The Adventure of the Nameless Corpse

Lovely little nutcracker, isn’t it?  Well, this nutcracker has a very interesting story behind it.  This nutcracker is both a trophy and a reminder of the time I assisted Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson in solving a murder at the Victorian Villa in Union City, MI.

I had alluded to this story when I wrote my remembrance of the inn back in 2014, but enough time has passed that it is now safe to share the tale.  Some elements must still remain hidden, so some names may be changed and some details removed and altered, but those that know the truth will understand.

Many believe Holmes and Watson to be fictional characters, but that is a myth perpetuated by Dr. Watson’s literary agent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who published Dr. Watson’s stories under his name.  In truth, they are real and much older than one would believe. 

In his retirement, Holmes had cultivated a royal jelly elixir and ingestion of it had greatly extended his life span and that of Dr. Watson.  Over the years Holmes and Watson had regularly visited the Victorian Villa as its owner, Ron Gibson, is the great-grandson of Senator Neil Gibson referenced in the case known as “The Problem of Thor Bridge”.  Aside from their friendship, Holmes also enjoyed visiting Union City as, in his own words, “it is a hellhole of crime of great depth and brilliance”.

When I learned that Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson would be visiting, I immediately booked a weekend stay to meet the famed detective and his trusted associate.

It was September of 2005 and I was making my second foray out to the Villa.  I was a bit weary as I had mistakenly forgotten to schedule myself as unavailable for Hamlet rehearsals the night before so I had put in a long night of rehearsing before setting off on my drive at 10pm.  By midnight, I was exhausted and collapsed at a Motel 6 in Des Moines, IA before driving another 8 hours to Union City the next morning.  The welcome sight of the gorgeous Victorian mansion served as a salve to my spirits and boosted my energy level as I pulled into the tiny parking lot.

The Victorian Villa

Once more, I was greeted by Ron and his two sons, Zach and Josh, before being led to my room for the weekend:  the Victorian Country Bedchamber.  As I got myself situated, I found a note under my pillow.  It was rather snarky and, I noted, written in a feminine hand.  I put it away before freshening up and reacquainting myself with the Villa.

Around 6pm, Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson arrived at the inn.  I introduced myself to Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson who politely shook my hand.  Holmes was just as Watson had described him with his aloofness and unmistakable air of authority.  Watson was friendly and every bit the gentleman.

I retired to the parlor with Holmes and Watson and the other guests who had come to meet the legendary duo.  Among them were Ted and Rhonda Cowell and their Holmesian scion society, The Stormy Petrels of Maumee Bay; the Mallon family; George Ault; and Mr. and Mrs. Glenn Harbaugh.

We opened up the night with a round of Sherlockian Trivial Pursuit.  We formed into two teams and Mr. Holmes asked diabolically difficult questions relating to the many cases he had investigated.  As the two teams battled back and forth, Mr. Holmes would vacillate between contentedly smoking his pipe and brooding about some vexing problem.  On several occasions he alluded to a case he was working on before returning to the game.

Sherlock Holmes relaxes

By the end of the game, the two teams were locked into a tie, though I ended up stealing a symbolic victory for my side when I answered the question “Who killed Victor Savage?”  After the hard-fought game, we entered the dining room where Mr. Holmes gave us a demonstration on the art of observation and deduction while we dined on one of Ron’s fine meals which consisted of English Cheshire Cheese Soup and roasted loin of boar among other delicacies.  I did note that Ron had brought on some help for the event as a placard on the table said the meal had been partially catered by Maxine Simons.

Upon finishing our meal, we returned to the parlor where Mr. Holmes told us he was investigating a murder that had taken place at the Villa a few days prior.  A man had shown up at the Villa around 11am on the fateful day and asked Ron if he could have a room.  As Ron had no reservations, he rented a room to the man who gave no name, but simply went upstairs to his bedroom with his dressing bag.  A short while later, Ron saw him descend the stairs sans bag and enter the parlor.  Ron left him to his own devices as he had to leave the Villa to run some errands.  When he returned later, he found the man collapsed on the floor, arm outstretched in front of him, and clearly dead.  Ron contacted the police who found no identification on the man nor in his room.  The labels on his clothes had been cut off and the only items found on him were a handkerchief, some cigarettes, and a pen.  Ron had told Mr. Holmes of the baffling death and he agreed to look into it.

Mr. Holmes wanted us to be his eyes and ears and help him investigate.  He asked us to discover the following:

  1. Who was the victim?
  2. How was he killed?
  3. Who killed him?
  4. Find a way to link the killer to the crime and unmask him or her.

Certain rules were set in place for us.  As Mr. Holmes had already investigated the private areas of the mansion, we were not to enter them.  He also told us not to snoop into Ron’s desk as only he would be allowed to investigate it.  Short of that we were free to investigate as we chose. If we managed to discover any evidence, we were only to hold onto it for 10 minutes before returning it exactly where it was found.  Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson bade us good evening and left the Villa promising to return after breakfast in the morning.

