Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sweet Serendipity

Now there’s a word.
“Serendipity is the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely.”
I like the idea. I like when it actually happens even better.
We, like many of you, spent part of Memorial Day weekend remembering. In our case, it meant a trip to Fort Madison, Iowa, the river town where my late mother-in-law grew up. There’s a cemetery on a hill north of town where she, my father-in-law, and her parents are laid to rest. It’s a place we visit at least a couple of times a year--sometimes more--to leave flowers and wreaths and to remember the happy days my wife and her siblings spent visiting their grandmother.
After we paid our respects that day, it was time to plan the route home. I wondered about a short detour through Nauvoo, when she piped up with another idea.
“How about we head for Bonaparte and Keosauqua?” she said.
A quick look at an Iowa map showed those two towns to be located northwest of Fort Madison, right on the banks of the Des Moines River.
During the mid-19th century, the river provided the main commercial transportation across Iowa until the building of the railroads in the 1860s. It rises in southwestern Minnesota and heads through Des Moines (named after the river, not vise-versa) and southeast from there. Once the river traffic ceased, things pretty much came to a halt for many of those places, with the result being a series of interesting little towns that retain much of the look and charm of those long-ago days. The towns on and near the river are a part of an historic district gathered under the auspices of the “Villages of Van Buren,” a series of twelve small burgs located in Van Buren County.
“We have no fast food restaurants and not a single stoplight to alter the ambience that our county prides itself on,” says the brochure put out by the county group.
We figured we’d check it out, see some old buildings and price a few antiques that we don’t really need. A nice enough way to finish off a holiday Sunday afternoon.
One of the villages we visited is called Bentonsport, which was a busy river town even before the state of Iowa was born. Mormon craftsmen, on their way west to Utah from Nauvoo, helped build some of the buildings that still stand. It was the site of a lock and dam, plus paper, grist, saw, linseed oil and woolen mills, and was a major center of commerce, with an estimated one thousand people living there.
Now there are about forty full-time residents, many of whom are involved in a series of small craft shops and businesses that reflect the special nature of the place, which is listed as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places.
One of them is Betty Printy.
She and her blacksmith husband, Bill, operate a shop called “Iron and Lace,” which features Bill’s ironwork and Betty’s pottery and weaving. Betty's pottery features a unique design element that triggered the first sense of serendipity.
“It’s Queen Anne’s Lace,” exclaimed Megan.
Queen Anne's Lace is a wildflower that grows naturally in fields and along roadways.  It’s Megan’s all-time favorite; so much so, that she picked our wedding colors--white and blue--based on the beautiful sight of Queen Anne’s Lace and Cornflowers growing along the country roads around Galva back in our courting days when she was first getting to know the area. The Printys have a large field of these flowers in their garden space that they pick and dry every year. Betty presses a different flower onto each piece of pottery before firing, leaving a lovely, wholly unique pattern on every one.
Hearing that we had struggled to make the flower grow in our own garden, and seeing she had an enthusiast on her hands, Betty invited us out back to dig up a couple of the plants. As we walked through, she gestured to a familiar viney-looking plant that wound ‘round the yard.
“That’s bittersweet. We like to do some things with that, too,” she said.
Serendipity number two.
Regular readers of this column might remember that Bittersweet holds a special place in my heart. It evokes special memories of my childhood, my autumn days, and of my mother. It’s hard to find, yet, here it was, my old-fashioned favorite flourishing in this old-fashioned place.
We were pretty excited about our visit as we prepared to leave, but there was one more surprise in store. I don’t know how the topic of breadmaking came up, but it did, followed by Betty’s casual announcement that she had recently created a clay bread baker for the baking of artisan bread. If there’s one thing I like better than Queen Anne’s Lace and Bittersweet, it’s bread baking, and I’ve been searching for a way to better create the crusty texture required for good hearth bread. She even offered me a cup of her precious sourdough starter the next time I’m in town.
We were a happy pair of backroads travelers as we headed on the winding eastbound trek back to Illinois.
“I’m so glad we did this,” said Megan. “It was like...serendipity.”
You said it, honey.

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