Sunday, August 28, 2011

Our vacation at "the Schoolhouse" on Fish Lake

This past week we took a much-needed end-of-summer vacation...much needed because of how insanely busy this summer has been, both with work and kids. That's why I, for one, was really looking forward to a few days in a lakeside cottage at the (rather insistent) invitation of a friend of ours. The place is located on a small (half-mile long) lake called Fish Lake near Elysian, Minnesota, in what the Explore Minnesota! people call "the south-central lake country." I did not know Minnesota had a south-central lake country, but if you look at a map, there it is: lots of lakes, all around the Mankato area. This particular place sits on our friend's in-laws ancestral farmstead (well, ancestral to 1850). They moved this one-room country schoolhouse half a mile down the road to their place in 1973 (we saw the newspaper clippings), where for many years it served as a rustic (=no running water, toilet facilities out back, paddles and fishing gear everywhere) retreat for the family. Eventually they sold the land to the famous artist David Maass, winner of the federal duck stamp contest (at least twice). He built a rather large house on a rise above the lake -- all windows to the lake side. Then he decided to move to a larger lake near the Twin Cities, and sold it back to the original owners, who moved into the Maass house and slowly began improving "the Schoolhouse," while retaining much of its original charm and character.

Anyway, I will try to recount our visit pictorially...but before we get to the Schoolhouse, I have to mention the parade we marched in last Sunday.

Starling's contribution to our parish's 100th anniversary celebration was to enter the parish in the annual Goodview Days parade. (Goodview is the little bedroom community next to Winona.) I was pretty skeptical about this, especially since she was doing all the work and for a while it looked like we were going to be the only ones marching in this thing. Fortunately, a few more people turned out:

Bear and Mouse got to hold the sign for much of the route
I tell you, there's a real art to this marching in a parade thing. I was carrying Mudpuppy in a sling for much of the route while pulling a wagon filled with boxes of candy (bought at bulk prices). We assigned the younger kids the job of tossing the candy to the onlookers. This was a mistake. Let's just say they were REALLY enthusiastic and generous in their candy-throwing at the beginning of the parade, leading to us running out of  candy (two boxes' worth) halfway through. We also realized belatedly that after walking the route, which was about a mile long, we'd have to walk back to our cars. That's when the bottom really fell out on the little kids. The lucky ones got a ride in the wagons; the others just whined and cried about their feet. But, overall everyone had fun and the whole thing was deemed a success. If we do it again next year, maybe we'll make a float. Or better yet, someone else will make a float, and we can ride in it.

Immediately after the parade, we hopped into the van for the two-hour ride to Fish Lake. We arrived in the early evening, just in time to have a simple supper with our friend and his wife and college-bound daughter at the main house.

We were really impressed by the Schoolhouse. This back entryway is not original to this particular schoolhouse, but was patterned on the wood/coal sheds in the back of similar country schools in the area.

A view of Fish Lake, from the public access about 400 feet
from the Schoolhouse.
As you can see, they really modernized the interior -- it's bed-and-breakfast quality, with modern appliances and lots of cute little touches, including historic pictures of the Schoolhouse on the walls.

Back by the piano, you can see burn marks in the wood floor
where the stove used to be. They keep a guest book, as well
as some books about the history of the place and country
schools in the area -- fun reading.

What used to be the cloak room was turned
into a little office and bedroom; Bear slept here
on a foldout bed (not shown, opposite view).
Behind the curtain is a working toilet. A full
bathroom was available downstairs.
Our friend took us for a ride around the lake in their pontoon boat after supper, and we settled in for the night. We were there for three full days and spent them lazily. The older kids gobbled up the Nancy Drew mysteries they found there -- I think they read six books between them.

One night we built a giant bonfire with the help of our friend;
we cooked s'mores and talked late into the night. Bear burned
his finger pretty bad on one of the marshmallow sticks.

Mudpuppy had his s'mores raw.

The kids went swimming at the public access ramp, and also
off of a pontoon boat that we maneuvered into the deep
water. They wore life jackets the whole time.

