might have played with.

I also paid attention to what kids visiting today were most interested in.

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A young visitor asks an interpreter a question at the apothecary.

 

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Two girls getting into the spirit of colonial life in their pretty hats!

As I explored Williamsburg, I started imagining scenes I wanted to write.  Since Gunpowder and Tea Cakes is a time-travel book, I also imagined how a modern girl might react to everything.

And I asked lots and lots of questions.  The interpreters I met were great!

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Before writing the book I did lots of other kinds of research too. But we’re lucky that Colonial Williamsburg exists as a living museum, to help provide just a glimpse of an important time in America’s history.

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Bringing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Stories to Life in Quilts – Part 1

February 14, 2017

I’m delighted to welcome my talented friend Linda Halpin to the blog! Linda is a quilt instructor and historian—and a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan.

* * *

Linda Halpin Pepin

Linda Halpin with one of her beautiful quilts at the replica Ingalls cabin in Pepin, WI.

Like many, my adventure with Laura started in grade school when I was captivated by her stories. This was long before television brought her to life. She lived in my head, made real by her story telling. As a child, I too began sewing at an early age, so whenever Laura mentioned sewing, it struck a chord. I remember her telling of how Ma expected her to do her job over until it was done well.

That pesky Bear’s Track quilt block she was making in On The Banks of Plum Creek, with so many bias edges that had to be done over and over until it was right.

The Doves in the Window quilt she made as a little girl that she packed into her trunk in These Happy Golden Years as she gathered belongings for her new life as Almanzo’s wife.

And it all started with the Nine Patch blocks she and Mary learned their sewing skills on.  What were these patterns?  What did they look like?

Nine patch quilt (National Museum of American History, 321804.)

Nine patch quilt, c. 1890-1900, maker unknown.  (National Museum of American History, 321804.)

Fast forward many years:  I had become a quilt teacher, leading classes for quilt shops and guilds across the country.  One day, a young mom came into a shop where I was teaching.  She was looking for a book that had patterns that tied in with the Little House stories.  They were her daughter’s favorite books, and she wanted to teach her daughter how to quilt.  What better way than to do it through quilt blocks that told Laura’s story?

Why hadn’t I thought of it before?  It was the perfect project for me to undertake.  I began with re-reading the entire Little House series of books, this time making note of all the times Laura mentioned quilts and fabric and sewing.  Imagine my surprise to find over 70 references!  Stitching truly was a part of her every day life.

As I made note of the patterns Laura mentioned, her adventures also brought to mind several quilt blocks that would be perfect to help tell her story:  Log Cabin, Schoolhouse, Trail of the Covered Wagon.

Log cabin quilt,1850-1875, maker unknown. (National Museum of American History, 234821)

Log cabin quilt,c. 1850-1875, maker unknown. (National Museum of American History, 234821)

By the time I was done, I had gathered 14 patterns that I thought would be perfect as a teaching tool that linked quilting and Little House.  Quilting with Laura:  Patterns Inspired by the “Little House On The Prairie” Series was published in 1991, with revisions and reprinting in 2015.

quilting with Laura

It has been the perfect way to tell Laura’s story in fabrics, picking and choosing the block designs most appealing to the maker.

* * *

Here are some of the quilts Linda has made to show how the individual block patterns in her book can be put together in different ways.

Andover Fabrics has twice invited Linda to make a display quilt using their Little House on the Prairie-inspired line. The 2015 quilt is shown at the top of the page; this one was created in 2016.

Andover Fabrics has twice invited Linda to make a display quilt using their Little House on the Prairie-inspired line. The 2015 quilt is shown at the top of the page; this one was created in 2016.

 

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This one uses 9 of the block patterns available in Linda’s book, Quilting With Laura.

 

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A sampler using some of the blue and red tones that would have been available for Laura’s use.

 

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Linda designed this Wisconsin-themed quilt for Millhouse Quilts in Waunakee, WI.

