To Old Frontenac — and back

It’s been almost three weeks since I bought The ‘Roo to replace my beloved (but defunct) Smurfmobile.

Subaru 1100839 BLOG

But as much as I’ve enjoyed my daily commutes in my new car, I’ve been itching to take a road trip. On Saturday I finally found my excuse: a visit with my dear friend Pam in Frontenac.

Pam and I have been to Frontenac before — a couple of times to explore the state park, and a couple of others to hunt for morels. But because it’s neither hike-in-the-woods season nor lop-off-the-mushrooms week, on Saturday we took a stroll through Old Frontenac instead.

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The imprint of a fallen oak leaf on one of Old Frontenac’s dirt roads

Nestled along the Mississippi River at Lake Pepin, Old Frontenac was first settled by the French in 1727 as a fur-trading outpost. In 1852 Evert Westervelt built the city’s first general store, and by 1854 he had grown so prosperous that he began construction of the Locust Lodge. Within 20 years an entire town — then named Westervelt — had sprung up around his opulent home.

Frontenac plat

A lot of those houses still exist. Some are humble cottages; others bear testament to Frontenac’s heyday as a resort town. Pam was eager to share a bit about the buildings’ histories — and those of the families who built them.

“Let’s start with the haunted house,” she said. Pam knows I’m a sucker for all things spooky, and the first stop didn’t disappoint. Nothing on the entire three-acre lot appeared to be alive, except for the spring-green grass. The once-grand Locust Lodge sat in the middle of the lot, quite literally crumbling before our eyes.

Haunted house 1100894 BLOG

Rumor holds that a woman from Boston owns it, Pam told me. At night there’s sometimes a faint light in an upstairs window, but no one’s been seen entering or leaving the house in ages. I looked up at the window. “I can see the light!” I told Pam. “I wonder if there’s someone in there. Let’s knock and find out.”

I didn’t have the guts, of course, so Pam did the honors. “What will we say if someone answers?” Pam asked as she rapped the window. “We’ll offer to mow the lawn,” I joked. To my enormous relief, no one opened the door.

Haunted house 1100897 BLOG

Our next stop took us to the town cemetery. Although some people find them macabre, I love old cemeteries. They’re testaments to history, and human love, and to the things the departed held dear.

Or deer, as the case may be: Pam and I were sure that this doe was a plastic lawn ornament, at first glance — until the ornament turned calmly and walked away from us, into the woods.

Deer ornament 1100913 BLOG

Deer ornament 1100916 BLOG

But I digress.

Old Frontenac’s cemetery interested me not only because of the beautiful artistry of some of its Victorian tombstones …

Frontenac tombstone 1100925 BLOG

… but also because many of them were marked entirely in German. Pam explained that many of the early residents were carpenters and tradesmen who came to help build the town, and likely didn’t speak any English.

Frontenac tombstone 1100927 BLOG

Others spoke perfect English — like the brothers Israel and Lewis Garrard of Cincinnati, who first visited Old Frontenac on a hunting trip in 1854. Israel fell so in love with Old Frontenac that he settled here permanently.

He was as shrewd a businessman as Evert Westervelt (remember the guy who built Locust Lodge?). Eventually Israel Garrard and his brothers bought up most of the town and renamed it Frontenac.

When the Civil War broke out Israel Garrard returned to Ohio, where he served as a brigadier general between 1861 and 1865. But happiness seemed to evade him after his return to Frontenac: He lost his wife and his third child in 1867, and never remarried. He died in 1901 after suffering serious burns from a kerosene lamp that one of his beloved dogs knocked over. At least in death is he again reunited with his wife and children.

Israel Garrard 1100932 BLOG

Of course, not all of Old Frontenac’s residents have so rich a history. Many of them are now only names in a registry — but some of the children who died during the typhus epidemic weren’t even named.

Baby boy 1100933 BLOG

Alas, by now it was mid-afternoon and my energy was flagging. It was time to go home.

I’d had such a wonderful time — and my head was so full of history and stories — that I sailed right past the turn onto Highway 61. Oh, well. I turned on the Roo’s built-in compass, and turned onto a rural dirt road.

The cornfields seemed to stretch into the horizon.

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But before I knew it, more farmhouses started to appear …

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… and then the townhouses.

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Two days later I still can’t shake the feeling that I traveled not just down the Mississippi, but also back in time.

I can’t wait to go back to Old Frontenac.


  1. When I was growing up in lovely Kenyon, Minn., which is about midway between St. Paul and Rochester, my parents would take Sunday drives which bored me silly, except when we went to Old Frontenac.

    I thought it was magical, all those big old mansions.Back then, most of them were empty and in semi-falling-down condition. (Several were torn down, I think.) I was fascinated, and I wished we could buy one and fix it up to live in. At least one of them had a widow’s walk on the top, which my mom told me was where the wife of a sea captain (in this case, a river boat captain) would stand looking for her husband to come home to her. I don’t know if that was true about these particular houses, but it was a good place to start off with a good imagination.

