Saturday, December 6, 2014

Birthplace of America

Continuing our foray into curious museums and arcane legends, a chance opening of the AAA guide's first page for Minnesota A-Z revealed Alexandria's Runestone Museum. As with the "Welsh Indian" Prince Madog and the Mandan tribe lore raised in my previous entry (and note how this Kensington MN website from the site of its discovery manages to tie the Norse to the Mandan), so with the Kensington Runestone on display. You can click on these two links to read the assertions; while most scholars appear to dismiss the claims of a medieval inscription of runes dug up by a settler in a 1898 field, a few mavericks--as well as local proponents, which as with a few Welsh holdouts for Madoc understandably--still champion the slab as evidence of pre-Columbian, post-Vinland, Norse exploration. This led to the bold slogan "Birthplace of America" and the hoisting of 28-feet-tall Big Ole (even if Vikings per se by 1362 were passé) at the 1964 World's Fair for the state's claim to fame.

We wandered the museum, with a modest but of course insistent argument on a brief video about the veracity of the runestone (and I wonder why not subject it to sophisticated dating techniques to gauge the rate of erosion to estimate the date of its carving?), as well as a diligently assembled selection of artifacts from native to Scandinavian to contemporary, in a small city where a Grumman plant ensured some prosperity, and where, from the main street with its 3-M plant, better times appeared to have continued than in similar locations of this size and placement across the Midwest. There was an inspirational story about a boy who called "Information Please" and who as a man learned of the operator who dispensed him folksy advice. One display you won't find at any grand Art Institute. 

The elderly woman at the entrance kept talking (I even found out she was 3/4 Norwegian and 1/4 German), and we made our polite exit. The weather worsened as we listened to Dos Passos, and found his colleague's home town not far away. Adjoining Sauk Centre's Chamber of Commerce, the humble and forlorn Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center Museum seemed unchanged, or unvisited, since around 1974. But we lingered there, as the evidence from his map, notes, and research on his later novel Cass Timberlane documented Lewis' devotion to careful storytelling. We wondered if anyone still reads Main Street, Babbitt, or Elmer Gantry (let alone Dodsworth and Arrowsmith; Cass and her many other companions after the rise of Lewis attest to his slow decline, even as he kept producing a book a year or so). We left a few dollars in the kitty, and I hoped people remember Lewis and keep his stories alive. I listened to his best novels on audio not long ago; soon Layne and I would listen to Barbara Caruso's nearly twenty hours of Main Street, after we'd finish USA and then Babbitt.

Driving up "America's Original Main Street," it looks as if any other small town of a century ago. Handsome trees, even if bare by now so far north. Elegant houses among dignified smaller ones. The Main Street theatre had been subdivided into a multiplex; a corner once holding a cafe geared at the tourist trade was closed for good, or bad. We filled up for gas (if not at Sinclair, with its dinosaur logo), and headed back to the inevitable interstate which had bypassed this and so many main streets.

Down we went, as I glimpsed the modern (as of the 1950s) spire of St. John's Abbey to the right over a ridge of trees. We were in J.F. Powers' territory in St. Cloud a few miles to the left. I thought of his clerical fiction set around the imaginary dioceses of Ostergothenberg and Great Plains, and how Powers struggled to fit in, after the Church had changed so much in his lifetime, and in mine, too. I was delighted to find him represented on the famous Minnesota authors' poster at the Lewis center. It had a priest, Fr. Urban, in front of a golf tee, with a flag in front of his cassocked self, standing proud.

Lots of traffic as dusk drifted from the gloomy day, and we stayed at the Hyatt Regency downtown. Layne had always wanted to visit half of the Twin Cities, and she'd gotten a deal to get us out of the room by the interstate. The one we got in Minneapolis was enormous, as if half of our home. But, as in pricier places, ironically it did not cater to budget travelers: no microwave, no way to boil water.

We had a bite at Brit's, a theme pub a few steps (if cold ones for us) from the hotel. A woman ordered a Corona Light at the next table, but I opted for a St. Paul-made Summit IPA, with a rich floral scent. Around us, the city seemed prosperous, and I think the convention coming in was for urologists. Men and a few women, all dressed like doctors might be off-duty but still spiffy, chatted and huddled. We walked down Nicollet Mall, made famous by Mary Tyler Moore even if we failed to spot her statue. The news room of the local network affiliate had a window so we could peer in from the street. Being in its hometown, Target served as our stock-up for food. The store filled with women in Muslim garb, as this city draws many from Somalia (and many from the Hmong). So passed another ordinary night.