* * *

Linda Halpin has been teaching quiltmaking across the United States and Canada for over 40 year. She is one of a handful of teachers certified by the Embroiderer’s Guild of America as a Quiltmaking Instructor. In addition to Quilting with Laura, which focuses on hand piecing, the way Laura would have done, she has also written several other quiltmaking books as well as The Little House Sampler pattern, which is geared toward today’s machine piecing techniques. She was invited both in 2015 and 2016 by Andover Fabrics of New York to make quilts for them using their Little House on the Prairie inspired lines of fabrics, available in quilt shops nationwide. To see more of Linda’s work, or to learn about the classes and lectures she offers, visit her website at www.lindahalpin.com

* * *

Next time, Linda will share how she came to create a quilt for my Chloe Ellefson mystery, Death on the Prairie!

The Schulz Farm – Part 2

November 11, 2016

The Schulz Farm at Old World Wisconsin is featured in my latest Chloe Ellefson Mystery, A Memory of Muskets. Last time, I shared photos of the house.

Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

But if you’ve read the book, you know that some of the action takes place in the yard.

The farm features many Old World elements. One change, however, is evident in the layout of the outbuildings. In Pomerania, the buildings would likely have formed a closed square. In Wisconsin, where available land was still plentiful, farmers kept the square formation but often spread the buildings out. (Another outbuilding would have formed the 4th side of the square.)

In the map of Old World Wisconsin’s German area below, the Schulz Farm is on the left. The farm at center bottom is the Koepsell Farm. It’s also Pomeranian-style, and shows a complete courtyard arrangement.

Old World Wisconsin

(Map courtesy of Old World Wisconsin.)

The building below is the Koepsel Stable (not to be confused with OWW’s Koepsell Farm. Farms exhibited at the site are named for the family that lived in the house; usually outbuildings came from different families). It was built in the Town of Lebanon, Dodge County, c. 1855.

Like the house, it is half-timbered. It features an exterior stairway and 2nd story exterior walkway. In the Old Country, when the courtyard was enclosed, animals kept there could take shelter from sun or rain beneath the overhang.

Loyd Heath - Stable b on the Schulz farm. By Loyd Heath.

(Photo by Loyd Heath.)

Notice the darker mortar on the 2nd story? That’s actually the original mud and straw mixture from the 1850s. The lighter color is mortar replaced at the time the building was moved to the site.

Koepsel Stable, Old World Wisconsin

 

Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

A Memory of Muskets readers – this is the end of the stable featured in chapter 1.

The other impressive structure on the Schulz Farm is the Grube Barn, from the Town of Emmet, Dodge County, c. 1855.  Architectural historians consider this a transitional structure because it was built with a half-timbered frame, then covered with siding.

This is a grain barn, reflecting the period when wheat was Wisconsin’s cash crop. It has a central drive-through (the big center doors are closed in the photo). The two side areas were used for grain storage.

Grube Barn, Old World Wisconsin

 

Both of the outbuildings on the Schulz Farm have thatched roofs. The traditional thatch was rye straw, which has a waxy coating. German farmers grew rye for their own needs, and saved the straw for thatching or basket-making.

Old World Wisconsin

German women used coiled rye straw baskets to hold round loaves of bread while rising prior to baking in a brick bakeoven.

In this interior shot you can see the barn’s half-timbered frame, and the underside of the thatched roof.

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After harvest, men used the central floor of such grain barns for threshing.

Old World Wisconsin

(Photo by Loyd Heath.)

Here, a farmer uses a flail to beat kernels of grain from the stalks spread on the floor. Some men also led horses or oxen over the grain to trample kernels free.

I hope this gives you a better understanding of one of the fascinating farms at Old World Wisconsin!

Special thanks to my talented friend Loyd Heath for permission to use his photographs.  See more of his work HERE.

The Schulz Farm – Part 1

November 2, 2016

The protagonist of my Chloe Ellefson mysteries is employed as a curator at Old World Wisconsin, an open-air museum near Eagle, WI. Although most of the books are set at other sites and museums, Old World’s 67 historic structures give me lots to play with when I do set a mystery there.

In the new book, A Memory of Muskets, I featured one of my favorite places at the museum, the Schulz Farm. Come with me on a virtual tour!  (I hope that readers within driving distance will also visit in person.)

Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

The Schulz Farm

It was one of the first places I worked when I started as an interpreter way back in 1982.

Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

The house was built in the Town of Herman, Dodge County, in 1856, and has been restored to its 1860 appearance. The half-timbered (fachwerk) architecture reflects what the family had known back in Pomerania, where natural resources were already in short supply. The spaces between the timbers were filled with a mud/straw mixture, preserving wood.

KAE photo. Back of Schulz house.

The back of Schulz house.  The small opening on the left was a pass-through.  Vegetables could be passed into a pantry, and then down through a door in the floor leading to a root cellar.

The concept of a front lawn seemed wasteful to new arrivals.  The vegetable garden is in front of the house.

Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

Probably the most famous feature is the black kitchen, or Schwartz-Küche—a huge walk-in chimney constructed in the center of the house.

This photo was taken inside the black kitchen, looking back at the front door.

This photo was taken from the back of the house,  looking through the black kitchen to the entry and front door.

Inside the black kitchen is the entrance to a brick bakeoven. Below, the wooden door to the oven is sitting in the fire pit.

Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

On baking day a fire was built in the oven.  When the bricks were hot enough, the woman would rake the coals into the cooking pit below, rather than wasting them.

(Photo by Loyd Heath)

(Photo by Loyd Heath)

At the same time, meat could be hung overhead to smoke. One fire, three jobs.

Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

Looking straight up, inside the black kitchen.

As you can imagine, it was a difficult place for women to work—unhealthy and dangerous. Although common in Pomerania, historians know of only four homes in Wisconsin built with black kitchens.

Interior of the black kitchen in the Schulz farmhouse.

This photo conveys what it is like to work in the black kitchen.  (Photo by Loyd Heath.)

Women also had a separate cooking niche for smaller jobs.

An interpreter prepares dinner in the 1860 Schulz kitchen.

(Photo by Loyd Heath)

 

Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

The cooking niche.

In 1860 the Schulz family had only been in Wisconsin for four years.  Their status is reflected in the furnishings.

Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

An immigrant trunk sits in the parlor, covered with a cloth. In time the family would have purchased new furniture.

The family could not set a space aside to use only as a formal parlor. This room was used for entertaining and sleeping.

Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

Kids might have slept here.

The largest room in the house is shown as a workroom.

Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

Weaving linen cloth.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse of the Schulz House at Old World Wisconsin.  Next time—the rest of the farm.

Special thanks to my talented friend Loyd Heath for permission to use his photographs.  See more of his work HERE.

Why A Memory Of Muskets?

September 11, 2016

Readers often ask why I chose a particular historic site and theme to feature in a new Chloe Ellefson mystery. It has become tradition to share what I found special in each new book. Here are some of the elements found in the 7th mystery, A Memory of Muskets.

memory-of-muskets

After four adventures away from home Chloe is back at her own site, Old World Wisconsin. I chose in particular to feature the Schulz Farm, which has been restored to its 1860 appearance. This is a fabulous collection of historic buildings, one of my favorite exhibits at Old World. The architecture reflects building styles in Pomerania.

Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

The German Schulz Farm, 2016. If you look closely you’ll see gardeners repairing the woven garden fence, right by the house.

It was also one of the first buildings I ever worked, way back when. Flax processing is one of the major activities at the Schulz Farm. I was so excited to finally learn to weave!

Kathleen Ernst, Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

That’s me weaving linen, 1982.

After delving into Chloe’s background in earlier books, it also felt like a good time to learn about her friend Roelke McKenna’s heritage. The book includes a plotline that shares the story of the first of Roelke’s German ancestors to immigrate to Wisconsin—just as the American Civil War begins.

Bishop & Son, Watertown, WI - KAE

Bishop & Son, Watertown, WI.  (Author’s collection)

Wisconsin has a strong German-American population, and I was pleased with the opportunity to share a bit about that cultural group. A key scene takes place at German Fest, Milwaukee’s huge annual celebration of all things German.

Welcome to German Fest

The book is set in 1983, the year  German-Americans celebrated the tricentennial of German immigration to America.

