A Cavalcade of Christmas, Finale: Have a Holly Jolly Trolley Christmas

The Holly Jolly Trolley

Today the road has brought me to Excelsior Springs, MO. . .again.

I first visited this town back in 2014 when I reviewed The Inn on Crescent Lake for my first proper Christmas B & B review.  I never miss a chance to stay here when I’m nearby (and you shouldn’t either).

  When I first visited this town, I actually came after Christmas so I missed some of the Christmas activities of this spa town. Well, I decided to rectify that by closing out the Cavalcade of Christmas by experiencing those activities.

God was certainly smiling on me this holiday season as I’ve been blessed with really great weather for all the traveling I’ve done over the past month (except for that storm in Storm Lake).  This day was no different.  The sun was shining.  The birds were singing.  And there was nary a cloud in the sky.  All was right with the world as I drove to Excelsior Springs.

Inn on Crescent Lake

About 4pm, I returned to the Inn on Crescent Lake where I had booked my regular room, the McCleary room.  Beverly Bohnert greeted me at the door and inquired into my recent travels before taking me to my sanctum sanctorum.

I had little time for down time as I needed to get to church.  I enjoyed a lovely little service at St Ann’s and then grabbed an early dinner at Applebee’s before heading back to the inn to put my feet up for a bit before heading out for the night.

I journeyed to downtown Excelsior Springs where I visited their Hall of Waters.  The Hall of Waters normally does double duty as the City Hall and a museum of the town’s mineral bath history, but it does triple duty during the Christmas season when the first floor is transformed into the Hall of Trees.

The Christmas fun actually begins outside the building with a Christmas display of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”.

Inside is a room stuffed full of Christmas trees sponsored by local businesses.  A rather clever touch to this presentation is that each tree is designed according to the theme of the business.

Aside from visiting the Hall of Trees, I would also be taking part in the Holly Jolly Trolley lights tour.  Excelsior Springs still has an honest to goodness trolley system and it provides numerous tours throughout the year from paranormal tours to winery tours.

The tour would show us some of the Christmas displays of the town including 5 homes that were battling it out for the best Christmas display of Excelsior Springs before closing with a trip through the Lane of Lights.

According to the tour guide this was kind of an off year for seeing the Christmas lights of the city as Excelsior Springs had been battered by unusually cold weather during the months of October and November which prevented people from decorating their homes.  But there was still enough festivity to scratch my itch for Christmas cheer.

The tour had its amusing moments.  Shortly after we started the tour, the trolley got called back.  The earlier tour had been overbooked so they had to switch to a bigger trolley to accommodate the people.  For convenience’s sake, they decided to use the bigger trolley for the late tour as well.  However, the trolley driver got a call that the bigger trolley had been rented out for another event, which meant we had to go back to the garage and switch to the smaller trolley.

Another humorous incident is that the final home for the lighting contest had nothing going.  The house was dark as a tomb and the inflatables were flat as a pancake.  Given how close we are to Christmas, I assume the contestant is simply out of town.

And in a last bit of humor, the house I would have named the winner was not even participating in the contest.  We stopped by a home where the owner is a big fan of Christmas and had been doing great light displays for a number of years and won several awards.  This year he did the decorating, but opted not to be in the contest.  This was disappointing as he would have netted a 4.5 star rating from me. 

The last part of the tour is the Lane of Lights.  The Christmas committee sets up an homage to Christmas along the Lover’s Lane of their local park and it is pretty to behold.  My only disappointment is that it isn’t longer.  The most impressive part is a tunnel of lights you go through near the end which was added this year.  The juice needed to power the tunnel matched the juice needed to run the entire lane last year.

With the end of the tour, I headed back to Inn on Crescent Lake where I enjoyed a bath at just the perfect temperature while I nibbled on some of Beverly’s homemade chocolate chip cookies and read the fifth part of Mick Foley’s (a fellow Christmas aficionado) memoirs, Saint Mick, where he details his transition to a new calling in being an ambassador for Santa after the end of his professional wrestling career.

I felt the call of the land of Nod as I read and turned out the lights before my lights went out and I slept through the entirety of the night.

In the morning, the sun was shining brightly through my windows and I looked forward to a sunlit breakfast in the solarium.  Today’s repast was the Sunday signature: Strawberry cream cheese stuffed French Toast, little smokies, and honeydew with orange juice.  It was a peaceful meal and I thank Beverly for her praise of any little writing powers I may possess to another couple enjoying their breakfasts.

