ICYMI: Marjorie Johnson’s Blue Ribbons and Golden Memories

ICYMI: Marjorie Johnson’s Blue Ribbons and Golden Memories

Photo: Marleen Stromme

Meet the baker who has accumulated thousands of ribbons. She is a staple at the Minnesota State Fair’s baking contests, where she has competed for decades.

In Memory: Howard Mohr, author of ‘How to Talk Minnesotan’

In Memory: Howard Mohr, author of ‘How to Talk Minnesotan’

Provided by Marcy Olson
The book was considered an essential look at what makes Minnesotans Minnesotan.

First published in 1987 and later turned into a musical out of the Plymouth Playhouse, “How to Talk Minnesotan: A Visitor’s Guide” expanded upon Mohr’s writings for Garrison Keillor’s weekly radio variety show. The book was considered an essential look at what makes Minnesotans Minnesotan, detailing the “Minnesota goodbye,” the art of waving, the intricacies of hotdish and the difference between “not too bad a deal” and “a heckuva deal.”

“Anyone moves to Minnesota, you give them a copy of his book,” said Marcy Olson, who in the 1980s took Mohr’s popular class as a freshman at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, then known as Southwest State University, and became a lifelong friend.

Mohr was a Minnesota outsider who became an insider.

Plain-spoken, gentle and kind, he told of Minnesotans’ quirks with a loving eye. He was born in Des Moines, spent some years in San Jose, Calif., then as a teen returned to a farm in Ferguson, Iowa, where he lived with his parents and four younger siblings. He transferred to Abilene Christian University in Texas to be near the woman who’d become his wife.

“We didn’t have any negative years in our 59-year-three-month marriage,” said his widow, Jody Mohr. He got his master’s degree from the University of Arkansas before studying for his doctorate at the University of Iowa. He had a knack for language, a keen eye and an even keener wit.

Mohr became part of an impressive cohort of professors in the English department at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. In 1970, Mohr and two other faculty members joined the English department: Stephen Dunn, who would later win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and Philip Dacey, an accomplished poet. That trio, along with Bill Holm, a poet and frequent guest on “A Prairie Home Companion,” and Leo Dangel, an author of six poetry collections, garnered national attention for writing about rural life.

“I’d put on records and we’d polka from the dining room to the kitchen,” Jody Mohr said.
Mohr is survived by his wife; their daughter, Susan; and his four younger siblings. Services will be held at a later date. “He had an appreciation of the Midwestern lifestyle, of rural Minnesota, and his writing reflected that,” said Dana Yost, former editor of the Marshall Independent and a close friend. “It wasn’t like Sinclair Lewis savaging us. He wrote observational stuff that was true, but he found a way to make it humorous. He saw the stereotypical definition of Minnesotans, the ‘you betchas’ and the long goodbyes, and he found the humor in that.”
Think your piano is grand? These Minnesotans make room for massive pipe organs in their homes!

Think your piano is grand? These Minnesotans make room for massive pipe organs in their homes!

Marilyn Matson at the console of a Wurlitzer theater pipe organ!

If you want to rattle the windows, nothing beats “the king of instruments.”

StarTrib: You might think you’re fancy if you have a grand piano parked in your parlor. But if you really want the ultimate musical status symbol, you can’t beat a pipe organ. At least that was the case 100 years ago, when no railroad tycoon or lumber baron would consider his mansion complete without “the king of instruments.”
It didn’t matter if you weren’t musical. If your name was Hill or Ordway or Carnegie, you could hire a professional musician to work the keys, stops and pedals. Or the organ might even play itself like a player piano.
In the days before hi-fi, that was home entertainment for the elite, who donned smoking jackets, lit cigars and sipped brandy while a huge symphonic organ made the chandeliers rattle with Wagner’s greatest hits.

“The well-to-do got them because they were a statement of their well-to-do-ness,” said Michael Barone, host of “Pipedreams,” a nationally distributed radio show about pipe organs produced in the Twin Cities by American Public Media.