The next day, after a pleasant detour to the front of the Walker, passing many fit and wholesome young people walking about the city, we opted for the exhibits at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts. A handsome interior, it showed off its material in a spacious setting. However, some awful contemporary art detracted from a fine mix from earlier periods. Not much stood out, but I admired Rodin's sculpture of "The Cathedral." Its folded hands symbolized the transition from the sacred to the secular, if you ask me, as the site where we pursue our inner search. We had a hard time figuring our way out, but a walk through Stevens Park brought us back to the downtown center smoothly, if past what one might call sketchier denizens of the streets. We went then to the Skyways over the Mall, subject of Replacements fame for Layne, and shopped for some souvenirs, and popcorn balls at Candyland (three branches alone in the vicinity) to take to a Johnston Center couple a few hours on.

First, we ate a fine meal at Sea Change, in the Tyrone Guthrie Theater by the Mississippi River. The Summit Stout complemented a fish dinner. Green glass-enclosed space, which by day or before plays must have been packed, now almost empty. We tried to see the sight of a stone bridge from the fifth story of the theater, but we were thwarted by a no-nonsense security guard (if suited rather than uniformed) who told us when Layne pleaded that we had sixty seconds. We glanced around, then left.

The Mill Museum next door looked intriguing. "City of Carbohydrates!" boasted a retro poster, on the imposing, atmospheric site of Gold Medal flour. I wondered where they made that brand now. We stopped to see the couple, who lamented losses in the purple state that night and nationally, that night.

Stuck in traffic, it being a city or two, it took us a long while to get through the next day. No fun museum, for despite attempts, nothing around the stretch between St. Paul and Chicago seemed open. The day dawned drearily, more rain, and a caffeine stop by Layne found us in the pretty small town (#15 of America's Top 20, a municipal site crows) of Menomonie. We visited by chance a Christian-themed coffeehouse in an old church basement. The sign said donations for java and rolls were requested, but promised if one could not afford the price, an honor system prevailed. Posters in the corridors showed the missionary work the church supported in Asia. A student from the UW campus pored over her books in a corner. Another woman greeted us as we exited the warm, cozy hideaway.

My AAA guidebook detailed the attractions of Baraboo's Circus Museum (recommended by our Minneapolis hosts) but again, off-season was on. The waterparks of the heavily promoted Wisconsin Dells had long closed after summer. Even the vegetarian restaurant with lots of ratings on Yelp was shut up. So, lunch was at Moosejaw, a giant pizzeria. At least the waitress and bartender were genial. I sampled the Wisconsin Dells stout made there but decided on their Hazel's Nutty Brown Ale, an intense flavor and aroma. One went a long way, but the blend was hearty and satisfying, even if the two older couples who came in, accents as heavy as everyone else at the place (except a brooding man with a mustache, walrus white, who told the waitress he hailed from Indiana), asked for Bud Light in bottles. Despite their gaucherie, the bartender generously offered them samples of draughts.

We left Lake Dalton and determined to hit Milwaukee, or its edge, next. We did, but in the dark, nothing of the state could be enjoyed. We stopped for gas in Warrens, attracted by billboards for cranberries. They colored many bogs, but no stores were open to sell any. At the frigid gas station, women inside in hunting gear matched the men, separately, who pulled in to fill up. I did too, but the clerk at the register came out, after I'd gone to the bathroom inside. She asked if I had paid first.

Layne saw cranberries in moonshine at that register. Inquiring about this as a purchase, she was told that the woman had no idea what it'd be used for, and besides, she did not like cranberries. So, no go.

Cheese stores gave us a last chance in the dark but stuck on endless interstate traffic at rush hour along Lake Michigan, passing an enormous Amazon warehouse under construction before the border, we crossed from America's Dairyland into the Land of Lincoln, with tolls to pay to boot. We finally made it to suburban Glencoe, north of Chicago, where our hosts gave us a room for the next two nights. We were happy to have a house to stay in, and overlooking a golf course, it certainly was no Jamestown ND or Wall SD. The next morning, a driving tour around the city showed us its architectural diversity, from the remnants of 1893's White City to Soldier Field to Grant's Park, Loyola to Hyde Park, the site of Cabrini Green to the sight of Sears Tower, the U. of C. to Michigan Ave. where we disembarked into the immense Art Institute of Chicago. Even in mid-week, early November, it was crammed with fellow visitors. No idea what it was like during any sunny summer.

