On Spooky Stories

When I was a young girl attending one of the many camps I enjoyed, I loved sitting around a campfire telling stories. One of my favorites is a mildly spooky tale that I can’t quite remember the origins of, though I suspect it came from a Girl Scout leader or text at some point.

Half of the fun of telling spooky stories is the ambiance. When telling stories around a campfire, the circle can be big or small, but the warm light from the fire casts deep shadows, as only faces are lit up. Woods or fields surrounding the fire seem darker, and deeper. As a storyteller begins to share a tale, everyone hushes, and the quiet is only broken by the breaking of a log, the snap of pine pitch crackling in the flames, or the call of a night bird.

Perhaps it is a night Iike this where you might hear me tell this story:

Once there was a couple from the Twin Cities named Jane and Martin Hill. They were newlyweds, and in the time-honored tradition of the Midwest, decided to take a road trip for their honeymoon, heading up North along back roads they’d never been on before, just for the adventure of it. One evening, they were driving as dusk was falling, and it started to rain.

It came down in great sheets, making it hard for Martin, who was at the wheel, to see the road, which had gone slippery. He slowed the car, but a shadow ran in front of it without warning, and he swerved. The car flew into a series of rolls, ending up in the ditch with the headlights pointing skyward.

Martin must have fallen unconscious for a moment, but when he came to, he noticed his wife was gravely injured. The rain had lightened up a bit, and there was just enough light from the dashboard that he could see she was bleeding.

Now this was in the days before cell phones, so Martin had no way of contacting an ambulance, and he, himself, knew very little about first aid. He was frantic, trying to think what to do. He managed to get himself out of the car, then to her side, which was crumbled. Something gave him tremendous strength, and he was able to pull her caved-in door open, and take her into his arms. All he could think to do was to get to the road and start walking toward the last town, which they’d passed several miles ago. 

He gathered Jane up, stumbled up the wet, slippery ditch, and made it to the road. He began walking, holding on to his wife and looking for any sign of assistance. His patience was rewarded after a time, and he spotted a light off the road, in the distance.

Martin looked for some kind of path or road that would take him to that light. In the dim light of the rising moon, he saw what looked like a footpath in the underbrush, and he took it, stumbling his way down the path, holding Jane carefully, and looking ahead to a large house that appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, with light emanating from its bay windows. He carried Jane up the steps to the front door, and used his foot to kick it harshly.

He heard footsteps from within, and the door opened with a creak. An old, decrepit man appeared, his long gray hair thinning over his scalp, and his walk marked by a heavy limp.

“Yes?” The man looked Martin and Jane over carefully.

“Please, do you have a phone? My wife, and I, well, we’ve been in an accident and she needs help. Please?”

The man pursed his lips, then nodded. “The Master is in.” He gestured. “Bring her inside.”

Martin entered the house, still holding onto his wife as the other man closed the door behind him and guided him into an old-fashioned looking parlor, gesturing to the settee. “Lay her there,” the man said. “I’ll get the Master.”

Martin lay his wife down. She looked pale and bloody, and he worried it was too late to help her. 

The man came back, and with him, he brought a tall, elegant-looking man in what seemed to be an old-fashioned suit, whom Martin thought was likely this “Master” of which the former had spoken. “Please,” Martin said. “Can you help me?”

“We haven’t a phone,” the Master said. “But I am a physician, of sorts. Let me see what I can do.” 

Martin stepped back, and the Master rolled up his sleeves as he knelt next to Jane. He checked her breathing, listened to her heart, and sat back heavily. “I’m sorry to tell you this, sir, but your wife is already dead.”

Martin felt faint.

“She can’t be! She can’t!”

“There’s nothing more we can do for her.”

Tears fell from Martin’s eyes, and for the first time, he noticed blood dripping down his own arm to the floor below. “Oh,” he said faintly, and fell, before the Master or his servant could catch him.

The Master checked Martin’s pulse, and shook his head. “He’s gone, too.”

“Master, what shall we do with them?” The servant asked.

“Lay him out on the other settee,” The Master directed, going to his parlor organ. He sat at the instrument as his servant laid out Martin on the other settee, and began to play a few chords.

“Master?” The servant asked.

“Just watch, Igor.” The Master began to play, deep rolling chords in flats and trills, a music none had ever heard before that night, and none would ever hear again. As he played, the bodies on the settees began to shake and shiver. He continued to play, the music reaching a fever pitch as the bodies sat straight up, and their eyes opened.

