Another year, another project…

The last time I sat and wrote on this blog was shortly after the new year.  Reading my last post, it seems as though I was feeling overwhelmed with the prospect of looking for employment in a less than favorable environment, not to mention taking on a renovation project of a run-down building.  Why settle for some lightweight new year’s resolution, such as losing a few pounds or reading more books?  My husband and I approached 2012 with the attitude that at the end of the year, we would really have some accomplishments to look back on. We blindly followed the philosophy that “the happiest people are those who are too busy to notice whether they are or not” ~ William Feather.  And so, we got ourselves busy…

Within 2 months of finishing my MBA I received three job offers, and I decided to take a position with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, managing grant funds in the special education section.  Working in a government job is certainly a different pace for me – things move slower and processes take longer – but I’m adjusting.  It didn’t take me long to adjust to the beautiful view of the capitol building and the Missouri River from our office – I have to admit, that view helped me in my decision to take this job, not to mention the warm and friendly people with which I work. 

So, with a steady paycheck coming in again, I was able to cross one task off my list…now, on to the real job – our new project in Hermann.  Since having purchased the Grapevine Guest Suite when we first moved back here from Alaska in 2008, we couldn’t have asked for better business.  We’ve gotten so many return guests over the past few years, and we have often thought if we only had another place…well, now we do!  Right before Christmas, while driving through town one day, we noticed a realtor’s sign in the window of an old brick building that we had always admired – it looked like the perfect size for a guest house and the location was ideal – the Hermannhof Winery, the Tin Mill Brewery, the Festhall, the riverfront park, etc,  just within a block or two.  So, after a phone call to the realtor, a walk-through with a carpenter and electrician, and a fairly low-ball offer even for a foreclosed property, we had the soon-to-be “Grapevine Guest House and Cottage”. Image

Image              After doing our first walk-through, we realized that although the property needed a lot of help to make it livable again, it had more to offer than originally thought.  First of all, there was a separate two room and one bath cottage behind the main building – “The Cottage” part of the Grapevine Guest House and Cottage.  We tackled that to begin with – the man who built the house in the mid-1800s, Joseph Kessler, was a cabinet maker and furniture dealer, and apparently there was also a candle and soap manufacturing business on the premises.  It’s easy to see how the cottage may have been utilized for this business, or as a summer kitchen to keep the heat out of the main house when cooking. Image After replacing subfloors, adding new bathroom fixtures (we did keep the old claw-foot bath tub), painting every surface, etc, etc. we welcomed our first guests in April, and it has been booked every weekend since. Image

The main house came with original oak sliding doors, a brick fireplace, a fairly updated kitchen, three bedrooms and three bathrooms, and a whole lot of purple paint!  It also had some rotten floor joists, a missing toilet, and leaky windows to name a few items. With me at work, this has definitely been Mick’s project, and he has spent endless hours on it, and I think that, for the most part, it has been a labor of love for him.  Is Mick handy with a hammer or wrench, noooooo.  But he has great vision, and can direct others very well!  About 10 years ago, my high school friend, after also returning home to Hermann, met and married a very talented carpenter named Tom, and I’m so happy she did!  Tom’s skills and patience have been a godsend for us, and I didn’t mind it all when Mick came home one day and announced he was officially having a “bromance” with Tom.  I told him that he couldn’t have picked a nicer guy.

“Before”

Image

“After”

One of the most humorous moments in this whole venture was when I discovered that in addition to our bathrooms at home, I am now the proud owner of a total of eight, yes, count them, eight toilets – quite a feat for a girl who spent 15 years living in a log cabin in Alaska with only an outhouse!

The “Guest House” portion of the Grapevine Guest House and Cottage is slated for completion in a few weeks, and we already have a couple of reservations for Oktoberfest.  It will be the perfect spot for friends traveling to Hermann together, for girls’ getaway weekends, and for family members in town for a wedding, as Hermann has become a popular wedding destination.  Just as with our original Grapevine Guest Suite, we’re offering visitors complete privacy while still being just steps away from all Hermann has to offer. 