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The premise of A Memory of Muskets involves preparations for Old World’s first Civil War reenactment. This was fun because I once was responsible for coordinating Civil War events at the site. Activities often involved the German Schulz Farm. The 3rd Wisconsin Regiment and other top-notch groups presented thematic programs that reflected different aspects of the war on the Wisconsin homefront.

Civil War event, Old World Wisconsin

Reenactors marching through Old World Wisconsin’s Crossroads Village, sometime in the 1990s.

I was a reenactor myself for over a decade. It was a wonderful hobby. I learned a lot, had some amazing experiences, and made some special friends.

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Interpreting refugee life in  Tennessee with Sue (L) and Yulanda (R), 1995.

I also met my husband, “Mr. Ernst,” through reenacting. So yes, I have lots of special memories!

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We were wearing 1860s attire when we met in the Sanford House driveway at Old World. Two years later we revisited the spot before our period wedding at the site’s restored church. (I’m afraid I don’t recall the name of the tintype artist who took this image.)

In the coming weeks and months I’ll share more detailed behind-the-scenes photos and stories. In the meantime, I hope this serves to pique your interest in Chloe’s latest adventure! Happy reading.

Chloe’s Book Club: On The Banks Of Plum Creek

June 22, 2016

Plum Creek is one of my favorites. As a child, I loved the notion of living in a sod house, loved vicariously playing in the creek, loved the image of Laura frolicking on the roof among prairie flowers while Ma irons below. And yes, while I’ve had some quibbles with Ma, I do give her full credit for moving in with grace after being informed the deal is done.

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Laura’s descriptions of the new home are enchanting:

The creek was singing to itself down among the willows, and the soft wind bent the grasses over the top of the bank.

Red and blue and purple and rose-pink and white and striped flowers all had their throats wide open as if they were singing glory to the morning.

The book is full of childhood adventures (and misadventures). And, this is the book that gives us Laura’s nemesis, Nellie Olson.

But not all of the challenges are child-sized. Laura made poignant use of foreshadowing to set readers up for the crop tragedy.

Grasshopper Notice

Display at Laura Ingalls Wilder Park & Museum, Burr Oak, IA.

Early on, when Laura laments having cattle instead of horses, Pa promises that they will have horses again one day.

“When, Pa?” she asked him, and he said, “When we raise our first crop of wheat.”

When Ma says living in the dugout makes her feel like a penned animal:

Never mind, Caroline,” Pa said. “We’ll have a good house next year.  …And good horses, and a buggy to  boot! I’ll take you riding, dressed up in silks! Think, Caroline—this level rich land, not a stone or stump to contended with, and only three miles from a railroad! We can sell every grain of wheat we raise!”

Then Pa buys lumber for a new house (and windows, and a stove)  on credit, with a promise to pay when he sells his wheat crop. It’s difficult for repeat readers not to shout, “Don’t do it, Pa!  The grasshoppers are coming!”

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Garth Williams’ illustration.

The enormity of the multi-year disaster the Ingalls family faced when their crop was devoured is hard to absorb.

But as always, faith, hard work, and a determination to make the best of things lead to a happy ending. Ma and Pa demonstrate perseverance to their daughters. It’s one of Wilder’s favorite themes, but understandably so; somehow, crisis after crisis, the Ingalls family did survive.

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Today Wilder fans can visit the dugout site on the banks of Plum Creek.

Is Plum Creek one of your favorites too? What did you like, or dislike? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

***

Note: I am a former curator and love research, but I am not a Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar. For more academic information, see titles by William Anderson, Pamela Smith Hill, John E. Miller, and others. To learn more about the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries, please visit my website.

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Next up for discussion:  By The Shores Of Silver Lake.

Chloe’s Book Club: Little House On The Prairie

May 19, 2016

Little House On The Prairie in some ways epitomizes the view of pioneer life many readers of my generation grew up with. What could be more iconic than a family packing their belongings in a covered wagon and heading west? Garth William’s cover, showing Mary and Laura watching from the back of the wagon, is classic.

Little House on the Prairie

As always, the descriptions are remarkable.  Here’s one of my favorites:

Kansas was an endless flat land covered with tall grass blowing in the wind. Day after day they traveled in Kansas, and saw nothing but the rippling grass and the enormous sky. In a perfect circle the sky curved down to the level land, and the wagon was in the circle’s exact middle.

