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The Vinegar Man

I'm kind of a quirky guy, as you probably know by now.  And being a quirky guy, I like to visit small, quirky, out-of-the-way places when I travel.  Fortunately for me, there are lots of quirky places in the Midwest. 

 

After camping for ten days at Fort Sisseton State Park, I packed up and left on a sunny morning and drove a few miles south to the small town of Roslyn, South Dakota, which is one of the quirkiest towns I’ve ever been to.  Or rather, based on its small size, I should say that Roslyn has one of the highest “quirk-per-capita” ratios of any town in the U.S. -- and for three reasons.

 

Above:  The world's only Vinegar Museum (hence the "International" part) is in Roslyn, South Dakota.

First, this is one of only two towns I know of with the name of Roslyn, the other being in Washington, a bit east of Seattle.  Roslyn, Washington, as you may know, was where they filmed the quirky television show, “Northern Exposure,” though it was supposedly set in the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska.  Remember seeing the Roslyn Bar (which the show’s producers changed to “Roslyn’s Bar”) on each week’s opening clip where the moose casually strolls down the street?  They had to import the moose but the Roslyn Bar is the real thing.

 

The second quirk (I’ve listed the quirks in ascending order to build tension, as my 7th Grade English teacher, Mrs. Fields, taught me) is that Roslyn is the hometown of accordionist Myron Floren.  If you’re a fan of Lawrence Welk or polkas, you know who Myron Floren is.  If you’re not a fan of Lawrence Welk or polkas, you probably make fun of Myron Floren.  As I found out, though, you don’t make fun of Myron Floren in South Dakota because he’s hot stuff here.  And he’s also, as I learned, a pretty terrific guy.

 

Third, and quirkiest of all, Roslyn, South Dakota is the home of the International Vinegar Museum.  It’s actually the only Vinegar Museum in the world (hence the “International” part) and, Myron Floren notwithstanding, was the main reason that I decided to visit Roslyn.  The museum is located in the former Town Hall, the most impressive building in Roslyn, which in itself should be enough to draw huge crowds.  Seriously though, as I entered the museum, I wasn’t sure if this was a spoof or if it was for real.

 

It’s the real deal, folks, and the sole operator, a jovial guy named Lawrence Diggs, really knows his vinegar.  Although he doesn’t brag about it, Lawrence has a Ph.D. in something (Food Science, I think) and goes by the nickname “Vinegar Man."  I dare say that Lawrence Diggs, who in his spare time works as a "Vinegar Consultant" (don’t ask), probably knows more about vinegar than perhaps anyone on the planet.

 

   

Above left:  Roslyn is very proud of its most famous native, accordionist Myron Floren.

Above right:  Bustling (?) downtown Roslyn.  That's the International Vinegar Museum on the right.

 

When I walked into the museum, it was empty except for the Vinegar Man, who greeted me with a smile and a handshake.  I spent the next 30 minutes walking around and reading the various displays on vinegar while learning a lot of interesting facts.  For instance, people have been making vinegar for thousands of years using whatever fermentable food product happened to be on hand, including rice in the Orient, grapes in Greece, wheat in England (for the “malt vinegar” they put on fish and chips), and corn or apples in the U.S. 

 

Above:  Dr. Lawrence Diggs, the Vinegar Man, showing us how to properly taste vinegar.

Here's some more sour trivia:  Vinegar kills bacteria so it’s widely used as a food preservative, it cleans windows, and it’s a handy antidote if you happen to get stung by a deadly Australian box jellyfish.  I’ll keep that in mind next year when I go swimming at the Great Barrier Reef.

 

While I was perusing the many displays, two couples entered the museum and Lawrence gave the five of us an interesting tour, complete with a “vinegar tasting” at the end.  I tried to suppress a smile as Lawrence very seriously told me to swirl the vinegar in the glass and let the aroma “waft” (a term he used) up to my nose.  After a few tastes, though, I was really getting into it. 

 

I had poked fun of the International Vinegar Festival a few days earlier on my Funny Photos page, but Lawrence Diggs takes his vinegar seriously.  He’s also one of the nicest, most intelligent, and most interesting persons I’ve met on this trip so far.  I spent three hours in the museum (yes, three hours) talking to Lawrence about everything under the sun, from digital photo management to Australian didgeridoos -- and, of course, the many benefits of vinegar.  As I left the museum that afternoon, I decided that vinegar is cool.