We’re now more than halfway through 2012, and although I started out the year, as my positive, ‘glass is always full’,  husband likes to say, ‘appropriately worried’, the journey has been good – and yes, a little tiring – but so satisfying as we see our plans come to fruition.  So, come and visit Hermann – we’ve got room for you!

 

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An unplanned detour…

Our community of Hermann lies 80 miles west of St. Louis and 180 miles east of Kansas City.  Amtrak also makes two daily stops in Hermann, in either direction.  So, for the most part, the majority of visitors coming to Hermann, as well as staying with us at our guest house, the Grapevine Guest Suite, are from these urban areas.  It’s an easy trek to make, especially for a weekend getaway, as the drive time commitment is fairly minimal.  And for those wanting to start their vacation earlier, boarding the train and heading to the lounge car for drinks can make the trip even shorter and sweeter! We’ll even be there to pick you up and drive you to the Grapevine when you disembark.

We do welcome the occasional guests who decide to take the “detour” off of I-70 and discover Hermann.  Maybe they saw the signs along the highway promoting all of the wineries in the area, or they read an article in Midwest magazine lauding Hermann’s German heritage.  Regardless, these visitors from Washington State, Georgia, Arizona, to name a few, are always happy they took the twenty minute drive from the highway, winding down into the Missouri River valley, crossing the bridge into this picturesque town.  Taking a self-imposed detour is usually far from a waste of time – whether it’s a few minutes or a day or two, the experiences gained can be so fulfilling. 

While my husband and I were visiting County Donegal in Ireland last month, I fell in love with some paintings I saw in a hotel lobby in the village of Ardara.  The artist was named Stephen Bennett, and the paintings were representations of everyday life in the Irish countryside – farmers putting up hay, old men sitting outside their thatched-roof cottages, musicians gathered around a table in a pub.  These are fairly common themes among Irish artists, but these paintings were so bold – strong strokes and vibrant colors that really set them apart. 

The next morning, as we’re driving out of Ardara, following the coastline, I saw a sign saying “Stephen Bennett Studio Gallery – Turn Here”, and so, we made our first detour of the day.  When we got to his studio there was a small note on the door asking visitors to knock at their home, and so I knocked.  No response, and so I knocked again.  Stephen’s wife, Bernie, came to the door, apologizing for not hearing us.  She was doing laundry, and apparently she needs a new washing machine – when it’s in the spin cycle, it’s so loud that she figures it will just lift off one day and go through the roof.  She unlocked the studio for us, and before long Stephen appeared, letting Bernie get back to her jet-fueled wash.

Stephen was not what I was expecting.  His artwork is so bold and energetic, almost loud in the use of colors and style.  Stephen is just the opposite – soft-spoken and with a gentle demeanor, he is warm and understated.  He told us that his father had been born in Ardara, but left for London where Stephen was born.  After college, Stephen spent 18 years living in London and working for ad agencies as an illustrator, but his dream was always to return to Ireland.  So, fearing for his sanity after working too many years in a highly-competitive and stressful job, he also took a detour.  His detour took him back to his father’s birthplace, and it turned out to be a permanent one.

In his studio, he and I found common ground in our admiration of Toulouse Lautrec, the French painter who so well captured the nightlife and seedy underworld of late-nineteenth century Paris.  He felt inspired by Lautrec when he moved back to Donegal, painting the ‘loyal patrons’ of the local pubs.  He and my husband, Mick discovered they both had a love for public radio – Mick was the consummate volunteer at our public station in Alaska, spinning a variety of different shows whenever he could.  Stephen does a regular Sunday afternoon program featuring country music and gospel. 

I finally settled on one of Stephen’s limited edition prints called “In the Hayfield”, a painting of a man striding through a field, hayfork in hand, with a small boy running from behind, trying to keep up.  The image spoke to me because while it was a scene from Ireland, it could have easily been a field here in Missouri, today, tomorrow, or a hundred years in the past.  It seemed timeless in its content. 

