Tag Archives: Minnesota

Visiting the Mankato Minnesota Houses Where Betsy and Tacy Lived

Fiction Meets Reality in Maude Hart Lovelace’s “Deep Valley”

Betsy's House, the real-life home of Maud Hart Lovelace in Mankato, Minnesota
Betsy’s House, the real-life home of Maud Hart Lovelace in Mankato, Minnesota

It’s hard to believe that a series of novels can still be popular with a heroine who neither Tweets nor Snapchats, a girl who lacks magical powers, a vampire boyfriend, or a fabulous assortment of weaponry. Yet, the beloved Betsy-Tacy series by Mankato, Minnesota, author Maud Hart Lovelace have been in continuous publication since the 1940s and inspire an almost fanatical devotion, even among readers who are used to consuming racier fare such as “Gossip Girl” or “The Vampire Diaries.”

Docent Kathryn Hansen shows a Lois Lenski illustration of the Betsy-Tacy books and compares it to the neighborhood today.
Docent Kathryn Hansen shows a Lois Lenski illustration of the Betsy-Tacy books and compares it to the neighborhood today.

If you need proof, you need only show up in Mankato on a Friday or Saturday afternoon in summer. You’ll find Betsy-Tacy fans who’ve come from around the world to visit the trim little Victorian houses on Center Street, “Betsy’s House” and “Tacy’s House,” where Hart Lovelace and her real best friend, Frances Kenney, grew up right across the street from each other. Little girls and their grandmothers, mother and daughters, and adult “gals on getaways” line up for a tour of the real-life houses that are the setting of the beloved book series. The houses have been lovingly restored and designated as national literary landmarks.

A Calming Oasis
A step into Betsy-Tacy world is a step back into a slower, more peaceful era.The first of the series’ 10 books, Betsy-Tacy, begins in 1897, when Betsy is about to turn five, and the series continues through Betsy’s Wedding during World War I, all based on Hart Lovelace’s own girlhood.  The lack of technology, fighting and fast-paced action may be the secret for the books’ enduring appeal. Linda Lee, an adult Betsy-Tacy fan visiting from Claremont, California, says of the books, “I re-read them even now. They’re about family, friendship and fun in doing simple things.  Reading them brings a sense of calm to my frenzied life.”

The houses are open on weekends year-round but Betsy-Tacy fans DVHborder2015_0show up en masse each June for the Deep Valley Homecoming—this year from June 26-30— like a children’s book Coachella. (Deep Valley is the name Hart Lovelace gave her hometown in the books.) Activities include Betsy & Tacy home and neighborhood tours, narrated horse-drawn trolley rides, a Victorian Tea, Deep Valley Book Festival*, fashion show, living history actors, speakers and re-enactments, a vintage car show and more.

The old fashioned kitchen at Betsy's house offers a view of life in the early 1900s.
The old fashioned kitchen at Betsy’s house offers a view of life in the early 1900s, straight from the Betsy-Tacy books.

Inspiration for Modern Girls
Enthusiastic docents regularly lead tours of the houses and point out how the homes and the neighborhood compare to the books’ illustrations by Lois Lenski. From the old-fashioned kitchen, to the lace curtains and fine china, to the books and Maude Hart Lovelace memorabilia, tours furnish a cultural snapshot of the era, a chance to experience what it was like to live in a Midwestern town when the first automobile arrived and homes got their first telephones.

But beyond a nostalgic connection to a fictional world or a look at old houses with creaky floors and Victorian furniture, a visit to the Betsy-Tacy houses offers a look at the lives and friendships children, the aspirations of women at the turn of the last century, and celebrates girls who are, while old-fashioned, strikingly independent and adventurous.

While old telephones may be the highest tech you’ll experience on the tour, Betsy and Tacy aren’t totally off the grid. You’ll find constant discussion about them on Twitter and Pinterest.

*I’ll be at the Deep Valley Book Festival this year, signing copies of Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways.

