Chateau de Mores, Medora

During our recent trip to North Dakota, Russ and I had the chance to tour the Chateau de Mores State Historic Site, the summer home of the French founders of Medora. The 26-room structure was built by Antoine de Vallombrosa, the Marquis de Mores, in 1883, so his wife and family could live there while he pursued building a meat-packing plant, among other ventures.

The Chateau de Mores

The home sits nestled into a hillside overlooking the town, which the Marquis named after his wife. He did not name his home “the chateau.” That title was conferred by the locals, since it was quite grand compared to homes lived in by most people of that time.

The Marquis and his wife, ready for a hunting expedition. Note that she’s riding sidesaddle. Image courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

The couple adapted well to the rough life of North Dakota, compared to their winter home in Cannes, France. The Marquis was industrious and completed many building projects that still stand today in the community. Medora loved hunting and was apparently a crack shot, outperforming her husband and embarking on many hunting trips on her own when he was away for business.

The Hunting Room in the chateau.

Their dreams of a financial windfall were short-lived. The meat plant failed in 1886, plus issues with local hunters, who didn’t like fences the Marquis erected for his cattle, caused conflict, death, and charges against the Marquis. They didn’t abandon the town, however, and continued to support endeavors there and visit periodically.

If you’re ever in Medora, the site is worth a visit to learn more.

Letting go of the Past

I bet you’re expecting me to write something deep about how to recover from past hurts and abuses. No such luck. I’m writing about getting rid of an antique that I used to be trapped inside as a child: the elevatorized Baby Butler.

Yes, the marketers at Guild Industries really used the word “elevatorized” to describe it. Just what is this curious device, which was manufactured out of oak in the late 1950s and 60s? It’s a combination highchair, bed, and play table for young children.

I’m not quite sure why it’s considered elevatorized – perhaps because the seat is adjustable. Elevators had been common for decades by then. I guess it was just a 1950s marketing buzzword.

When we were growing up, my mother strapped my brothers and I into it for meals. The Baby Butler also came with a blackboard cover for use when the seat was removed – thus, the play table part.

My butler is missing the metal seat. I think I threw it away because I didn’t realize it went with the rest.

I associate the device with conflicting emotions: the comfort of food, and the frustration of feeling trapped. I feel a twinge of sentimentality toward it, but that’s about it — the kind you’d feel toward a jack-in-the-box you played with as a kid. The music was nice, but the “jack” jumping out of it was unpleasant.

I inherited the butler when we moved my parents into an assisted living facility. I’ve kept it about a half-dozen years, thinking I could sell it as an antique. A lot of them are for sale on E-Bay. But when I discovered mine no longer had the seat, and that the green blackboard was marred by a black marker, I slowly came to the realization the Baby Butler needed to go.

Before I tossed it, I read through the instruction booklet, which my parents had also saved. I love how marketers used to write:

Dear Mother and Dad: We take pleasure in welcoming you as one more happy family in our ever-growing circle of Baby Butler friends. . . The new and improved Baby Butler supplies the answer to your needs, and it satisfies the most discriminating tastes with its beauty of styling and workmanship.

Sorry, Guild Industries. I’m no longer part of your circle of friends.

Do you still have relics from your childhood that give you mixed feelings?

Revisiting My Horse Mania

An Ojibwe horse makes friends with a girl at Dawson Trail Campground in Quetico Provincial Park, Canada.

When I was a girl, I was horse crazy. My best friend, Jody, lived in my neighborhood and we collected every different breed of plastic toy horse we could get our hands on. (Or that we could convince our parents to buy.)

I had galloping horses, standing horses, rearing horses, trotting horses; Palominos, greys, Morgans, Appaloosas, Paints, you name it.

Jody and I enjoyed many imaginary adventures with our steeds. Enraptured, we watched movies like “The Miracle of the White Stallions,” “Justin Morgan had a Horse,” “The Black Stallion,” and “National Velvet.” I must have read all the Beverly Cleary horse books and Walter Farley books. During winter, we didn’t build snowmen, we made snow horses (which are basically snowmen lying down).

The highlight of my year was summer YWCA camp where I could ride a horse, although at a plodding pace. (Spatz, I miss you!)

It didn’t help that my grandfather raised horses (and mules, donkeys, ponies) and had his own Western store. He had a mule named Hubert (after Hubert Humphrey, a Minnesota politician) and a dapple-grey pony named Daisy that he let me ride on my rare visits. My grandfather trained Palominos for show. The back of his store housed saddles, which were propped on rows of sawhorses. The heavenly aroma of leather filled that back room. I climbed up on the saddles, pretending I was riding.