But with the end of my meal came the end of the Cavalcade of Christmas. Now it was back to home to enjoy Christmas with my family and friends. 

In lieu of my normal sign off line, I wish you the merriest and happiest of Christmases this year.

A Cavalcade of Christmas, Part III: Welcome to Christmas Wonderland

Outside of Ponca’s Christmas House, owned by Gene Watchorn and Julie McDowell.

Today the road has brought me to Ponca, NE.

Unlike most of these articles, a bed and breakfast is not involved with this story.  However, a very unique house is involved.  I went to Ponca to visit the home of Gene Watchorn and Julie McDowell.

If the names sound familiar to you, it’s because they are the recent winners of “The Great Christmas Light Fight” televised on ABC for their incredibly festive lights and Christmas display.  Their story made most of the newspapers and news outlets in Nebraska and when I read their story, I knew I had to visit their home for the Cavalcade of Christmas.

I was enjoying some unseasonably nice weather as I began my drive to the little town of Ponca.  En route to Ponca, I passed through the town of Jackson where I decided to stop for church at St. Patrick’s.

St Patrick’s Catholic Church

Father had quite a good sermon as he talked about the gift of Jesus and how He wants to share everything He has with His people.  It provided some very loaded food for thought as I left the small church and continued my drive to Ponca.

I was testing out a GPS system and now I don’t think I’ll ever go back to paper maps.  This was so handy as the system told me where and when to turn right down to what lane I should be in.  This was especially useful as Gene & Julie’s house is located on a large acreage out in the country.

If I had any doubts that I was on the right road, they were quickly dissipated when I found the large line of traffic waiting to reach the house.  It just seemed to go on forever.

I turned into a field nearby the house and parked and just stared in amazement at the home and the line of people waiting to visit.

According to Julie, Gene started the tradition, originally for his children, about 20 years ago.  Fifteen years ago, Gene and Julie let some students tour the house and then it was decided to open the doors to the public.  Now thousands of people visit this monument to Christmas each year.

Gene loves Christmas and is dubbed a “Christmas hoarder” by Julie.  He is also a one man operation for this Christmas wonderland.  Gene does all of the designing and setting up.  He begins the day after Labor Day and finishes the entire project about mid-November.  From that point through the end of December, the couple holds open houses from 6pm-9pm each Fri-Sun.  Private tours can also be arranged through Gene and Julie.

The Christmas house contains 100,000 Christmas lights, 90 inflatables, 19 Christmas trees, and 6,000-7,000 Christmas figurines and animations.  Budget some time to really appreciate this house because it took me nearly 2.5 hours to get through the whole abode due to foot traffic and the sheer level of detail to observe.

Here are some scenes from outside the house:

The inside of the house is just as beautiful.  Julie and Gene are warm, welcoming people.  Julie greeted people at the front door while Gene mingled with the visitors.  Helpers were also on hand to give out free candy canes to the visitors.

I could have spent all night marveling at this cacophony of Christmas, but I did have to return home.  

There’s still a little time to visit the house this season and I highly recommend making the visit if you’re able to do so.  There’s nothing cheesy or kitschy about this Christmas house.  It’s a reverent, awe-inspiring display from two people who love the holiday and whose generosity and hospitality truly exemplify the reason for the season.  Visiting the house is free, but donations are cheerfully accepted.

For directions or a private tour, please call Gene or Julie at 402-755-2655.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

A Holiday Excursion, Day 1: Bravo, Butler House

003Well, it was my first time back on the road since September and I was in for several post-Christmas surprises.  I always try to schedule a review or two around the Christmas season because I enjoy seeing how the inns decorate for the holidays.  However, since I operate out of the Midwest, I’ve always got to keep an eye on the weather because I never quite know what’s going to happen.

Nebraska had actually been enjoying a rather tepid December and I was rather looking forward to a pleasant drive through Iowa and that’s exactly what I got on Sunday.  It was a little cold, but the sky was clear and the drive was smooth.  Monday may be a different story, however.

A winter storm is set to pummel Nebraska and do a number on Iowa.  Fortunately, my good luck seems to be with me as the storm is set to strike Nebraska first and move its way slowly to Iowa.  As I’m already in Des Moines, I’m actually a few hours ahead of the storm and it will have just started by the time I hit the road so I should manage to stay just ahead of it.  I’ll just be playing things by ear and possibly moving quite slowly.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here.