There, the Seurat park on Sunday afternoon and the Hopper Nighthawks halted many (American Gothic was on loan, as well as the Mary Cassatt) but I admired the flickering white Breton headdresses and flickering candles of the late 19c. scene in Gaston La Touche's "Pardon in Brittany"

Lunch down the street at The Gage reminded me of a truly urban atmosphere. Most people dining looked as if executives, and the feel of London or Manhattan in a less touristed venue permeated it. The two women next to us talked of Ireland, including Adare which we knew, but their accents seemed to waver. At first I pegged them as emigrants, but as I eavesdropped, they seemed Yanks. I had a great fish platter and a noteworthy Temperance Smuttytown Cherry Stout, a superb brew.

Back at the museum, Layne and I noticed the odd juxtaposition of a linear, defined and even defiant depiction: Louis Anquetin's "An Elegant Woman at the Élysée-Montmartre (Élégante à l’Élysée-Montmartre)" Odd is how the background women are drawn as if by Toulouse-Lautrec imitation.

News of Kim Kardashian's Photoshopped rear already threatened to overtake the election news, as a male gaze at John Singer Sargent's "Study of a Girl" reminded me. I wondered if S-S's comely lass was as much a scandal over a century ago as the image that, for a few tiresome days, dominated FB. Speaking of photos, Layne's necessity to work on the phone slowed us down but at least we perched at a photography special exhibit about urbanism in New York, Chicago, and L.A. I wish, however, the academic po-mo blather was replaced by helpful contexts and descriptions non-curators might write. This occludes what it purports to interpret. If less highbrow mediation was present, and simpler text appended, an educated but dare I say "average" (not to mention international) audience would benefit.

Such was the case when the next day we left Chicago--finally, being waylaid by Google Maps and interstate construction to turn off into the less salubrious South Side with chanting crowd at the stoplight, plastic drums playing for a handout we were in no mood to dispense, and more tolls--into the Hoosier State. The night before, we saw a local play about Newton's battle with Robert Hooke, "Isaac's Eye"; I was impressed that different actors could chalk letters on a board in the same capitals. Newton's affectless genius, the mystery of the woman whom he may have had a connection with (apropos I recall that I read that Newton somehow apparently is one of the very few who can be said to have died a virgin), and the experiment that leads to the play's title made for a memorable plotline.

So, the following morning, I was reflecting, no pun intended, on the powers of the mind to figure out so much in the universe, visible and otherwise to our perceptions, and my comparative weakness in calculating, say, how to get from Chicago via GPS to Grand Rapids without all those damned tolls. We passed South Bend, which looked from the turnpike another set of retail malls and apartments, although surely Notre Dame graced the woods south a mile or two. In Elkhart, we visited the Midwest Museum of American Art. This converted 1920s bank building again showed the one-time splendor that a book like Babbitt sent up so well. The newspaper edifice confidently calls itself the Truth. Now, across from a 1920s music hall theatre seating two thousand, a collection with local art and a Grandma Moses, a Grant Wood, a Norman Rockwell, and a fine Reg Marsh (whose drawings enriched USA and who I since learned married the daughter of the neighbors in Long Island of a young Tom Merton, and who befriended him as a student at Columbia) made for a worthwhile hour. So did the Western art, the landscapes, and the whimsical pottery made by the local Overbeck sisters.

The city now bustles with making RV's, one of the few auto industries not yet offshored. The brewpub at Iechyd Da ("good health" in Welsh and I felt I deserved a free pint for knowing that before walking in) was nearly full despite fplks being still on some time clock somewhere. All those Winnebago workers, maybe. As we parked, the sky filled with shrieks of crows, a true murder. I'd never heard them so loud, or seen so many flocks rear up over the trees. I had a chocolate-infused stout, and Layne confessed the pretzel was the best she'd ever had. A hearty place I'd happily revisit.