Source:  www.stephenbennett.net

Stephen invited us in to his spacious home while he ran my credit card.  While sitting in their living room with a beautiful view of the inlet, his young son, also Stephen (home from school with a sore throat), came in with his new puppy, Hero, to say hello.  With Hero crawling all over us, we got a tour of their personal gallery – a touching set of family portraits painted by Stephen, including one of his father shortly before he passed away.  Stephen even pulled out a set of blueprints, showing us the plans to expand his studio.   If we hadn’t left when we did, we might still be there – they truly welcomed complete strangers into their home with warmth you rarely find from people you’ve known for years.

That little detour certainly wasn’t on our agenda, and we didn’t get as far up the coast that day as originally planned, but our time with Stephen and his family turned out to be the most memorable part of the trip for me.  It just goes to show that sometimes a detour is anything but a waste of time.       

The view from Stephen's living room

Finding Ireland…

Sometimes life gets in the way of doing things you really enjoy, like writing this blog.  I took a hiatus lately as I finished up two more courses for my MBA, but what actually kept me away from this blog the longest was a recent trip with my husband, Mick, to Ireland.  This was our second time to visit Ireland, and we totally committed ourselves to being travelers, and not tourists, this time around.  I think we succeeded…

Basically, it was just me, Mick, our rental car, a map of Ireland, and no reservations.  We spent our time in the farmland and along the north coast of Northern Ireland, where Scotland is only 15 miles away, and on the rugged and isolated west coast of County Donegal.  We specifically chose these areas knowing they would be well-off the beaten track, especially in October, but we were continually surprised at just how close we were to possibly some of the last vestiges of true Ireland.  We would drive for miles through peat bogs with ditches dug, chunks of peat cut out and stored in large wood crates along the road.  The peat still serves as a major source of fuel for many of the country’s residents, and when we would pass through villages, the pungent odor of it from the chimneys would always make me sneeze. 

Sperrin Mtns

We cut across the Sperrin Mountains in central Northern Ireland and felt as though we passed through a time warp, but back in time.  Distant farmhouses, fields of sheep bordered with hedge fences, and stone churches made it hard to determine the exact year.  It could have easily been 1711 as 2011.  Occasionally we would meet a farmer on his four-wheeler with a sheep dog sitting on the back, and we’d be brought back to the present. 

In parts of County Donegal the Irish language is still the dominant spoken language, and all of the road signs are in Irish.  Let’s just say it is not an easily interpreted language, and as the navigator in our little travel party, I often had doubts as to whether we were on the right road.  Stopping at small stores, looking for confirmation, the locals would speak English to us, but with each other, only Irish.  It looks strange in writing, but sounds very strange when spoken – it’s not refined, but rough and ancient sounding.  It’s a language that perfectly fits this wild part of the country, and it seems fitting that it has survived along with those speaking it – resilient people who have chosen to sustain their original spoken word and a way of life not so different from their ancestors in this remote part of Ireland.

Donegal Coast

In the small coastal village of Bunbeg, we managed to find the Bunbeg House Guesthouse open down at the boat pier.  Apparently the place is bustling and overrun with tourists and vacationers from Belfast and Dublin in the summer – there was an enormous number of empty “holiday” homes dotting the beaches – but on this October evening, we were the only guests to take one of their ten rooms.  The next morning, the proprietor, Jean and her husband, Andy, fixed us the usual and huge Irish “fry” for breakfast.  Andy then had to run the kids to school, but Jean chatted with us, obviously happy to have the hectic summer behind her.  We asked if they try to get away to possibly Spain or Portugal during the winter as a respite from their busy season.  Jean said no, that they actually relished the quiet winters in Ireland and having time to be a family together.  She said that the older they get the more they enjoy the simple things in life.

Enjoying the simple things in life…that truly summed up our time in Ireland, not to mention why we’ve chosen to make the area of Hermann our home.  On this trip we weren’t looking for a boisterous pub scene or trying to tour castles with hundreds of other visitors.  We were trying to see Ireland as it’s really lived, now and in the past.  Finding a lack of change, a certain sense of timelessness, just as Hermann portrays, can be very rewarding in your travels.

A goodbye to Callie…

We lost our girl, Callie, this weekend.  After having several bouts with severe arthritis in her back legs, on Saturday her hind quarters became paralyzed.  So, after 13 delightful years with our best friend, Mick and I said goodbye to her.