Exhaustion had found me again so I retired to my bedroom, vowing to rise early and begin looking into the case.

I arose the next morning feeling refreshed.  After heading to the dining room and enjoying some of Ron’s special scrambled eggs and sausage patties, I began to look into the case. 

From re-reading Ron’s statement, I realized that the victim had not carried his dressing bag back down with him so I immediately went to the second floor and began searching for it, but was unable to find it.  I searched the mansion from top to bottom and then made my way over to the Carriage House.  Up in the Sherlock Holmes Bedchamber, I discovered George Ault and Glenn Harbaugh discussing something and they froze when they saw me.  I asked if I could enter and Glenn said I could.  I quietly closed the door and noted they had the dressing bag.

“So you found it,” I said.

Realizing I had already deduced the clue, George and Glenn opened the bag and we all looked into it.  Among the toiletries, we found a letter addressed to James Fitzsimmons requesting a meeting in the parlor of the Villa to discuss the matter of a deadly toxin that had been developed by the writer of the letter.  Apparently Fitzsimmons had been the letter writer’s boss and had aspirations of selling the toxin to the highest bidder who would likely weaponize it.  The toxin caused almost instantaneous paralysis before shutting down the body’s vital organs.  Death would occur in a matter of minutes.  The writer wanted Fitzsimmons to destroy the toxin and begged for a meeting to convince him of this.  It was simply signed Max, though I recognized the handwriting as being the same as that on the note in my bedroom.

After examining the evidence, I asked the two men if they had found notes as well.  They admitted they had and let me read them.  Red herrings and smart alecky comments.  After reading this, we looked at each other and I suggested pooling our resources to which George and Glenn readily agreed.

“All right, we’re now a team,” I said.

Upon forming our alliance we headed down to the parlor to meet Mr. Holmes who asked if anybody had anything to share.  I casually blurted the bag clue to which Mr. Holmes looked at me and said, “You’re a rather blithe young man, aren’t you?”

After unintentionally giving out the clue, the race was on.  Though we were investigating a crime, it was treated more like a competition and ended up as a three way battle between The Stormy Petrels, the Mallons, and my little triumvirate.  The Petrels played for keeps and were not above providing a few red herrings.  The Mallons were smart and crafty, though I engaged in a little quid pro quo with Mrs. Mallon which I’ll get to in a bit.

Mr. Holmes was always available for private consultation where we could bring our discoveries and theories and he would make comments and subtle suggestions to help light our path.  When we first informed Holmes about the letter we found, Glenn kept referring to the writer as a he, to which Mr. Holmes asked, “Why do you keep saying ‘he?’”.

“What do mean?” asked Glenn.

“He means how do we know it’s a man,” I replied.

“Precisely,” said Holmes as he clasped my shoulder.

A vital clue, indeed.  While not a guarantee, we did have to open our minds to the possibility that Max, if that was the real name, was a woman.

We continued to investigate.  I realized that no matches or lighter were found on the corpse, though cigarettes had been discovered.  No smoker would ever lack those items and there was no reason for the killer to take them.  Remembering the outstretched arm, I assumed the position of the corpse and found a book of matches under the coal scuttle.

Taking them, I opened up the packet and found a scrawled message which said “Beware TR-70”.  The name of the toxin had been found!!

Outside the parlor, I found a business card book on a stand and began thumbing through it and saw Mrs. Mallon watching me.  When I leafed to the third page, she suddenly coughed.  I looked up and saw her smiling at me, I took a hard look and found the business card for Maxine Simons—Caterer.  However, “caterer” had been written in pen over a blacked out word.  Reversing the card and holding it up to the light, I saw “chemist” written under it.  I had the name of the killer!!  I then shared with Mrs. Mallon the name of the poison out of gratitude.

My team had another consultation with Holmes where Glenn spun an amusing, but outlandish, theory that Ron Gibson was the killer or, at least involved with her.  Mr. Holmes and I shared some glances and after Glenn finished his theory, Holmes simply stated, “I sense you have some misgivings about his theory.”

“One or two,” I replied.

I then finally had a chance to fill in Glenn and George on my discoveries and had a private conversation with Mr. Holmes and Mrs. Mallon while I made my deductions.  When I finished, Mr. Holmes looked to Mrs. Mallon and said, “You know, I have great faith in this young man.  He’s quiet, thoughtful, and observant and everything he says is based soundly on logic.”

Then we took a break and had a reading of one of Watson’s stories followed by a pop quiz.  I ended up winning the quiz contest and surprised Mr. Holmes with one of my answers.

“This number is the square root of the number alluded to by Watson,” said Holmes.

“Sixteen,” I readily answered.

“Sixteen is correct!!” said Holmes with some wonderment.  “Tell me, young man, how did you come up with that answer?”

“Watson mentioned the wait was like the night the two of you faced the Andaman Islander which was a reference to the case known as The Sign of Four,” I said.

