Wanting to feature iconic Dells community members, I set off to interview Newport long-time residents, Don and Anita Nelson, farmers and the owner of Thunder Valley Inn. I happily sat alongside one of their good friends, Arlen Kanno. I ran my hand alongside their well-used kitchen table, feeling a pleasant shiver of déjà vu. I didn’t have long to ponder the reason for the feeling since Anita passed me warmed sugared doughnuts and poured coffee.
I’d been fortunate enough to have been on the receiving end of many of Anita’s culinary delights while enjoying Sunday brunches at the Nelson’s Thunder Valley Inn off of Highway 13. Our family loved to go there for special occasions such as Mother’s Day. Afterward, we’d wander around and look at the resident animals including the peacock and friendly goats. If we were especially lucky, we’d hear Anita and her daughters, Sigrid and Kari, sing or play violin.
When I asked Don to tell me how and when they met, the stories began. “In 1938 I was seven years old when Anita’s brother, Otto Christopherson, who also lived on a dairy farm, told me he had a new baby sister and I should come see her. I did, but let me tell you, it wasn’t love at first sight.” He grinned.
Don went on to describe hanging out with Anita’s brother and being pestered by young Anita. At one point, when she bugged Don to play cards with her, he said, “Here, play 52 card pickup.” Pfffft!
Anita gave him a gentle sock on the arm.
Don went on to explain that he didn’t date Anita until she was college-age. Anita quickly piped up that Don had been too busy running around. “He was one of the eligible Norwegian farmers,” she said, waggling her eyebrows.
“Well,” Don replied, “you have to look around for a while and have a little freedom before you choose who you’re going to spend the rest of your life with.”
Anita poured more coffee and she and Don talked about their school years. They attended a rural school, called Stearns, off of highway 127. Some students rode their horses to school, tying them up with a long rope so they could graze. The school had eight grades and one teacher who boarded with a student’s family. Anita enjoyed winter recesses when they would lace their ice skates and glide and twirl on the nearby pond. Other days, Anita explained, the teacher and the students sledded down the steep hill. A naughty older student once jumped on the back of the teacher’s sled, and the two of them whipped down the steep hill at lightning speed. The teacher was not happy. Anita laughed to herself and I knew she was reliving it.
Just as I was reliving something from my past. I took a sip of my hot brew. The feeling was back.
The topic changed to more serious subjects: our need for public education, health care, better infrastructure, and to preserve our environment. Anita and Don have always been vocal and shared their opinions. The conversation switched to immigration and although the four of us had slightly different opinions, each person listened respectively. We also discussed the war in Ukraine and Anita voiced her wish to help the Ukrainian people. “I have this big farmhouse with empty bedrooms. It makes me feel guilty that I have so much when they have so little.”
Anita asked me if I knew if international students would be returning to the Dells. I didn’t know, but recalled that she and Don had welcomed many, nearly 200, who had stayed and helped on the farm. The Neslson stay in touch with many of them and feel strongly about learning from other cultures.
I remember being at a school board meeting early in my teaching career when Anita stood up and vehemently declared she thought teachers should be encouraged, and compensated for traveling abroad since it rounded out their experiences, which they could then share with their students. She’d made a favorable impression on this young teacher.
We went on to discuss the changes we’ve seen in the Dells and the need for us to be connected to our community—to be kind, honest, work hard, and be respectful to one another. Finally, Don said, “Well there, we’ve solved all the problems of the world.”
That’s when it hit me. My mother used to say the same thing after she and whoever else was visiting had finished “solving all the problems of the world.” I could clearly see her, my Norwegian grandmother, aunt, and a neighbor or two all clustered around the well-worn kitchen table.
It had been a long time since I’d spent an afternoon coffee klatching like my mother and grandmother loved to do. Déjà vu. It felt good, like coming home.