Prairie landscape, Little House On The Prairie Museum, Kansas

Prairie landscape, Little House On The Prairie Museum, Kansas

Also as always, Laura emerges a real, complex, and thoroughly likable character. When Ma chastises her for complaining:

So she did not complain any more out loud, but she was still naughty, inside. She sat and thought complaints to herself.

And when Mary primly offers to give some beautiful beads she and Laura collected at an abandoned Indian campsite to baby Carrie, Laura—with some silent prompting from Ma—feels compelled to do the same: Perhaps Mary felt sweet and good inside, but Laura didn’t. When she looked at Mary she wanted to slap her. So she dared not look at Mary again.

This book brings out all of my conflicted feelings about Ma. I empathize with her challenges.  Pa takes her to Indian territory—knowing full well that Indian people terrify her! They crossed the ice-covered Mississippi River at its widest point—only to hear the ice breaking up that night; when Pa says they were lucky the ice didn’t break while they crossed she responds: I thought about that yesterday, Charles. The poor woman took the reins during a difficult river crossing when Pa plunged from the wagon to help the struggling horses.

Nonetheless, her fussiness can be annoying. During that dangerous river crossing, the beloved family dog Jack disappears, presumably drowned. When the exhausted dog finally catches up to the family, Ma complains that the happy reunion woke baby Carrie. Really, Ma?

(Wikipedia)

Caroline and Charles Ingalls (Wikipedia)

That said, there is much to admire in Ma. Readers understand that she craves a more genteel life. As an adult, I know what I think I missed as a child:  Ma must have been afraid a lot. On more than one occasion Pa’s life literally is in her hands.  One of the most poignant moments comes when Charles goes down the well to help a neighbor overcome by fumes, and Ma must find the strength to pull him to safety. After everyone is safe: She covered her face with her apron and burst out crying.

She must have feared for her children’s safety too. Still, she always does what needs doing.

This book makes many modern readers uncomfortable due to its portrayal of Native Americans. Wilder signaled something important on page one:  They were going to Indian country. And on page six, she foreshadowed a key scene to come:  Pa promised that when they came to the West, Laura should see a papoose.

While certain scenes and bits of dialogue do make me cringe, it’s important to consider the plot within the context of the time it depicts. Ma hates all Indian people—as she was surely taught to do, growing up when and where she did. Laura is both afraid of and fascinated by Indian people. I see her feelings as a reflection of the personality divide within the family. Ma and Mary are homebodies. Laura and Pa are more intrigued by the outside world.

Little House In The Big Woods ends on such a satisfactory note that at first, it can be hard to understand why the family left Wisconsin at all. Pa’s feelings are explained well, though, and first-time readers take pleasure as they create a new home on the vast Kansas prairie:

We’re going to do well here, Caroline, Pa said. This is a great country. I’ll be contended to stay in the the rest of my life.  …No matter how thick and close the neighbors get, this country’ll never feel crowded.  Look at that sky!

Since I know the story, this type of foreshadowing is all the more poignant. In the end, of course (Spoiler alert!) Charles/Pa discovers that he built his cabin on land that was not, yet, available for settlement.

Replica cabin at the site of the Ingalls home. Little House on the Prairie Museum, KS. (Photo by Barbara Ernst)

Replica cabin at the site of the Ingalls home. Little House on the Prairie Museum, KS. (Photo by Barbara Ernst)

Was it an honest mistake? Did he know all along, and simply presume he could bide his time until the Federal government declared the land officially available to pioneers? Laura scholars are still debating.

In any case, even as a young reader I understood how heartbreaking it was for the family to have labored so hard to create a new home—only to have to pack up and leave it all behind.

How do you feel about Little House On The Prairie? Do you have a favorite, or least favorite, chapter?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

***

Note: I am a former curator and love research, but I am not a Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar. For more academic information, see titles by William Anderson, Pamela Smith Hill, John E. Miller, and others. To learn more about the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries, please visit my website.

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWeb

Next up for discussion:  On The Banks Of Plum Creek.