If you go:
Mankato is about an hour and a half south of the Twin Cities via I-169. The houses are open this summer on Friday and Saturday from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for children (under 5 free).

Download the Discover Deep Valley brochure for a walking tour of the area.

We picked up bagels at Tandem Bagels, 200 E Walnut St., for a picnic in Lincoln Park, which figures in the books and is set amidst a gorgeous grouping of Victorian homes.

A Riverfront Tour in Minneapolis: Where History Flows With the Mississippi

PicMonkey CollageSince the beginning, Minnesota’s lakes and rivers have been the engine of the region’s development and the focus of recreation, not to mention the source of a whole lot of  fish. The Twin Cities, for example, have their roots on the Mississippi River, which has transported timber and grain from the Midwest to markets in the east and powered the four mills of the Pillsbury family, among others, since the early 1800s. That made the riverfront in Minneapolis primarily an industrial area. Interesting, but not particularly scenic.

SONY DSCAll of that is changing as the city rediscovers and redevelops its waterfront. The mills and warehouses have been converted to trendy apartments and condominiums now and that section of the riverfront is part of an expanding Mill Ruins Park. It’s the sight of the Mill City Farmers Market in summer, where you can eat and buy great organic produce under the watchful gaze of some of the world’s great playwrights who look down from the Guthrie Theater next door.

Though the new version of the riverfront is more vibrant, it’s the 18777967 unusual history here that makes it so intriguing. You can revisit the city’s early days in several ways. First, pick up a copy of Mary Relindes Ellis’s novel Bohemian Flats, which is named after the area slightly downriver from the mills which was home to the city’s poorest immigrants, mainly from Germany and eastern Europe (or Bohemia) who are the subject of the story. Set after World War I, the book traces the progress of a German immigrant family who settled in the ramshackle village that grew up along a low point along the river, many of whom worked in the flour mills.

Next, start a riverfront tour at the Mill City Museum, which offers an in-depth look at the flour industry and the early days of Minneapolis. It’s built into the ruins of what was once the world’s largest flour mill. Wander the across the Stone Arch bridge for a terrific view of the river and St. Anthony Falls, which powered the mills and check out the paths and ruins along the water. Grab some grub at the Farmer’s Market and watch the river roll by as you eat.

Book lovers will want to wander down Washington Avenue to explore the Minnesota Center for Book Arts at Open Book. You can view the artistic assembly of the pages, covers, and spines, then peruse the shop at MCBA, which is a reader’s delight of books, gifts, handmade paper, and journals.

Rent one of the green bikes from one of the Nice Ride Minnesota stations near the museum and head downriver for a scenic tour. Make a stop at Izzy’s gourmet ice cream to fuel your trip. You’ll arrive at Bohemian Flats, which is no longer a wild collection of shacks, but rather a lovely park inhabited mainly by University of Minnesota students throwing frisbees. It’s a great pastoral place to enjoy the view of the river, the university campus and, in particular, the futuristic Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum. It makes quite a contrast to the image of the old Bohemian Flats on the cover of Ellis’s novel.

Bohemian Flats in Minneapolis is now a pastoral play area across from the University of Minnesota.
Bohemian Flats in Minneapolis is now a pastoral play area across from the University of Minnesota.
The view from Bohemian Flats is quite a contrast to the site's 19th Century origins with the futuristic Weisman Art Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, atop the river bluff.
The view from Bohemian Flats is quite a contrast to the site’s 19th Century origins with the futuristic Weisman Art Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, atop the river bluff.

Dreary Weather and Creativity

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Today’s weather make me feel like this.

I just returned from walking my dog, Duffy, and he’s a big wet ball of mud. It’s about 40 degrees and rainy outside, the worst possible weather for Minnesotans.  Most of us relish the cold and snow and spend a lot of time outside enjoying it while also feeling slightly superior to those who live the easy life in warmer climates.  Wimps.