“Master!” The servant called out.

“Yes, Igor, yes!” The Master cried, then sang: “The Hills are alive, with the sound of music.”

A beat. A pause to let the truly terrible pun sink in.

Perhaps the Hills left.

Perhaps they stayed. 

But the power of music saved their lives that night. And when this story is told around the campfire, the “boos” are truly fun for the storyteller. Which was often me, with my terrible sense of humor.

Listen to me tell the story:

on-spooky-stories.mp3

Continue reading “On Spooky Stories”

Laura Ingalls Wilder and Me: My day on Rocky Ridge Farm

I’m standing here, next to a life-sized cut out of Laura Ingalls Wilder, in front of her side porch and the door that leads to her farmhouse kitchen on Rocky Ridge Farm, now known as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum.

Visiting Rocky Ridge has been on my personal to-do list since I first found out that she’d lived on this section of Ozark land for more than 60 years. Wilder traveled extensively as a child across the Midwest as her family looked for a place to settle down and prosper, and each of the places they stopped and lived has become part of the “tour” of Wilder sites. With this stop at Rocky Ridge today, I’ve been to every site but the one in upstate New York featured in Farmer Boy.

It’s hard, sometimes, to process the emotions that come from fulfilling a long-held dream. I brought my sister and my little girls along for this trip, and having them there added to my joy at finally walking on Wilder’s land, touring her house, and viewing her things, lovingly preserved as it was when she died on Feb. 10, 1957 at the age of 90. As our docent explained during our tour, Wilder’s daughter, Rose, locked the house three days after Wilder’s death, and it remained in stasis until three months later, when, with Rose’s permission and the formation of the non-profit society that currently maintains it, the home opened to the public for tours.

I’m grasping for words to express how it felt to stand in Laura’s kitchen, seeing the pipes that Almanzo had installed himself to bring their spring into the house so she’d have running water with which to cook. One counter held her flour sifter, a board, rolling pin, and ceramic bowl, looking for all the world that she’d stepped away for a moment from baking project. Her blue willow-patterned dishes, everyday favorites, gleam from an open cupboard. The green linoleum that tops the short counters–made by Almanzo to accommodate her petite size–is original.

Everything in the house remains as she left it in 1957. Through the kitchen to the dining room, visitors can spot Rose’s ladder stairs to her upstairs bedroom on their left. The dining room table, bought by Rose to furnish the Rock House in 1929, had been brought back to the main farm in 1936, when the couple moved back in after spending eight years in the Rock House that Rose had built for them. On a shelf built as a triangle to fit snugly in the corner above a heater, the clock that Almanzo traded a load of hay for during their first Christmas still tells the time, carefully wound every morning by the docents in charge for the day.

I found it hard not to touch things as I went through the house. (My preschoolers were very good at keeping their hands in their pockets. They started teasing me about doing the same, and made me giggle.) But it was hard! Most tables and dressers held a lace doilies, knitted by Laura in a favored “pineapple” pattern. Her sewing box sat under a table, ready for use; her nightgown lay across her bed. Her desk held letters from publishers and others; her parlor window seat held three pillows, one of which was embroidered by Angeline Day Wilder, Almanzo’s mother.

Laura’s library, Almanzo’s canes, Rose’s organ, and most of all, their space, lovingly built, kept, and maintained, echoed with the remembrances of their lives, lived.

The home is the showpiece that Laura intended, made from materials taken right off the farm, and emerging into view from the road at the perfect spot coming out from town. It’s a lovely home, and I can easily see why she didn’t want to be parted from it for long.

The museum by Rocky Ridge, now down from the house in its own space with its own parking lot, continued the collection of things that once belonged to many of the people in the Little House. Pa’s fiddle, once owned by Charles Ingalls, has pride of place in the gallery. But we can also see Caroline (Ma) Ingalls’ mother-of-pearl handled pen, Mary’s Braille slate, and Rose’s writing desk. I had to send my little girls, who had been very patient but were getting restless, with my sister into the attached store early so I could be sure to view it all: every. single. thing.

Of course, I spent way too much money in the gift shop. But I also signed stock; they had several copies of my first book, The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane, Literary Journalist. I also spotted it in the Rock House in a display about Rose, which I found flattering.

We had a very late lunch in town, then took pictures in Mansfield’s town square and visited the Wilder and Lane graves in the cemetery. I could have spent days, but one day was enough to view absolutely everything.