Holmes smiled and nodded approvingly.

After the quiz we had afternoon tea where Ron had prepared a whole turkey and we helped ourselves to little sandwiches with a bit of homemade mustard and fixings.

The case was solved, but there was still one last item:  how to unmask Maxine.  There was no real proof tying her to the death and all my deductions wouldn’t hold water in court.  I had a final consultation with Holmes where I told him everything I had learned, but felt I was just one step away from the total truth. 

“Think of the problem of the three Moriartys.  All of them were named James and were identical.  How would one tell them apart?” said Mr. Holmes.

I began to see the light when he gave me one final nudge.

“You have two pieces of vital evidence.  What you need is a third.”

The truth hit me like a thunderbolt.  The letter on my pillow plus the letter in the bag were my pieces of evidence.  What I needed was a way to get a third example of Maxine’s handwriting to connect her with the other two.  Handwriting was how you’d distinguish the Moriarty boys from each other.

Piecing the puzzle together

I expressed this problem to Glenn and George and we threw around ideas until I said, “Maybe we could get a card of some sort.”

“My son is serving over in Iraq.  We could get him a Wish You Were Here card,” said George.

“Yes, and we’ll have everybody in the inn sign it!!” I exclaimed.

The three of us dashed to Mr. Holmes where I laid out the scheme.

“An excellent plan,” said Holmes. 

I shook hands with Holmes and Watson and dashed to the bar area where I found Ron.

“Is there a drug store nearby?” I asked.

“Yes, just a few blocks up on Main Street,” said Ron.

“Thank you,” I said.

Then I speed walked through the front door and vaulted over the steps to the sidewalk.  I then sprinted and I do mean SPRINTED to the drug store where I bought the card and repeated the process back to the Villa where I hurdled the steps once more.  George later said it was the funniest thing he ever saw.

As I walked back in, I heard Mrs. Mallon’s daughter ask if there were a drug store nearby.  I then politely coughed and gently waved the card.  Knowing that the game was up, the Mallons signed the card and Mrs. Mallon’s daughter assisted me with finishing the job by asking Ron if there were any other people in the kitchen as Maxine was also helping to cater tonight’s dinner.  Ron stepped into the kitchen and asked Maxine to step out.  I told her about the card while George showed a picture of his son and Maxine signed the card.

I then led my team back to the parlor where the other guests had gathered. 

“Do you have something to show me, young man?” asked Mr. Holmes.

I presented the card to him and he looked at it.

“Were there any witnesses?” he asked.

“Yes, sir.   Myself, (Mrs. Mallon’s daughter), George, Ron, Zach, and Josh all witnessed this.”

“Very good,” said Mr. Holmes.  “This case has been solved.”

Then we proceeded to have a debate about what to do with the killer.  Her motivations were understandable.  Fitzsimmons would have unleashed a plague of death on the world.  He had committed no crime, but would have had the blood of countless people had he sold the toxin.  Maxine shouldn’t have killed him, but her act had thwarted a much greater evil so I pled for leniency.  Holmes said he would consider the situation.

Glenn gave me a hug and then bought George and myself a drink at the bar.  Mr. Holmes approached me privately and asked me to present the denouement after dinner.

A splendid dinner was served and after we were all satiated, Mr. Holmes signaled for silence, indicated my two partners and then clasped my shoulder acknowledging our victory.  He then presented me with the nutcracker as a trophy for the case.  Then he brought Ron, his two sons, and Maxine into the dining room where I presented my findings.

I walked the group through the maze of the case, casually keeping an eye on Maxine who whitened with every revelation.  When I explained about the card we had purchased and how the killer had sealed her fate by signing it, I calmly looked at Maxine and said, “Isn’t that right, Maxine?”

At that point, Maxine begged for mercy and Holmes gently led her out of the dining room while discussion resumed.  Shortly afterwards, he returned and he and Watson made their final farewells and exited.

And that was how I helped Mr. Holmes solve The Adventure of the Nameless Corpse.  I would later learn that Holmes did show mercy to Maxine, letting her leave the country.  George did send the card to his son with an incredible story.  I had made new friends and had a reminder of the case forever gracing my mantle.  And the next morning, I enjoyed some of Ron’s incredible cream cheese stuffed French Toast.

Little did I know that I would return to the Villa a few years later with my trusted friend, Mat O’Donnell, to engage in a peculiar investigation centering around a crying woman.

But that is a story for another time.

Christmas in March: Christmas House & Racine, WI

Christmas House Bed & Breakfast

Today the road has brought me to Racine, WI.

It was almost exactly a year ago that I enjoyed my last normal B & B run when I visited Astor House of Green Bay, WI.  So it seems apropos that my most normal run since the start of the pandemic would also take place in Wisconsin.  My destination for this journey would be Christmas House Bed & Breakfast owned and operated by Pamela Deskins.