 

You can reach Lawrence at his website, www.VinegarMan.com

 

   

Above left:  On a vinegar tour.  This is the vinegar "wall of fame."

Above right:  After the tour you can purchase all sorts of vinegar products.  I bought a spray bottle of vinegar deodorizer as a gift -- but for whom?

 

       

Above left:  Here are a few funny photos from South Dakota.  Don't miss the International Vinegar Festival.  Not only can you hear Pastor Wilson singing "his hits" (as only the Pastor can sing them) and see the Hutterite Choir, but you can also hear "the Polish singer," Tony Wika.  Yep, only in the Midwest.

Above center:  Well, duh.

Above right:  Personally, I lust after Toyotas.

 

   

Above left:  After the vinegar experience, I stopped at the Museum of Science and Farming in Webster, which contains 15 buildings and this recreated Main Street.  Among other things, there's a Shoe House at this museum with over 5,000 shoes.

Above right:  An actual one-room school at the museum.  My grandmother Helga taught in a room much like this in the 1920s in North Dakota.

The Wonderful Wizard

I left the Vinegar Museum around 3 p.m. and drove down to Webster, where I got a cheeseburger and root beer at the A&W, then I said goodbye to this friendly town, which had been my home base for the past two weeks.  I got on U.S. Highway 12 and headed west to Aberdeen, the largest town in northeastern South Dakota and, according to a sign on the edge of town, the home of the Senate Majority Leader, Tom Daschle.  I've always like Tom so I had an instant affinity for Aberdeen, too. 

 

Above:  I loved downtown Aberdeen, South Dakota.

I had camped for the past two weeks, so I decided to splurge that night on a three-star motel, The AmericInn, on the outskirts of town.  I checked in at the front desk, walked into my room, then immediately decided that I liked three-star motels.  In fact, I've decided not to stay in any more cheap motels with smoky rooms and thin walls.  From now on, I'm either staying in a nice motel or a campground.  I like camping and I like staying in nice motels but don't much like what's in between.

 

As I drove out of the motel parking lot the next morning, I decided to make a quick drive through Aberdeen.  If you know anything about my trips, you know that my "quick drives" can sometimes take several hours and, as it turned out, this would be no exception.  I discovered that Aberdeen has a charming downtown with lots of old, brick buildings on either side of Main Street, which I loved, then I stumbled across a theme park north of town called "Storybook Land."  The park seemed to be free, so I went in and soon found myself walking down the Yellow Brick Road on my way, apparently, to see the wizard.

 

Above:  The entrance to Storybook Land in Aberdeen.  Just follow the Yellow Brick Road.

I learned at the park that, for a few years in the late 1800s, Aberdeen had been the home of L. Frank Baum, author of the book, The Wizard of Oz.  In 1939, many years after he died, his book, of course, was made into a famous movie. 

 

L (or "Frank" as his friends probably called him) was born in New York but moved to Aberdeen, a primitive town in the Dakota Territory, in 1888 and started a newspaper here.  The paper failed, however, so in 1891 he moved to Chicago but continued writing, and in 1900 he published a children's fantasy book called The Wizard of Oz.  Though he was living in Chicago at the time, he had based his book on his experiences of living in Aberdeen in the 1880s which, as you know, was a period of drought, tornadoes, and flying monkeys.

 

To commemorate Baum's one-time residence here, the city of Aberdeen created a cute park a few years ago called "Storybook Land," with lots of characters from The Wizard of Oz and other storybook characters.  I never saw the wizard but after strolling past countless Cats Playing the Fiddles and Cows Jumping over the Moon, I walked into the official Storybook Land Visitor Center and proudly told the nice woman there that I'd recently visited Mother Goose's actual grave in Boston (see News:  July 22, 2001).  I'm not sure if she was impressed but, with typical Midwestern friendliness, she tried to appear so.

 

Admittedly, Storybook Land isn't Disneyworld.  But it was free and I figured that a park like this would charge at least $15 for admission if it were in California or Florida.  Quaint, homespun places like this are one reason I love the Midwest.

 

       

Above left:  Here's the cast, with a rather benevolent-looking witch.

Above center:  Pensive looks on the faces of Uncle Henry and Aunt Em.  According to the sign in the background, Aunt Em is sponsored by Wal-Mart.