I highly recommend a stop if you’re in the area. My little girls, at 4 and 5, found it to be a fun experience. Walking the trails around the farm gave them plenty of exercise; somehow, and I realize how silly this is, I hadn’t realized that a farm in the mountains would be on such a significant incline. We were prepared with good shoes, so it didn’t trip us up. If mobility is an issue for you, don’t worry; handicapped parking is available at the museum, the main farm house, and the Rock House. We chose, mostly, to walk. We avoided the over-the-hill walking trail between the Rock House and the farm house, but otherwise walked everywhere.

I sent my mother a selfie of my sister, my little girls, and me, all smiling, pink-cheeked, from Laura’s front porch. She texted back, “Cool! Do you feel different?”

I gotta say, “Kinda, yeah.”

Decisions: A database is built

Today, we made a decision about what to do with the contents of the box.

Heather at Documentary Site and I have been discussing, all though the beginning stages of this project, the kinds of things we could do with the materials in the box. As I noted last week, straightforward historical interpretation is one way we could go. But as we look through all the materials, and we read the notebooks, we both came to separate, but similar, conclusions.

It’s best that we create something that others can use to make sense of this story, ask questions about this period and time, and interpret from their own perspectives what it is they see.

Therefore, we’ve started a database.

This work is going to take some time. In the boxes’ journals, we have at least 7,000 entries for a database that we will make searchable by theme or keyword for others to use. We’ve decided to set up a domain exclusively for this project, and create an online archive. Some of the story will be interpreted through narrative text that will go along with a theme. But all of the entries will be made available for an audience to use to draw their own conclusions.

Posts about the box itself may dwindle during the time that we’re using for database entry. We’ve set up a shared spreadsheet, and we’ve each picked up a notebook. We’ll enter information by notebook, date of entry, the full text of the entry, and a series of tags we think best reflects the content of the entry. For example, on early entry on weather and cleaning chicken coops might be tagged “weather” and “chores.” We’ll try to make it as accessible as possible.

It also occurred to me during this discussion that I actually have a lot more material than what’s in the box for a database of this type. When I wrote More than a Farmer’s Wife, I interviewed or corresponded with more than 200 farm women who were born on or raised on farms between 1910 and 1960, and I kept it all. I actually couldn’t bear to part with it, because I could only use it for broad context and triangulation of data I gathered while reading farming and women’s magazines for the period in the book.

But the voices there, in the interviews and correspondence, need to be heard, in their own words.

We’ll be taking a hiatus from technical posts as we work on data entry, but I’ll still be posting about what we find along the way. I’m also taking suggestions for what our domain and/or project name could be. “What’s in the box?” is great for a start, but it doesn’t really describe the scope of what this project is becoming.

Off to the database.

 

To tell a story: Ways of approaching history

Thinking about “What’s in the Box?” has helped me focus a little on my other historical research.

When I first got the box, I was working on a large-scale history project. In fact, it might have been too large to do justice to the topic. It came from a place of wanting to learn about and share a story about how farm women in the United States lived and worked on their farms in the early to mid-twentieth century, rooted in my grief over the loss of my own grandmother just before I started my doctoral program and a parallel life-long interest in Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was writing for and about farm women at the time.

As with many questions that tackle aspects of women’s history, the first step had to be looking for their voices and stories. Several options could be employed. The first, which I used, is asking people for their own stories, informally networking to see if there was some written record that could be used to uncover the past. The biggest challenge in uncovering stories of the largely voiceless is that lack of voice; once many people have passed on, there’s no record they’ve even been a part of the past.

As a journalist, I loved to tell people’s stories. I learned in my teens that everyday stories had just as much impact and interest as the big news of the day, through work in state journalism workshops and camps. One of my first features that got significant attention told the story of a cleaning woman, Lorraine, in the dorm in which I was staying for camp. It ignited for me a passion to tell the stories that remained untold. And as a journalist before I became a historian-in-training, I thought to look first toward newspaper stories to see if I could find farm women’s voices from the period I was interested in, which started in 1911.

So my first project, in a classroom under the direction of Dr. Hazel Dicken-Garcia, was a paper that examined discourse about farm women in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. As a starting point, I used the first known publication date of Wilder’s column in the Missouri Ruralist, so that I had a known date when at least one farm woman was actively writing and engaged in the farming community. As an end point, I used the last known publication date for Wilder’s column, in 1926. That left fifteen years of Press coverage to comb through, so I decided to be methodical about it. I reviewed papers from harvest and planting seasons over that fifteen years, looking for farm women’s voices. I went through everything for that fifteen years.

