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The new Straw Horse: ‘How Swede it is’

By Staff | Mar 6, 2009

On the wall, the words translate roughly from old world Swedish as "Coffee is the best of all earthly drinks." From left are Allan Wenell, Anna Marie Olson, Sherryl Madson, Ellie Hillmer and Nola Josephson, who are just a few of the volunteers and investors who reopened the Straw Horse in Albert City.

ALBERT CITY – When any business closes its doors on the main street of a small rural Iowa town, it hurts. But when that store also celebrates a town’s history and heritage, the pain is doubly felt as it is part of what defines one’s town and sets it apart.

“It left such a hole in our town the day the Straw Horse closed its doors,” said Ellie Hillmer. “I loved that store.”

Hillmer was not alone in missing the Straw Horse. She and 13 other community members invested money and time to reopen the store on Oct. 15, 2008. A total of 17 volunteers help run the store that is open Monday through Friday, from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Albert City was settled first by people of a Swedish background in 1899 when the railroad first came through. That legacy is speedily verified with a quick peak in the phone book showing a majority of names ending in “son,” “quist” or a name like Sunblad.

A very large Dala or Dahla horse greets all who enter this town of 700. (It is listed on Iowa’s Largest Things Web site.)

Welcome is how you will feel when you step in the doors of the Straw Horse in Albert City

Originally whittled by peasants on cold wintry nights as toys for their children, these wooden horses were placed in iron ore piles to soak up the red orange color that is unique to Sweden. An item that could be used in bartering or sold when money was scarce has become a symbol for Sweden.

It was only natural that when original owner,Allan Wenell, was selecting a name for his business, he chose Straw Horse. It embodied both the Dala Horse and the Straw Goat which is part of their Christmas traditions. Straw Horse remained the name when the store reopened last October.

The owner/volunteers rely strongly on Allan Wenell who is one of the owner/investors for business advice. In lighthearted banter, they say “Instead of having just one wife to listen to, Allan now has all of us to listen to!”

Special events like “Cabin Fever Days,” where wedding pictures of community members were brought in and displayed yielded much merriment during winter’s long days.

The store is never the same. New inventory arrives regularly, yet, the store’s core items are always available. These include specialties from Sweden such as lingonberry jelly, which just happens to be the perfect topping for ostakaka, a favorite Swedish dessert, or for Swedish pancakes.

In a town where volunteerism and the spirit of cooperation is alive and well, Albert City volunteers have pooled resources tp reopen the Straw Horse.

Need a recipe for Swedish brown beans, potato bologna, or lutefisk in cream sauce? Be sure to check out the Albert City Centennial Cookbook that was published for the town’s centennial in 1999. The capacious cookbook features a section of Scandinavian recipes, as well as many other prized recipes. The cookbook can be bought at the Straw Horse.

Other Scandinavian treasures can be found here. Many sizes of Dala horses in a variety of color and styles; plus rosemaling, a decorative folk art that is usually painted in darker colors of blue, red, yellow and gray. This beautiful art style decorates an assortment of dishes, wall hangings, clothes and even the Dahla horse.

Rye flour, a key ingredient in Swedish bread, can be bought at the store. It is a finer grind that bakes into a nice light loaf. Noting rye bread’s importance, the cookbook has 20 different family favorite recipes. The store also sells rennet, an essential ingredient in making authentic Ostakaka.

Straw Horse has a little of everything – dishes for every day use or a picnic, picture frames, purses, wallets, pictures, towels, napkins, stained glass lamps and furniture. A bridal registry allows gift givers to purchase a gift or leave money to be applied to a more expensive gift. Top quality homemade chocolate and caramels have their own draw to customers. At the same time, visitors can observe pictures on the wall depicting Albert City’s history.

Throughout the year, visitors from many of the 50 states and several foreign countries visit the store. Some come whenever they are in the area. For Wenell and other volunteers, these repeat customers have become new friends, whom they greet with a “valkommen” smile.

Contact Renae Vander Schaaf by e-mail at renaefarmnews@gmail.com.

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