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Continued: An old-school welcome

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: June 2, 2012 - 11:07 AM

We had booked a cozy room at an inn overlooking Puget Sound on Bainbridge Island, off the coast of Seattle. But then our daughter, whom we were off to visit, reminded us about Bourbon.

That's her dog -- and the unlikely cosmic hero that threw a wrench in our plans and led us to one of those rare characters you long to meet, the ones who make traveling so delightfully unpredictable.

Our daughter told us she'd be staying at a nature retreat that houses her Bainbridge Graduate Institute MBA program, where dogs are forbidden. That meant we'd be in charge of the slightly neurotic and overly lovable grand mutt for the weekend.

So we rebooked, getting a room in the one Bainbridge Island B&B that welcomed pets, the one ensconced in the middle of the island, far from its 53 miles of shoreline.

To get there, we navigated public transportation from the airport to a ferry in Seattle for a 40-minute ride, our jaws dropping as a splendid sunset splashed an orange glow on the islands dotting the sound and the Olympic Mountains. After disembarking, it was time for dinner.

We found some nice pan-seared wild halibut, crusted in curry and basil, at the Steamliner Diner a couple of blocks from the ferry terminal, then climbed into a taxi and snaked away from the water, down twisting tree-lined roads in search of our new digs.

The Holly Lane Gardens Bed & Breakfast sits way up a rutted road, past barn sheds, greenhouses, coops and pens. A note on the front door led us to a comfortable cottage with a little kitchen. Bourbon crashed contentedly on the foot of our bed.

In the morning, I headed through the crisp light to the main house, where innkeeper Patti Dusbabek was creating a cheesy phyllo breakfast with sausage, fresh fruit and homemade cranberry almond bread.

Eight Japanese women had recently visited her inn, Patti started telling me, while orchestrating the symphony that would soon become our breakfast.

"Can you imagine, traveling halfway across the world to learn how to make cinnamon rolls and see my gardens and crafts?" Patti said, her laughter a lilting cackle. "It was a hoot and a half."

Hoot and a half? Hmm. I took a tame guess and asked if perhaps she was originally from Minnesota.

"You're darn tooting I am," she said. "And you have no idea how much teasing I take for sounding like those people in the 'Fargo' movie. After 25 years, you'd think I'd lose the Minnesota accent, but it hasn't happened yet."

Former life as St. Paul teacher

As her laughter eased, she showed me around her 9-acre spread, letting me cradle the half-pound organic eggs her prized geese lay. As we traipsed around the goose pens and ornamental gardens, Patti started spinning her own story.

It took time, just as it does when she spins the alpaca-like fibers she gets from her llamas, Dalai and Willow, two of the 180 barnyard animals she chases, chastises and showers with affection.

Here's the long story short: Patti is a 73-year-old widow who spent 17 years teaching business at a now-defunct Catholic school in West St. Paul, Brady High School.

"I had 200 kids a day, so it adds up to thousands of students of mine back in St. Paul," she said.

Her Lebanese grandfather, Peter Nihma, was rechristened Peter Johns at Ellis Island around 1918 and settled among the immigrants in the flood-plain flats of St. Paul's West Side. He'd bury coffee cans with chunks of carp and gar plucked from the Mississippi River to fertilize the giant tomato plants in his front yard, cinder-soiled gardens on Eva Street. Then he'd truck his vegetables to local markets during the Depression.

"He'd get such a hoot out of what's going on here," Patti said, stomping around her high-bush blueberries and grove of 100 fruit trees, including persimmons, cherries, plums and apples. "I mean it's a piece of craziness for someone my age, it is, and I am the first one that will acknowledge it, OK?"

Patti and her late husband of 33 years, Hal Dusbabek, moved to Seattle in 1985. She spent 14 years raising her son and working as a federal agent with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

After Hal died 20 years ago and her son grew up, Patti decided to reinvent herself and become a farmer, like her grandfather a couple generations before her. She was in her early 60s.

She opened the Holly Lane Gardens 11 years ago, renting out five units, including our little cottage, a suite with a hot tub in the lower level of her house and three rooms upstairs. Rates are reasonable, ranging from $75 to $125.

Cooking, crafts and farming

When she's not chasing geese or making gourmet breakfasts, Patti's exhausting routine includes tending her greenhouses chock full of swiss chard and kale, and weeding heirloom gardens with every herb and vegetable imaginable.

No melons, though. "You need a climate like Minnesota to grow melons, hot in the day and cool at night," she said. "People try around here and their melons are pathetic."

She's also a master horticulturist, attracting gardening geeks from near and far, not to mention a master crafter who weaves, spins and makes candles. She hauls all her stuff to local markets, from the organic goose eggs to wreaths, and teaches crafting classes when she can squeeze in the time.

"She's absolutely an inspiration," said Nancy Dorsey, a neighbor on nearby Agate Beach Lane and music director at St. Cecilia's Catholic Church, where Patti sings soprano.

"I have a great deal of admiration for a lady Patti's age taking on all the physical challenges,'' Dorsey said. "She's extremely bright and hardworking and, quite frankly, I don't know how she does it."

Patti has hired a few interns in the summertime, but her pace amazes even herself.

"Can you believe all the nonsense that goes on?" she said, chasing one of the Sebastopol geese that cost $100 each. "I have so many darn egg layers, if I leave them out, they'll lay eggs all over the place. You have no idea."

After we returned home, I visited Greg Barnholdt, 65, who runs a barbershop in Mendota and is Patti's first cousin. They reconnected at a funeral a few years ago, and Patti slipped him one of her cards.

"I thought she was retired," he said. "I guess I wasn't paying attention."

A couple of years ago, Barnholdt and his wife checked into the Holly Lane Gardens, where Patti wouldn't let them help make a huge traditional Lebanese dinner.

"I said: 'Patti, we're family' and she said, 'No, you're my guests now,''' he recalled. "I was just amazed by the amount of energy she has, and the scope of her operation. It's unbelievable, and our grandfather would be awful proud."

So thank you, Bourbon the dog, who indirectly helped me find a new friend with some old-school Minnesota panache on an island far from home.

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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