And found exactly one item that directly mentioned farm women.

One.

In fifteen years.

I learned several things: One, that farm women truly were going voiceless in the mainstream media during this period. For some reason, this surprised me then, but with time, experience, and further research, I’m no longer surprised by this result. Two, that the Minnesota State Fair then, as now, recognized the role of farm women in the rural communities as being significant; the item that was reported came from its grounds, where new “rest room” facilities had been built on Machinery Hill for women to use. And three, that the lack of coverage in mainstream media didn’t mean farm women were totally voiceless; the item also interviewed the female editor of a magazine called The Farmer’s Wife.

In the absence of mainstream coverage, alternate and dissident press will appear, as this one did.

The Farmer’s Wife, I discovered, was a magazine published for many years in St. Paul. It is archived at the Magrath Library on the St. Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota.

The seeds of my dissertation are planted there.

Because of the lack of coverage, I realized I needed to discover the larger story of American farm women first. While some research had been conducted at this point, no one had looked at farming magazines at the scale I decided to try. I ended up looking at six different magazines–three farming, three national mainstream press–over fifty years that marked the shift in the United States from being mostly rural to being mostly urban: 1910 to 1960. Later, I sought out other means of finding these voices, including interviews and correspondence with women who lived and worked on farms during this period. It’s during this phase of the research, which was conducted to add to the dissertation for the book that was published in 2009, that I encountered the box.

On its face, I couldn’t use the materials within it for the research I was conducting at that time. The notebooks, at a glance, were fascinating, but ultimately beyond the period I was researching. I set it aside.

Now, looking at it again, I realize the box calls for a different style of storytelling. It’s not material that would lend itself to a large-scale project. It’s more in line with a biography–a piece of history that illuminates one person’s life that in some way tells a larger story about that person’s role in history. It calls to mind Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book, A Midwife’s Tale, which started with a similar diary chronicle to tease out a rich biography of Martha Ballard, a colonial midwife who lived in Maine and kept her diary from 1785 to 1812. (It won a Pulitzer Prize; it’s a brilliant book that I highly recommend.)

I don’t know what I’m going to do with those diaries yet. It’s a different sort of story, a different era from what I’m used to working in. And yet it’s very, very familiar.

What’s In the Box? Looking at old photographs

I’m looking at the photographs in the box today. Two are loose; three rest inside the cardboard-bound album. My first thoughts surround what people are wearing in the photographs, but I’m finding it difficult to separate myself and my thoughts from my impulses to preserve. I’m not using gloves as I handle these, though I am using dry, clean hands. I can tell that someone took great care of these; the yellowing that might indicate acidic based paper really only is present in the cardboard case.

The wedding photograph, mounted on a gray heavy card stock, is labeled “Henry and Selma Kolb” on the back, in pencil, in writing that clearly was influenced by the Palmer Method.  It’s relatively easy to date the photo; photographs of this quality were not available until the mid to late 19th century, for one. I decide to look at the family genealogy book to see if I can find a better date for the photo before I look any further, and I find them.

kolbgen

Henry and Selma Kolb were married Nov. 30, 1899. They had two children, and by 1963, they had five grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

The photo is in black and white. It’s not yellowed as much as it could be; the photo paper and the mounting board appear to be high quality.  There’s an imprint on the bottom border that I can’t make out; I use a soft pencil and a piece of paper to make a rubbing of it.  It reads: “E & A Kreuter 1212 N. 8th St Sheboygan Wis.”

Sheboygan, again. Our clues are getting bigger all the time.

Still, 1899 makes sense. Henry’s outfit would not be out of place at a formal event today; his suit and shoes are dark, and his jacket cut in a slight wave over his hips with short tails. He’s wearing a stiff white collar and a white bow tie, with a white cluster of small flowers on his lapel. He wears no beard, but has a lovely, well-kept handlebar mustache.

Selma’s gown lacks the fuss of an upper-class Victorian gown, which could indicate her place in a lower class or a nod to more modern styles, which were beginning to trend toward slimmer lines and less fuss. I can’t tell what color it is, but it’s a shade that reflects as a deep gray, so it might be blue. It might be deep pink. I make a mental note to research Victorian wedding colors as I look at the white, high-necked blouse that rests under a jacket that matches the skirt, with lace at the edges and a bow tied sharply at the waist. Her hair is up, and crowned with a headpiece that is floral, with ruffled veiling off the top that leads to a floor length veil. It’s gorgeous.