These days, even venerable church organs are begging for homes as congregations close their doors or shift to contemporary music.

“They want the organ to go away because they need space for the drum set,” said John Bishop, director of the Organ Clearing House, which specializes in finding new homes for old organs. Bishop said supply is outstripping demand, even for organs offered free to a good home.

“We’ll never be able to place all the organs that are available,” he said.

But a few dedicated enthusiasts are saving organs — built in the early 20th century for churches, theaters and mansions — that are headed for the dumpster. They’re installing these immense instruments in ordinary homes — and enjoying a listening experience once reserved for high society.

From a certain angle, Charles Harder’s house in Mountain Lake, Minn., looks like an ordinary 1960s rambler. But just off the dining room there’s a 24-by-24-foot room with 15-foot-high ceiling that’s filled with 1,500 organ pipes — row after row, ranging in size from a pencil to a 9-foot-long beam.

“People’s jaws drop when they come into the house,” Harder said.

The massive instrument, which sounds as amazing as it looks, is capable of producing tones ranging from an ethereal whisper to a thunderous blast that “shakes the room,” Harder said.

Harder, 71, is a retired high school choir director, music teacher and church organist who learned to play the organ while growing up in Mountain Lake, about two and a half hours southwest of the Twin Cities. He has music degrees from St. Olaf College and the University of Illinois, Chicago.

“I didn’t want to take it for nothing,” he said.

Harder drove out East and hired a crew to dismantle the organ and load it into the 26-foot- long truck he had rented. Once back home, he cut hundreds of thin strips of wood to create an intricate mechanical linkage system in his basement to connect the keyboard to the valves in the organ pipes.

Though he did a lot of the work himself, repairs to the organ and other costs added up to about $45,000. He also put on that addition to accommodate the instrument.

The payoff for all that work and money: a rich, cathedral-like grandeur when Harder plays a hymn or a classical piece.

A rescue organ

In 1923, the Kimball piano and organ company built a pipe organ for the Lake of the Isles mansion of Edward Backus, a lumber baron who was the namesake of the town of Backus, Minn.

Two decades later, the organ went from being a plaything of the wealthy to something a little more spiritual when it was installed in the Andrew Riverside Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. But in 2002, when part of the church collapsed and the building had to be demolished, the organ needed to be moved.

That’s how it ended up in the Hastings home of Michael LuBrant.

Once he and other volunteers from the local organ community heard about the soon-to-be orphaned organ, they raced to get it out of the church just ahead of the wrecking ball. Despite its “not immodest size,” he was willing to give it a home and refurbish it.

The 1,143 pipes now fill an entire room at LuBrant’s home. A walnut console with ivory keys sits in the living room. A three-horsepower blower (about the size of a washing machine) resides in his basement.

When it was owned by the Backus family, the organ could play itself using punched paper rolls similar to player piano rolls. Now the organ uses digital files to reproduce live performances. The arrays of pipes, bearing names like “flute d’amour,” “viole celeste” and “vox humana,” are designed to replicate the different parts of a symphonic performance, from strings to woodwinds and even the human voice.

“It’s wonderful,” LuBrant said. “I just dim the lights in the evening and listen.”

Roland Matson was a young doctor with a general practice in Spring Valley, Minn., when he told his wife, Marilyn, that he bought an organ.

That was 1962, when the couple were living in a three-room apartment in town with a toddler daughter. Marilyn Matson assumed her husband purchased something that could fit in a corner of the living room.

Then he brought his wife to a church in Preston, Minn., where the organ was housed. It had nearly 600 pipes.

“I said, ‘You bought this? Where are you going to put it?’ ” she said.

Many were scrapped, but some had a second act, repurposed as church organs or as entertainment in pizza restaurants, a dining fad during the 1970s and ’80s. (In the Twin Cities, a chain of pizza restaurants called Cicero’s featured theater organs.)

In the 1940s, the Garrick organ was acquired by a Lutheran church in Preston. In 1958, that church merged with another and the Wurlitzer was sold at auction. Matson submitted a sealed winning bid for $500. (Family members suspect that he might have been the only person bidding.)