Jody and I begged our parents for a horse, coming up with outlandish plans about how they could be kept in the garage of our city homes, promising we would take care of them and exercise them every day.

When we were in sixth grade, Jody’s parents caved. She got her own horse, a paint named Friskie. She kept it at a stable just outside of town. I spent many Saturdays there, joining her as she exercised Friskie around the indoor arena. I rode a different horse that needed a workout.

Sometimes, Jody would trailer her horse, once even bringing it to my back yard (see photo below). Her family had a cabin outside of town and I also I recall riding Friskie bareback on the gravel roads around Island Lake.

Having a girlfriend with a horse wasn’t quite as good as having my own horse, but it must have helped assuage my passion somewhat. I’m sure my parents breathed a sigh of relief. My horse love didn’t totally go away, though. At the end of junior high, I attended a horse camp in central Minnesota with another girlfriend. It was the kind of place where you were assigned your own horse for the week and were responsible for its care. We learned how to brush a horse properly, feed it, etc. We were assigned to different groups based on our riding proficiency. I was proud to be in one of the upper levels. The week culminated with a trail ride and campfire, where we had the thrill of galloping the horses.

These memories resurfaced because a magazine story I wrote (and photographed) about horses was published recently. Not just any ol’ horse, however. Quietly, over the centuries, the Ojibwe people developed their own breed, now known as the Lac La Croix Horse (or Lac La Croix Indian Pony). Once roaming in the thousands over northern Minnesota and Ontario, Canada, these horses were semi-feral and community owned. Tribal members only brought them into enclosures during the winter to ensure their safety and health.

In the late 1970s, the horses almost went extinct for a number of reasons, including systematic efforts by European settlers to destroy them, and the rise of motorized technology.

In my story for Lake Superior Magazine (“The Horses Nobody Knows”), I describe how the breed was saved from the brink of nonexistence and what they mean to the Ojibwe today. It’s the longest article I’ve ever written. I had to wait a year for it to get published, which was extremely hard, because, you know, horse mania.

Learning about an unknown part of my home state’s past was exciting. I thought I knew every breed. As it turns out, there was a unique breed almost in my back yard, so to speak, that needed help.

I was more than happy to resurrect my horse crazies and put my writing talents to use to help raise awareness about the Ojibwe horses’ plight. If you’d like to donate to Grey Raven Ranch to help these special horses, they have that option on their website.

Anyone got a ranch they want to sell me?

Paul Wellstone and the Chickadee

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Russ, Buddy the Wonderdog, and I recently nudged our way north to visit the outdoor memorial to Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone. Wellstone, his wife Sheila, one of their daughters, and several aides died in a plane crash in 2002, along with the pilots, near the small town of Eveleth, Minn.

I never saw the senator in person, but I had contact with his staffers in the 1990s, particularly Kim Stokes. This was early in my career when I worked in public affairs for the Forest Service. Part of my job was coordinating responses to inquiries from federal congressmen and representatives who received complaints from their constituents about Forest Service activities in the Superior National Forest.

I would receive the letters, decide which Forest Service person should write a response (sometimes this was me), and then follow up, making sure the Forest Supervisor signed the letter and that it got mailed. I know, snail mail – how quaint!

I always enjoyed my discussions with Kim. She was so enthusiastic about the democratic senator, which wasn’t something I usually heard from staffers for other federal legislators. That piqued my interest, and I watched Wellstone’s career from afar.

Despite early public relations gaffes after his election in 1991, the short, feisty, and energetic senator learned from his mistakes and became an effective leader. He even explored a run for the presidency, but did not seek it due to health issues, which ended up being multiple sclerosis.

One of his well-known quotes is, “We all do better when we all do better.”

20200404_123600Russ and I had driven past the signs for the memorial off Highway 53 in several times, and finally had the time to stop. The first thing to greet us in the parking area was poetry. A snow-covered stone mantle sat at the entrance to the memorial. We brushed off the snow, trying to read the poem that was etched into the rock. We couldn’t do it because of the moisture, but were able to make out some of the words later, after it had time to dry.

After visiting the commemorative circle, which featured monuments made of local stone to those killed in the crash (except the pilots), we walked the surrounding legacy trail. The path was covered by about a foot of snow, and it didn’t look like anyone had been there in at least a week. Sinking through the crunchy thin snow crust every other step, we gingerly made our way, marveling at the quiet and the sun streaming through the skinny pines. Interpretive signs lined the route. After brushing off the snow, we read about Wellstone’s career progression.