The pair make a beautiful couple. Neither smiles, but that’s not uncommon for this era. Some preferred not to show imperfect teeth. Some were coached to keep their mouths closed as a means of keeping themselves relaxed and still for what could be a long exposure time. Selma, however, looks like she’s trying very hard not to smile as brightly as she can. There’s a suggestion of dimples there, and eyes that look like they could laugh at any second.

Elsa Muetzelburg Neumann peers out of the other single-frame photo. She’s got a Palmer method label, in ink, on her back. The ink’s not bleeding, and it appears to have been done recently, with some kind of ball-point pen. She’s labeled “Elsa” in the genealogy, but her granddaughter, our correspondent, refers to her as “Elsie.” Elsie is who we think kept the journals. Her record indicates that she was born Jan. 14, 1892, married June 14, 1913, and died Nov. 29, 1983.

The genealogy has more ink on this page, than on the others, and I think her granddaughter wanted to fill in the blanks.

Elsa’s picture clearly is taken when she was still a teen, certainly well before her 1913 marriage. Her gown is the filmy white cotton or linen characteristic of a well-bred girl’s graduation wardrobe, though it shows considerable ankle. The scroll she holds in one hand bolsters the impression that this is her graduation photo. If she graduated at 18, which is not a given, this photo would have been taken in about 1910. The imprint reveals another, different Sheboygan address.

The third set of photos comes in one, cardboard album. It’s hand sewn at the edges, and labeled on the front. It came from Fred Kolb, who proudly declared himself “teacher” on the front cover in iron-based ink. This album has seen better days. It’s spattered with liquids that left stains behind, and the photos are going pink with exposure to the cardboard on which they’re mounted. The photos are attributed to a photographer in Wells, Wis., but close attention to the content of the photos places the pictures in Meeme, Wis., which is close to Sheboygan.

A quick check of my phone’s map feature tells me Meeme is 18 miles or so from Sheboygan, a day’s ride by horse; a twenty-minute drive today.

The genealogy tells me that Fred K. Kolb, the teacher at Meeme on Memorial Day 1899, born in 1872. He was 26 in his dignified teacher’s pose, in a classroom decorated with buntings. Another photo in the set, of all his students, is marked with ink in three places. One marks out a little girl who might be Elsa. It’s hard to tell. Fred married in 1906, to Laura Post, and the couple had three children.

So much can be gleaned from the photos. So many stories can be told.

Tips on photo preservation: If you’re interested in preserving your old photos, now is the time to get them copied on acid- and lignin-free paper. Keep them in low light and handle them carefully with clean, dry hands. If you’ve got old insta-photos, the kind that came from Polaroid or Kodak instant cameras, take this step immediately. The chemicals that help produce the instant images will wear out over time, and your images will be lost. Doing this would make a great gift for your family archivist.

What’s in the box? Investigating an impulse to preserve

The first Thanksgiving after my grandmother Elsie passed away, I looked through her cookbooks to see if I could find the recipe she used to make the chocolate cake with date filling she made every year for my father’s birthday.

I pulled out The Farmer’s Wife Cookbook, and it flopped open to the exact page, with notes in her own handwriting.

At the time, I cried a little. The memory of my grandmother, the tradition of the family, and the legacy of food, farm, and life all sort of coalesced into this moment of love. It was not the only moment that led me to start researching American farm women’s lives in the early to mid-twentieth century, but it is one that gets repeated every year, as another food tradition, family tradition, or farm tradition sneaks up on me.

I’m not alone in this. When I was actively conducting research for my book More than a Farmer’s Wife, based on my dissertation, I met with dozens of women who had been raised on American farms between 1910 and 1960. A note in Taste of Home‘s request column also yielded dozens of letters from women who had that farm connection. In the end, I collected more than 200 individual stories from women with first-hand experience of that period on the farm to add to my impressions of their stories from the farming magazines of the same time.

Among what I was sent was a box.

Inside the box were genealogies, pictures, scrapbooks, and a journal, tucked in with a note on the top about how I might be able to find them useful. I did not, however, have a return address. I could not use them for the project that I was working on at that time, but I could not bear to throw the box away. These are someone’s memories; someone’s family history; someone’s traditions.

My colleague Heather McIntosh and I decided now is a good time to investigate the box.

Heather is the genius behind Documentary Site, and together, we’re going to blog about a project that will open up and archive the contents of the box for an interactive documentary. Today, we start with her blog about the process we plan to take, and my blog about the story behind the box as I currently know it.