When it’s really cold here, its also sunny, a very cheerful combination. We run out with show shoes or skis or simply gaze out on the sparkling snowbanks, hot cocoa in hand. By contrast today is capital D Dreary.  No amount of cocoa will make me feel better unless it’s some of “Mr. Smith’s special hot chocolate” that my spouse used to take along on kids camp outs. Add to the drippy weather the fact that we’re so far north it gets dark really early in winter, so by about 4:30 it will be dark and dreary… sounds like Edgar Allen Poe.

On the upside, I’ve always felt that people who are too happy have nothing to write about. Would  Poe have penned The Raven if he were feeling anything but morose?  Could Jon Krakauer have written Into Thin Air if his Mt. Everest trek hadn’t been a disaster?  One of my favorite writers, Tim Egan, concurs.  In a recent New York Times column, “The Longest Nights,” he says the bleak winter is prime time for writers and other creative people. “At the calendar’s gloaming,” he says, “while the landscape is inert, and all is dark, sluggish, bleak and cold, writers and cooks and artists and tinkerers of all sorts are at their most productive.”

He lives in Seattle and his article ponders the relationship between Seattle’s uber rainy weather and the number of writers in that city.  He says, “I’ve come to the conclusion that creativity needs a season of despair. Where would William Butler Yeats be if he nested in Tuscany? Could Charles Dickens ever have written a word from South Beach? And the sun of Hollywood did much to bleach the talents out of that troubled native of Minnesota, F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

So I welcome the bleak mid-winter.  What else is there to do but towel off the dog, roll up my sleeves, and write… and perhaps sip a steaming cup of “special” hot cocoa?

Ely, Minnesota, for the Wild or the Wimpy

Serenity on Farm Lake near Ely, Minnesota. A portion of this lake is in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Ely, Minnesota (five hours north of Minneapolis), is home to the hardest of hardcore outdoorspeople—polar explorers Will Steger, Paul Schurke and Anne Bancroft, to name a few.  From Ely, you can launch a dogsledding trip in winter or a multi-week canoe trip through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in summer. Budget Travel magazine named Ely “The Coolest Small Town in America” last year. They said, “It says a lot about a town when there are more wildlife centers (two) than Wal-Marts (zero), and more canoe and fishing outfitters (27) than, well, anything else. In Ely, you’re never more than a step away from the wilderness.”  But what if you’re made of less hardy stuff or you’re traveling with people for whom “wilderness” means that the mall is a 15-minute drive?

Ely offers plenty of opportunities for activity and a healthy dose of nature, even for outdoor novices or those who may not be physically able tackle portaging canoes or rugged hikes. On a trip last weekend, we hit the Harvest Moon Festival, complete with

an early "voyageur"

crafty artisans; historic reenactors of the early settlers and trappers of the area, the voyageurs; and a lumberjack show—a little hokey, but entertaining.

My favorite comment came from one of the “voyageurs” who was cooking up some sort of stew in a giant cast iron post.  I asked what he was

Cooking "Camp Wander" If it wanders into camp, we cook it.

cooking and he said, “Camp Wander. If it wanders into camp, we cook it.”

Ely is home to the International Wolf Center, the North American Bear Center, and some tasty restaurants such as the Chocolate Moose.  You can buy great sweaters and of course mukluks at Steger Mukluk.  For book lovers, there’s a nice bookstore upstairs at Piragis Northwoods Company.

One of my favorite stops in town is the Brandenburg Gallery, where you can see and buy

a Jim Brandenburg poster

photos from acclaimed outdoor photographer and Ely resident, Jim Brandenburg.  His photography captures the spirit and the unusual beauty of the wilderness.  Check out his web site to see his stunning photos and a video, and click on this Minnesota Department of Natural Resources link for a video that features his fall photos.

On our recent trip, in lieu of a tent, we opted for a cozy cabin at Timber Trail Lodge where you can canoe, fish, or simply ponder the lake and its solitude from the dock. Famed environmentalist, author and Ely resident Sigurd Olson said

Wilderness is a spiritual necessity. An antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium. I have found that people go to the wilderness for many things, but the most important of these is perspective. They may think they go for the fishing or the scenery or companionship, but in reality it is something far deeper. They go to the wilderness for the good of their souls.