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An image of Wellstone from his college professor days at Carleton College in MN.

The final sign on the route was dedicated to his wife, Sheila. The feminist in me did not appreciate this. I thought her sign should have occurred earlier on the trail, perhaps after the sign about their marriage, because I’m sure Paul could not have accomplished even half of what he did without her support. Having her sign at the end seemed like an afterthought.

After coming full circle back to the poetic entry, we walked the trail to the crash site narrative. The trail ended in a viewing platform about 2,000 feet from the actual site. Signs on the platform described the lives of the people lost. Descriptions of the two pilots were notably absent, but I suppose this was because the crash was deemed their fault, combined with poor visibility.

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Looking down the peaceful legacy trail.

As we stood, looking out into the pines, a flock of chickadees twittered among the branches. One brave energetic bird alighted only two feet from me, calling loudly, as if berating me for intruding. I extended my gloved hand to see if the bird would land, and made a “phish, phish” sound that often works to attract birds.

This feisty little guy was too smart for that. He stayed where he was, continuing his call. Eventually, he flew away to join his friends.

The chickadee reminded me Wellstone. I would like to think his spirit and those of the others in the crash were somehow absorbed into the forest and live on there.

Wellstone leaves a political legacy in the form of the legislation he passed and in Camp Wellstone, a training program for people interested in political action. His wife Sheila’s legacy lives on in her tireless work against domestic violence.

With Buddy leading, we made our way back to our truck, filled with appreciation for these lives well-lived and duly recognized.

Crackerjack Bands and Hometown Boosters: A Personal Story and Book Review

Back in 2010, I Googled my parents’ names, just to see if any information about them was out on the internet. They were aging, and I wanted to ensure their safety, both online and off.

I was also curious. Neither of them had ever owned or operated a computer. Heck, even operating a cell phone was a stretch, and I’m not sure either of them ever used the one they bought for emergencies, despite my repeated and patient instructions. Would anything be on the internet about people who had never been on the internet themselves?

I was surprised to find my father’s name (Howard Pramann) associated with a blog called, “My Musical Family” by Joy Riggs, a writer based in Northfield, Minn. The post was titled, “Music: The Anti-Drug.” It featured an interview with my father about his experience playing the cornet under the instruction of Joy’s great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs (the G stands for George, a name Mr. Riggs did not like so did not use). Mr. Riggs was adamantly against smoking, especially since his musicians needed good lungs to play. His anti-smoking lectures no doubt kept many a young man from taking up the habit.

After reading the post, I vaguely recalled my parents recently mentioning something about my dad being interviewed, but I didn’t understand that it was for a blog.

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My father, Howard Pramann, in his spiffy band outfit in St. Cloud in 1937.

I shared the post with my family members and parents, and wrote a thank-you e-mail to the author. She responded quickly, and we corresponded a few more times. She explained she was writing a book about G. Oliver Riggs, who was an influential and prolific “Minnesota Music Man.” He developed and directed bands in communities like St. Cloud and Crookston, Minn., and even in Montana. My father, Howard, played in the St. Cloud band for eight years, from age 10 until he graduated high school.

Late this summer, I received a message from Joy through my author website. She noticed I was a presenter at the North Shore Readers and Writers Festival in Grand Marais, which she planned to attend. She was looking forward to meeting there, plus she had published the book about her great-grandfather.

After receiving her message, I looked at Joy’s author page to see how I could lay hands on a copy of her book. I noticed she was doing a signing at a local bookstore a few weeks before the festival. I told her I would see her at her signing and later at the festival.

IMG_7234We met at the bookstore and had a nice chat. Not long after, I read her book, entitled “Crackerjack Bands and Hometown Boosters: The story of a Minnesota Music Man.” (Noodin Press, 2019.)

What immediately impressed me is how Joy interweaves her personal story with information about her great-grandfather’s life. This made the book much more interesting, as readers are able to experience the thrill of discovery that Joy found during her research process. Readers also learn that this book was her return to journalism after many years of subsuming her career to her growing family’s needs.

Her vivid prose won me over to the importance of her topic – bringing to life a bygone era, when public bands were the best form of entertainment in town and brought communities together. Although G. Oliver was a stern taskmaster, Joy’s book shows how his methods and discipline influenced his young pupils in a positive way throughout their lives.

Since my father was one of those pupils, it was thrilling for me to see photos of the venues where he might have played, and learn about the people he performed alongside. I was particularly interested in seeing pictures of my father’s piano teacher, who was G. Oliver’s wife, Islea.