    • What wonderful memories, Sherri! You’re right that there’s something about Old Frontenac that captures the imagination. It has such a vibrant sense of history — and there’s something about the place that greatly appeals to my Edward-Gorey-like sensibilities. And of course, it doesn’t hurt that it’s all nestled into such a beautiful natural setting.

      Thanks, as always, for reading! I’m always honored when you stop by, and especially when you take the time to comment. Cheers!

  2. Thanks for sharing! We have been there several times and took the walking tour to get a closer feel for the history. A wonderful piece of history that still holds the feel and enjoyment of days gone by. I was quite pleased the conglomerate development of the old hotel never materialized. It would have completely destroyed the ambiance of this quaint village. However, I do wish the B & B’s were still allowed to operate. It would be a real experience to spend the night in this village still alive with the spirit of history! We, too, spent some time at the cemetery. Old souls still linger and whisper how they still miss the old days. I think it is time for a road trip!

    • What a wonderful mini-memoir you’ve written, Karen! You’re right that it’s a shame there aren’t any B&B’s in Old Frontenac; it really would be wonderful to spend a night (or two) there. But I suppose in a sense it’s also good that the city is being a bit guarded about tourism, because part of the city’s charm is the fact that it’s frozen in time. In any case, if you do make that road trip, please report back on your findings! And thank you so much for stopping by,

    • There’s something very compelling about that old house, isn’t there, Rochelle? I’m not sure if it’s haunted — but I certainly feel haunted *by* it! If it weren’t against the law (and probably pretty dangerous), I’d love to take a peek inside. I wonder whether any of the old furniture remains? Well, we’ll just have to visit vicariously through our imaginations, won’t we? 🙂

  3. Thanks for taking us along on this fascinating trip. What a beautiful mansion that is! Such a shame to see it crumbling and unloved. I hope someone saves it before it’s too late.

    I like graveyards too, for their history and, as you say, their record of love. Babies’ and children’s gravestones reduce me to tears, though, and always have, even when I was a teenager. Sigh.

    My first reaction to the picture of the cornfields was, ‘Ew, too flat, too featureless for me.’ Then I noticed the breathtaking big skies, and how you can look across the lines of clouds for miles, watching the weather and noticing the light move over the fields. Even flatness is beautiful. (And that’s a big realisation from a highlander!)

    • I feel as you do about babies’ and children’s graves, DB … it’s sad to see their little lives cut so short, and to contemplate their parents’ grief.

      But on a happier note, you’re so right that the flatness can be boring to the point of oppression — until you climb to the top of a hill. Then it feels like you can see forever. And when the wheat is nearing harvest, it’s almost hypnotic to gaze out at the sea of grass, swaying like waves in the wind.

      Still … I do miss the mountains! 🙂

  4. *sigh* I wish I had such a good name as Evert Westervelt! And I’m very glad to have read this account of old Frontenac which I am rather familiar with by now as it has come up from time to time in your various other Frontenacings but now things are filled in rather nicely. Also, it was fun reading about the Smurfmobile. Although I think a better name might’ve been the Violet Burearegarde, haha!

    • Isn’t it a pity that no one names their kid Evert Westervelt anymore? I suppose you and I could legally change our name, but it’s just not the same as having that bestowed upon you. (Much as one might call a car Violet Burearegarde, I suppose. HAHA! Don’t know how you came up with that, but kinda jealous I didn’t think of it.) Anyway … so glad to hear you enjoyed this bit of Frontenacing. Many more will follow! Thank you so much for the pleasure of your company on this vicarious stroll, dear J.

  5. July 15, 2019
    I’ve never responded to something like this before, but my love of Frontenac compels me to write a note. As you may know Frontenac will be celebrating 160 years on September 21st (2019) with a whole day of tours, activities, food, displays, etc. Just google Frontenac for the information. Although my husband (from Bemidji) and I now live in Connecticut, we will be back for the festivities. I grew up in Frontenac, as did my dad, grandmother and great grandparents. It is a magical place, but also a really fun place to grow up. My grandmother and I even attended the same country school house between Old and New Frontenac (also cally Station, as the railroad tracks and station were located there on land given to the railroad by the Garrads so the tracks would not be too close to their homes. Oh, the stories!

    • Hello Judy,
      I’m sorry for the delay in seeing and replying to your lovely comment (I’ve been on an accidental sabbatical this summer). But thank you so much for sharing your memories about Frontenac with me and my other readers. It’s rare these days to hear stories like yours, such as attending school in the same schoolhouse as your grandmother. And a big thanks also for alerting me to the celebration on September 21. If I can get away from my obligations in the city, I’ll be there! My best to you, and enormous thanks again for stopping by.

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