Olson was instrumental in the preservation of millions of acres of wilderness in Alaska and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota. He helped establish Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and Point Reyes National Seashore in California and helped draft the Wilderness Act of 1964. Looking for a little wilderness inspiration?  Read his books The Singing WildernessListening Point, The Lonely Land and others.

Finally, talk about “budget travel”–in Ely and the surrounding wilderness, the most amazing sights are free. Lay on your back on the dock at night and you’ll see  a show of stars that you can’t see amid the lights of a city.   And, if you’re lucky, you may see an even more spectacular show—the Northern Lights. We saw another amazing, though dismaying, display of

Pagami Creek Fire

nature, the huge Pagami Creek wildfire in the Boundary Waters, which is now so big that the smoke is visible as far away as Chicago. Started by lightning two weeks ago, it has burned through over 100,000 acres. Hopefully, the frost and sleet in the next few days will slow its spread.

For more northern Minnesota-inspired reading look for:

Tim O’Brien- In the Lake of the Woods 

Will Weaver – Red Earth, White Earth, The Last Hunter: an American Family Album, and of the short story “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” which was made into the movie Sweet Land.

Catherine Holm- My Heart is a Mountain: Tales of Magic and the Land

William Kent Krueger– Vermillion Drift

Minnesota and the National Book Festival

I’ve written several times in this blog about Birchbark Books, a great indie bookstore in Minneapolis—author Louise Erdrich, proprietor.  Erdrich and her sister, Heid Erdrich, also founded Wiigwaas Press (part of the non-profit Birchbark House) in order to promote indigenous language revitalization through publications and programs. A book for young readers from Wiigwaas Press, Awesiinyensag: Dibaajimowinan Ji-gikinoo’amaageng, written totally in Ojibwe, has been named Minnesota’s Best Read for 2011 by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. It is Minnesota’s official selection to represent all of the publications in the state this year at the National Book Festival, Sept. 24-25, in Washington, D.C.

One of the book’s co-editors, Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe language and culture at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, says, “I just love it that anyone who wants to read the best book in Minnesota this year has to read it in Ojibwe.”  That may be difficult for most of us.  Though we use many Ojibwe words such as moose and Mississippi, the language itself is at risk of disappearing.  Treuer explains his interest in preserving the language in this video. Or, you can read his highly-praised books about the Ojibwe (in English), The Assassination of Hole in the Day, and the Ojibwe in Minnesota.

An F. Scott Fitzgerald Walk in St. Paul

I took a walk last week through the Summit Hill neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota,

F. Scott Fitzgerald's debut novel This Side of Paradise

where F. Scott Fitzgerald was born, grew up, wrote his first stories and made the revisions on his debut novel, This Side of Paradise. (If its original not-so-catchy title The Romantic Egoist is any indicator, I can see why they suggested revisions)

Even if you’re not a big Fitzgerald fan, even if you don’t know Amory Blaine from Jay Gatsby, this is a great neighborhood for a stroll, especially in summer. With its gorgeous Victorian homes, overarching elm trees and fun shops nearby it’s—if not this side of paradise—really, really nice.

The St. Paul Public Library (which has a special Fitzgerald reading alcove) offers a brochure called “F. Scott Fitzgerald in St. Paul—Homes and Haunts” that you can download. Start the tour at 481 Laurel Ave., where Fitzgerald was born. Park there and start the walk. The house where his parents later lived (593/599 Summit) and where he finished This Side of Paradisehe described as “A house below the average on a street above the average.”

Fitzgerald's neighborhood is still above average and has many beautifully restored Victorian homes.

