Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Going Deeper in Decorah - Part II

Go to Part ! to begin our journey 

The following morning, we set out for Effigy Mounds, near the Mississippi. We learned of several hiking routes from the ranger and opted for a two-mile circuit, the first portion a rather steep upward climb. The route was shaded, and a cedar path wound around hills and through forest. Sunlight dappled the ground and fallen limbs created sculptural forms. Small rises in the ground suggested bear-like forms. The mounds in this area are of bears and birds and were created between 850-1400 years ago. Their meaning is a mystery, but the Indians ceased to create new mounds when they moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture. The route reached overlooks at the Mississippi where we watched a train chug through the landscape as boats cut through the water nearby. With perfect weather, we were invigorated by starting our day in this place of beauty.

We had a short lunch stop in the town of McGregor, yet another small town with traces of a colorful history still found in the buildings of its downtown. In the 1870s it was the largest shipping port west of Chicago as rail cars were ferried across the Mississippi. Those boom years came to an end when a bridge was constructed to connect Iowa and Wisconsin and the business of ferrying train cars became obsolete.

Our final stop for the day was Spillville, Iowa, a town settled by Czechs.  A few missed turns and we found ourselves traveling in clouds of dust on country roads, arriving at the museum just 45 minutes before its closing time.

 There we visited the Bily’s Clock Museum where intricate clocks were carved from wood, often figures moved across the front and disappeared into the casing as music played. Our guide told us that they set them for different times, so they don’t all chime at the same time as the cacophony would be deafening. With white gloves and hands gesturing she displayed each clock and its moving mechanism with enthusiasm. Two bachelor farmers, the Bily brothers, created the clocks, one designing them and the other doing most of the carving. At one time Henry Ford sought to purchase one for $1 million and was declined. At that point their entrepreneurial sister began to charge ten cents for visitors who wanted to see that million dollar clock. They had as many as 1000 visitors each day. 

As our 45 minutes ticked by, we moved upstairs to the music of Dvorak where we found an exhibit on his visit during the summer of 1893. It was in this space that he finished composing the New World Symphony finding comfort in this very Czech town where he wrote of his delight in birds singing and the sound of the Czech language. Our visit concluded with a brief stop at St Wenceslaus Church, the oldest Czech Catholic Church in the US dating back to 1860. Dvorak composed several of his pieces at their organ. As we entered the church I too could hear the birds singing.

Our last day! Time to begin our drive back to the Twin Cities, but we had a few last things to do. We parted ways to explore shops and regrouped at the Porter House. Remember the house with the unusual rock fence? We were greeted by a guide who we learned was the director. She served as our guide and storyteller as we explored the house and learned its story, both a love story and an adventure story. Adelbert (Bert) Porter lived across the street from Grace Young. When they married, they lived with Grace’s parents in what became known as the Porter House. From there he could look from the porch over the stone wall to his childhood home. Bert and Grace didn’t have children and were financially independent allowing them to pursue a life of artistic interests and adventure. Bert was a naturalist, a photographer and a collector and that extended to butterflies, stamps and objects from his extensive travels in South America and Asia. Grace, a suffragette, painted china and accompanied Bert on portions of his trips. Pictures illustrated that she shared his adventurous spirit. Bert did more than collect butterflies, he created stunning artwork from their iridescent wings which is found throughout the home. He also had curiosity cabinets of his many collected objects. I felt as if I would have enjoyed knowing this adventurous and creative couple. 

As our trip came to a close, I considered what we had discovered. Traveling with others requires a myriad of decisions and some negotiation, where to go, what to do, who will drive, where to stay? Most of us are accustom to such decisions with a partner where we have well established roles, less so with others. There were also elements of travel that were less familiar. I am a city girl and spend most of my travels in big cities and art museums. This called for an openness to a different kind of travel, going deeper in a more circumscribed area rather than skimming the surface of a large city. My hope was for surprise and delight and this trip cleared that bar easily. Both of my travel companions confessed to being pleasantly surprised by small-town Iowa, coming away charmed with our encounters and the places we visited. 

