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September 15, 2001  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

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The Vinegar Man

I like to visit small, quirky, out-of-the-way places when I travel and, fortunately, there are a lot of quirky places in the Midwest.  After I left Fort Sisseton State Park, I drove a few miles south and stopped by the small town of Roslyn, South Dakota, one of the quirkiest towns that 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.

 

First, this is one of only two towns I know with the name of Roslyn, the other Roslyn 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 quirk facts in ascending order to build tension, just 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, 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 would discover, a pretty nice guy.
 
Third, and quirkiest of all, Roslyn 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 drive to Roslyn.  The museum is 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 proud of its most famous native, accordionist Myron Floren.

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

Above right:  The world's only Vinegar Museum.

 

When I walked in, the museum 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 and I actually learned a lot of interesting things.  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 & Chips), and corn or apples in the U.S. 

 

Some other vinegar trivia:  It 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 when I go swimming at the Great Barrier Reef next year.

 

After a while, 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 know I poked fun of the International Vinegar Festival on one of my funny photos (see Humor), but Lawrence Diggs takes his vinegar seriously.  He’s also one of the nicest, most intelligent, and most interesting persons that I’ve met on this trip.  After a three-hour visit to the museum, including a long discussion with Lawrence, 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:  Dr. Lawrence Diggs, the Vinegar Man, showing us how to properly taste vinegar.

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

 

       

Above left:  Yes, there's even an 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:  After the vinegar experience, I stopped at the amazing 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 like this in the 1920s in North Dakota.

 

       

Above left:  Well, duh.

Above center:  Personally, I lust after Toyotas.

Above right:  Downtown Aberdeen, South Dakota.

 

The Wonderful Wizard

I left the Vinegar Museum around 3 p.m., then drove into Webster where I got a cheeseburger and root beer at the A&W and said goodbye to this friendly town, my home base for the past two weeks.  I got on U.S. 12 and headed west to Aberdeen, the largest town in northeastern South Dakota and, according to a sign on the outskirts of town, the home of the Senate Majority Leader, Tom Daschle. 

 

After camping for the past two weeks, I splurged at a three-star motel that night, The AmericInn, and 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 I 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 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.  I also stumbled across a theme park north of town called "Storybook Land" which seemed to be free, so I went in and soon found myself walking down the Yellow Brick Road.  

 

As I discovered, Aberdeen at one time was the home of L. Frank Baum, author of the book The Wizard of Oz, which of course was made years later into a famous movie.  L (or "Frank" as his friends probably called him) was a native of New York, but he lived in Aberdeen for a few years during which he started up a newspaper before moving back to New York.  He apparently based his book The Wizard of Oz 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 as well as other storybook characters.  After walking by 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:  The entrance to Storybook Land in Aberdeen, South Dakota.  Just follow the Yellow Brick Road.

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

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

Above center:  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, but 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's, but for reasons I don't really need to go into here, I happen to know all of the words to the Lawrence Welk theme song, "Good night, sleep tight and pleasant dreams to you..." 

 

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, I guess).  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 became history. 

 

Here's a brief tune from The Lawrence Welk Show.  This is Lawrence singing, accompanied by Roslyn, South Dakota's Myron Floren playing his famous accordion.

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Since it's hard to wave a baton while playing an accordion, Lawrence soon hired an accordionist named Myron Floren (see above) 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 really big fan of his music, I've always admired the guy because he was ever cheerful, always had a smile, and he loved music.  Not surprisingly, his motto was "Keep a song in your heart."  Believe it or not, Lawrence even had a customized license plate that said "A1ANA2."  Now that's my kind of guy!

 

Although I didn't know much about Lawrence Welk, I do like Americana, which is why I stopped at his family's farm near Strasburg.  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 and asked me if I'd like to see the house.  

 

As she 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.  Two women tourists walked in a few minutes later 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 parent's were German-Russian and they homesteaded here in the 1890s, about the same time that my great-great-grandparents, the Svangs, had homesteaded near Webster, South Dakota, a few hours east of here.

 

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

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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 that same accent.  If you could imagine a female version of Lawrence Welk, Evelyn would be that person.  She then mentioned some of her childhood memories of her Uncle Lawrence and, standing there in the Welk living room, I found this all rather 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 turnoff for the Welk birthplace near Strasburg, North Dakota.

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

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

 

       

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

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

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

 

 

 

Next News

September 30, 2001 -- Part 1  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

 

 

Previous News

August 30, 2001  (Webster, South Dakota)

August 18, 2001  (Watertown South Dakota)

August 17, 2001  (Walnut Grove, Minnesota)

August 14, 2001  (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

August 10, 2001 (Battle Creek, Michigan)

August 8, 2001  (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 2)

August 8, 2001  (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 1)

August 6, 2001  (Manlius, New York)

July 23, 2001  (Middleton, Massachusetts)

July 22, 2001  (Boston, Massachusetts)

July 20, 2001  (Pomfret, Connecticut)

July 18, 2001  (Denton, Maryland)

July 16, 2001  (Cumberland, Virginia)

July 14, 2001  (Roanoke, Virginia)

July 9, 2001  (Sevierville, Tennessee)

July 8, 2001  (Fontana Lake, North Carolina)

July 5, 2001  (Manchester, Tennessee)

June 30, 2001  (Hohenwald, Tennessee)

June 29, 2001  (Corinth, Mississippi)

June 27, 2001  (Natchez, Mississippi)

June 24, 2001  (Austin, Texas)

June 20, 2001  (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)

June 18, 2001  (Clay Canyon, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 2  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 1  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 14, 2001  (San Diego, California)

June 11, 2001  (San Jose, California)

June 2, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

May 19, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 30, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 19, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

April 5, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

 

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