Reading Joy’s book made me wish my father (who died in 2016) had spoken more about his community band experiences. When I complained about having to practice the required half-hour per day on my French horn in junior high and high school, he could have retorted with things like, “When I was your age, we had to practice four hours per day. What are you complaining about?”

I would have liked to hear him describe the contests his band won, and the parades they marched in. But through Joy’s book, I was able to follow the band’s triumphs and challenges across the years.

Joy describes her interview with my father in Chapter 13. He’s mentioned again on page 228 as playing a cornet duet before an audience of 5,000 people in a theater in St. Cloud.

To my surprise, Joy even refers to me on page 200, although not by name, when she discusses our initial correspondence.

Of course, I’m going to like any book that has me in it (ha, ha). But even if I wasn’t included, I’d still recommend Joy’s book for anyone who is interested in Minnesota’s musical history and the important role the arts can play in people’s lives. I gave it five out of five stars on Goodreads.

The Year 2020 in a Cartoon

I was listening to a recent episode of National Public Radio’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” podcast when my heart leapt with joy. The guests were talking about the year 2020 and the grandiose ideas people had in the past about how we would be living today.

What got my heart going was when the host mentioned the “Sealab 2020” cartoon.

I had been thinking about that cartoon lately, with it being the year 2020 now.  Until listening to the podcast, I was beginning to wonder if anyone else but me remembered the short-lived series.

“Sealab 2020” only ran from September until December 1972, but it made a big impression on me – with my proclivities toward all things watery. The setting was an underwater lab. The dramas and intrigue of the 250 “oceanauts” featured heavily, as they faced challenges ranging from environmental disasters to attacks from giant squid.

As a nine-year-old, I envisioned myself as one of the oceanauts by the time 2020 came around. Alas, I am still landlocked, and I don’t think there are any large underwater labs in operation at this time.

My dream did not come to pass. But at least I work for Sea Grant, and that’s almost as good!

Mountie Art Memories

Russ and I meandered over to the Tweed Museum of Art on the University of Minnesota Duluth Campus last week. Russ had never been there, so we figured it was time for him to get some “cultcha,” even if it is only a Duluthy version of culture.

The museum currently features an exhibit of Russian art (Art in Conflict), which was interesting. You don’t often see Lenin in artwork displayed in America.

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Image courtesy of the Tweed Museum of Art.

My favorite collection in the Tweed, however, is the Canadian Mountie illustrations. My father used to get calendars from a local paper company that showed red-suited Mounties in all sorts of exciting and helpful situations, fueling my childhood imagination. There were Mounties petting sled dogs, Mounties building a snowman with native children, Mounties tracking bad guys – you get the drift.

Something I didn’t realize back then was that more than one artist drew the illustrations. The most prolific was Arnold Friberg, noted for his religious and patriotic art. But fifteen others tried their hand at it, as well.

The Mountie art came about during the Depression when the Minnesota Paper Company chose it as their advertising theme because it evoked a strong and dependable product. It was an instant success and continues until this day, although the company’s name has changed several times over the years.

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Image courtesy of the Tweed Museum of Art.

While I suspect that real Mounties have committed their fair share of atrocities like any arm of law enforcement, I don’t want to know about it. As a child, I was totally sold on their Dudley Do-Right goodness, and, as I looked at the paintings in the Tweed, I realized I want to keep my childlike innocence where Mountie art is concerned.

If you’re ever in Duluth and want some culture, try the Tweed! Admission is free, although donations are appreciated, and there’s a box for that by the door.

Unicorns in New York City!

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The unicorn in captivity tapestry.

On our recent trip to NYC, Russ and I discovered there are unicorns in the city. Specifically, unicorns adorn tapestries in The Cloisters, a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to medieval European art.

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The Met Cloisters

Atop its hill overlooking the Hudson River, The Cloisters takes visitors back to another era. Many of the buildings and chapels were transported over from Europe. They house sculptures, paintings, sarcophagi, stained glass and other master works from the 12th century to the 15th century. The halls are separated by courtyard gardens and outdoor gardens that will make you feel like you’re on the set of Romeo and Juliet or something.

One of our favorite rooms held the unicorn tapestries. These seven wall hangings were thought to be woven in the 1500s in Brussels. They depict the hunt and capture of a unicorn. The unicorn does not fare well with its encounter with humans. It’s held captive and killed. Or is it killed? Artistic scholars debate this, but what’s not debatable in the renderings is that people attack it. But I’m not going to show those tapestries here. They are just too mean! I will show a different one, instead.

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The unicorn purifies water and is discovered by the hunters.