The trip couldn’t have started out any better.  The weather was absolutely perfect and I managed to dodge the rush hours of both Omaha, NE and Des Moines, IA.  I got to enjoy a meal at my favorite hole in the wall, Iowa’s Best Burger Café, listened as the Iowa Hawkeyes delivered an absolute drubbing to the Nebraska Cornhuskers in basketball and arrived early at my first stop, Davenport, IA.

I had booked a junior suite at the Holiday Inn & Suites, but I didn’t know how good of a room it was going to be.

Holiday Inn & Suites of Davenport, IA

This was a very elegant Holiday Inn.  I’d put it at 4 stars.  Thanks to digital check-in, I was able to check-in the day before and merely had to pick up my key at the front desk.  My room was on the top floor where I had a good view of the city and, while I’m not positive, I think I might have been upgraded to a full suite as I had a spacious living room, bathroom with a double sized shower and a separate bedroom with a king-sized bed.

I had a good rest that night. 

I decided to eat in the hotel restaurant, the J Bar, for breakfast.  Even had my diet not been limited by Lent, the breakfast buffet still would have been overpriced at $10 as it only consisted of a few items.  I had some scrambled eggs, fried potatoes and a granola bar.  The server did bring me a wonderful green salsa that added the perfect kick to the eggs and potatoes and the orange juice was mighty smooth.

At 11:15am I checked out, gassed up and continued the jaunt to Racine.  My journey took me on the toll road that has taken me to Algonquin, IL on several occasions, but I was surprised to learn that all of the toll booths were closed.  To pay, you need to go to the Illinois Tollway website and register your plate. Then the Tollway will eventually charge your credit or debit card.

Around the 2pm hour, I got off the interstate and started passing through small towns.  I smiled as the towns seemed a bit more vibrant and enjoyed the vast farmlands and imagined what the leafless trees would look like in full bloom.  Around 3:20pm, I saw the mint-colored Christmas House looming in the distance.

If this is your first time visiting my blog, you should know that I am a Christmas nut.  It’s my favorite holiday and I feature a Christmas B&B review on my website each year.  Thus, Christmas House called out to me with all the subtlety of the ringing of a chow bell.

I was met by Pamela who gave me a tour of the mansion before leading me to the Glam Suite which would be my base of operations.

The Glam Suite offers one plenty of room to stretch out and relax.  The room’s mint-colored walls and off-white carpeting promote a calming effect.  The room contains a small kitchenette with a fridge that contains complimentary water, a pair of comfortable red leather chairs, a large TV and a comfy king-sized bed with what felt like a memory foam mattress.

Once getting settled in, I started a more detailed exploration of the mansion.

Christmas House had been built in 1893 by Emily Baker, the widow of former Racine mayor Robert H. Baker, and one of the original “Big Four” partners of the J.I. Case Company, nowadays known as Case New Holland.  The mansion has been home to some of the most powerful people in Racine’s history and also served as the women’s dorm for the St Luke School of Nursing for 35 years.  It gained its name in 1987 when it began hosting the Christmas House for Cancer benefit which it did until 1995.

The house is actually a blend of two styles.  It is built in the Colonial Revival Style, but follows the plan of a Queen Anne.  It is also mammoth.  This is easily one of the three biggest inns I’ve visited, yet it only contains 4 suites which allows for plenty of privacy.  A Carriage House is also available for rental for even further seclusion.

And, yes, the theme of Christmas is prevalent in the mansion as the first floor contains Christmas trees, knick-knacks, decorations and a life-sized Santa Claus.

When I finished looking around the mansion, I took a constitutional around the neighborhood and soaked in the view of Lake Michigan.  From there I returned to the inn where I relaxed for a bit before picking up some dinner from Red Lobster in nearby Mount Pleasant.  I enjoyed some Salmon New Orleans with mashed potatoes and a Caesar Salad.  After my meal, I spent a quiet evening watching a little TV and organizing photos.

Breakfast was a grand affair the next morning.  An extra leaf was added to the table for social distancing and I met a truly charming couple, the Jacksons, from Bloomington, IL.  We had some incredible conversation and I thank them for pointing me towards my next major B & B outing, Black Bear Manor of Ouray, CO, which I hope to do this summer after I’ve had a poke or two of COVID vaccine.

Pamela whipped up a delicious skillet of sunny side up eggs, sausage and hash browns along with cornbread crumble and Kringle, the famed danish pastry of Wisconsin.  I also learned that Pamela has almost limitless energy and boundless humor.  Pamela is not only extremely knowledgeable about the Racine area, but she is well known for her entrepreneurship and philanthropy.  Aside from owning Christmas House, she is also a realtor and “Big Sister” for Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

Kringle, breakfast skillet, and cornbread crumbles

She bought the inn in 2014 after it had been in foreclosure for 7 years and was responsible for over 70% of its restoration into the grand inn it is nowadays.  To give you an idea of its disrepair at the time of Pamela’s purchase, the house literally had no roof.