Mudpuppy stayed on the boat.

Bear liked jumping in the water on the hottest day
that we were there. You can see why they swam off the
pontoon -- the shoreline was very weedy.

It takes some guts to jump in, considering that this is a cold
spring-fed lake.


I'm sure the kids could have spent the whole afternoon
frolicking in the water, if we'd started earlier, but we waited
until late afternoon to avoid the worst of the sun.

Reading a Nancy Drew mystery.
The last full day that we were there, we tried taking the pontoon boat out in high winds (gusting above 30 mph). That was a bad idea. Good thing Starling came along, because I needed her help the whole time. I had a horrible time getting out from the dock; the wind kept wanting to push us back into the dock, the other boat, or worse, shore. I fought it frantically with a long pole for about ten minutes, not wanting to foul the prop on the thick weeds, but I finally had to give up and use the motor. Even though I took the boat to the end of the lake where the wind was coming from, we had lots of problems staying in one place. We dropped anchor twice, but the wind was so strong, we just drifted more slowly as the anchor dragged on the mucky bottom. In fact, the wind was so strong, it blew away a page from one of the kids' books, and a life preserver that we had to go retrieve. Thanks to Starling's help (and not a few prayers), we managed to return the boat to the dock without causing any further damage.

One of the highlights for the kids was our visit to a place called the Okaman Elk Farm and Petting Zoo. This is a working Elk farm that has slowly expanded to include a petting zoo (rabbits, cats, sheep, miniature horses, donkeys, alpacas, goats), an art museum (mostly filled with art made from antlers), a gift shop, and an old sorghum mill that you can tour. The best way to describe this place would be that its owners apparently have no cares or worries about lawsuits -- to their credit, in our opinion. This meant that, unlike most petting zoos, they actually encouraged the kids to climb into the pens with the animals -- so little Mudpuppy and Jaybird got right up close and personal with the various sheep, donkeys, goats, alpacas, and miniature horses they had on the property. No hand sanitizer on the fence for afterward, either. They also had a trampoline on the premises that the kids spent a long time bouncing on -- no rules or anything posted, just a huge trampoline with a net around it. And the sorghum mill was full of rusty old equipment, and boards falling down, and huge holes in the floor -- which made it all the more interesting.

The kids especially liked the baby goats.

On the trampoline.

This kitty followed me around everywhere.
Cats love people who are allergic to them.
 The natural beauty of the area was wonderful to explore. The kids spent a good half hour throwing rocks into the lake one afternoon. Another evening, Mouse and Jaybird gazed up at the stars one night and went, "Wow! This is so awesome! It's just like heaven, minus the mosquitoes!"

Walking down the dirt road toward the big house; the garden
and small barn are on the left there.

Jaybird and Mudpuppy went on a walk down the road with
me one evening.

Bear went rowing for the first time, and found it a bit
challenging to coordinate.

With the help of our hosts, the girls made circlets that they
filled with wildflowers.

One day we went into Mankato because we needed to get our door handle repaired at the Toyota dealership. (Toyota Siennas of a certain age have a nasty tendency to lose their handles.) We made a day of it. After the car repair, we visited the church where our friend works, Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church.  This is one of the oldest churches in the area, and one of the most beautiful; they are thinking of applying for basillica status. Our friend gave us a tour of the church, which includes a massive altar with the first-class relics of the five North American Jesuit martyrs, and a first-class relic of Saint Francis Xavier (which I got to hold, in its reliquary, of course). They keep the church open, despite the constant theft and vandalism.

Next, we went to see the Minneopa waterfall in Minneopa State Park, as well as an old German windmill that's on the park grounds. I was disappointed that you can't go in the mill; also, it doesn't have any working, turning arms on it, so it was a bit of a letdown. However, I did hike (by myself) the half-mile through the native prairie that they've established there, and that made the trip worth it.

We left the Schoolhouse early Thursday morning to head up to the Cities, where we visited my mom and made our once-every-ten-years trip to the state fair, which I'll post about next time.