Chloe’s Book Club: Farmer Boy

April 10, 2016

I’ll start with a confession: as a child, I didn’t particularly like Farmer Boy.

Farmer Boy

Perhaps it was because I’d already bonded with Laura. Perhaps the description of classroom bullies was a bit too scary. Perhaps Father’s brand of child-rearing was intimidating. In any case, after a single reading I didn’t return to the book until I was an adult.

By then I was working in the living history world, and everything clicked. I loved the insights Farmer Boy provided into period activities. Mother was expert at weaving and cooking and everything else I wanted to learn.

Almanzo's childhood home has been beautifully preserved in Malone, NY.

Almanzo’s childhood home has been beautifully preserved in Malone, NY.

Almanzo is a very real boy. He resents his father’s belief that he isn’t responsible enough yet to help train the beautiful colts. He  hates being youngest, and therefore the last served at meals.  In the Birthday chapter, he gobbles his breakfast so he can see what gift is waiting—and is chastised by Mother.

Mothers always fuss about the way you eat. You can hardly eat any way that pleases them.

As always, descriptions of both the natural world and farming are vivid and sensory, such as these passages from Threshing:

The wind howled and the snow whirled and a mournful sound came from the cedars.  The skeleton apple trees rattled their branches together like bones.  All outdoors was dark and wild and noisy.

…The fans whirred inside the mill, a cloud of chaff blew out its front, and the kernels of clean wheat poured out of its side and went sliding down the rising heap on the floor.  Almanzo put a handful into his mouth; they were sweet to chew, and lasted a long time. 

Fanning Mill

Fanning mill.

One of my favorite scenes comes from Keeping House, when Father and Mother leave the children on their own for a week. In very kid-like fashion they bicker and do all the things they shouldn’t, such as eating all the sugar and sneaking into the colt pasture.

The barns at the Wilder Homestead are not original, but have been faithfully reproduced.

The barns at the Wilder Homestead are not original, but have been faithfully reproduced.

I am especially intrigued by Laura’s inclusion of the terrible moment when Almanzo throws the stove-blacking brush at his bossy sister Eliza Jane, leaving a terrible stain on Mother’s prized parlor wallpaper. Miraculously, Eliza Jane manages to patch the wallpaper so carefully that Mother never discovers what happened, saving Almanzo from the whipping of his life.  “I guess I was aggravating,” she tells him. Eliza Jane emerges as such an unlikeable character in later books that I love this glimpse of a softer side.

My favorite aspect of Farmer Boy is simply seeing the boy who became the adult Almanzo I know from later books. At times I’m taken aback by Father’s parenting style (particularly in the Wood-Hauling chapter, when Almanzo is hurt but doesn’t dare say so). But emerging from these episodes is a boy who is learning to figure problems through on his own.

I love the photo on the cover of this DVD, Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura. (Available from Legacy Documentaries)

I love the photo on the cover of this DVD, Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura. (Available from Legacy Documentaries)

Almanzo chooses to buy a piglet rather than spend a precious half-dollar on lemonade. Almanzo manages to get the last laugh during sheep shearing season, when the older workers don’t give him enough credit. In Breaking the Calves, Almanzo takes a chance that leads to a runaway situation:

That night Father asked him:  “You have some trouble this afternoon, son?”

“No,” Almanzo said. “I just found out that I have to break Star and Bright to drive when I ride.”

Most of all, Almanzo dreams of being a successful farmer, and of training horses. We’re not surprised when, in the final chapter, he turns down the offer of a softer life in town.

And then, suddenly, the whole world was a great, shining, expanding glow of warm light. For Father when on:

“If it’s a colt you want, I’ll give you Starlight.”

It’s the perfect ending.

Original cover. (Wikipedia)

Original cover. (Wikipedia)

How about you? Was Farmer Boy always a favorite?  Any favorite scenes? Please share!

***

Note: I am a former curator and love research, but I am not a Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar. For more academic information, see titles by William Anderson, Pamela Smith Hill, John E. Miller, and others. To learn more about the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries, please visit my website.

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWeb

Next up for discussion:  Little House On The Prairie.