Submitted by Elizabeth Lorentzen
The Winneshiek County Historical Society will celebrate the contributions of early English settlers with “Dickens on Mill Street,” scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 3, from 1 to 4 p.m. The event will be held at the Winneshiek County Heritage Center, 302 S. Mill Street in Decorah and will celebrate English Christmas traditions.
The English influence in Decorah began with the William Painters family, a Quaker family from Ohio and the William and Elizabeth Day family from Virginia – the first two families to arrive in what became the town of Decorah in 1849. Painter had previously scouted the area in 1848 and returned with his family in June 1849 to settle. The Days arrived in the same week. Other east coast and Ohio residents of English descent followed.
Decorah’s census of 1856 reveals 657 residents of English descent with only 12 Germans and 90 Norwegians among the total 759 Decorah inhabitants. The 1860s and 70s saw an influx of English “second sons.” English first-born sons typically inherited family estates and younger sons had to find other avenues to support themselves. A number of these “second sons,” fortified with family money, came to Decorah to seek their fortunes. They established their church, Grace Episcopal on Broadway, built distinctive homes in Decorah and the surrounding countryside, and brought the English leisure sports of cricket, fox hunting and horse racing to northeast Iowa. Their family’s money also helped establish many early businesses: the Decorah Woolen Mill, the Eagle Foundry and the paper mill between Decorah and Freeport among them.
Englishman R.F.B Portman, later a prominent Decorah attorney, along with another Decorah English expat tallied the money that they knew their fellow countrymen had arrived with in Winneshiek County and the conservative total was $1,500,000; in today’s money that would equal $36,640,819.67.
English descendant Frederick Landers and wife Sarah built the 1860 Greek Revival home at the corner of Broadway and Mill Streets that the Historical Society now calls home. Frederick was in the dry goods business with Dighton Ellsworth who built the Italian Villa home that is now the Porter House Museum. Landers’ store operated out the building now a part of the Rubaiyat Restaurant. Frederick and Sarah’s daughter Winnie and husband Burton Adams were the second generation to occupy the Landers home. Burton Adams was descended from the same line as Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Winnie and Burton’s daughter, Helen Adams, and her husband L.J. Bodensteiner, raised sons Joe and John in the Landers home, the third and fourth generations to live in the house.
Helen taught at Luther College in the theatre department, and directed 48 plays, many one-act plays, and other theatre productions. The Dickens event is being held in part to honor Helen’s contributions to the vitality and richness of the Luther theatre program. Helen’s son Joe and wife Emily Homstad Bodensteiner donated the four-generation family home to the Historical Society in 2016 where the Dickens event will be held on Dec. 3.
For all ages
“Dickens On Mill Street” is a family event. Visits with Mother Christmas (the English Mrs. Claus), a children’s activity with live Dickens characters, carolers, a brass quartet, English treats served by a local Englishman and his wife and displays of early English settlers in Winneshiek County will be available to enjoy for a free will donation. Horse-drawn vis-à-vis carriage rides and photo opportunities with a vintage sleigh will also be available for a small fee.