Enjoy this mini tour of The Cloisters.

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Oh, and this is a unicorn thing that does something. I don’t know what, but it looks cool.

Aspects of 9-11

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The slurry wall inside the 9-11 Museum.

Russ and I meandered over to New York City last week. We didn’t plan it, but our trip ended up being 9-11 themed. Our first experience was a visit to the 9-11 Memorial and Museum.

The dim lights and the quiet struck me as we entered the museum. This was hallowed ground. Visitors treaded lightly and spoke softly. We met our tour guide in the lobby and she took us down, down, down into the excavation pit of the World Trade Center buildings.

DSC05587The heavy ghost of all the rubble that had filled the space and piled above it was an emotional and physical weight. Our guide showed us the slurry wall that held back the river from flooding the space, the square-edged outlines of the waterfalls that flowed in the memorial outside, the wreckage of the fire trucks, and the last cement column that survived the building collapse, festooned with first-responder graffiti.

The most awe-full artifact for me was the impact steel from the North Tower, which was the one hit first. Mounted on the wall like a crucifix with a stark light upon it, the mangled steel beams hung as a testament to the power of the plane that crashed into the building and began the nightmare.

People showed different emotions to these sights. Some were crying, some were dazed. Everyone was somber.

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The impact steel from the North Tower.

Our tour guide explained that her brother worked in the World Trade Buildings. He only escaped death that day because, at the last moment, he decided to go to the optometrist to get his glasses fixed instead of heading up the tower.

Tour over, we were free to wander among the artifact exhibits on our own. I was drawn to the information about the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, because I was in Pennsylvania when 9-11 happened. A timeline of those events was on display along with text of the plane cockpit recordings.

Also powerful and haunting were the voicemail messages left for loved ones from those who worked in the tower after the plane(s) crashed into them.

After all that heaviness, I was glad to get outside into the memorial area. But even the memorial is heavy, with all the names of the dead inscribed around the waterfalls that flow into the building pits. We found the name of a man who had been in a relative’s wedding party.

DSC05674The other 9-11-themed thing we did was attend the Broadway show, “Come From Away.” Although poignant at times, this experience was much more enjoyable than the museum. The musical tells the story of the townspeople of Gander, Newfoundland. This village of 10,000 people hosted 7,000 airplane travelers who got grounded on 9-11 for several days.

The Newfies welcome the confused travelers like only Newfies could – with generosity, caring, music, and whisky. The show offered 100 minutes of humanity and hopefulness.  The audience gave it a standing ovation at the end. If you have a chance to see “Come From Away,” by all means, do so!

Happy Belated Birthday Bob (Dylan)

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Bob Dylan’s childhood home in Duluth.

Last Friday was Bob Dylan’s birthday. My hometown of Duluth does it up right by holding an annual Dylan Fest — a week of events that features song, poetry, lectures, tours, and birthday cake.

This year, we attended the launch of a new book of poetry inspired by Dylan. “Visiting Bob” contains 100 poems by U.S. and international poets. A half dozen of the poets read their works and other poets’ works. Some of the poems were beyond me but others I understood. One that stuck was by local poet, Connie Wanek. Its theme was Dylan sightings in Duluth — are they false? Are they true? It ends on a hopeful note that perhaps someday the poet really will see him back in this town where he was born.

We also attended a lecture by one of the poets from Texas, David Gaines. Because he wrote a book about Dylan, he attracted media interest when Dylan won the Nobel Prize. Gaines described his experience being interviewed by Swedish public television and other major media outlets. He also got to travel to Stockholm to attend the airing of a Swedish public television story in conjunction with the prize ceremony.

On our way home from the lecture, we decided to stop by Bob Dylan’s home on the hillside, since it was on our route and we’d never seen it. A fan owns it and has spiffed up the duplex. Dylan lived in the right-hand side. A plaque on the front of the home proclaims its significance.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve lived here over five decades and never looked it up before. ‘Bout time, I guess.

When I posted the house photo on Facebook, one of my friends said they had a chance to rent the place in the mid-1970s, but turned it down. They didn’t know the home’s significance, however. When they found out afterward, they deeply regretted their decision because they were fans.

Another friend said she walked by the place thousands of times but it took years before she learned who had lived there.

These are typical instances of  “Duluth” to me. It’s a big small town. It’s large enough to get lost in if you want, and to never see parts of it. But it’s small enough that everyone has friends in common through one means or another, whether they went to school with them, or worked with them, etc.

Even after all this time, this town still has hidden gems to discover for those who take the time to look.