Posts Tagged ‘Laura Ingalls Wilder’

Laura Land Tour: Burr Oak, IA

November 29, 2015

From Pepin, WI, it takes less than two hours to reach Burr Oak, IA. If you’re unfamiliar with the name, it’s because Laura Ingalls Wilder did not include this period in her famous books. The site, however, is well worth a visit.

Laura and her family lived here in 1876, when she was nine. Grasshopper plagues had devastated their farm near Walnut Grove, MN. The Steadmans, family friends, asked the Ingalls to help them run a hotel in Burr Oak, IA. “I felt sorry to Leave Plum Creek and our playground by the footbridge,” Laura wrote later, “but it was nice to be on the wagon again going on and on.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum

Early photo of the hotel, Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum.

By the time the family packed for the move, Laura had a baby brother named Charles Frederick. Tragically, the baby died en route. “We felt so badly to go on and leave Freddy, but in a little while we had to go on to Iowa to help keep the hotel.  It was a cold miserable journey…” (Freddy was buried near South Troy, MN, but his gravesite has been lost to time.)

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Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum.

Burr Oak had once been a bustling town, but its heyday had passed. Hard times continued after the Ingalls family moved into the hotel. “Ma was always tired; Pa was always busy,” wrote Laura.

Caroline and Charles Ingalls didn’t like the rough men frequenting the saloon next door. They also had some conflict with the Steadmans. After a few months they moved out of the hotel.

Masters Hotel, Burr Oak, IA

Charles took what jobs he could find, but money remained tight. “I knew that Pa and Ma were troubled,” Laura wrote. “I knew we needed money, and besides Pa was restless.” The family left town in the middle of the night.

Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane visited Burr Oak in 1932. Decades later residents wrote to Laura, asking for confirmation of her time there. There was some confusion about which structure had actually been the hotel, but in 1973, local residents purchased the Masters Hotel—now vacant, and in poor condition—and began raising funds for restoration.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum

The building in this photo, on exhibit at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum, is almost unrecognizable as the Masters Hotel.

The historic site opened in 1976. Laura fans are very fortunate that the Masters Hotel—the only childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder that remains on its original site—has been saved.

Masters Hotel, Burr Oak, IA

The hotel, built into the side of a hill, is larger than it appears from the front.

Masters Hotel, Burr Oak, IA

On the first floor, a variety of exhibits help tell the Ingalls’ story. If you’ve read Death on the Prairie, the 6th Chloe Ellefson mystery, you’ll particularly enjoy seeing this quilt block.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum

In the mystery, Chloe is eager to find something of Laura:

(The director showed them) three beautifully embroidered handkerchiefs, carefully preserved beneath glass.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum

“These were Laura’s,” she said proudly. “The museum in Mansfield gifted them to us when our site opened nine years ago.”

“Ooh.” Chloe reached toward the glass, almost touching it. She wanted badly to sense something of Laura. She longed to know that Laura had been OK here despite serving food and scrubbing dishes.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum

All other items displayed in the Master Hotel are from the period, but not original to the Ingalls family.

On the hotel’s top floor, guests can visit the boarders’ rooms, where young Laura made beds.

Masters Hotel, Burr Oak, IA

The kitchen and dining room are in the lowest level…

Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum

…where Laura and her sister Mary helped cook, wait on tables and wash dishes.

Masters Hotel, Burr Oak, IA

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum welcomes guests in summer and fall. Purchase tickets in the building across the street, which also contains a small shop.

Visitor Center Burr Oak IA

After touring the hotel, take some time to imagine Laura’s happier moments in Burr Oak. She wrote, “When our school and work were done we played out by the pond.” Silver Creek still flows behind the hotel.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum

From there it’s a short walk to the Burr Oak Cemetery, where Laura loved to wander.

Burr Oak, IA cemetery

The cemetery, which Laura described as “a beautiful place,” is also site of a key scene in Death on the Prairie.

Burr Oak, IA cemetery

When I visit Burr Oak, I love watching families explore the site—especially the children. Schoolchildren helped raise fund for the restoration by  holding “Pennies for Laura” drives. “This building belongs to the children,” one guide told me.

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Laura would probably like that sentiment.

Note:  Quotations are from draft copies of Laura’s autobiography. To learn more about her time in Burr Oak, see Pioneer Girl:  The Annotated Biography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill (South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014)

And, Chloe fans should note that Burr Oak is only 12 miles from Decorah, IA, setting for Heritage of Darkness.

Have fun exploring this lovely area!

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.

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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.

