Posts Tagged ‘pioneers’

tumblr_mju6kqnH841rrnekqo1_1280February drifted onto the Cutoff in much the same way as January did, amid snowflakes that fell from the evening hours of January 31 into the dinner hours of February 1. From a misty haze of sleet, to large, fluffy flakes, Mother Earth gathered four or more inches into her already laden arms, and the long, long winter continues here, and through most of North America.

It has been good weather for making soups and stews, trying my hand crafting sweet pralines, working on projects that had been piling up –  and for doing what I love most, reading. Would you mind if I shared a few books with you?

The horticulture committee of our garden club usually selects a garden related book to read and discuss in January, which is a perfect month to start gathering one’s thoughts of seeds and soil. This year’s read was a delightful one of essays and observances throughout the year by Czech writer Karel Capek, “The Gardener’s Year”.  We had a lively conversation around a bountiful table. Our conversations 33408flowed from Capek’s writing to reading translated works, the charming illustrations of Karel’s brother, Josef Capek, and the sadness that came into their lives during World War II. We discussed the Modern Library Series of gardening books that Michael Pollan has chosen, which includes “The Gardener’s Year”,  to, well, actually, the discussion still continues, because, you see, good garden literature is like good gardeners around a January table; they go cheerfully and hopefully on and on and on.

Rose Laws’ memoir, “The Gold Coast Madam”, was the January choice for our book discussion group (which is entering our 26th year). What can I say about “The Gold Coast Madam”? Co-authored with Dianna Harris, it was a fast paced and rather fascinating, sometimes titillating, look into the life of a modern Chicago madam, er, agent, and provided one of most lively discussions we have had. Miss Laws “names names”, which most of us recognized, and the names she didn’t name, we energetically speculated on. Business transactions were conducted at restaurants, hotels, and motels around the Chicago environs, many of which we all have eaten at over the years. She even lived in the town we all lived in – until she was run out of town by her neighbors. Those of you from or familiar with the Chicago area might find this an interesting subject to explore.

13642950“The Aviator’s Wife”, by Melanie Benjamin, has been on my radar screen since it was first published. I stumbled upon an excellent used copy in one of my favorite book stores, Centuries and Sleuths, in Forest Park; for a price I couldn’t resist, and it followed me home that one clear and relatively warmish January day – and it kept me company for but a few days afterwards, as I could not put it down. “The Aviator’s Wife” is a fictional story of the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and her famous aviator husband, Charles Lindbergh. I enjoy historical fiction, and I enjoyed this, as I followed Anne’s brief encounter in Mexico, where her father was the U.S. Ambassador, with the dashing hero who had just flewn solo to Paris, to their marriage (after the briefest of courtships, if it could even be called that), to her role alongside Lindbergh as he charted flight paths around the world in the 1930’s, to his death in Maui in 1974. Once finished, out came my cherished copy of Anne Lindbergh’s “The Gift from the Sea”, and a welcome re-reading, followed by an interest in learning more about the Lindbergh’s, especially Anne.

Through snowstorms and frigid temperatures in January, I spent some time emigrating from Norway to the Dakota Territory in the 1880’s with Lauraine Snelling’s “An Untamed Land”. Thank you, Helva, for taking the time to recommend the Red River of the North series to me in a recent comment. In this first book of the series, we follow two 9781410400147_p0_v1_s260x420Norwegian brothers and their wives from their family village in Norway, across the Atlantic, through their first days on the streets of New York, to their quest for a homestead out west. Through faith and courage, stubbornness and resolve, they begin a new life “busting” sod near the banks of the Red River. Much like “Lantern in Her Hand” and the Little House books, “An Untamed Land” is about the spirit of the pioneers, many who were immigrants, who tamed the prairie and settled much of the United States in the late 19th century. The story of the Bjorklund families, Ingeborg and Roald, Kaaren and Carl, is one of fortitude and strength, in unimaginable situations filled with hardship and tragedy. It is also a story of family and faith, neighborliness and kindness as the Bjorklund’s and others build a new life for their children in a wild and new world.

I will warn you, dear reader, “An Untamed Heart” could lead to palpitations. No, not for steamy scenes. You can find those in “The Gold Coast Madam”. The palpitations come from the many moments where Ingeborg and Kaaren have a cup of good, Norwegian brewed coffee, or offer it to neighbors or other settlers passing through in search of their own plots of land. All the cups of “kaffee” I drank while reading “An Untamed Heart”, and, now, its sequel, “A New Day Rising”, have me in a wee bit of caffeinated jitters, reaching for molasses cookies, and remembering the book and movie I wrote about here, I Remember Mama/Mama’s Bank Account, as well as another long ago read memoir of Norwegians in Wisconsin,  “First We Have Coffee; Then we Talk”, by Margaret Jensen.

