Historic Finery or One Last Blast of Christmas: A.G. Thomson House & Duluth, MN

A.G. Thomson House

Today the road has brought me to Duluth, MN.

I was looking forward to this outing even more than normal.  After getting fully vaccinated, I was ready to experience the most normal adventure I had enjoyed since the pandemic began and I wasn’t let down. 

I started the journey by taking the scenic route through Fort Dodge where I enjoyed a quick bite to eat at Taco Tico before continuing my drive to my stopping point of Northwood, IA.  Cashing in some points, I enjoyed a free night at the Holiday Inn where I was also upgraded to a suite which was much appreciated after a long day of work and driving.  After a full night of uninterrupted sleep, I spent the morning puttering around before hitting the road again at 11:30am.

It was a gray day with sporadic, steady rainfall, but it didn’t dampen my spirits and I found myself in the North Shore town of Duluth and A.G. Thomson Bed & Breakfast, owned by Tim and Angie Allen, before I knew it.

I admit to being wowed when I pulled into the mansion’s parking lot.  A.G. Thomson is a 1909 Dutch Colonial mansion, but looks absolutely pristine and brand new both inside and out.  This property is so meticulously maintained that shoes are left on shelves at the front door.

The inn is absolutely immaculate and has loads of room to spread out with a massive living room, dining room and side porch.  Wine is also sold by the bottle and a room under the staircase contains a refrigerator with water, soft drinks and wine (one complimentary glass per guest) along with a variety of snacks and a large DVD library.

The house had been built for William Ryerson for the sum of $17,000 (roughly $492K today) and passed through the hands of a number of prominent Duluth families.  The name of the house comes from its second owner, Adam G. Thomson, who had a two story addition added to the rear, built the two story carriage house with a four room dwelling on the upper floor and a tool house.

My room was the Mayor’s Chamber, named for John Fedo who owned the house from 1986 to 1989.  Fedo had been the mayor of Duluth and was one of the city’s most controversial figures.  He is credited with the renaissance of Duluth’s lakefront, but was also the only mayor in history to be charged and tried for criminal offenses while in office though he was eventually acquitted.

The room contains the same elegance as found in the rest of the house.  A queen-sized bed takes up a corner of the room.  A tiled gas fireplace is set into one of the walls while the opposite side contains a 2 person whirlpool tub.  The floral wallpaper lends brightness to the room and a leather chair and footstool takes up the center of the room where one can watch the TV set on the wall in comfort.

After getting myself set up, I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood.  A.G. Thomson is located in the Congdon district AKA the Mansion district.  The area practically shouted wealth as I wandered past the million dollar homes while occasionally communing with nature.  Deer were plentiful and let me get within a few feet for photos before bounding away.  I enjoyed a phone conversation with my best friend, Josh, but eventually called it quits as the late afternoon was becoming a real pea souper and I didn’t need to literally get lost in a fog.

I hopped in the car and made my way to At Sara’s Table/Chester Creek Café for some dinner.

At Sara’s Table/Chester Creek Cafe

Even without a full vaccination, I would have felt safe visiting this town as Duluth set the bar for social distancing with protocols set in place for local businesses and a strict mask mandate.  At Sara’s Table is certainly no exception as seating is set six feet apart.

The bistro reimagines traditional American food and it is quite tasty.  I was seated in the library and it does have books you can read.  For my dinner I enjoyed a hearty Rachel with fries and tried a cream ale with has the smoothness of a black beer, but lacks the bitterness.  After my fine meal, I returned to the inn where I organized photos and took a long whirlpool bath before collapsing on the softest mattress I have ever lay upon and didn’t crack an eye until morning.

At breakfast I met Chris and Jessie Peterson and enjoyed some conversation with them while enjoying a repast of chocolate chip muffin, warm butternut squash soup, herb and black pepper scrambled eggs, sweet potato mash and French Toast with a blueberry compote.  A truly fine and filling meal which gave me the energy I needed to visit Glensheen.

Glensheen was the home of Chester and Clara Congdon and their family.  Chester was a lawyer and investor who was one of the first millionaires of Duluth.  He had Glensheen built on a 22 acre tract of land located by Lake Superior for the princely sum of $854,000 in 1908 (modern day equivalent of $22 million).  The Jacobean style mansion contains a jaw dropping 39 rooms and the property also contains a boathouse, gardener’s cottage, carriage house, tennis court and a stone arch bridge built over Bent Creek.

Glensheen

In 1968, the property was given to the University of Minnesota-Duluth by Elisabeth Congdon through a life estate and it continues to run the property to this day.  Tragically, Elisabeth Congdon’s life was cut short when she was killed by her son-in-law, Roger Caldwell.  It was theorized that the crime was committed so Elisabeth’s daughter, Marjorie (charged with & acquitted of the murder), could obtain her $8 million inheritance of which he was to receive $2.5 million.  Caldwell would end up accepting a plea deal for second degree murder, but recanted his guilt in his suicide note.  He never received the money.

I was quite fortunate to get a last blast of Christmas as Glensheen was still decorated for the Christmas season.  Twenty-five Christmas trees and a plethora of decorations adorned the mansion.  For social distancing purposes, the tours are self-guided, but placards containing the tour information are present at every stop and an audio tour can be had courtesy of the Glensheen app.

The mansion has been lovingly maintained and I was floored by the luxury in which the family lived. 

The Congdons were also noted for their charity and generosity.  Most notable was that the servants were permitted to enjoy the same menu as that of the family at meal times which was not the tradition of the day.  Chester was also known as a dutiful and loving husband who kept a spare room that he could retire to on nights he worked late so he wouldn’t disturb his wife and gifting her with $14K worth of pearls each Christmas.

All in all, I spent 2 hours at Glensheen before returning to the inn to post photos and begin writing.

For the first time since the pandemic started, I would finally attend worship services instead of taking in an online service.  A six minute walk took me to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary.  The chapel is gorgeous and I enjoyed a pleasant service.

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary

Then it was time for a little dinner and I opted for one of the inn’s favorite restaurants, Tavern On the Hill.

Tavern On the Hill is a bar/restaurant and must be quite popular as it was packed to socially distant capacity.  I ended up taking a seat at the bar where I enjoyed a Thai Chicken Tender Melt.  The sandwich is served on sourdough bread with the chicken glazed in a Thai curry sauce and covered with swiss cheese and bacon.  I contentedly nibbled away on the sandwich while reading my latest volume of Sherlock Holmes pastiches.  Once satiated, I returned to the inn for a quiet night of writing, reading and another whirlpool bath.

Sunday morning found me polishing this article a bit before making my way to breakfast. Today’s repast consisted of a dark chocolate raspberry scone with fruit plate and a main course of spinach artichoke baked potato, grape arugula salad and mushroom & asparagus cheese encrusted quiche. I spent a bit conversing with Chris & Jessie who told me about their day and I spoke a bit with Kirsten, the innkeeper, who regaled me with a story of how she and a friend traveled from Alaska to Duluth. I also got to meet with Tim, one of the owners, who had once lived in Omaha when he was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base.

And all too soon, it was over. But I had an amazing time here in Duluth and it was a much appreciated return to normalcy. Rest assured, I will be back in the area again, possibly for my annual Christmas review. But take the time to experience the peace and tranquility of Duluth and enjoy a night or two at A.G. Thomson House. As an ornament says at the second floor, you’ll enter as a stranger, but leave as a friend and you’ll enjoy some world class dining and luxury.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

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.