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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 .

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

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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

Death on the Prairie – Sneak Preview

January 27, 2015

I’ve gotten lots of queries about the 6th Chloe Ellefson mystery. When is it coming? Which historic sites are featured?

So, I’m happy to share a sneak preview. Death on the Prairie will be published by Midnight Ink in October, 2015.

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWeb

Here’s the official scoop:

Chloe Ellefson and her sister, Kari, have long dreamed of visiting each historic site dedicated to Laura Ingalls Wilder. When Chloe takes custody of a quilt once owned by the beloved author, the sisters set out on the trip of a lifetime, hoping to prove that Wilder stitched it herself.

But death strikes as the journey begins, and trouble stalks their fellow travelers. Among the “Little House” devotees are academic critics, greedy collectors, and obsessive fans. Kari is distracted by family problems, and unexpected news from Chloe’s boyfriend jeopardizes her own future. As the sisters travel deeper into Wilder territory, Chloe races to discover the truth about a precious artifact—and her own heart—before a killer can strike again.

Laura Ingalls Wilder…antique quilts…a six-state road trip…this one was lots of fun to develop.

I’ll have lots more to share about Death on the Prairie later this year. Stay tuned!

Rocky Ridge Farm

March 29, 2012

Books have the power to change lives. One of the first to touch my life was Little House in the Big Woods. That’s why I’ve been visiting historic sites that relate to Laura Ingalls Wilder. (See my posts about Pepin, WI, and Burr Oak, Iowa.)

In 1894 Laura, husband Almanzo, and their young daughter Rose left De Smet, SD, to find a new home. A friend had given Laura an apple grown near Mansfield, MO, which Laura found to be especially sweet. The family traveled by covered wagon to Mansfield and purchased 40 acres (later quadrupled) for a dairy, fruit, and poultry farm.  They named their property Rocky Ridge Farm.

Last September my older sister and I visited Mansfield. I was curious to see the place where Laura had written some of the Little House books, but since this site didn’t appear in the series, I didn’t expect to connect on an emotional level.

I did. It was touching to take the tour, imagining Laura cooking in the kitchen, tending Almanzo though his final illness in the bedroom, writing at her desk. Certainly this came partly because of the affection I feel toward Laura—both the author and the main character.

Almanzo built this home.

He included fossils when he built the chimney.

Almanzo built the home with her comfort in mind—positioning kitchen counters to suit her height, for example. The home looks as if Laura just stepped out.

Photos weren’t permitted inside the home proper. This is a covered porch off the kitchen.

Upon reflection, though, I realized there was more to it. As a child, Laura lived an almost nomadic existence. Readers journey with Laura as her family moves…moves…moves again. The constant upheaval makes for fascinating reading. The Ingalls’ restlessness, and the adversities they encounter, make Laura an easy person to care about. So it was unexpectedly comforting to see tangible proof that after so many childhood challenges, Laura had a beloved and stable home. Laura and Almanzo lived in this simple farmhouse for over sixty years.

In 1928, daughter Rose—a successful writer in her own right—gifted a new house to Laura and Almanzo. She evidently hoped to provide more modern conveniences for her aging parents. Laura and Almanzo lived in their new home while Rose lived at Rocky Ridge Farm. But when Rose moved to New York in 1936, Laura and Almanzo moved back to Rocky Ridge. Almanzo died at home in 1949; Laura, in 1957.

The house Rose provided for her parents was close to Rocky Ridge Farm, but evidently never felt like home.

Laura Ingalls Wilder helped spark my lifelong fascination with history. I’m grateful for that. As a writer myself, I’m in awe of her ability to capture the imagination of so many readers, in so many places, for so many years.

Looking For Laura

August 2, 2011

Like countless other girls, one of my earliest introductions to historical fiction came in the pages of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic “Little House” series. Since I went into museum work and now earn my living writing historical novels (or, in the case of my Chloe Ellefson series, novels about history), those books and others like them obviously had a big impact on me.

Although I’ve lived in Wisconsin for decades now, I only recently made my first visit to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House Wayside, outside Pepin, WI. My older sister was visiting from the east coast. She loved the books too, so we made our way there to the spot where Little House In The Big Woods was set.

The big woods are long gone. Aside from a few trees scattered about the picnic area, the cabin is surrounded by cornfields. (Not suburban sprawl, thank goodness.)

Today, a replica log cabin sits on the site of the original Ingalls cabin. There is no museum. No interpreters. No gift shop.

Aside from a single display, the cabin is largely empty.