Above right:  Babe the Blue Ox with Paul Bunyan who, I thought, bore a striking resemblance to Tom Selleck.

 

   

Above left:  Is this a cute park or what?

Above right:  A knight in shining (well, sort of) armor with Rapunzel in the background.

"Keep a Song in Your Heart"

My "quick drive" through Aberdeen took more than four hours, so I figured I was right on schedule, and by 2 p.m. I was back on Highway 12 heading west.  A few hours later, I crossed into North Dakota and just north of the town of Strasburg, I saw signs for the Lawrence Welk birthplace.  Now, I'm not a big fan of Lawrence Welk but for reasons I don't need to go into here, I happen to know all of the words to the closing song of the Lawrence Welk Show:  "Good night, sleep tight and pleasant dreams to you..."

 

Above:  The turnoff for the Lawrence Welk birthplace near Strasburg, North Dakota.

For the dozen or so Americans who've never heard of Lawrence Welk, he was a bandleader who was born on the prairies of North Dakota, apparently with an accordion in his hand (it was a Caesarian section).  Seriously though, when Lawrence was a teenager, his father agreed to buy him a $400 accordion and, in return, Lawrence agreed to work on the family farm until he turned 21.  On his 21st birthday, Lawrence was history -- and made history.

 

Since it's hard to wave a baton while playing an accordion, Lawrence soon hired an accordionist named Myron Floren (from Roslyn) and got his own television show, which has been airing every Saturday night since the Pleistocene.  Lawrence passed away in 1992 but reruns of his show still run every Saturday night.  At least, they do in Portland.

 

Although I'm not a big fan of his music, I've always admired the guy because he was ever cheerful, always had a smile and loved music.  Not surprisingly, his motto was "Keep a song in your heart."  In a humorous nod to his famous accent, Lawrence even had a customized license plate that said "A1ANA2."  That's my kind of guy!

 

 

Here's a brief tune from The Lawrence Welk Show.  Lawrence is accompanied by Roslyn's very own Myron Floren, who is playing his famous accordion.

   

Although I didn't know much about Lawrence Welk, I do like Americana, so I stopped at his family's farm near Strasburg to check it out.  The farm sits alone, two miles off the highway and down a dusty, dirt road.  As I bounced down the road, I was hoping that there would be lots of tourists there, paying tribute to this bandleader who brightened up the lives of so many people, but when I arrived, sadly enough, the parking lot was empty.  As I walked towards the main building, I heard lively polka music playing from a boombox somewhere across the farm and, as I walked into a small, white building, I was greeted by a smiling older woman with gray hair who looked oddly familiar.  She spoke with a thick accent and said that her name was Evelyn, then she asked if I'd like to see the house.

 

As Evelyn took me around the house, I tried to identify her accent, which I've heard only one other person speak with, and that was Lawrence himself.  A few minutes later two women tourists walked in and the three of us, with Evelyn as our guide, got a wonderful tour of the house that Lawrence grew up in.   As I learned, Lawrence's parents were German-Russian and homesteaded here in the 1890s.  That was about the same time that my great-great-grandparents, the Svangs, had homesteaded near Webster, South Dakota, a few hours east of here, as I described in my previous update.

 

Here's Goodnight, Sleep Tight, (also known as "Bubbles In The Wine") the closing song of The Lawrence Welk Show.

 
   

As Evelyn answered one of my questions, she happened to mention that she was Lawrence's niece. That's when it hit me -- she had the same smile and the same accent.  If you could imagine a female version of Lawrence Welk, Evelyn would be her.  She then mentioned some of her childhood memories of her Uncle Lawrence and, standing there in the Welk living room, I found this all quite charming. 

 

By restoring the farmhouse and opening it to tours, she was doing her part to preserve a small slice of Americana and keep alive the memory of her dear Uncle Lawrence.  And for that I admired her.

 

   

Above left:  The Welk homestead, restored in 1991 by Lawrence's niece Evelyn and others.  

Above right:  Lawrence's niece Evelyn (left) showing us the Welk kitchen.

 

       

Above left:  Lawrence Welk, one of America's most famous bandleaders

Above center:  This is the dining room, with a cutout of Lawrence standing next to his first accordion.

Above right:  Back on the road after the tour, heading north to Bismarck through the wheat fields of North Dakota.

 


 

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