As far as dogs go, Callie had quite an interesting life.  She came from a litter of 13, and was born in an old VW bus in a campground in Skagway, Alaska.  Her mother’s owner, Abby, was working in town for the summer and living in the bus, and her dog, Two Socks, had gotten pregnant.  I’m sure Abby was shocked to realize she would have to find homes for 13 puppies, but she carefully chose the homes, and we were one of the lucky recipients. 

Abby and all of us would have birthday parties for Callie and her siblings each summer, usually at the beach at Long Bay, with plenty of space to run around.  Beers for us, and hot dogs and meatloaf birthday cake for Callie, Jasmine, Blue Bear, Lucius, Hoss, Worm, et al.  Then we would take a group picture to commemorate the day.

When we moved to Haines, Alaska, we bought a house with large cathedral windows in the front overlooking the river and ocean inlet.  One of the first things we did was build a window seat there, and that became Callie’s domain.  People stopping by often commented that she must be the luckiest dog in the world with that view.  She kept an eye out for bears, emitting a low growl when she saw one.  She somehow knew not to bark and bring attention to herself, but still wanted to give us a warning.  Strangely enough, the only wild animal that actually scared her were the turkeys here in Missouri.  They always sent her running for cover!

Callie and I in the Redwoods

She was Mick’s constant companion when he was home from his job on the ferry, and especially after he retired.  They were inseparable.  Mick was very active at the community radio station when we lived in Haines, and Callie would lie on the floor of the on-air room while Mick did shows.  You could always recognize Mick’s truck before you saw him because Callie would be across his chest, hanging out the window with one paw slung casually over the rear-view mirror. 

When we left Alaska, we had our car packed with very little room to spare.  Callie was wedged in between coolers and boxes, but she took it all in stride, excitedly sniffing out the corners of a new motel room when we stopped for the night.  She saw a lot of the country – Seattle, the Oregon Coast, the California redwoods, even the Grand Canyon.  She was a hit there, posing for pictures with the other tourists.  After being on the road for a month and a half, the car had become home to her. Even after we got settled in Missouri, she would often want to get in the back seat of the Jeep for a nap.

On the road again: Callie on our journey from Alaska to Missouri

I have heard people say over the years that getting attached to your pet is just a heartbreak waiting to happen.  Losing Callie will be a heart ache for quite some time, but we don’t mind.  The companionship and love she gave us for all those years is worth it.

A little history about Hermann…

Family grave marker - St Martin's cemetary 1849

This coming Saturday, August 26th, marks the 175th anniversary of Hermann’s founding.  A group of German immigrants who had initially settled in Philadelphia after leaving their homeland felt that staying in the east would compromise their German culture and heritage.  So, in 1836 the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia purchased 11,000 acres here along the Missouri River bluffs to build a little Germany of their very own.  Historians believe the group chose this location because it reminded them of the Rhine Valley.  Some of my own Fehlings’ ancestors showed up not long after, as evidenced by a few weathered tombstones.

            Keep in mind that there wasn’t much in this part of the world at that time.  The Louisiana Purchase had just occurred in 1803, which included Missouri.  This was wild country, and, although today the setting is beautiful with its perch overlooking the river and its hilly streets, 175 years ago it would have been treacherous and rocky land – not the most ideal spot to build a town.  But they left what had to have been relatively better conditions in Philadelphia, and made a life here, growing grapes on the hillsides, making wine to sell, and expanding their farming endeavors into the rich river bottom land.  Undoubtedly, life was challenging.

But, apparently, very few abandoned the dream and returned to Pennsylvania or Germany.  Generation after generation made this area of Missouri home.  I’m proof of that.  I can’t help but be impressed by their toughness and determination.  Is that where I got the moxie to leave everything and everyone I had known and move to Alaska when I was only twenty-two?  If I owe that inner strength to my ancestors, then I am forever grateful.  It is the characteristic I like most about myself, as I know it will always get me through whatever I face.

German School House

As the community celebrates its 175thanniversary this weekend, I can only imagine how proud those first Hermann settlers would be of their town today!  It is still German in so many ways.  Many of the early buildings have been carefully preserved.  The German School House, built in 1871, recently underwent a major renovation through local donations and fundraising events. 