A brief two hour drive brought me to Des Moines, IA and Butler House on Grand owned and operated by Clark Smith and Lauren Kernen Smith.  Butler House on Grand is a 6100 square foot Tudor mansion nestled close to the downtown area and the artistic center of the city as the Des Moines Playhouse and Arts Center are a hop, skip, and jump away.

I was greeted by Clark who led me to the Dynasty Suite which would serve as my home away from home for at least one night.

The Dynasty Suite is probably one of the biggest rooms I’ve enjoyed since I started this project.  The suite is quite roomy and is highlighted by an en suite Jacuzzi and writing desk.  The mansion, itself, has a very pleasant feel to it and I was quite impressed with the Christmas decorations, especially in the living room which featured a real Christmas tree, Christmas village, and various Christmas knickknacks.

004

The Dynasty Suite

I took it easy in my room for a few hours as I kept my eye on the weather reports.  After a few hours, I decided it was time for dinner and decided to enjoy a nice meal at Taki Japanese Steakhouse.

I’m quite partial to teppanyaki cooking, but I can’t say that I would recommend Taki.  The restaurant seemed a mite understaffed as I had to wait nearly an hour for a table.  Mind you, I don’t put all of the blame for the wait on the restaurant.  I did not have a reservation so I did expect to wait, but the teppanyaki room was not very full which suggests a lack of wait staff and/or chefs for the evening.  I did get a free Guinness for my long wait and I was able to pass the time with another adventure of Nero Wolfe, the armchair detective whose genius is matched only by his laziness.

I ended up sharing a tale with a group of high school girls and it was rather amusing to hear their views on college as at least one seemed to think that partying was going to take priority over studying.  Ah, youth.

The meal was simply OK and definitely not worth the long wait.  It took quite a while for our drinks, soup, and salads to arrive.  As a gesture of goodwill, I was not charged for my soda.  The clear soup wasn’t very hot and needed a bit more salt.  The salad was quite good with the ginger vinaigrette dressing being right on the money.

My steak, chicken, and shrimp were cooked well, but needed more seasoning.  When all is said and done, I give Taki a thumbs slightly down.

After dinner, I returned to the inn where I grabbed a can of soda from the fridge as I looked forward to a long soak and shave.  When I entered my room, I was pleasantly surprised that my bed had been turned down with a caramel waiting on my pillows.  After a relaxing bath, I tuned in to the weather reports to find that the winter storm warning now engulfed the entire state of Iowa as opposed to just the south & central portions.  As I said earlier, snow was not due to hit the Des Moines area until 6am which meant it will have barely started before I hit the road to my next stop.  Luckily it will be moving slowly northward which means I should keep on its outskirts for most, if not all, of the drive.

The queen bed was quite comfortable with a thick blanket that was so cozy that I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning.  I finally forced myself to just so I could see what the weather was doing.  I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw it wasn’t too terrible.  A fine, powdery snow was falling and the weather report now said the Des Moines area was only expected to get 6 to 8 inches with little to no ice accumulation and it was the northwestern and southeastern parts of Iowa that were expected to be hazardous.  Now knowing my drive would be safer, if slower, I went downstairs for a bracing breakfast.

There’s nothing quite like a hot meal on a cold day to start your day off right and Clark and Lauren provided a terrific breakfast.  The meal started with hot ginger snap pears served with goblets of water, milk, and orange juice.  The main course consisted of a cinnamon roll, fried rosemary potatoes, cheese soufflé with salsa, and sausage patties.  I engaged in some conversation with Clark, Lauren, and another couple before returning to my room to polish up this article and begin my snowy trek.

Butler House on Grand is a fine little oasis in the city of Des Moines and the hospitality and cooking of Clark and Lauren will make your stay grand, indeed.

Walking Into History: Abilene, KS and Abilene’s Victorian Inn

Abilene's Victorian Inn

Abilene’s Victorian Inn

So it was on an overcast and gray day that I found myself once more answering the call of the road.  I was headed to Abilene, KS, the home of former President, Dwight D Eisenhower, and Abilene’s Victorian Inn, owned and operated by Jay and Adrian Potter.

