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.

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