For a time, the organ was kept in the empty church. It was moved into storage when the old church building was converted into apartments.

Eventually, Matson bought a small farm and converted an old wooden barn into a home. The hayloft, a cavernous 30-by-50-foot space, became an auditorium for the organ.

Matson, an accomplished pianist, taught himself to play his outsized purchase.

“He used to play it almost every day,” said his son, Alan Matson.

The organ was also regularly used by guest performers in concerts and jam sessions for fellow members of the American Theatre Organ Society.

A theater organ is designed to play popular music with a sound that’s more showbiz than sacred. Matson’s instrument features a “toy counter” which can play a range of percussion instruments as well as a siren, bird chirps, a train whistle, sleigh bells and thunder.

“It’s been part of our lives for 60 years,” she said. “I just couldn’t leave it. It’s been like another child, almost.”

She hopes the mammoth instrument will find a new home after she’s gone.

“I want someone to take care of it,” she said.

Advance Tickets: Como Park and Conservatory for this year’s Japanese Obon Festival – St. Paul, MN

Advance Tickets: Como Park and Conservatory for this year’s Japanese Obon Festival – St. Paul, MN

1225 Estabrook Dr., 
St. Paul, Minnesota 

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Obon Festival Bon T Shirt Japan Ancestors Japanese Buddhist T-Shirt

Obon Festival Bon T Shirt Japan Ancestors Japanese Buddhist T-Shirt


Looking Forward…Winter State Of Mind: The North Shore

A Doctor-Turned-Chef is Taking Fine Dining Lakeside at Minnesota Winery

A Doctor-Turned-Chef is Taking Fine Dining Lakeside at Minnesota Winery

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

Gallery: Chef Jo Seddon walks through Gia at the Lake. Jo Seddon was a doctor in London before switching careers to follow her passion for cooking. Now based in Minnesota, the chef is leading the new Gia at the Lake, a seasonal Italian restaurant overlooking Lake Waconia and the vines at Sovereign Winery.

Now seven years into her second career, Seddon is still navigating work-life balance in a demanding, physical profession. But with the new restaurant Gia at the Lake, she may be onto something.

An outdoor-only venue overlooking Lake Waconia and Sovereign Estate’s tranquil vineyard, Gia at the Lake brings seasonal, farm-fresh Italian fare to a venue that only had pizza and cheese plates. With Seddon aboard, it has a cosmopolitan chef who trained at the famed River Cafe in her native London and was on the opening team of Gavin Kaysen’s Bellecour in Wayzata.

“It’s an amazing little project,” she said of the new spot, which requires her to prep everything in a commercial space in south Minneapolis and haul it to Waconia to finish in a makeshift outdoor kitchen. “We’re sort of in a camping environment here.”

With service only three nights a week, and only until early fall, Gia at the Lake might be Seddon’s ticket to reimagining the chef’s life as a family-friendly one.

Seddon, 42, went into medicine in her 20s, specializing in infectious diseases. (“When COVID happened, I was like, oh, thank goodness I’m not a doctor right now,” she said.)

But as much as she loved her specialty, something was missing. “I just kept on thinking that I’m trying so hard and I’m applying for jobs that I don’t even want.”

She always enjoyed cooking, and after having her second child in 2015, Seddon made the radical choice to leave medicine and enroll at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London.

“Suddenly, when I left medicine, it felt like it unleashed a part of my brain that I had suppressed,” Seddon said. “I didn’t realize I was a creative person.”

“It was really unfussy food,” she said. “Very ingredient-led. We used to write the menu twice a day. We’d just see what came into the fridge.” The supportive environment also disproved everything she’d heard about kitchen dynamics.

“It taught me that kitchens did not need to be like they were portrayed in all the documentaries and films, with abusive, shouting male egos,” she said. “It taught me how a kitchen can behave, and also ignited my passion to cook Italian food.”