Uff da! This has grown into a too long post, so, I’ll just show you my latest audio book, read by Billy Collins, himself, who has kept me company on a few wintry errands in the car this past week.


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DSCN1268Have you ever had a split second in time when you are taken by surprise, only to realize that what surprised you was exactly what you expected to see?

So intent was I to peek inside the little white house, stepping up the first step of the wooden risers, that I didn’t realize August Ekdahl was standing right there, cobbling a shoe. I let out a little gasp of startled surprise as my heart skipped a beat, then quickly realized it was just a mannequin, wondering if the children playing in the schoolyard across the way had noticed my moment of panic.

It was a cold but brilliant day, with the kind of sunshine that makes one want to be out-and-about, exploring. I was northbound through the town of Western Springs, a few destinations on my docket with a time to spare and made the impulsive decision to explore the little white house in a small park I often pass by.

As much as I love the cathedrals and museums, halls of learning, justice, and governance, I also appreciate the little framed structures of history that dot our Land of Lincoln and speak of the pioneers that settled. Many of them cleared the land and farmed, others followed with goods and trades and established towns.

August Ekdahl was a Swedish immigrant who eventually settled in what is now Western Springs. A cobbler, he built a small house and set up shop in 1887. While shoes were already being manufactured in factories in Chicago, land beyond the city limits was still open prairie. August worked in his shop, raised a family, and even shared his space with a postmistress.

I’ve been thinking a bit about these small post offices. Not only did they provide a more accessible place for people to pick up and send their mail, but, they also brought people into towns, which provided the opportunities for farmer and townsfolk to talk, share stories, exchange goods. I still look forward to trips to the post office to buy stamps and mail letters and packages, and I usually plan other errands around them, though I do it in my mocha colored VW with latte interior instead of a horse and buggy.

I also been thinking about local historical societies and the vital role they play in preserving history. There are the large, deep pocket organizations that bring about the grand scale preservations and I applaud them and the work that they do. There are also the smaller organizations; the grass-roots historians whose passion is to save the one room schoolhouses, general stores, and the homes of founding mothers and fathers. They are  folks are a mighty band of preservationists who hold in their purpose the salvation of our past. The Western Springs Historical Society is one such group. I’m sure you know of others.

Back to my brief encounter with Mr. Ekdahl.

Here he is, cobbling shoes,


DSCN1271and here is Mrs. Watson, sorting the mail.

The August Ekdahl house is more an outdoor museum and is unique in its approach. Risers are all around the building, leading to windows from which to peer inside, with information posters on the outside walls of the building. I couldn’t help but think of what a great place it would be for an afternoon field trip with children or grandchildren, with a picnic lunch, a visit to the post office or a local shoe repair shop.


The August Ekdahl House in Western Springs. Information is here.


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“Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder. “Little House in the Big Woods”

That little girl’s name was Laura. She grew up to become one of America’s most beloved children’s authors with her books, commonly known as the Little House Books, still in publication.


Today is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birthday.

Those of you who have been visiting with me here on the Cutoff for some time know of my love of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her stories growing up on the vast prairies of the midwest in the second half of the 19th century. You know how I often read “The Long Winter” during snowstorms and of my visits to several of the Little House sites, most recently the one in Burr Oak, Iowa. If you are new to my site, or don’t know about the Little House books, please feel free to click onto the links to learn a bit more.

It is “Little House in the Big Woods” that has started countless schoolchildren on the long journey with Laura and her family that begins in the North Woods of Wisconsin and is one of the first “chapter” books read aloud to children in schools.

This one little book. written when Laura was in her sixties, is a chronicle of midwestern settlers who formed and farmed the heartland of the United States.

“Little House in the Big Woods” was followed by more books that chronologically tell of the Ingalls’ journey across frozen Lake Pepin to Minnesota and Iowa and the Dakota territory. Laura Ingalls Wilder brought the pioneer spirit alive. She still does as her books take us into their sod house, log cabins and shanties, enduring grasshopper plagues, near starvation, and illness that leaves Laura’s sister Mary blind.  Ma’s cheery disposition and ability to cook anything and Pa’s fiddle strings playing the girls up to their beds at night and all the adventures, both big and small, continue to entertain, educate and inspire children young and young at heart

I was so excited to learn of her birthday today that I just may stop right here and read the first chapter of “Little House in the Big Woods” . . . well, you know what will happen if I do that, don’t you?

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