I was also sent scrapbooks, photos, and other bits of material culture as part of that project, and I ended up with far more material than I actually could use. At some point, I’d like to do more with it.

But for now, we want to know: What’s in the box?

 

Remembering the Peshtigo Fire

October 8, 1871–Fire rampaged through northeastern Wisconsin, wiping out the city of Peshtigo and claiming the lives of an estimated 2,400 people. Though the fire occurred on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, with greater loss of life, very little is known about it outside of Wisconsin.

That conundrum (How can something so devastating be so forgotten?) led me down many paths over the course of my career. My imagination first got caught up with the fire in fourth grade, when I wrote about it in an illustrated manuscript that took a prize at the Wisconsin State Fair. But later on, when I became a reporter in that same region, covering the city government for the city and towns of Peshtigo, I was able to dig deeply into that history and report about it in a series of stories that ran the week that began with Monday, Oct. 7, 1996, commemorating the 125th anniversary of the fire.

I started looking through the clips of the series recently, which I’ve kept as examples of enterprise reporting and as groundwork for more potential research. I wrote the story in five parts, one for each day that week, with Tuesday’s pieces focusing on the story of the fire itself and published on its anniversary. Those pieces were edited together and picked up by the Associated Press for national distribution, one of the few of my early works for which that happened.

The entire week also represents the first time I allowed myself to spread my wings as writer, using descriptive language to tell a story that few knew well, and fewer still know well today.

“Modern day Peshtigo bustles with life and industry. People in the city smile as others pass. A thriving industrial park attracts the cream of business and industry. Badger Park beckons the lunch-hour patron as well as the children of the nearby elementary school … It’s such a pretty town. With such a horrifying history.” (Lauters, EagleHerald, Oct. 7, 1996)

I went on to describe the town, the drought, and the lack of communication lines from the north to the south because of wild fires that were breaking out due to construction of railroad lines through the dry woods. I used original source material that included local residents’ recollections of survivor stories, survivor diaries, and my own newspaper’s archives. I finished that day with the line from an editorial by 1871 Eagle editor Luther Noyes: “Fires are still raging all over the country. The raw air of autumn is being well-cooked by fire.” (Eagle, Sept. 24, 1871)

Noyes’ words were prophetic. On Tuesday, Oct. 8, 1871, as the Rev. Peter Pernin writes in his diary, a muffled roaring sound came from the west. He knew instantly that he needed to head to the Peshtigo River. Mill workers on the east side of the river already were battling sparks and flames there, but by 9 p.m., most workers’ families were in bed.

Then flames rose from the rest along Oconto Avenue, and engulfed everything in their path. Bells rang all over town. As many as could do so headed for that same river, hoping that the water, shallow with the drought, could save their lives. Pernin writes about struggling on the bridge over the River, as people from both sides of it tried to get to the other, hoping for safety, and that he managed to push himself and his cart–containing the Tabernacle that housed the Sacrament–into the water itself, immersing them both.

“I came out of that river about half past three in the morning, and from that time I was in a very different condition, both morally and physically, to that in which I had previously been,” Pernin wrote.

Pernin wasn’t alone. Fire conditions were said to be so hot, many people simply blazed up when the flames hit them. A final death count would be impossible for this reason, and because no one knew just how many people were in the region at the time.  A census would show only homesteaders and citizens; the area, however, was filled with railway workers and others who’d just arrived from Chicago for the work promised in the region.

Nothing but ashes, and a single green-timber framed house, remained in the entire city.

I interviewed numerous descendants of fire survivors, and their stories ran the next day. I wrapped the series with what amounted to an annotated bibliography of sources for those who were interested in learning more.

The experience fired my imagination. Resources were sent from Wisconsin to Chicago, to aid residence there, before the state government even knew about their own devastation. The governor’s wife, in residence in Madison while her husband headed to Chicago, commandeered an aid train and sent it north when word reached her.

The papers covered Chicago.

The history illustrated numerous things for me, but one thing was made manifestly clear: Coverage of events can only occur if someone knows the event is happening, and if that event is judged to be significant enough to an audience.

Chicago as a large city, wiped out, remained the story of the day. The small town wiped out in northern Wisconsin hardly rated, in comparison, despite the loss of life. Already in 1871, regional differences in urban and rural markets for coverage became apparent.

