Hot times in Decorah

We’ve been in Decorah, Iowa, for the past few days. Decorah is home of the Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit that collects, propagates, and sells heirloom vegetable, herb, and flower seeds from all over the world. We wandered around their display garden, had a little picnic, took a look at their orchard (gazillion wonderful old apple types), and made a token purchase of jam at their Amish-built barn of a welcome center. We missed the British White Park Cattle. If you’re interested in growing things your grandmother might have grown, or simply in growing veggies that actually taste, you can become a Seed Savers member, or take a special Flowers and Herbs membership. Of course, you can also just buy seeds or plants.

We also spent most of a whole day enjoying (and I can’t tell you how much that surprised me) the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum.

Decorah is at the center of an area settled in the 19th century by the Norwegians who have dominated its culture ever since. (I asked the nice lady at the museum if the population was still overwhelmingly Nordic. She told me ruefully that the 2000 Census was the first in which fewer than half the population claimed Norwegian ancestry. But they are still by far the largest single ethnic group.)

“Vesterheim” means “Western Home,” and the museum “embodies the living heritage of Norwegian immigrants to America.” I’ve got to say it does it in great style. The newspaper USA Today calls it one of the top ten places in the country to look at folk art. One of the things I liked most about the place was that its displays are more open and available than things are at most museums. It’s clearly set up, in significant part, to teach the children of the area about their heritage, and it takes children’s natural touchy curiosity into account. That works for me, too.

The museum has moved a number of buildings onto the large site behind its Main Street headquarters. It’s smaller and much less formalized than places like Sturbridge Village or Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts or the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, and I enjoyed that about it. We had a great, wonderfully led tour of a church, a country schoolhouse, five houses, a storehouse, a small mill and a huge one, a drying shed for the barley used in beer, and a smithy, all of which illustrated an element of Norwegian-American life in the 19th century. (Actually, I especially loved the desk/bureau (called a skatoll) in the main museum, the bottom drawer of which is purported at various times to have slept “four boy babies and two girl babies.”

I also learned that beer in Norwegian is Øl.

And, though it’s spelled with a “y,” rather than an “i”, Decorah, like Fairlee, Vermont, has a WhippyDip.

So you know it’s a great town.

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