Category Archives: Midwest

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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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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Walnut Cheese

If you’re always on the lookout for something, you’re likely to find it. For me, history, beauty, and food are among the things for which I am generally on the lookout. As a result, I usually find one or more of these things. For example, when I was invited to speak a while back in Will County, I noticed that they had a display of locally produced foods. I bought some of their cheese, all made in Walnut, Illinois. I looked up Walnut, found where it was located, and next time I had a speaking engagement in that general direction, I sought them out.

Walnut Cheese’s chalet

One might expect to see this in Wisconsin, but there it was in Central Illinois—a Swiss chalet, with a cow perched on the balcony. The founder was, in fact, Swiss, so this was a touch of home at one time. Inside, it looked even more Swiss, with handsome wood décor and cow bells hanging overhead. And lots of cheese. Happily, they had plenty of the yummy blue cheese that I’d picked up in Will County, and I bought more of that, as well as some Havarti. I also tried some of their less conventional cheeses, including a lovely sharp cheddar with cherries.

Lots of charm–and cheese–inside the chalet.

Granted, this is not a staggering, mind-blowing cheese pavilion like Mars Cheese Castle in Wisconsin, but it’s a lovely surprise in a place I didn’t think to look for a chalet or a selection of cheeses. It was another reminder that there are fun things to be discovered everywhere. And even a little adventure is a good thing.

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Shelbyville, IL

Shelbyville, founded in 1827, is a delightful little town set in a gently rolling countryside on the edge of a fairly large lake. It has a charming, historic downtown and imposing county courthouse. And, like most places in Central Illinois, it has an Abraham Lincoln connection, memorialized in, among other things, a statue in front of the courthouse that shows Lincoln debating political rival Anthony Thornton.

I was in Shelbyville to give a presentation as part of a Smithsonian project, and I was staying in the place recommended by the people who had booked me: the Shelby Inn. Or, to be more correct, the Shelby Historic House and Inn. Because the historic house, the Tallman House, a 1904 Victorian confection, is on the Register of Historic Places, but the rest of the inn is a bit more recent—though decorated to look charmingly historic. But you can’t stay at the inn without entering Tallman House, because that is where the registration facility and business offices for the inn are located. Therefore, simply checking in (and out) gets you a taste of history—and the manager happily allows a bit of exploration when you get to the Tallman House (which has been lovingly restored and filled to its 1904 glory).

Tallman House-Shelby Inn

While the town is historic enough on its own, it’s still fun to add the partly historic hotel. And even though Shelbyville is not likely to be chosen as a destination by those coming from far away, it’s history and lake (for fishing and boating) is popular among those nearby or passing through. Of course, if you’re tracing Lincoln’s travels, it’s a nice place to stay—and a good reminder that there are a lot of historic spots, wherever your travels take you.

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Another Farmer

While this blog covers a wide range of topics related to the Midwest, from culture and history to food and fun, I do seem to keep being drawn back to farmers–largely because my experience of farmers (both in person and via Internet) has been so different from what a lot of people (non-farmers that is) expect. They are generally educated, often multi-talented, warm, wonderful, enthusiastic, and they rejoice in their ability to grow things and feed people. If you go back through my posts, you’ll find plenty of evidence of this. But I’ve just come across a new farmer who adds a new dimension — cute, bouncy, young. This video is more than a year old and a more recent one relates that Nebraska farmer Laura is now nearing the end of her business degree. But in case you need more proof that farmers are not homely old hayseeds, here it is.

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Giants in the Earth

It is probably not going to come as too much of a surprise that I enjoy reading books about the Midwest and its history. There are more such books than some might imagine—some of them true classics. One of the classics is the novel, Giants in the Earth, by O.E. Rolvaag. I read this shortly after returning from visiting Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which plays a part in the story—but also has a small park that has preserved buildings associated with the author and the people from whom he learned the stories that are the foundation of the book.

It is difficult to convey how wonderful this book is. Everything–characters, setting, life — is beautifully and lovingly drawn. You feel you really come to know the people and the setting. The stories are fictionalized but are based on the very real experiences, both triumphant and tragic, of Norwegians settling the Dakota Territory in the 1800s–based, in fact, on the recollections of children and grandchildren of the first settlers. The events are both astonishing and ordinary — from locust plagues and record snowstorms (so deep houses were buried) to simple meals and childbearing. The book makes it clear that, even when there weren’t disasters, life in the middle of nowhere was not easy, and harder for some than others.

