Archive for the ‘Swiss Historical Village’ Category

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)

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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.

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(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)

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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.

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(Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Decorah, IA)

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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)

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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.

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.

Shards

March 1, 2012

One of my favorite artifacts at Old World Wisconsin sits on a high shelf at one of the Finnish farms. Someone affixed bits of broken china to a crock—including a doll. Were the shards themselves treasured bits of something precious? Sad story. Was someone simply trying to make the crock more decorative with materials at hand? Happier story. Either way, it’s fun to wonder.

I’ve seen similar pieces elsewhere. Check out this one from  the collection of the Swiss Historical Village & Museum in New Glarus, WI.

Not too long ago, I traveled through Door County, WI, and stopped at a favorite cafe in Egg Harbor. I’ve visited several times, but only just noticed the decorative work on a couple of benches and a manhole cover just outside the door.

The pieces are unexpected, funky, cheerful.

I started to go back inside to ask the proprietors the story behind the artwork… but I decided not to. It’s more fun to wonder.