But we headed for more abstemious territory. Layne wanted to head out of Elkhart to Shipshawana. There is one of the largest Amish settlements, and this was news to me. We soon entered roads where buggies clopped along, even if the S+S Sales parking lot had Amish in vans and pickups loading up too. Inside, as if an "Amish Costco," lots of foodstuffs, emphasis on the "City of Carbohydrates." Cash only, and I heard the German dialect from the moment I entered the bathroom to find three lads chattering. Teen boys wore grey knit caps, and young and older women modest garb. Older men, naturally, had beards. This was the first time I'd encountered this culture, although a student recently, I recall, from my online course had tried to visit the Amish in Pennsylvania for her field trip project. She was refused a chance to attend a service, so she reported on a museum. There was a similar one too near the store, Menno-Hof, and in the dusk as we passed it and farms, I again wondered at how the Amish regarded us interlopers, and how they worked out who drove and who did not. Distinctions rivalling Satmar and Breslov, while the outsiders see Hasidim as clad the same, and acting the same.

At the border, chilly, we filled up and passed at dark into the Wolverine State. Eventually we found our next hosts, emigres from au courant liberal Silverlake, now working for art foundations in the lively city of Grand Rapids. It sponsors the juried and popular competition Artprize annually, and its Grand Rapids Art Museum affirms its prominence as a creative center. One defying the expectation that only progressives fund the arts. Food and drink abound, old furniture factories turn lofts, and the bottle of Founder's Bourbon infused stout made me wonder what the tap version must be like, for it leapt out with flavor, as well as a small sip alas of their IPA. Our two nights spent in a Victorian 1880 manse (at least to us) in the Heritage Hill district, the fact our hosts could walk to work, and their splendid dwelling reminded us of what real estate can be outside the stratospheric West Coast cities.

So did a drive to nearby--as in a few minutes--farmland where we sampled a flight of dry ciders at Sietsema Orchards. Amazing that outside of Ada, such vistas await, even if they are encroached upon by gated subdivisions and giant homes behind the strands of birch surrounding the countryside, once you get past the endless enormity of the Amway headquarters. For, money supports Grand Rapids, and the arts, and where it comes from, admittedly, leads to compromises to further the creative class. To me, that old conundrum bedevilling Carnegie libraries or the Huntington, and I doubt if any recipients turn down a Ford Foundation grant based on Henry's antisemitism or ties to the Nazi regime. I wish we lived in a nation more supportive of the fine and liberal arts, but as we'd find in Bentonville AR, we face compromise when an unethical patron constructs a palatial shrine to the more refined treasures often less privileged creators produce, as we patronize a billionaire's largess.

On recommendation, as a grant had been applied for to our host's attention, we learned about our next destination on our serendipitous journey. It was around freezing, so we needed to keep moving south. Outside Jackson, we found its five eerie tiers intact to visit within that prison, which when founded in the 1930s was the nation's largest, meant to be a productive, self-sustaining, and profitable farm on the "Austin" system and not a "Pennsylvania"-style incarceration bent on self-examination in solitary cells. The cells were single at Jackson, but the work allowed men few chances for true privacy. We were the only ones there. An electric hum nagged far above from wires along the distant ceiling.

Cell Block 7 stands as asbestos prevents it from affordably being torn down within a functioning enclosure full of identical cellblocks that dwarf the capacity to comprehend. From a window ajar facing them, we peeked down at prisoners walking or marching across the grounds. A staff member pointed to a stain five tiers below, where one inmate had either jumped or had been pushed. The blood never came out of the linoleum. One graffito on a postboard in a cell said it all: "I hate you."

We left to traverse Ohio, stopping only for gas at Beaverdam. I do not count a state visit unless our feet touch the ground and commerce has been conducted, by the way. The Buckeye State passed without much to distinguish it, but as we neared Dayton and crossed at pale red sunset the long iron bridge over the wide Ohio River at Cincinnati, the hills started and fall color returned, a tawny hue that would accompany us as we began the LA Radio Theater dramatization of Babbitt and took that Midwestern tale all the way through Arkansas. Even into Oklahoma, we kept pace with autumn's hue.

Photo: This big statue has since been moved across the street, his back to the lake, but here is Big Ole in the 1960s on the main drag of Alexandria, Minnesota. Is Runestone Museum visible on the right?

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