Category Archives: Geography

New Book Ready for Pre-Order

Why pre-order a book? Right now, prices on everything are going up, but if you order the book now, the price is guaranteed. It’s available on all the usual sites (including Amazon and the publisher’s, U of IL Press).

This is a fun book filled with surprising tales and delightful destinations. I take you along as I explore a much-overlooked region, the American Midwest. Everyone from Wyatt Earp to Henry Ford is there. Don’t just read about history, but learn where you can explore more about Native Americans, the Pony Express, shipwrecks, the Underground Railroad, early pioneers, the Civil War, railroads, and a lot of stuff that will make you wonder why it got left out of your textbooks!!!

Don’t be scared by the price of the cloth-bound library version. That is for libraries. The general population version is paperback and only costs $19.95 — and the e-book is cheaper still. But you owe it to yourself to pursue this adventure. The Midwest and its past really are remarkable—and the present is pretty cool, too.

University of Illinois Press

Amazon

Hope you’ll join me for the adventure.

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Filed under Food, Geography, History, Midwest, Recipe, Thoughts, Travel

Burlington, Iowa

I love meeting new people and sharing information, so having a career that involves going places to give presentations delights me, even when the speaking engagement is only a few miles away. However, I increasingly get invited to speak places I’ve never visited before, and this has offered the delightful opportunity of exploring locations that I didn’t know about previously, seeing new things and learning wonderful bits of history.

To me, the name “Burlington” was pretty much only familiar from the Burlington and Northern Railroad. But I’d never been there—until I was invited to speak at the local college. What a delightful town this turned out to be. It’s on a bend in the Mississippi River (which never ceases to amaze me with its impressive size), hills rising up from the water’s edge, offering a downtown and residential area filled with wonderful 19th-century buildings.

The site was chosen by Zebulon Pike in 1805 as a good site for a government fort (those high hills offer remarkable views over the river). Burlington was settled in 1833, and from 1837-1838, it was the capital of the sprawling Wisconsin Territory. Then, until 1840, it was the capital of the Iowa Territory.

There is a 29-block area known as Heritage Hill that is home to Victorian, Greek and Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, and Italianate houses. This area is also home to Snake Alley, named by Ripley’s Believe it or Not as the crookedest street in the world (even more so than San Francisco’s better-known Lombard Street). The reason it is so crooked is that, when the town was settled, people traveled on horseback, and in icy weather, you wouldn’t want to try to take a horse straight down a slippery street. The sharp turns on Snake Alley made it possible to get down the hill more safely.

Snake Alley

I had a lot of fun at my speaking engagement, meeting a wide range of charming, interested people. But I was equally happy that I had the next morning free to explore the historic district and riverfront. I stopped at the Heritage Museum, and as is so often the case in these very old towns, it was remarkably good. Then it was time to drive home. But what a lovely discovery.

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Swiss Cheese Salad

Monroe, Wisconsin, attracted me for several reasons. There is a museum that celebrates cheesemaking (the delightful and informative National Historic Cheesemaking Center). It is home to the oldest cheese shop in a state that is practically defined by cheese (Baumgartner, which sits on the town square). And it is the location of what is likely the last Swiss Turner Hall in the U.S.

Turner Halls were/are community centers in German-speaking communities. The halls generally include meeting rooms, event spaces, and somewhere to eat and drink, but the real focus was gymnastics—because Turner means gymnast in German (or, more precisely, a member of a Turnverein, or gymnastics club).

Monroe is at the heart of Green County, which was settled by Swiss immigrants and still has a largely Swiss population. There are cheese makers scattered about the countryside and an annual event at the Cheesemaking Center where cheesemakers hand-craft cheese using the antique equipment. So cheese is common, and of course styles from Switzerland dominate.

Monroe is sometimes called “the Swiss Cheese Capital of the United States.” It was because of this claim to fame that, in the Ratskeller Restaurant at the Turner Hall, while all the Swiss specialties on the menu looked good to me, I was particularly attracted to the Swiss Cheese Pie. (That said, as good as the pie was, I now want to go back and try two or three other specialties on the menu.)