The book also does an excellent job of reminding us that, in the 1800s, the Old World was very different from what it is today, when sharing a common country didn’t mean you shared anything else, such as dialects, traditions, and livelihoods, but it also shows how life on the frontier caused former strangers to meld together into a new people.

Interestingly, this book was written in Norwegian for Norwegians (though it was translated, happily, while the author was still alive, so he could shepherd the effort, making sure ideas and nuances were saved), so it is in some ways very Norwegian, and yet it is also very American, recounting the daunting task of surviving in the wilderness. (And if you get the version shown above, the intro includes the story of Rolvaag’s coming to the U.S., which is also a remarkable tale.)

The story moves at a leisurely pace. It’s not exactly a page-turner. But it is endlessly fascinating, drawing you in and carrying you along. It is also an important piece of American history, here saved from the excesses and interpretations of TV and movies. Highly recommended.

As an aside, related to the image on the cover: few things seem more representative of the American West than tumbleweeds, and yet these, too, were transplants. They were accidentally introduced by Russians who were settling in South Dakota. The seeds of the tumbleweed had gotten mixed in with the flax seed that they were planting. So while it is iconic today, it, too, is a relative newcomer.

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Wilmot Stage Stop

I love history. I love food. And I’m particularly pleased when the two come together. Among the wonderful, historic venues in which I’ve dined, I have found former stage coach stops to be good, reliable fun. In 2014, a year before I started the Midwest Maize blog, I posted in The World’s Fare (one of my other two blogs) about a couple of stage coach stops I had enjoyed, one in Michigan and one in California. But I have now found a historic stage coach stop closer to home: The Wilmot Stage Stop in southern Wisconsin.

Built in 1848, this is the oldest tap and dining room in Wisconsin. It was a place where those traveling by stage coach between Galena, IL, and Kenosha, WI, could stop during a long trip for a meal, entertainment, and a room for the night. As you can see from this early photo, the exterior still looks much as it did when the Stage Stop opened more than 150 years ago.

The food is hearty steakhouse fare, with its Wisconsin heritage reflected in abundant butter, sour cream, and brandy (WI being the top consumer of brandy in the U.S.).

Dinners come with rolls, butter, salads with house-made dressings, and a baked potato with a stunning amount of butter, plus sour cream. Steaks are cooked on a broad grill that is open to the dining room. Lobsters can be added to any meal, and one watches a steady stream of those emerge from the kitchen. (This is a popular place for special celebrations, so many lobsters are ordered.)

When your meal is done, you can climb the steep, wooden stairs to the second and third floors, which have been turned into a museum. Tours of the museum are offered Thursday through Sunday. The second floor was for dancing and billiards, and an old piano and vintage billiard tables with ivory balls are among the reminders of the entertainment offered. The third floor is where the overnight accommodations were located, and small rooms are furnished as they were during the heyday of the stagecoach.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be meeting friends from further north, to introduce them to this fun, historic spot. Looking forward to re-immersing myself in the past at the Wilmot Stage Stop.

Oh—and worth noting, should you visit: the door that faces the street is the original front door, used back when a stagecoach pulled up in front. Today, however, that door is locked, and the current entrance is on the back side of the building, facing the parking lot.

Wilmot Stage Stop
30646 113th Street
Wilmot, WI 53192
http://www.wilmotstagestop.com/

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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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Why I Love Farmers

Having traveled around much of the Midwest, interviewing farmers for my food history books and articles, I have come to admire and love them. I also love the values they represent. In my book Midwest Maize, I included a story about one Nebraska farmer who shared with me how she benefited from the openness and generosity of other farmers. She also related that  it was common for people in the area helped each other out, and suggested one reason why. It is part of the ethos, of course, but looking after each other is, in remote areas, a way to survive.

Relying on each other makes one kinder and more grateful. I’m sure there is also an element of farming itself, doing something that is “real” and that so clearly benefits others, contributes to the strength and character of the people who farm. So when this video popped up, while I was touched, I was not really surprised at the kindness and solidarity expressed.

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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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