Cats are a nuisance. Kids are only slightly more tolerable. Despite my feelings, I couldn’t help but become smitten with the Minnesota childhood home of Wanda Gág, author of the children’s classic “Millions of Cats,” tucked away in a residential neighborhood in New Ulm.
I almost missed the house call. En route to a “Little House on the Prairie” fix in Walnut Grove, I had stopped for lunch in the southern Minnesota burg best known for its Glockenspiel clock tower and dedication to polka music.
My tentative plan was to top off my Oktoberfest sandwich with a visit to the town’s Minnesota Music Hall of Fame — only to find it was closed on Sundays, its hours scarcer than a Simon and Garfunkel reunion. But a local periodical that the waitress handed me between refills of coffee directed me to the historic home, just a few blocks from the quaint main street.
I had never heard of Gág. Then again, I had never heard of an Oktoberfest sandwich before, and that was tasty enough.
More should visit
When I arrived at the Queen Anne-style home, the joint was vacant except for a tour guide and a family roaming around in the second-floor bedrooms.
That wasn’t unusual. The docent said she gets only about a dozen visitors a day, and seeing that the home is officially open only on weekends during summer months, that comes to a yearly total of fewer than 500 people; not exactly a threat to the tourism business at nearby Schell Brewing Co.
More should pay a visit, if only to grasp a rudimentary appreciation for the Minnesota Bohemian behind the oldest American picture book still in print. Copies of “Cats” — which won the prestigious Newbery Award in 1929 despite featuring the universe’s nastiest catfight not involving one of the “Real Housewives” — were available in the kitchen/gift shop, alongside her take on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and “The ABC Bunny,” in which an apple does nearly as much damage as it did in the Garden of Eden.
Gág’s works as an illustrator, her real calling card, are as challenging as her Grimm-inspired tales, with spooky shadows and complex curved lines that hug the action.
The museum exhibits much of Gág’s early prep work under glass cases and on the walls, including prints on paper bags (she despised watercolors) and greeting cards. Any pennies she scraped together went toward pencils. There’s a copy of Pick a Path, a board game that predates Candyland by 50 years, with penalties for sneaking snacks between meals and getting caught with your hand in the pickle jar.
In the attic, which the Gág children abandoned as sleeping quarters during harsh winter nights, is a display of trinkets — cigar papers, doll arms, tiddlywinks — discovered under the floorboard during a 1994 renovation. You don’t have to be an art buff to get nostalgic about how these teensy items passed for entertainment in an era deprived of Pokemon Go.
Her style is well-represented through the ongoing exhibit “Art as Life,” which features everything from her striking lithographs to one of the peasant blouses she sported in the 1920s. One disappointment: The piano the family somehow managed to afford around the turn of the 20th century no longer sits in the parlor.
Runs in the family
The focus may be on Wanda Gág, who would go on to study at the Minneapolis School of Art (later the Minneapolis College of Art and Design) before moving to New York, but the tour is just as much about her father, Anton, a fellow artist who maintained a photo studio next to the children’s bedroom.
The Bohemian immigrant, who built the house in 1894 but couldn’t afford to move in for a couple of years, was eclectic and fascinating in his own right, choosing to design a home with seven primary rooms, seven shapes of windows, seven areas dedicated to his stencils and seven shades of paint on the exterior walls for his seven children.
Is it any wonder that his eldest daughter would become fascinated with seven dwarves?
The father, who died when Wanda was a teenager, was a capable artist, and his moody paintings — his takes on seascapes and peaches exude dread — are sprinkled throughout. His famous “Attack on New Ulm” is so disturbing, for its graphic nature and its depiction of American Indians, that it was removed from prominent display two years ago at the State Capitol. A smaller version can be found in the New Ulm home.
His attraction to the dark side is all the more mysterious after you notice how many windows he had installed, ensuring a steady stream of sunlight throughout the day, and how he balked at the notion of having a garden in the backyard; that precious patch of green was reserved for family plays.
Wanda’s younger sister Flavia is also recognized. A children’s author herself, her bright, optimistic watercolor paintings provide a nice balance to her sister’s gloomier instincts.
The Gágs may get more attention next year. Money is being raised to erect a statue of Wanda in front of the town’s library. For now, though, this is a low-key, low-maintenance history lesson operated by dedicated locals.
The guide during my afternoon visit was so engrossed in the subject that she buried her nose in a Gág biography between her half-hour tours. That doesn’t mean she was eager to entertain my questions about the young woman’s Bohemian wanderings and her pop’s gloomy approach to art.
Maybe she sensed that I hate cats.
Wanda Gág House
Where: 226 N. Washington St., New Ulm.
Suggested admission: $3.
Hours: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat., 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun., through Oct. 24. Special tours can be prearranged throughout the year by calling 1-507-359-2632.
Getting there: New Ulm is about a two-hour drive southwest of the Twin Cities, which makes it a nice place for a day trip. The house also offers a nice, sober break from Oktoberfest activities, which this year take over the town Oct. 7-8 and 14-15.
Gág art elsewhere
Anton Gág contributed art to the walls and ceilings of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New Ulm. His daughters were used as models for the angels. His work can also be found at the Brown County Historical Society and Turner Hall in New Ulm, as well as at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church near Zumbro Falls, Minn.
Wanda’s work is housed at various world-renowned museums, including the National Gallery of Art and the British Museum. The Minneapolis Institute of Art has nearly 100 pieces, none of which is currently on display. Her work is also celebrated at the Brown County Historical Society.