Not too surprisingly, I eventually found myself in possession of a nice chunk of Wisconsin Swiss Cheese. Lovely stuff. When I had consumed all but the last quarter pound, I came up with an idea that I thought was worth trying: Swiss Cheese Salad. I chopped the cheese into fairly fine dice, chopped a couple of tablespoons of sweet onion (or just a little less diced onion than you have diced cheese), combined the two, and added enough mayo to hold it together. It was great.

As I enjoyed it, it occurred to me that it was unlikely I was the only person who had ever had such a flash of inspiration. I did a search for Swiss Cheese Salad and learned that, indeed, I was not the first person to come up with the idea. However, my version was much simpler than the other versions I found, which means it is more likely that I’ll make it again. But definitely try it. Very tasty. However, as a food historian, it also reminded me how hard it can be to identify the origins of some dishes—because some food ideas occurred to multiple people in multiple locations.

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A Bit of Derecho History

It’s always interesting when you learn about something that suddenly pops up again. Last summer, while traveling through Minnesota, I visited the Forest History Center, where I learned about something called a “blowdown.” It was explained that a blowdown is a derecho that hits a heavily forested area, because it blows down all the trees. This led to my looking up derecho, which comes from the Spanish for “straight,” because it is a high wind that blows straight, rather than swirling, as with a tornado.

The display at the Forest History Center showed stunning photos from a blowdown that hit northern Minnesota, moved across the Boundary Waters and swept into Canada in 1999. This one storm flattened nearly 500,000 acres of trees. The display noted that this area was greater than the area destroyed by the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

That storm, however, was far from alone. There was a blowdown in the Adirondacks in 1995, when a derecho leveled 150,000 acres of forest, but the so-called Big Blowdown in the Adirondacks was in 1950, when a derecho flattened 800,000 acres of timber.

So when the term “derecho” popped up on the news, I was ready to be horrified. What surprised me, as I looked into it more, is that I hadn’t heard more about this phenomenon before, because these storms have occurred with some frequency in the U.S. I wondered if it was because they were so often in less populated areas, or whether it might be because they were generally a surprise, rather than offering the long, dramatic build-up we usually see for a hurricane.

The storm was first described and given its name in 1877 by Dr. Gustavus Detlef Hinricks, a professor at the University of Iowa and founder of Iowa’s first weather service, following the appearance of this type of storm in Iowa in that year.

The thing that strikes me is how resilient both forests and humans are. Because all the blown-down forests have grown back and cities and towns have been rebuilt, and hence we are surprised by the new destruction, because both nature and humans have forgotten. And yet I have also been reminded of that resilience, as videos start to pop up with efforts well under way to rebuild after this most recent storm.

Praying that all those affected by this most recent derecho recover quickly. Simply knowing that a phenomenon is natural and even relatively common does not make it any less horrifying.

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More on the Storm

Perhaps it is because I have developed a deep affection for Iowa over the several years that I’ve been writing about Midwestern agriculture. Or maybe it’s because I was actually in the part of Iowa hardest hit by the storm only five weeks before the storm, so it feels like a friend that has been attacked.

Once again, it is good to remember that the storm wasn’t just the wind speed and statistics. It hit individuals. Here is another video that just popped up of a young man stuck inside his place of business when the storm hit–and until the place of business vanished.