I felt like the Henry David Thoreau of the highway because of the solitude of my drive.  I was the only motorist on the road for long stretches of time.  Since there wasn’t much in terms of scenery, I had lots of time for thinking and rocking out to the shuffled up tunes on my MP3 player.  About 1pm, I thought that I was ready for some lunch, but no restaurant appeared on the horizon.  By 2pm, I knew I was hungry and decided to stop at the first place I could find.

Luckily, I had just entered the town of Clay Center, KS and found a Wendy’s.  What I expected to be a quick lunch break ended up being an early start to the adventure.  While I munched my burger and enjoyed a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes, an elderly gentleman laid his cap down on the chair across from me and politely asked how my day was going.  I told him my day was going great and the gentleman headed to the counter and ordered a drink.

He then sat across from me and asked if I were a local.  When I replied in the negative, he said I had that look about me.  I chuckled softly and the gentleman started asking me where I was heading.  I handed him my business card and told him about my project.  We began to talk and I learned his name was Francis and that he was retired military.  Francis was a fount of knowledge about the city of Abilene and its neighboring cities, telling me a great deal about the history of the area.  After a half hour of chatting, we warmly shook hands and I continued on the road to Abilene.

I arrived at Abilene’s Victorian Inn at 4pm and was pleasantly greeted by Adrian.  She brought me into the gift shop (yes, there was a gift shop) and checked me in.  Adrian then gave me a tour of the inn.  There is a whole lot of house to explore and all of it beautiful.  Aside from the spacious suites, there is a good sized front parlor with a splendid chess set for anyone interested in a game.  The living room is very cozy with a large gas fireplace and a piano.  The dining room was well stocked with cookies, teas, cocoa, soda, and snacks for the guest.  Most interesting was a piano in the front corner.  Adrian explained that the piano had once been owned by Nat King Cole who had actually visited her parents back in the day and had played his signature song, “Mona Lisa”, on it.  I felt honored to touch such a piece of musical history.

Adrian then led me to the Eisenhower Room, my home for the next couple of nights. I loved the rich blue color of the carpet, the large comfortable bed, and the semi-private balcony.  In fact I’m sitting on it right now while I write, people watch, and soak up the scenery.

The gift shop at Abilene's Victorian Inn

The gift shop at Abilene’s Victorian Inn

022

The Eisenhower Room

The Eisenhower Room

This piano was once owned by Nat King Cole

This piano was once owned by Nat King Cole

My semi-private balcony

My semi-private balcony

Dinnertime soon arrived and I decided to give Mr. K’s Farmhouse a try.  This restaurant is off the beaten trail and it actually is in a farmhouse.  Unfortunately, I cannot recommend the restaurant.  The experience was a bit of a disappointment.  Despite the restaurant not being very full, I was forgotten about moments after being seated.  After noticing that I hadn’t been served for 10 minutes, a kindly lady at a nearby table came to my rescue when she walked into another room and found a server for me.

I opted for the house’s specialty, steak strips.  The meal began with a very tasty soup which I believe was cream of potato.  It had a nice zip, was creamy, and the bacon bits were a nice touch.  The steak strips were a bit of letdown, being a touch on the bland side.  I finished my meal and returned to the inn where I spent the rest of the night working on a mystery game before retiring.

The next morning I awoke and was more than ready for breakfast.  I was especially looking forward to this meal because Adrian Potter has a great reputation for her culinary skills.  She has even written a cookbook of the inn’s meals which is available for sale in the gift shop.

Let me assure you that Adrian’s reputation as a chef is well deserved and then some.  Adrian started the meal off with an ambrosia parfait that consisted of cream, granola, bananas, blueberries, and the freshest, sweetest cherries I have ever tasted.  After that came Adrian’s specialty:  Coconut Praline Pecan French Toast served with a side of baked bacon with strawberries and sweet cream.  The breakfast looked so wonderful, I almost didn’t want to eat it, lest I ruin the presentation.  Needless to say that feeling lasted for all of a second before I began savoring the cuisine.

Braced by that terrific meal, I decided to explore the town.  I meandered through the business district for a bit and then made my way to visit Seelye Mansion.

Seelye Mansion

Seelye Mansion

Seelye Mansion was the home of Dr. Seelye and his family.  Dr. Seelye created a pharmaceutical empire that lasted from 1898-1938.  The empire came to an end when the FDA told Dr. Seelye that he could no longer make the medicine that brought him his wealth.  The house was once known as the Mystery House because nobody was ever allowed inside.  This all changed when Dr. Seelye’s two daughters, who remained in the mansion until the end of their days, befriended a young college student who became the caretaker of the estate.  In the eighties, the sisters began offering tours of the house and it is well worth a visit.

