Posts Tagged ‘New Glarus’

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.


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.

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.”

Immigrant Apples – Revisited

February 11, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about heirloom apples, and mentioned that Vilhelm Moberg had used Astrachan apples in his classic novels to symbolize a Swedish-American woman’s longing for home.  I was not familiar with that variety.  A friend who grew up in Minnesota (setting for Moberg’s novels) said she’d heard of them, but never tasted one.

Then another blog reader told me that when she was growing up in New England, her family always used Astrachans for applesauce.  Since moving to the Midwest she’s been unable to find them.  “I have yet to find an apple that makes applesauce as sweet and pink as the applesauce from Astrachan apples,” she wrote.

Now I really want to track them down.

As I thought more about this, I remembered an article I’d come across while doing research for The Runaway Friend:  A Kirsten Mystery, which is set in 1854 Minnesota.  In 1972, Carlton C. Qualey published “Diary of a Swedish Immigrant Horticulturist, 1855-1898” in Minnesota History.   Tonight I dug that out of my files, wondering if I’d find mention of the Astrachans.

Andrew Peterson kept a daily diary for forty-three years.  The volumes, written in Swedish, now reside in the Minnesota Historical Society archives.  In the ’72 article, Qualey notes that Moberg acknowledged the use of Peterson’s diary while writing his novels about Swedish immigrants.  “In fact,” Qualey notes, “the character Karl Oskar in the Moberg novels is said to have been modeled after Peterson.”

Who knew?

Peterson began planting apple grafts in 1856, and tried over a hundred varieties.  In 1884, he wrote of planting “Russian apple trees.”  (Yes! I thought.  Historians believe Astrachans originated in Russia, and came to the US with Swedish immigrants.)

In 1885, Peterson wrote that he had received scions of 200 apples he’d requested from Sweden.  Out of sixty varieties only one, he noted,  survived the harsh Minnesota winter.  In 1886, Peterson wrote that “The Russian White Astrakhan is hardier than the Duchess and is a good bearer.”

Very cool.

One more immigrant apple story.   This afternoon, while working on a completely different project (the Swiss settlement at New Glarus, Wisconsin), I found this gem:  “In January, 1853, thirty-one people…went to Monroe on foot to get their citizenship papers.  Each was given an apple, and each Swiss preserved the seeds to plant later, thus the first apple trees were called ‘citizenship apple trees.'”  (The Swiss Endure:  1845-1995, by  Elda Schiesser and Linda Schiesser.)

I don’t know what variety the new American citizens were given.  But I’d like to think that somewhere in the hills around New Glarus is a gnarled old apple tree or two, descended from those first ‘citizenship apple trees.’

PS:  I put this post up at about 3 AM (once I remembered the article about Andrew Peterson, I couldn’t sleep until I’d excavated it).  By the time I got back to the computer this morning, another blog reader had pointed me to Weston’s Antique Apples, in New Berlin, Wisconsin.  (Thanks!)  On their list of varieties is “Red Astrachan (Russia),” which they list as “Rather tart, juicy summer apple good for eating and cooking.”  The Astrachans are harvested in August.

Weston’s is listed on the National Register of Rural Historic Landscapes.  The owners grow over 100 varieties.  The oldest has been documented back to 1598.  One variety, the Old Church apple, is grown only Weston’s.

Come August, I’m headed that way.  In the meantime, check out their website.  We need to support the people working hard to preserve varieties that could so easily disappear.