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The Storm

Last week, a massive, fast-moving wind storm known as a derecho swept across the Midwest, destroying property and crops in Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Winds exceeding 100 mph ripped up trees and tore off roofs in both rural and urban settings. The news stories give the statistics, can tell you where the storm hit, and give general details, but it’s important to remember that this involves people. My brother, who lives in Chicago, took this photo of the trees that came down and blocked his street (and cut in half cars parked along the streets). The derecho actually became a tornado in this section of Rogers Park and became a waterspout when it hit the lake, a block to the east.
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The video below examines the impact on one farm in Iowa — the farm of an enthusiastic youngster who is determined to not let it get him down, even though the financial loss will be horrendous. The video begins with his plans for his home, but by about 5.40, the storm kicks in. The thing that might not be clear for those not familiar with farming: even if farmers manage to harvest some of their corn (because not all was destroyed), the destruction of so many of the grain bins means there is no place to store the grain, which creates big problems for farmers–and for everyone who relies on that grain.

Important to remember that things can change in a few minutes. Be grateful for every good day. My sympathy to all affected by the storms, in town and out in the country.

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Farming, Food, Geography, Midwest, Uncategorized, Video

Heritage Radio Talks Heartland

The great food radio organization, Heritage Radio Network, is putting together a delightful new series titled “Eat Your Heartland Out.” This series of podcasts will include interviews with a wide range of experts on topics related to the food, culture, and history of the Greater Midwest. Happily, they invited me to comment on the diversity and abundance of the Midwest, which is one of my favorite themes.

If you’re interested to hear not only what I have to say but also what a couple of other experts think, the link is below. Note that, in this introductory entry, we’re kind of all over the place, as far as time frame. I’m mostly talking 1800s, but Lucy Long talks about Green Bean Casserole, which didn’t come along until 1955. So pretty diverse approaches.

Enjoy. https://heritageradionetwork.org/podcast/welcome-to-the-heartland-an-introduction-to-midwestern-foodways/

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Pursuing Midwestern History

I haven’t posted in a while because I’m wildly busy working on a new book. This one is about the astonishing history of the Midwest and all the places one can “visit” — from living-history venues to museums, large and small, to many other historic sites. I’m having great fun driving around the region, enjoying the remarkably beautiful forests of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota and vistas across (and fish from) the Great Lakes. I’ve been exploring charming historic inns in Ohio and Illinois, fabulous museums in Nebraska and Kansas, forts in North Dakota and Michigan, reenactments in Indiana, French settlements in Missouri, German farms in Iowa, archaeological digs in South Dakota–though in reality, every state has a fabulous array of all of these things. Older states may have a few more places to visit (and a few more people to support those places), but there is no state that is not a delight. This is a remarkable region with a history far more important than most people realize. So I’m loving getting to both “see” and write about it.

But you don’t necessarily have to go far to visit a bit of Midwestern history. Historical societies in the region actually started up in the 1800s, and most towns or counties (depending on population density) have both societies and museums to display a society’s work. Within half an hour of my home, there are a dozen historical societies, housed in a wide range of buildings (from an entire town square, with church and schoolhouse, to a warehouse to a few large old homes). Just do an Internet search with the name of your town or county and the words “historical society” or possibly “museum”–and then go relive your home’s past, or possibly learn about a place you’ve just arrived. Bigger cities have bigger museums and state capitals usually have museums that cover the whole state. Everybody has history.

Here as an example: This is the DuPage County Historical Museum in Wheaton, IL. This museum offers a charming collection that traces details of local history, from farming to fashion, in a beautiful building that itself reflects the period in which it was built (1890)–and which also has a fascinating history (it was the first public library in Wheaton and one of the first libraries in Illinois to adopt the Dewey decimal system for cataloguing books).
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Filed under Geography, History, Midwest, Travel

The Still Mighty Mississippi

Often, when speaking of the Mississippi River, people think only of the southern part of the river (if they think of it at all). However, the Mississippi starts in Minnesota and half of the states it touches are in the Midwest. Even the name came from a northern people—it’s an Ojibwa word for “Big River.” I think a lot of people also think of the Mississippi as something from our past—especially if they have read Mark Twain. But it is a remarkable part of the world today. Because of its importance, past and present, I thought you might enjoy this video trip down the river, from its peaceful source to it’s often unruly mouth, 2,348 miles farther south.

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