Trip to Decorah

Last Friday, I went to Decorah, IA to visit a friend of mine from college. Decorah is a small town in northeastern Iowa, very close to the Minnesota border. It’s a pretty drive down from the Twin Cities through the hills and fields and over the Zumbro and Root Rivers. I watched the sun set from the highway, and after crossing into Iowa, I drove through some blowing snow.

Decorah is home to Luther College (one of Those Musical Lutheran Colleges) and a charming small town in its own right. I arrived to a thin coat of snow on the ground, more than we had in the Twin Cities at the time (or have now), and it made everything more festive. My friend’s apartment is across the street from the handsome county courthouse, which had illuminated Christmas wreaths in all its windows.

My friend works at Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit that preserves and distributes heirloom plant varieties, and on Friday evening we went to the Seed Savers holiday party. The next morning, we went to the last farmers market of the season, held in a building on the county fairgrounds. The vendors were still selling produce, including cabbage, carrots, and apples (Northern Greening, Melrose, Hidden Rose, and more). There were also eggs, pickled beets, breads, knitwear, jams and jellies, cookies, pies, and, betraying Decorah’s well-preserved Norwegian heritage, lefse and rosettes. I bought a jar of strawberry-raspberry-gooseberry jam.

There were two musicians, a fiddler and a guitarist, playing a combination of folk tunes and Christmas songs for the market. They had CDs for sale, and upon inspecting them I realized the performers were one half of the band Contratopia, which regularly plays for the Minneapolis contra dance! Yet they live in Decorah (and play for its contra dance too).

After the farmers market, my friend and I went to Vesterheim: The National Norwegian-American Museum. (Did I mention Decorah was Norwegian? I saw multiple houses with nisser–red-hatted gnome creatures–in their windows.) Vesterheim means “western home” and refers to America, from the point of view of Norwegian immigrants.

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Christmas tree in the Norwegian farmhouse

The museum was great. The permanent exhibits include a model Norwegian farmhouse; the TradeWind, a 25-foot sailboat that is the smallest sailboat to have crossed the Atlantic unaided, sailed by two Norwegian brothers from Kristiansand, Norway to Chicago, IL in 1933; household objects made in Norway and in the United States; collections of silver and needlework; and lots and lots of chests, carved furniture, and rosemaling.

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Loom in the Norwegian farmhouse

The temporary exhibits included one of weavings and tapestries by Minnesotan Lila Nelson, one of Scandinavian wood carvings (so much Swedish work–gasp!), and one of Norwegian sweaters.

After seeing Vesterheim, we stopped by my friend’s clay studio and the Decorah Public Library, which allows you to check out, among other things, American Girl dolls and framed artwork. Then I headed home. Driving back through Amish country, around the small towns of Harmony and Canton, I saw no fewer than four horse-drawn buggies rolling along the shoulder.

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