Wineries are thriving, and German-style wines and beers are produced right here and distributed throughout the country.  The German language continues to be taught in the schools as well as German heritage and history courses.  Those early founders can rest easy – their legacy is lived out every day here in Hermann.

If you are visiting Hermann this weekend (August 26-27) there is a full schedule of activities celebrating the town’s 175th anniversary.  Go to www.visithermann.com for more details or click here to view the list of events.  If you think some of your ancestors may have settled in this area, you can do research at the Gasconade County Historical Society and Archives Building located at the corner of 4th and Schiller, right across the street from the Grapevine Guest Suite.

Hermannhof Winery

Take the road less traveled…

After more than four weeks of suffocating heat here in Missouri, we’ve had a break, and we are experiencing perfect summer days that normally you only dream of during August.  Gone is that combination of hot oven air with sauna-like humidity.  The temperature drops to the 60s at night, and we can sleep with the windows open again.  We find ourselves with the blanket pulled up to our chins in the morning – what relief! 

Everyone is trying to be outside as often as possible to enjoy this reprieve.  Whether it’s having dinner on the front porch or just taking a drive, it feels great to escape the air-conditioned confines of our homes and offices and breathe some fresh air. My husband, Mick and I, along with Callie, recently took advantage of a lazy day, packed a lunch, and drove across the Missouri River to explore some of our favorite spots.

So often when visitors to Hermann call to book a weekend at our guest house they will ask, “Other than going to the wineries, what is there to do around Hermann?”  It’s surprising to me that people need to have prescribed ‘things to do’ when they reach their destination.  If you go to St. Louis, you go to the Gateway Arch; if you go to Chicago, you have to go up in the Sears Tower; when in Hermann, you must taste wines.  Is that what separates the traveler from the tourist?  The traveler sees what he sees.  The tourist sees what he has come to see. ~ G.K Chesterton.

Don’t get me wrong – the Hermann wineries are great, and should not be missed.  But why not take a little time, wander around, and see what you will see?  The area around Hermann is perfect for exploring the road less taken. 

If you drive north across the Missouri River bridge, you will come to the intersection of Route 19 and Route 94 (this being the scenic Lewis and Clark Trail).  Turn right onto 94, and after a few miles you’ll see Tower Road on your left.  This gravel road crosses the Katy Trail biking route, and then it takes you right into the Daniel Boone Conservation Area.  This is really an undiscovered place, and yet it’s just a few miles from Hermann.  You’ll find picnic areas, hiking trails, fishing ponds, even horse paths.  What you won’t find are many people – in fact, on the recent day that Mick and I picnicked there, we didn’t come across one other person, and the area comprises over 3500 acres. It also has camping facilities for those looking for an alternative to the city park.

If you continue on Route 94, and go a couple more miles past Tower Road, you’ll come to Massas Creek Road on the left.  This is a favorite drive for Mick because it reminds him of some of the back roads he often drove around our home in Alaska.  A perfect day for my husband is loading Callie in the pickup and driving down gravel roads as slow as he can.  For him, the joy is in the journey.  Massas Creek Road is idea for this sort of day.  Keep in mind that this is a rugged road.  It is best suited for dry weather, as during rainy springs the creek overflows, often changing course, and can wash the road out in different places.  You don’t want to take your prized sports car on this one.

Me in Massas Creek (circa 1970)

What I like about Massas Creek is that it makes you feel time has stood still.  You do come across some houses from time to time (the Massas Creek Animal Shelter is along the way), but for the most part you can’t tell which century you’re in.  My parents lived not far from Massas Creek when my brother was growing up, so the area holds fond memories for our family.  When my brother came back to Hermann, he and his wife built a home just up the hill from the creek.

Massas Creek today

If you drive the whole length of Massas Creek, you’ll come out in the small town of Jonesburg.  You’ll find a restaurant there that serves (so I’ve been told) the best fried chicken livers around.  So, the next time you visit a new place, take some time to not only see what you’ve come to see, but also what you didn’t plan to see.