For the first time in nearly a year, I actually managed to enjoy some local activities.  I began with a long, leisurely walk through Petrifying Springs Park where the gurgling water of the streams provided some succor to the soul.  I also had a phone call with my best friend, Josh, and some childhood memories were triggered as I saw some children enjoying themselves on classic playground equipment of slides, swings and merry-go-rounds.

After my hike, I visited a Kenosha, WI classic:  Mars Cheese Castle.  Admittedly, I originally thought it was a castle made of cheese.  It is actually a store shaped like a castle that sells cheese, meats, clothes and old-fashioned candies and sodas.  It even has a deli, restaurant and bar.

Mars Cheese Castle

From there it was back to Christmas House when I did a little writing and took in an online worship service with Fr. Matt Barone. 

When the service was completed, I was faced with a quandary.  Did I want to have a very early dinner or wait until my normal dinner hour?  Pamela had mentioned a local eatery called Kewpee’s, but it closed at 5pm.  I thought about it and realized I wasn’t in the mood for a regular meal that night, so I went with the extra early dinner.

Kewpee’s is actually a Racine stalwart.  There actually used to be a chain of them, but now only six are left and the Racine location is the only one in Wisconsin and it’s been operating since 1926. 

Kewpee’s Sandwich Shop

The restaurant has the look of a fifties diner and is inspired by the famous kewpie dolls and there is a display case full of them inside.  Being so close to closing time meant that there weren’t a lot of people inside so social distancing was an easy task.  I ordered the double cheeseburger with the works, a side of fries and a Coke. 

Not only does the place look like a fifties diner, it also has portion sizes to match with prices not that far behind.  I personally appreciated the portion sizes as you get a great meal without feeling overstuffed.  These are old fashioned burgers cooked fresh on a flattop grill and the fries are crinkle cut.  Kewpee’s is also noted for its homemade root beer which I’ll make a point of sampling at some future date.

With dinner digesting, I returned to Christmas House for more writing, reading, photo organizing and some classic game shows on BUZZR.

Another great night of sleep led into a new day. Breakfast that day consisted of a pecan Kringle, strawberry waffles with whipped cream and cornbread crumble had sausage and egg added to it for quite the tasty melange. I had another satisfying round of conversation with Pamela and the Jacksons where I was introduced to the dancing skills of Pamela’s dog, Dewey.

Strawberry waffles with whipped cream, cornbread crumble and pecan Kringle

This trip was just what the doctor called for and if you find yourself in Racine, make plans to stay at Christmas House. It’s truly as festive as the name sounds.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

Bellevue Little Theatre Holding Auditions for ‘Temporary Insanity’

Bellevue Little Theatre presents
Temporary Insanity Auditions

Sunday, March 15 @ 7:00 pm
Monday, March 16 @ 7:00 pm

Bellevue Little Theatre will hold auditions for Temporary Insanity at the theatre, 203 W. Mission in Bellevue, at 7 pm on Sunday March 15 and Monday March 16.  This world premiere farce was written by Des Moines Playwright Karen Scheaffer, and the BLT is proud to present it as a close to our 51st season.

Jon Flower will direct the production which will run the week-ends of May 1, 8, and 15. An adult cast of ten, ranging in age from 17–65, is needed for this farce. For additional information please contact the director at jon.david.flower@gmail.com

More information can be found on the BLT web site at www.bellevuelittletheatre.weebly.com.

Character breakdown:
* COLLYN (pronounced Colin) 45ish. Female. Married to Mike, Emerson’s business partner and best friend.
* EMERSON 45ish. Female. Married to Ted, Collyn’s business partner and best friend.
* MARIE FORRESTER 65ish. Female. Emerson’s mother.
* ROSE Appears to be about 17. Female. Emerson’s daughter.
* WILL BRANCH 35 – 40. Male. Actor.
* TED 45ish. Male. Married to Emerson. Real Estate Agent. Accidentally hypnotized to experience an entire gestation every 24 hours.
* SAMUEL BRIARWOOD 65ish. Male. Owner of Briarwood Hotels and Collyn and Emerson’s potential client.
* PHILOMENA (PHIL) BRIARWOOD 33ish. Female. Sam’s niece. Sam is training her to take over Briarwood Hotels.
* HEGLUND Appears to be about 17. Male. He is a pizza delivery person and goes to high school with Rose.
* MIKE 45ish. Male. Married to Collyn. CPA.

Synopsis: In this fast-paced farce, Collyn and Emerson run a marketing firm but haven’t landed a major account. A dinner invitation is extended to a potentially lucrative client who’s in town for one night. However, Emerson’s husband, Ted, has been mistakenly hypnotized and now goes through an entire gestation period every 24 hours. To ensure a smooth evening, Collyn’s husband, Mike, takes Ted out for drinks. Emerson sequesters her daughter, Rose, in her room and enlists her mother, Marie, to serve dinner. She hires an actor, Will Branch, to play her husband. Everything goes according to plan until Ted shows up with an intoxicated Mike just before the clients arrive. Will Branch discovers he’s now Collyn’s fake husband, while Rose’s admirer desperately tries to ask her out with a message pizza and the client turns out to be Marie’s old flame. Then Ted goes into labor. Will they still get the account?

