When we last talked the family and I had just settled into the house near Decorah. Our first day out we decided to head into town and find the Vesterhiem Museum which is the largest collection of Norwegian heritage in the United States. It is a beautiful building located at the end of a four block long historic main street. The museum contains three levels of displays and a number of supporting historic structures within easy walking distance that help tell the story of Iowa’s first Norwegian settlers. There were two things that stood out to me, the first being that Norwegians must have been great boat builders. On display there is a small, and I mean small sailboat, which is the smallest craft to ever cross the Atlantic Ocean. Looking at it and knowing that it brought four people across safely is both mind blowing and a bit scary at the same time. The other thing I discovered is that while they were great at building boats they tended to be a little lax when it came to furniture unless it was a steamer trunk of some time. The quality of some of the larger pieces of furniture was far behind what we expect, but what they lacked in simple things like doors being the same size they made up with the beautiful “rosemailing” or painted decoration they covered pieces with.
We also made a trip to Dunning Springs which is a little hard to find located up a short narrow road that is easy to overlook. For the keen eye, the real treat can be found by following that road along a beautiful little stream which leads to a beautiful rock falls which is a peaceful spot to watch the water falling over it. Just up the road from the springs sits the famous Ice Cave, but only Hannah was excited about checking it out and thought she would come back at some other point better prepared.
A few days we loaded up and just drove off along the winding roads to see what was around Winneshiek County. There are two things located there…More winding roads that aren’t laid out in the grid pattern that we are used to, and Lutheran churches. It is normal for those driving back roads in Iowa to find a country church now and then, but the Lutherans of northeast Iowa put us “flatlanders” to shame with these grand gothic stone structures with spires reaching one hundred feet or more into the bright blue Iowa sky. It is amazing to me to see these congregations maintained through the generations and such well-maintained structures.
I can hear you yelling “but what about the eagles?”, and yes we saw lots of eagles up close and personal. From our home base we took a winding road north towards the Minnesota border and we were not disappointed when the first eagle flew across our path to land on the edge of the road to feast on some poor innocent road kill. I will say that the eagles up in that part of the state are much larger and better fed than the ones I’ve seen around here, and I suspect it may have much to do with the trout that are stocked in the streams up there. All of those trout come from the DNR fish hatchery there and this place is a must see when up in the area. The hatchery is open during daylight hours and is free, so you can spend as much time there as you want. The large cement ponds are divided into different pools which hold different breeds of trout in various stages of growth from fingerlings to very large two to four year old trout. At the end of each pond are “gumball machines” filled with fish food and for just 25 cents you get a heaping handful of pellets to throw into whichever pool you desire. It was interesting to note that the little fish were fun as they threw water everywhere and became a mass of color and flashing scales as they went for the food, while the large fish preferred just one pellet thrown in to float on top of the water at which point they would jump up as though they were taking an anglers fly.
It was Nordic Fest weekend there, which is their town celebration or as many of the locals call it, “Nordic Mess”. This brings hundreds and hundreds of people to town especially for the free concerts each day (which included Molly B of polka fame, which made me kind of sad that I missed it) and for the parade on Saturday morning. The parade route, running from the fairgrounds up through the main business district, is filled quickly and many people leave chairs and blankets out beginning on Wednesday afternoon to “hold” their spots much like camping over Labor Day weekend. The parade is huge with marching bands, tractors and cars and amazing floats that reminded me of the ones I see in photos from the 1940s and 50s. The hour and a half parade netted us more than a few goodies and the route of the parade is lined with little wooden structures that remind me of the information booths at the State Fair. Each of these booths sold different foods, from Kringle (which is a soft sugar cookie like item) to Polse something or other which was a Scandinavian sausage (much similar in taste and texture to a slim jim) wrapped with a piece of lefse (see thin pancake made from potatoes). Not only a good value, but also well spread out it gives one the opportunity to try many different items without breaking the budget.
All of our time there and the road trips around the county were partly done in preparing us for the #ISU99 scavenger hunt that was to take place in the county on Sunday, but alas, I’m out of space and better save that for next week. (Yes, I know I didn’t do my usual tips for the State Fair column, so just go and have fun and if you happen to see my face in one of the John Deere tractors hauling the trams around give me a wave and run for cover!) See you next week…remember, we’re all in this together.