The house is in pristine condition and many of the home’s original items are still present.  I learned that Dr. Seelye’s wife and I share the same great love for Christmas.  Mrs. Seelye always loved decorating the house for the holidays, usually setting up 80 Christmas trees!!  That tradition is still maintained today as each room had a Christmas tree or 3.

Mrs. Seelye loved Christmas.  Note the figurines above the fireplace.  It was a magnet powered toy made by Thomas Edison that played 23 different Christmas carols.

Mrs. Seelye loved Christmas. Note the figurines above the fireplace. It was a magnet powered toy made by Thomas Edison that played 23 different Christmas carols.

Aside from the rich history and festive nature of the mansion, one of the more interesting exhibits was the bowling alley in the basement.  The old fashioned bowling alley was not only the predecessor to modern bowling, but it also was the predecessor to skeeball.

All of the visitors got to try their hand at the alley.  The rules for this version of bowling were that five paddles were set at the end of a long alley.  You used an oversized skeeball and threw it down the alley.  The best shot would be to take out two paddles.  You had three shots and if you could knock out all 5 paddles, it was a strike.  Otherwise your points were based off the number above the paddle you hit.  I scored a 4.

The alley is also a very valuable antique.  A collector had visited the mansion last year and offered one million dollars for the alley!!  The foundation turned down the offer.

The Seelye private bowling alley

The Seelye private bowling alley

I spent a couple of hours inside the mansion and then started walking back down the street to visit the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.  As I walked down the street, I decided I should get something small for lunch and I passed a restaurant called Taco Grande.  I stepped inside and the place was packed!  I took that as a good omen for the food.  I ordered a couple of tacos and found that feeling to be right on the money.  These were some of the tastiest tacos I had ever eaten.  If you’re just looking for a quick bite and you’re in Abilene, stop here.

Once I had finished my quick lunch, I continued on to the Presidential Library.  The museum was interesting, but I was a bit surprised as it seemed more concerned about the history of World War II and the technological advances that took place during Eisenhower’s lifetime than the life of Eisenhower.  If you’re a history buff, I would definitely recommend a visit.  I just would have expected more focus on Eisenhower’s personal history as opposed to the history of World War II.

What I found more appealing was Eisenhower’s boyhood home which exists on the grounds.  This house is tiny.  Maybe 7 rooms, at most.  The tour only took 5 minutes and I just tried to imagine how this house managed to contain the Eisenhower’s 4 energetic sons.

199

Dwight D Eisenhower

Dwight D Eisenhower

Eisenhower Museum

Eisenhower Museum

After finishing my tours, I returned to the inn where I organized my photos.  From there, I attended services at St Andrew’s and then went to the M and R Grill for my supper.

By all means, have a meal here.  If you like sports, there are plenty of TVs around the restaurant, each on a different game.  I ordered a Kansas City Strip sautéed with onions, mushrooms, and green peppers.  After enjoying an excellent salad, I supped on a truly excellent cut of meat.  My steak was cooked to perfection and the corn on the cob served on the side hit the spot.

As I enjoyed the feeling of a full stomach, I returned to the Inn where I began working on this article and relaxed the night away.

This morning I got cleaned up and headed downstairs for another one of Adrian’s fantastic meals and some more stimulating conversation with the guests.  Today’s breakfast began with a goblet of grapefruit dusted with powdered sugar and topped off with a cherry.  That sugar really did wonders on the grapefruit as it reduced its acidity and brought out its sweetness.  From there, the main course was a frittata that had an alphabet of ingredients such as egg, turkey sausage, tomatoes, and several different kinds of cheese to name a few.  On the side were some small links of turkey sausage and a light, fluffy, buttery biscuit.

With another tasty breakfast under my belt, I went to my balcony to put the finishing touches on this article and get ready to return home.

In closing, let me say that Abilene is the best town I have visited since I started this project.  The people here are so friendly, especially the hospitable Jay and Adrian Potter.  There are a lot of historic homes to see.  There’s a lot of history to experience.  There’s just a lot to do.  I loved it so much that I’d like to return in the summertime so I can experience the seasonal attractions and more of Adrian’s fine cooking.  If you haven’t been to Abilene, go there.  Get yourself a room at Abilene’s Victorian Inn and tell them Chris’ Corner sent you.