But it’s important to remember the tragedy at Peshtigo for numerous reasons. The city today, is small, but it thrives. The region prospers. Out of the ashes, hope survived.

A Saturday at the Great Minnesota Get-Together

Every year, the Minnesota State Fair calls all comers to visit, eat, play, talk politics, and view the best of the best of the farm-produced animals, produce, crops, and goods available in the State. The event happens at the end of August, culminating in Labor Day, and for some, it’s an event not to be missed.

I first went to the fair almost twenty years ago, when I was working on my doctorate at the University of Minnesota. My husband and I lived in a tiny apartment in a complex right next to the grounds, and complex residents received free tickets to the fair to compensate for the hassle we faced during the season just getting in and out of our driveway. So, we went.

It’s become a bit of a tradition, ever since.

We haven’t been in the last few years, because it just hasn’t been possible for one reason or another, but we found that we had a free Saturday during the fair, with weather projected to be utterly gorgeous. We bundled up our preschoolers and headed to the Twin Cities early, to try and beat the “big” crowd, which was futile, as everyone else had the same idea.

We’ve learned a few things in our time going to the fair. First, never park next to the grounds. On truly beautiful days, those lots fill up fast, can cost quite a bit, and can be difficult to navigate to and from. Our preference is to park in an express park-and-ride lot and take the express bus right to the main gates. It’s cheaper, more convenient, and we don’t have to deal with fair traffic. This year, we parked at the Mall of America express lot across from the East Parking Garage.

I bought our transit tickets on the Metro Transit app, showed them to the friendly Metro Transit staff, and on we hopped–two adults and two preschoolers for $10, round trip. (Next year, the same trip will cost us $20 as the girls will be too old for the under five discount.)

The bus took us directly to the main entrance and Transit Hub at the back of one of the University of Minnesota St. Paul Campus parking lots. There, we could purchase tickets on site. We opted to buy ours online, and present the bar code for scanning on my phone to gain entrance to the grounds. Once inside, we headed directly for the West End Market, perched at that entrance.

The West End Market used to be Heritage Square, and traces of that history remain in a newer building that offers a displays and exhibits about the fair’s history and the art that surrounds the newer open-air stalls with goods that speak to Minnesota’s past. I stopped at the Watkins booth for vanilla extract, a staple in my kitchen. Matt took the girls to the shaved ice cart for two enormous confections that we all shared before girding our loins to head toward the Midway.

Because it was a beautiful Saturday at the fair, the crowds were challenging to navigate. I’ve seen, in the past, crowds so thick it would be easy to body surf through them. We managed, though, scooping up a bucket of fresh french fries, taking a turn at a feat-of-strength game booth, and viewing horses. We followed one lone sheep on a leash up Judson Avenue toward the international market, another favorite stop, and made use of the restrooms next to it.

(Restrooms at the fair are another big story. Fun fact: It was coverage of the 1911 Minnesota State Fair that led me to the work that would define how I approached my dissertation and later book: The Farmer’s Wife magazine. A reporter asked the editor of the Farmer’s Wife about the new restrooms on Machinery Hill at the fair, which were meant to offer farm women a respite from their corsets and other accoutrements. They were well-received.)

In recent years, big, well-maintained facilities have been added near the big market places to supplement existing restrooms, and while there will still lines on the women’s sides, the addition of family restrooms made it much easier to get in and out with two little girls who had to go, like, right now.

At the International Market, Matt took the ladies around the booths while I held a spot in the benches in front of the stage, which featured music by Papa Shalifa in the style of the Caribbean. We listened for a while, dancing, until we needed to escape the crowd and head toward the street to find some lunch.

We bought fresh, piping hot corn dogs from a truck on the corner, and turned up the road to find a spot on a bench facing the street  outside the main food building. We ate our corn dogs, drank our bottled water, and played with the new toys the girls had won at the strength booth. We watched the crowds, and I headed into the food building to get another fair favorite: deep-fried cheese curds.

The line for the curds stretched out the doors on both sides of the building, but it went very quickly. The booth is popular enough that the staff there have the procedure down. Present cash only at the window, get your ticket, then move down the counter where someone will take your ticket and hand you your curds. I got a bucket. It was a theme, OK? And we ate them all.

Keeping our spot on the street became important when  we realized the daily 2 p.m. parade was about to start. The girls clapped and waved at the bands, the farm and community princesses, the funny floats, and the Shriner’s cars. We loved watching the crowds go by.

