Another in my series of posts of places you might want to add to a trip on the way to the conference or to Laura Ingalls Wilder trip.
If you are interested in the homes of one Midwestern author, you may be interested in the homes of others. One very near Mankato along Historic Highway 14, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Highway, is the Wanda Gag House in New Ulm, Minnesota. (Last name rhymes with "cog.") I haven't actually gotten there myself yet, but I've been in contact with Sharon Glotzbach and Brent Boston who sent information and the photos of the house. Gag lived there until she was 20. Gag is best known for her book Millions of Cats. Long considered a classic, this was definitely among the books I often re-checked out from my hometown library as a child. Children's literature expert Anita Silvey declares that Millions of Cats "basically invented the American picture book." It will have been continuously in print for 85 years on September 10, 2012. In her lifetime Gag produced four additional picture books including The Funny Thing (1929), Snippy and Snappy (1931), ABC Bunny (1932), and Nothing at All (1942). She went on to work on longer books for children and as a successful author was able to move all her siblings to New York and reunite the family there. Later he toured Europe and was working on a series of books re-translating Grimms Fairy Tales, some of which were published during her life and some were published posthumously after she died of lung cancer.
Today you can tour the Wanda Gag house. With a few exceptions for exhibits on Wanda Gag and her family, the house has been restored to its condition in 1900. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it's a unique house with skylights, an attic artist's studio, and open turrets. Gag described it a wonderful place for a childhood, but after her father died when she was 14 and her mother ill herself, it fell upon Gag to support the family and keep it together. Gag taught a one-room school, among other jobs, until she was able to support herself as a full time artist, first in the Twin Cities and later in New York City. Gag produced many other picture books and translated and illustrated many of the Brothers Grimm stories. Her diary of these years as a young girl tasked with saving her family and an art school student has been published as:
The Girlhood Diary of Wanda Gag, 1908-1909: Portrait of a Young Artist, edited by Megan O'Hara, Blue Earth Books (Mankato, MN), 2001.
Contemporary Authors lists the following institutions as having some of her papers if you'd like to research her for yourself: the New York Public Library, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Kerlan Collection at the Walter Library of the University of Minnesota, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
The Wanda Gag House has shared with me some points of interest off their self-tour sheet.
- Wanda Gag was born in an apartment downtown, and her father Anton designed and built this house in 1894, a year after Wanda was born. At that time, it was on the edge of town. There were no trees and you could see all over the valley. Today the house is in the middle of New Ulm's northside neighborhood.
- On the home exterior, you can count 7 different colors and 7 different window shapes. The house has 7 rooms. Anton and his wife Lissi (Wanda's parents) had 7 children.
- Wanda's father Anton decorated much of the home interior, and much of this decor has been restored by a professional art restorer after being discovered, hidden behind wallpaper, paint, paneling, etc.
- Anton and his wife were Bohemian, and the family was always into the arts, drawing, painting, music, costumes, etc.
- Wanda's father Anton eventually moved his studio up to the attic to provide more living space for his large family. Visitors are able to explore the attic and review a fascinating display of items found under the floorboards when the house was refurbished.
- After Wanda's parents had both died, the Gag children eventually all left New Ulm. Wanda lived and worked the majority of her career on the East Coast, but of course New Ulm was always her hometown.
- The house is a beautiful museum, with each room showcasing artwork and books created by members of the Gag family. You'll learn about how the family lived here in the early 1900s, and the unique architectural characteristics of this fine example of Queen Anne Victorian construction.
- It's a perfect stop for visitors of any age, especially someone with an interest in early 20th century arts and books, thinking especially of enthusiasts of the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories. You'll also find a variety of other landmarks and attractions in New Ulm.
- The kitchen is now a small office with a gift shop with books and memorabilia for purchase.
- The Wanda Gag House Association purchased the house in 1988 and began the process of restoring it to its original beauty. Our focus is to preserve the house, interpret the house and the family to visitors, and provide workshops and educational presentations to children in the area.
While you are in New Ulm, still on my want-to-see list is the Brown County Museum in New Ulm, Minnesota, which features what I've heard is an excellent display on the Sioux Uprising (its sanctioned name keeps changing, I think that’s the most current – it’s called the Minnesota Massacre by Mrs. Scott in Little House on the Prairie). To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the conflict this year, a new exhibit is being added to the Gag House. Beginning July 13, 2012, you can see images of panels from a 120-foot panorama depicting the major scenes of the 1862 U.S. Dakota Conflict. The original panorama was painted on canvas and is attributed to Anton Gag, Wanda's father.