My sister and I knew all that, and we went anyway. We wanted to see the spot where Laura and her family had once lived.

When we arrived, two little girls wearing sundresses and bonnets were racing in and out of the cabin.  “They’re so excited,” their mom told me. “We’ve been re-reading the book in the car.”

The next car that parked at the wayside carried three adults. Flanked by a younger couple (her children, perhaps?) an elderly lady walked slowly across the lawn and visited the cabin.

While we lingered, a slow but steady stream of people came and went. One van held what appeared to be three generations of Little House In The Big Woods fans.

Watching the visitors became as meaningful as visiting the site itself. All of us, young and old, had felt compelled to visit this place that we felt we knew so well. What a testament to Wilder’s storytelling! As a reader, it was moving to walk on this ground, so many years after reading the book. As a writer, it was moving to witness the power that stories still have, even in this modern age of computer games and sound bytes.

A brochure printed by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, Inc., of Pepin, Wisconsin says this:  “We trust that all who come to Pepin through the inspiration of Laura’s books will visit …Little House Wayside at the site of her birth.  …It may not be what you expect, but as Laura said, ‘Now is now. It can never be a long time ago.'”

Except in our imaginations, and in the pages of a talented author’s books.

The Sugar Bush

March 26, 2011

Like countless other children, I was introduced to maple sugaring in the pages of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. I was a suburban kid. Descriptions of “sugar snow,” and Garth Williams’ delightful illustrations, were magical.

I was reminded of Wilder’s charming tale last week while visiting Washington Island, WI.  I saw lots of maple trees being tapped, and the air smelled like woodsmoke.

As far as I know, the people who make syrup on Washington Island do so for themselves, their families and friends, or a local restaurant. Two years ago a friend on the island gave me a Snapple bottle filled not with tea, but with syrup. It was a little thinner and paler than what I was used to, and tasted divine.

The sap is as thin and clear as water.

Each year I spend a week writing near Egg Harbor, also part of WI’s Door County peninsula, in late winter or early spring.   That’s how I discovered Jorns’ Sugar Bush.

The home-based outlet is always open.

The Jorns family has been making maple syrup in this area since 1857!

Ferdinand Jorns emigrated from Hamburg, and eventually settled in Door County,

After Ferdinand died, Dora Dow Jorns raised twelve children. One of them was Roland Jorns’ father.

The current master, Roland Jorns, has been making syrup since he was ten years old. The work agrees with him:  Mr. Jorns is 82, and would much rather be working outside than anything else.

Today, with the help of his youngest son, he taps about 6,000 trees. They could double that if they had enough workers. (It’s not just the work of tapping and condensing. Every one of those pails must be washed.)

Mrs. Jorns showed me how the spiles (spouts) have changed over time.

A lot has evolved over the years. Among other updates, Mr. Jorns introduced a reverse osmosis machine in 1978, an innovation that removes 80% of water from the sap and therefore reduces resources needed to produce syrup. His light amber syrup has won many awards. He has also served as president of the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Council, and represented our state at the North American Maple Syrup Council.

I love stocking up at Jorns’ Sugar Bush, which is open year-round.  I love chatting with Mrs. Jorns, and picking out my purchases in a simple space made special by family mementos.

I love seeing maples being tapped, knowing that spring must be right around the corner.

Two of the thousands of buckets used each year.

And I love the taste of maple syrup so much that I rarely cook or bake with sugar anymore.  I’ve shared the following recipe with readers, and it’s received  rave reviews.

First in the Chloe Ellefson Series

Chloe Ellefson, the protagonist of my series, is not an autobiographical character. We do have a lot in common, though! She’s a curator at Old World Wisconsin, a large living history museum where I was once a curator. And we both spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Like me, Chloe loves to cook and bake with local ingredients.

This cake is easy and luscious. I use whole wheat flour, farmers’ market blueberries, free-range eggs from a local farm, and Jorns’ maple syrup. Substitute as your options dictate; the cake will still taste great.


Chloe’s Maple Blueberry Cake

2 c. blueberries, fresh or frozen (don’t thaw)
3 c. flour
½ c. butter, softened
4 oz. cream cheese, softened
¾ c. maple syrup
2 t. vanilla
3 eggs
1 t. baking soda
½ t. salt
6 oz. vanilla yogurt
2 T. lemon juice

Glaze (optional)
½ c. confectioners’ sugar
4 t. lemon juice

In a small bowl, combine blueberries and 2 T. flour.  In a separate bowl, combine the baking soda, salt, and remaining flour.

