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 

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