Seddon also did a culinary internship at Daniel Boulud’s London restaurant, a connection that proved fateful a year later when her husband’s job in health care brought her family to Minneapolis. Her restaurant contacts introduced her to the city’s own Boulud protégé, Gavin Kaysen, and Seddon scored a job as a line cook when Kaysen opened Bellecour.

Kaysen noted the way Seddon’s experience working in hospitals was evident in the kitchen.

After taking a break from restaurants to have her third child, Seddon decided to make another change. She reduced her hours to part-time and leased a commercial kitchen — just before the pandemic hit.

“I was already in my mind leaving restaurants, and I was so lucky I got that space, because once everyone was furloughed, it was impossible,” she said.

Throughout the pandemic she catered small private events and sold meal kits to families. “It was a successful little business,” she said. “But once things opened up, I just felt like I didn’t really want to put food in boxes anymore.”

She needed to start networking to figure out her next move, and last summer went to an event of Les Dames Escoffier, a professional society for women in food and hospitality. The event was at Sovereign Estate.

“On my way, I was thinking, the food will be good but the wine’s gonna be rubbish,” she recalled. “But I arrived here and I was like, hang on, the wine is really good.”

She found the venue on Lake Waconia’s shores delightful and kept coming back, wishing for a restaurant to open there. Finally, she contacted the winery’s owner, Terri Savaryn, and suggested she add another food option for winery guests.

Savaryn agreed — and hired Seddon to lead it.

“We both understood this was mutually beneficial,” said Savaryn, herself a chef who caters events at the winery. “Having a dining experience is going to be the best way to introduce people to the wine industry in Minnesota.”

You can still get a cheese plate to pair with wine in a cabana or on the main patio. Musicians often play, and picnic tables spread out toward the vines.

But keep walking past a grove of trees and you’ll spot the Marquette Pavilion, a graceful event space with a curved overhang. Tables are set underneath that arched awning, between the pavilion and a field that slopes toward the water. The lake breeze keeps the summer’s oppressive heat waves almost bearable.

“I just think, I get to come work here?” Seddon said. “At the end of the evening when we pack down, the light and the lake, it’s just a really magical space.”

A fresh focus

Italy’s regional food culture plays a role, too. Braised kale and white beans hail from Tuscany, fried artichokes from Rome. (Seddon took her team on a tasting tour in Italy earlier this year.)

The children’s menu is just as thoughtful, with an appetizer of hummus and crudité served before a vibrant spaghetti and sauce.

The through-line is freshness. “It’s gently evolving with the seasons,” Seddon said. “The way I like to eat is the way I like to cook.”

The most challenging part is preparing all the food beforehand and bringing it to the winery to finish on the grill — “toing and froing,” as Seddon calls it. She churns ice cream on site because it’ll melt on the long drive.

An outdoors-only restaurant also puts an unfortunate time limit on Gia at the Lake, and on Seddon’s next career move.

“Once the weather turns cold, that kind of closes us down,” she said.

Savaryn has high hopes for the future of dining at Sovereign Estate, with plans to build out a permanent kitchen by next spring. “My goal would be to have a restaurant that would be the French Laundry of Minnesota,” she said, referring to the three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Napa Valley. “We’d call it the Minnesota Laundromat.”

In the meantime, Seddon hopes to find a space for a residency this winter. But opening a full brick-and-mortar restaurant is “such a big commitment in these uncertain times.”

Gia at the Lake

Events now through the end of September at Sovereign Estate!

 9950 N. Shore Road, Waconia, MN


By Sharyn Jackson Star Tribune
Minnesota State Fair: The Great Minnesota Get Together Insider’s Guide – St. Paul, MN

Minnesota State Fair: The Great Minnesota Get Together Insider’s Guide – St. Paul, MN

Visit Saint Paul: Raise your hand if you’re counting down the days to the highlight of Minnesota summers @mnstatefair. Share your excitement by tagging your fair buddy and sharing what you love about The Great MInnesota Get Together!  First time at the fair? Haven’t been in forever? Find out everything you need to know about the Minnesota State Fair with helpful links here to specific fair information.