In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and cream cheese.  Add maple syrupe, lemon juice, and vanilla, and beat until mixture is light and fluffy.  Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Add the dry ingredients to creamed mixture alternately with the yogurt.  When everything is well blended, fold in the blueberries.

Transfer to a 10-inch fluted pan well coated with butter or cooking spray.  Bake at 350 degrees for 65-70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.  Cool for 10 minutes.  Remove from a pan to a wire rack.

If desired, whisk glaze ingredients until smooth and drizzle over cake.  Enjoy!

The Spirit of Christmas Past

December 15, 2009

Old World Wisconsin began offering a Christmas program in the late 1980s.   As curator of interpretation, I was lucky enough to have a role in researching and presenting the special event.  We knew that holiday programming could easily become more about fostering nostalgia than presenting accurate impressions of Christmas past, so we approached the research carefully.

A new edition of a classic.

Before beginning the project, my own images of early Midwestern Christmases were once again fostered by my memories of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series.    The pictures painted in those books do convey a time when children were truly grateful for what many or most American children would consider the tiniest of trifles:  gifts made from scraps, the thrill of finding a penny in a Christmas stocking, a Sunday-school Christmas tree, the joy of sharing the day with family and friends.

Could Old World’s Christmas program convey an accurate picture of life for the families we interpreted, and still satisfy visitors?  Would high-tech kids be too cool to appreciate the joy children once took from a single piece of candy?  Would evidence of simple celebrations disappoint adults who might arrive with particular expectations?

Me at the Ketola Farm. (All photos in this post were taken about 1990.)

Old World Wisconsin’s geography limited the possibilities for winter programming.  The Crossroads Village, the Sanford Farm (Yankee) and the Ketola Farm (Finnish) were the only exhibits within easy walking distance of the Visitor Center.  Even so, those provided enough diversity to let interpreters help visitors compare and contrast what they were seeing.   Visitors experienced holiday traditions ranging from 1860 to 1915.  They got a sense of community celebrations at St. Peter’s Church, and family festivities in the rural, northwoods Ketola home.   They could think about how the holiday was observed by families with different income levels and social aspirations.

Most concerns I might have had about Christmas programming conjuring images of something “simpler and better” evaporated that first December.  Every interpreter (and historical novelist, perhaps) should have the chance to work in their historic structures in the winter.  Two words:  cold, and dark.

Renee Raduechel, left, and a colleague heading to work.

We all quickly learned which buildings got cozy with the wood stove going, and which never, ever warmed up (by modern standards, anyway).  Visitors’ comings and goings had a lot to do with that, of course, but I remember well the difficulty in simply preparing certain buildings for the event.   If the temperature was too low, or the winds too strong, no amount of wool clothes and firewood kept us warm.

Mary Kilps at the Benson House, 1990.

Mary Kilps Ramstack, Benson House.

Similarly, days were short.  Oil lamps and candles may be pretty, but they give precious little light if you really need to get something done.   The cold and dark were things I had always understood intellectually, but getting even a little real experience made an impact.

Two interpreters at the Sanford House.

The Sanford House is beautiful, hard to heat, and hard to illuminate well.

And it did for visitors as well (although it was more noticeable to the interpreters, who couldn’t keep moving or wear down parkas).  Even bundled up, upon entering a building visitors often headed straight for the stove.  Even knowing they were entering a period structure, they sometimes reached for nonexistent light switches.  Cold days made people think about the difficulty of travel before the advent of cars.  Warmer days brought slushy mud, helping guests imagine the challenge of keeping floors clean with water hauled from a pump outside.  Visiting in December provides a visceral experience that can’t be duplicated.

Many churches used evergreens to create Bible verses. The tree is laden with gifts.

When I attended Old World’ Christmas programming this year, after a long absence, I was reminded of those things.  But I also had the chance to reflect on the other aspect of programming.   St. Peter’s Church was decorated and interpreted to reflect services described in early newspaper accounts, and the effect was lovely.  Visitors settled in to sing period carols.   Children made popcorn strings, then grinned with pride as an interpreter carefully added them to the tree.

In the historic homes, visitors lingered, enjoying the stories.  They sampled traditional baked goods.  They paused to reflect upon simple decorations.  Parents helped their children understand what they were seeing, and make connections to their own lives.  Grandparents told their own stories.

The Benson House parlor.

I am certainly biased.  Still, I think the site does a wonderful job of capturing the spirit of Christmas past—the challenges, the charms.   Put a visit on your 2010 calendar.  You won’t be sorry.