Published in 1920, this work launched his career as spokesman for the Jazz Age. He chronicles the changing mores of the generation of wild children of Victorian parents, who Gertrude Stein later dubbed the “Lost Generation.”  Fitzgerald presciently wrote in the most famous passage of the novel, “Here was a new generation, . . . dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success, grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald's St. Paul birthplace

Be sure to make a stop at W.A. Frost (374 Selby), which has the world’s best outdoor dining, part of your tour.  Frost’s was a drug store and soda fountain during Fitzgerald’s day and retains its historic charm.  Finally, end your tour across the street from W.A. Frost at Common Good Books (downstairs at 165 Western Avenue North), whose proprietor is another St. Paul author and host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” Garrison Keillor. It’s a gem of a bookstore.  To read more of Fitzgerald’s St. Paul works, look for The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by another St. Paul author, Patricia Hampl.  Read “The Ice Palace,” “Winter Dreams,” and “A Night at the Fair.”

Nicole Krauss Builds a "Great House"– Her Thoughts on Writing and Reading

    I went to St. Paul last night to listen to Nicole Krauss at a session of Minnesota Public Radio’s “Talking Volumes” series.  Krauss has been nominated for the National Book Award for her third novel, Great House. (Read The New York Times review of the book. ) 

    At events such as these, someone invariably asks about the author’s creative process, how he or she writes.  Authors often have a very hard time coming up with an answer.  That, or they’re sick of the question. And since, it’s a very abstract process, the answer is usually not very satisfying.  I’d rather hear more generally about the ideas the author wants to convey than about her methods. However, Krauss speaks about as well as anyone I’ve ever heard on the subject of the writing process.  She’s as articulate in a conversation as she is on the pages of her books. Krauss says writes as she goes, without a lot of outlining.  She seems to go where the writing takes her.  She revises as she writes so at the end of the process, she has mostly a finished product. “I make the doorknob first, then the door, and the room,” she said in describing her writing process. “Only much later do you step back and see the whole house.”

    She spoke about how, perhaps because she’s a writer, it’s sometimes difficult to find books that totally carry her away, the way books affected her as a child.  However, she raves about Israeli writer David Grossman and his book To the End of the Land. “It blew my mind,” she said. I’m eager to pick that one up and suggest it to my book club. (See the New Yorker article about Grossman.)

    I also enjoyed a PBS Newshour interview with Krauss last week.  Interviewer Jeffrey Brown ended the interview with, “Finally, sort of on that subject, I can’t help but notice the centrality of books and literature to many of the characters in this novel. A couple of them are writers, others are really great readers. We don’t seem to live in a time where that’s true for most people anymore.”

    Krauss responded, “It’s certainly true in my life. I think I am who I am because of the books that I read, and I think of myself still as first and foremost a reader and then following that a writer. But I’m aware that both in my last novel The History of Love, where there was a book that was a center that connected all the characters, and now here is this desk, which is at least one of the components that connects, that these are objects that are saturated with the possibilities of literature. I do feel like I’ve staked my life on this, which is this idea that literature affords us this absolutely unique possibility in no other moment in life. Really, I think again in no other art form can you step so directly, so vividly without any mediation into another’s inner life. You are stepping fully into this stream of what it is to be another person. And I think when you do that, you inevitably form a kind of compassion. It teaches a kind of empathy. So for me this is like a great value of literature. It’s also again for me, somebody who’s obviously — all my characters are often solitary, they’re struggling with that solitude, but they are not content with it. They would like to move beyond it, to transcend it to express themselves to others in a way that I think they all feel is possible. And it’s no accident that literature becomes a kind of singular way for many of them to do that.”

    Empathy, compassion, what it’s like to be another person… Makes you wish more people would pick up a book.

    See her conversation with Brown at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/blog/2010/10/conversation-nicole-krauss-great-house.html And look for a video and transcript of Krauss’s “Talking Volumes” interview to appear soon the MPR Web site.http://find.publicradio.org/search?site=mpr&proxystylesheet=mpr&client=mpr&output=xml_no_dtd&filter=p&numgm=5&q=talking+volumes&x=14&y=14