One of the most delightful parts of our trip were the people that we encountered as they performed the duties of their daily life, Waitresses and museum guides added an unexpected richness to our travels as we engaged them in conversation.  Museum guides projected a very real enthusiasm for their subject and we often peppered our waitresses with questions about the town and what it was like to live in that area. Everyone was friendly and helpful and added to the fondness we felt for the areas we visited.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Going Deeper in Decorah - Part I

One of my annual traditions is a road trip with two friends from the Artists’ Lab. We settle on two to three days and pick a location to explore. It is a small-town trip, quite different than a big-city trip where you can skim the surface of a broad expanse. A small town is narrower in scope and you must go deeper to find the gems. That requires an open mind and a spirit of exploration.

Our more memorable trips have taken us to Jeffers Petroglyphs, then on to the Pipestone National Monument, a pipestone quarry that is a sacred site for Native Americans. On another trip we traveled across Wisconsin viewing outsider (and outside) art, often grottoes and sculptures created by early German immigrants. This time we pointed south towards Iowa.

We began by considering a number of interesting stops, then narrowed them to a smaller circuit. I always want to do more than is realistic and suggest complex trips. Those invariably get trimmed as they are, I admit, overly ambitious. I had visions of singing one of my favorite hobo songs (The Hobo’s Lullaby) on the way to the Hobo Museum in Britt, Iowa or traveling the Grant Wood scenic byway from Cedar Rapids onward. Alas, they fell on the cutting room floor when weighed against the driving.

Still what was left was intriguing. Our plan was to go to Decorah, a charming town in Northeast Iowa and then on to Effigy Mounds Monument, an area of 200 raised mounds of animal forms created by Indian tribes in the first millennium. The best trips include some outdoor component to balance the driving. There are a number of small towns along the Mississippi that we planned to visit along the way. Nearby was Spillville, a Czech town that was the site of a three-month visit from composer Antonin Dvorak in the late 1800s. There he completed his work on the New World Symphony, one of my favorite pieces of classical music. In the building that housed him, there is a small exhibit about his visit and a rather renowned clock museum.

Decorah is a two-and-a-half-hour drive and we began on a day with perfect weather, sunny,
warm, but not uncomfortably so. Harmony, Minnesota is in route. It is a small Amish community and horse drawn buggies are likely to pass you on the road. We stopped at Estelle’s Eatery for what turned into a leisurely and pleasant lunch. Time runs slowly in Amish country, especially at a popular restaurant. 

When we arrived in Decorah we pulled up in front of the Vesterheim, the National Norwegian-American Museum, housed in an attractive old building. It has the most extensive collection of Norwegian-American artifacts in the world. Who knew!


by Fred Cogelow, one of my favorite pieces
Now I don't have a Norwegian bone in my body, but one of the rules of road trips is you explore what the area offers, the more unlike your typical explorations the better. When we entered we were greeted with the National Norwegian-American Folk Art exhibit with rosemaling, weaving and woodworking. As I enjoyed the contemporary response to Norwegian traditional arts, it began to arouse a curiosity in me about the genesis of those arts. That was soon to be satisfied by rooms that represented the typical living space decorated by Norwegian home crafts. The museum presented many of the original artifacts that represented the Norwegian artistic tradition. One of my favorite parts was a 
The model on right, carving on left
photography exhibit of Knud Knudsen, one of Norway’s most famous early photographers. He lived from 1832-1915 and began his photography business in the 1860s. While his landscapes are lovely, it was the photographs of people in their daily life that bridged both time and geography.

As we left the building we noticed a number of historic buildings located behind the museum
representing the life of Norwegian immigrants. We found ourselves imagining what life was like for a couple who lived with six children in one room. 

We then went in search of our Airbnb, a home within walking distance of the Main Street and near the historic district. A welcoming front porch greeted us, something we observed throughout the neighborhood. We found the location convenient as we walked to La Rana, a small and satisfying restaurant. On the walk back, we passed an imposing home, but what caught our attention was the intriguing rock wall that surrounded it, set with glittering geodes and colorful forms. We learned that it was known as the Porter House and was now a museum, yet another gem, quite literally, for exploration.

Read Part 2