PLEASE NOTE:  ‘Bellevue Little Theatre does not discriminate, and auditions are open to all.

A Cavalcade of Christmas, Part I: Storm Front in Storm Lake

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The Gables on Geneseo

Today the road has brought me to Storm Lake, IA.

December has arrived and that’s my favorite time of year because it means that Christmas is just around the corner.  It also means it’s time for my favorite B & B review as I pick an inn just to find out how it does Christmas.

This year I decided to do something a bit different.  I’ve packed my month, weather permitting, with a series of Christmas activities so I welcome you to the first part of the Cavalcade of Christmas.

As I just stated my Christmas reviews always do depend on the weather and I’ve been fortunate to have reasonably good weather except for that blizzard that chased me from Des Moines to Decorah a few years back.  I thought I would be fortunate again this year as weather seemed reasonably decent heading into this first inn, but at the 11th hour, the Storm Lake area was hit with a Winter Storm Warning.

Now the real issue of a storm is simply driving in it.  But if I could beat the storm then I could simply watch it from the comfort of the inn.  This, of course, meant heading down to Storm Lake a night early which would mean having to spend an extra night in a comfortable bed & breakfast.  Oh, me.  Oh, my.  What a horrible fate.

So I dashed home late Friday afternoon and threw a bag together and began the drive to Storm Lake.  It was a very pleasant drive, though I could feel the temperature plummet from the lower 40s of Omaha to the chillier temps of the small Northwest Iowa town.

Storm Lake has a lot of personal sentiment for me.  My grandparents lived here for many, many years.  My parents, older brother, and most of my aunts and uncles were born here and one of my cousins is the current county sheriff.  I spent a great deal of time in this town in my childhood, but haven’t been back much since I moved to Omaha in 1993 as my grandparents relocated to Papillion in 2000.

A lot of feelings and memories washed over me as I drove down the main drag on a frosty Friday.  The streetlights were decked out in Christmas lights and decorations.  Though not the same as the old-fashioned decorations I enjoyed in my childhood, they still retained that special small town quality.  Unlike many of the small towns I’ve passed through on my journeys, Storm Lake has managed to maintain a pretty vibrant economy and even build on it with the addition of a water park.

I pulled over just past the main drag to call The Gables on Geneseo to see if I could extend my stay from one to two nights and was relieved and delighted to find that I could do just that.  I pulled into the driveway, walked to the porch, rang the bell, and was greeted by Pat and Chris Mullaney, the owners of The Gables on Geneseo.

The Gables on Geneseo is an 1895 Queen Anne Victorian mansion built by Lewis Metcalf, who made his fortune in gold and livestock.  For a man of his success and wealth, his home actually had a mortgage of $5,000 on it at the time of his death.  It is believed that he may have refinanced the mortgage on several occasions to fund other business ventures.  The house went through a long period of abandonment before being turned into apartments, then dorms for Buena Vista University students, then was sold to a couple in 1974 who turned it into a B & B.

When I first heard of the inn, it was known as Metcalf House, but the owner ended up selling and relocating.  Then the Mullaneys purchased the property and spent the next 4 years restoring it to its original splendor and it is a beauty.

The house is full of fine oakwork, stained glass and beveled windows, and possesses a large foyer with a comfortable living room with soft leather chairs and a fireplace and a massive wraparound porch around the front of the house.  But it also had a special feeling for me when I entered.  It was just like being back at Grandma’s house.

 

Chris led me to my room, the Vista Suite.  This is the inn’s largest room and is considered the honeymoon suite.  This is the biggest and most comfortable room I have enjoyed yet and at a great value.  It’s a 4 room suite with a sitting room that has a mini-fridge and Keurig, a bathroom with a 2 person jacuzzi tub, a comfy living room with cable TV and some movies, and a master bedroom with a private balcony and an oh so soft bed.

 

Once I got my personal items stowed away, I headed out to visit Santa’s Castle.

 

Santa’s Castle is THE Christmas event in Storm Lake.  Housed in a former Carnegie library, it has entertained thousands of visitors since its creation back in 1962.  It was the brainchild of Bob Laird, the director of the Chamber of Commerce, who bought a set of animated elves and, with the help of Chamber members, displayed them in a vacant building.