After three years of territorial fairs, the first Minnesota State Fair was held in 1859 near what became downtown Minneapolis. This was a year after Minnesota was granted statehood.

During the fair’s early years, the site of the exposition changed annually with stops in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester, Red Wing, Winona and Owatonna. In the 1870s and early 1880s, civic groups from both St. Paul and Minneapolis worked relentlessly to provide a permanent home for the fair in their respective cities, but could not agree on anything. The State Fair finally found a permanent home at its present location when Ramsey County donated its 210-acre poor farm to the state for exclusive use by the Agricultural Society, the governing body of the State Fair.

Secure in its new surroundings, the State Fair began to grow. Physically, the fairgrounds blossomed to its current 322 acres. Architecturally, it is home to many historically significant structures including the Fine Arts Center, Progress Center, Grandstand, Lee & Rose Warner Coliseum and Agriculture Horticulture Building.

An important change in the State Fair over the years has been in the growing attractions offered to fair visitors. The character of early fairs was dominated by agricultural exhibits and competitions, reflecting the fair’s original purpose of encouraging farming in the state. While agriculture is still the primary focus with a bigger-than-ever presence, the scope of activities has broadened to include large-scale entertainment, technological and industrial exhibits, and participation of scores of education and government institutions.

Since its inception, the fair has been held every year with only six exceptions: in 1861 and 1862 due to the Civil War and U.S.-Dakota War, in 1893 because of scheduling conflicts with the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in 1945 due to federal government travel restrictions during World War II, in 1946 due to a polio epidemic, and in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fair Archives

It is important to preserve the past while looking toward the future. Started in 2008, the Minnesota State Fair archives staff continue to catalog and sort more than a century’s worth of history. The collection is currently made up of tens of thousands of photographs, postcards, maps, correspondence and more. Items are numbered, given a storage location and logged into a database for easy retrieval.

The archives are not open to the public. However, historical information is available through several venues. Through a grant received by the Minnesota State Fair Foundation, State Fair annual reports and competition results were digitally scanned and made available for viewing. Information on concessionaires, political figures, Grandstand productions and much more can be seen. To view the digital Minnesota State Fair annual reports and competition results from 1887 to present, use the digital archives. Navigation tips for the digital archives can be found here.

Fair Activities & Resources

The State Fair History & Heritage Center, a centerpiece of West End Market, showcases the competition, entertainment, agriculture, food, merchandise, rides & games and Minnesota industry that have been at the heart of the fair for more than a century and a half. Developed in partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and the Minnesota State Fair Foundation, the center reflects the progression of change at the fair. Exhibits bring to life the significant events, intriguing stories and inspiring traditions that have laid the foundation for the present-day Great Minnesota Get-Together. This center is free with fair admission and open daily during the State Fair from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Want to take in history throughout the fairgrounds? Created in partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and the Minnesota State Fair Foundation, the Minnesota State Fair History Walking Tour consists of various stops that focus on a particular subject. During the fair, you can pick up a brochure at the Minnesota Historical Society booth or any of the 12 stops located around the fairgrounds.

Prefer to flip pages? Recommended books on the State Fair are Blue Ribbon: A Social and Pictorial History of the Minnesota State Fair by Karal Ann Marling; Minnesota State Fair: An Illustrated History by Kathryn Strand Koutsky and Linda Koutsky; History of the Minnesota State Agricultural Society by Darwin S. Hall and R.I. Holcombe; and Minnesota State Fair, The History and Heritage of 100 Years by Ray P. Speer and Harry J. Frost.

Minnesota State Fair Foundation

Despite the fair’s long and successful history, there is a need for new funds to improve aging facilities and provide educational programming while retaining traditions. In 2002, community leaders established the Minnesota State Fair Foundation 501(c)(3) as the nonprofit fundraising entity with the mission to preserve and improve the Minnesota State Fairgrounds and support State Fair agricultural, scientific and educational programs.


Welcome to the 2022 Minnesota Renaissance Festival – Shakopee, MN

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