After the parade, we ambled up another block and over to see some more of the booths, the food, and the fun. We watched people slide down the giant slide for a  minute, then looked through the merchant booths in the grandstand. We took a break, then, hanging out in the shade under the grandstand and trying to decide if we were up for doing anything else at the fair.

We decided we had to do one more thing: Get a bucket of chocolate chip cookies from Sweet Martha’s, a fair tradition that goes really well with the ice cold milk they also sell. We munched as we made our way out the same way we came in, taking the bus back to our car.

If you really want to do the entire fair, you’ll need to go more than once. That said, we managed to eat all the fair food we were craving, see a show, catch the parade, see some animals, go shopping, and enjoy the sunshine, so we felt accomplished. If you want to go, the fair runs through Labor Day. Our girls weren’t interested in the rides, but they have those, too. Have fun!

From LaCrosse to Pepin on the Great River Road, and LauraPalooza too!

LauraPalooza is one of my favorite places to go. A convention wholly dedicated to amalgamating the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder fans, scholars, and researchers, the event is sponsored by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association and is held every two to three years.

This year, the gathering convened in the LaCrosse, Wis., area with an eye toward a visit to Pepin, Wis., on the last day. Pepin is closest to where Laura was born in a small cabin about seven miles northeast of the town, which is located on the banks of Lake Pepin, an exceptionally wide spot of the Mississippi River.

I wasn’t able to attend all of this year’s convention, but I arrived Tuesday afternoon in time to hear the last few presentations, including a Q and A with Wilder expert William Anderson. Wednesday morning offered presentations about the psychology of the mother-daughter relationship, the “missing” Grace Ingalls,  and an entertaining presentation about the route taken by Laura and Almanzo from De Smet, S.D., to Mansfield, Mo., in 1894.

The afternoon, however, was taken up with the trip to Pepin.

I drove myself, and headed straight up the Great River Road to do so. The route, 75 miles from LaCrosse to Pepin on Highway 35, takes drivers through numerous small towns that sprung up along the Mississippi River during its heyday as the main means of travel in the area. The Mississippi still welcomes boat traffic, and in fact, it’s an active thoroughfare. The views along the way are spectacular, and each little town does its best to help travelers on their way.

I stopped in Nelson at the Nelson Cheese Factory on the way (on the recommendation of LIWLRA Homesite Representative Lynn Urban) and enjoyed a white chocolate raspberry ice cream cone. It’s a cozy place that also offers a variety of lunch items, coffee, wine, and assorted other products that make it an ideal place to get a snack and stretch my legs.

I then made my way through Pepin to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Birthplace Wayside.

I’ve been there several times, first in 1990 as a fresh-eyed 18-year-old on her first road trip without parents. That was nearly exactly 29 years ago. The little cabin that marks the site has been replaced once since then, and its sturdy construction, nestled in among the trees that have really grown in the last thirty years, made it look cozy.

LIWLRA and local host volunteers Susan Goettl and Julie Miller dressed the part for the event, staffing the cabin in their calico dresses and bonnets, and they dressed the cabin as well. Normally, it’s open to visitors but left empty to keep things from walking off. As a treat on Wednesday, however, Miller and Goettl had dressed the cabin, as well, making it appear as cozy as it might have in Laura’s day.

One special treat came from Anderson, who came along on the tour.

bill
Bill Anderson points out the general area where the original cabin was located.

He pointed out the general area that the original cabin had once stood, several feet southwest of the replica in a spot roughly near the wayside driveway’s entrance. A little rain kept umbrellas up, but it didn’t dampen the enthusiasm the crowd had for learning something new about Laura.

That stop kicked off the afternoon, which also featured a visit to the Museum in town, which had Wilder exhibits and merchandise. I also drove down toward the lake, up to the town park named after Wilder, and out to the farmer’s stand on the corner of the GRR and County CC, which takes visitors out to to the homesite.

Also scheduled were guided visits of the Oakwood Cemetery, where several significant people are buried, a supper, and a dance to mimic the Dance at Grandpa’s featured in Laura’s book, Little House in the Big Woods. Knowing I had to drive all the way home, however, meant I had to leave earlier than anticipated. I missed the dance, but I heard that it was a good time.

The Great River Road is always open for traveling, and a fun, leisurely drive to take. It’s not necessary to pair it with a trip to Pepin, but it’s always interesting to make that stop.

And as for LauraPalooza? The next convention will be near Malone, New York, birthplace of Almanzo Wilder, in summer, 2022. I’m already saving up.