Since then Santa’s Castle has grown to include over 70 finely detailed animatronics, some from as far back as the early 1900s and valued at $300,000 which makes it the most extensive and valuable collection of vintage animation in the Midwest.  It is also the home to two highly detailed model train sets.  The Castle also has Santa tracking maps, a scavenger hunt, and children can even write letters to old St Nick who will write back.  The jolly old elf himself is even on hand to visit. This is a wonderful family event that can be enjoyed by the young as well as the young at heart.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Castle.  The detail of the animations is astonishing and I marveled at the beautiful winter scenes as well as the amusing animations as I watched kids (as in young goats) anxiously await Santa, dogs baking in a kitchen, Santa’s reindeer bobbing their heads in time to great Christmas music, and families (real ones) enjoying that special sensation that can only be caused by Christmas.  I even took part in the scavenger hunt which involved finding a series of stuffed elephants.  I’ve always been pretty good at finding Waldo and hidden pictures, but they were really creative with where they hid their elephants.  If you find yourself in or near Storm Lake this holiday season, visit Santa’s Castle.

 

After my visit to Father Christmas’ abode, I returned to the inn where I enjoyed a long hot soak in the jacuzzi tub before climbing into bed for the night.

I can’t remember the last time that I slept so well.  I didn’t wake up until 7:20am and that is late for me.  I puttered around until 8:30am before going down to the dining room for an amazing breakfast prepared by Pat and Chris.

This is easily one of the top meals I have had with bananas mixed with a bit of cream and brown sugar, sausage links, Kilkenny Eggs, rosemary potatoes, asparagus, and a homemade, fresh out of the oven,  cinnamon pecan roll.

 

With breakfast tucked away, I decided to make a brief visit to the cemetery to visit the graves of my grandparents.  Snow and freezing rain had started so I had to make the visit brief as the icedrops stung something fierce.  I returned to the inn and just relaxed the day away with reading, writing, a bit of gaming, and a touch of movie watching.

Periodically I glanced out the window and watched the ice drizzle transform into snowflakes.  When I left for church, I found that it was the heavy, wet kind which makes it easy to clean off the car, but a swamp to drive through.

I had been looking forward to worship tonight as I would be attending St Mary’s for the first time in 25-30 years.  This was the family church for my grandparents, mother, aunts, uncles, et al.  My grandparents had been pillars of the church and one of their closest friends, and frequent dinner guest, was St Mary’s long time pastor, Msg. Ives.  This friendship was created due to the fact that my great aunt, Laura Kacmarynski, was the housekeeper for Msg. Ives for nearly 30 years.  As my uncle, Tom, said, “I remember having holiday dinners over at Msg. Ives’ on many occasions.”

Msg. Ives was once told he had two guardian angels watching over him and he needed it as Msg. Ives, from the stories I heard, was the single worst driver who ever got behind the wheel of a car.  Grandma told some great stories of his wretched driving over the years and I completely believe in his need for the dual angels on his shoulders because it seems only God’s divine protection could protect Msg. Ives from the holy terror of his driving.

More memories washed over me as I attended church this eve.  They still had the Stations of the Cross I remembered from my childhood and they were always my favorites as the paintings depict the Stations as if they were taking place in modern times.  I had forgotten how small the parish was, but it was like coming home as it still had that warm, intimate feel.  I also noted that a tradition begun by my grandparents was still in place and that’s the congregation holding hands for the Our Father.

Father sped through the service due to the weather so I found myself back on the road looking for a bite to eat.  Surprisingly, quite a few businesses were still open and I found a Mexican restaurant called Plaza Mexico to have some supper.

As I walked through the door, I realized this had been the local McDonald’s once upon a time as I would have recognized those doors anywhere.  As I perused the menu, a dish of chips and homemade salsa were brought to the table.  The salsa was nice and chunky and had just the right amount of zip.

I opted for the Burrito de Fajitas.  Now the menu said it was a giant tortilla, but I didn’t stop to think how big that might be.  It was about the size of a footlong Subway sandwich, but stuffed with strips of beef, bell peppers, beans, and rice.  I was not able to finish it, but what I had was mighty tasty.

Then it was back to the inn where I found a plate of oatmeal raisin cookies waiting by my room.  I bit into one.  Mmmm!  Still warm.  Then I went to my room where I gamed, took another long, hot soak, and went to bed.

When I woke up in the morning, I peeked out the window to see that the snow had pretty much stopped, but was being blown a bit, and that the roads had been cleaned.  I went downstairs to breakfast where Pat and Chris had another great meal waiting for me and I also learned that Pat had cleaned off my car which was greatly appreciated.

Today’s meal consisted of a raisin scone, dish of fruit with melon, grapes, and strawberries, Orange French Toast with holibread, bacon, and an apple cider shake (which was awesome).  Another blissful meal and it was time to go.

 

I was truly glad to have come down early for I would have missed out on a lot of memories and fun if I’d been forced to cancel. Storm Lake is definitely worth a visit during the holiday season and Gables on Geneseo is worth a visit any time of the year.  It’s beautiful, spacious, comfortable, and you’ll get to experience some of the finest breakfasts in the whole state of Iowa.

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.

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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.

Off to the Cotton Patch, Day 1: A Journey to Luxury

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It is with a sense of utter glee and joy that I share this series of articles with you, dear readers.  I never thought it would happen, but I have embarked on an adventure that is merging all facets of my blog into one.

In one of my earliest theatre tales, I mentioned that one of my favorite plays is Cotton Patch Gospel.  While not a well known play, it was a big hit when it first appeared back in 1982.  A few years ago, I started keeping my eyes on a fansite for the show that marked where it was playing in the United States.  Given the subject matter of the show, it usually plays in the South, but I always hoped it would one day get to Omaha or close enough so that I could see it in person.  A few months ago, I saw that the show was going to be produced at the Howmet Playhouse in Whitehall, MI.  It was a long drive at slightly over 10 hours, but definitely doable.  When I found that Whitehall contained some B & Bs as well, I decided to buy a ticket to the show and break up the drive so I could review a few inns along the way.

So it was that I found myself on the road again on a spring-like summer’s day making the long journey to Whitehall.  For the first day, I would travel as far as West Dundee, IL, a village that is a mere 34 miles from Chicago.  I once wrote that Mapquest directions seem to assume that a person is driving 10 miles under the speed limit as I always seemed to arrive at my destination a good hour before the directions said I would actually arrive.  This time proved to be a different tale.

Just past Des Moines, IA, I stopped at a rest area to stretch my legs a bit and once I got back on the road, traffic immediately ground to a halt.  It turns out the state was repainting the lines on I-80, so I spent 45 minutes plodding along like a turtle while I listened to the comical rants of Lewis Black to pass the time.  Mind you, there was no warning about the painting. . .at least not up front.  As soon as I got past the painting vehicles, there was a massive digital sign blaring the warning, ROADS BEING PAINTED.  EXPECT DELAYS.  “Oh!  Is that what was happening?” I flippantly thought to myself.  State of Iowa, in the words of Jeff Foxworthy, here’s your sign.

The drive progressed pretty smoothly for a while, until I crossed the border from Iowa to Illinois.  At that point, things slowed to a snail’s crawl again because Illinois was performing heaping amounts of construction on the interstate.  To make a long story less long, I ended up arriving in West Dundee nearly two hours later than planned.

But it was well worth the drive.  I think I just may retire to West Dundee.  This is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen.  There are so many historical homes here that I would have exhausted my camera’s memory card trying to take pictures of them all.  And I was going to get to stay in one!!

I found my way to The Mansion and my jaw dropped.  This inn, owned by Steve Fang & Eda Tomasone, is rivaled only by the Inn on Crescent Lake in terms of luxury and grandeur.  I was greeted by Steve who informed me that I had been upgraded to the best room in the house at no additional charge.  He said I would have room to spread out and that was understating things quite a bit.

I stayed in the Terrace Room which boasted a master bedroom, a sitting room, a private terrace, and a Jacuzzi bathtub and shower. I quickly settled in, dug out my camera, and began my explorations of The Mansion and the town of West Dundee.  The long walk felt good for my legs and worked up my appetite for dinner.

The master bedroom of the Terrace Suite.

The master bedroom of the Terrace Suite.

My private terrace

My private terrace

Jacuzzi tub and shower

Jacuzzi tub and shower

Sitting Room

Sitting Room

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Dinner was at the Village Squire, a nice bistro in the town that boasts live entertainment.  As soon as I stepped inside, the singer/guitar player began singing the classic Beatles tune You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away and I knew I was going to be in for an enjoyable meal.  I tipped the singer for playing music from my favorite band and sat down to enjoy a Chicken Caprese Panini with a side of steak fries.  I lingered over a tasty meal while listening to live classic soft rock and enjoying the escapades of the obsessive-compulsive detective, Adrian Monk.

After dinner, I made my way to Main Street where I went to the Underground Retrocade.  For a good portion of my youth, I was an avid video gamer and this place offered me a chance to relive a bit of my childhood.  It’s two floors of classic arcade and pinball machines.  All you have to do is pay a $15 cover charge and you can play to your heart’s content and, believe me, I more than went through the cover charge in the 2.5 hours I was there.  I felt just like a kid again as I battled the Sea Hag and Brutus in Popeye, dueled with Donkey Kong, served drinks in Tapper, and chased down criminals in A.P.B.

Underground Retrocade

Underground Retrocade

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It was still a pleasant night as I walked back to The Mansion.  Once I returned, I took a long soak in my Jacuzzi tub and then sank into the mattress of my bed.  My lights were out until the morning.

I awoke, fully rejuvenated and ready for a great breakfast.  Breakfast consisted of orange juice, scrambled eggs (with a splash of sriracha sauce), sausage links, and pancakes.  I savored my meal and ended up having a terrific conversation with Steve who shares my interests in music and theatre.  After 90 minutes, I returned to my home to finish today’s story.

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Shortly, I begin the 4 hour trek to Whitehall where the White Swan B & B and Cotton Patch Gospel await.  But if you find your way to West Dundee, get a room at The Mansion.  You’ll be glad you did.