According to Jennifer Merhar, in the late 1800s if you were a woman at a social function when a group of suffragettes burst in to protest, you often had to be discreet about showing support, lest you upset your husband.
“You couldn’t be too vocal,” she said. “Very quietly, you raised your white handkerchief.”
Merhar, of Farmington, who hosts Lady Jane’s Victorian Tea every year, said last year’s tea was interrupted by a group of suffrage activists.
More surprises await guests of this year’s tea, to be held Saturday at Crystal Lake Golf Club in Lakeville.
Each spring, the event draws guests sporting broad-brimmed picture hats, chiffon and lace tea dresses, and their best manners to enjoy a luncheon, skits, songs and the fine art of conversation.
When the event first started, it served 50 women. This year, 232 have registered. “Our attendance boomed this year,” said Barbara Carson, a retired home economics teacher and chairwoman of the tea committee. “Evidently, we’re doing something right.”
This year, attendees will enjoy scones, a “palate refresher” of green apple ice (“That was very Victorian,” Carson said), field greens, and crêpes with chicken and Mornay sauce, followed by lemon panna cotta with raspberry sauce.
“And then, of course, we always serve tons of tea,” said Pearl Shirley, president of Dakota City Heritage Village, which puts on the event. Each table hostess makes sure the teapot stays hot and educates the table about its particular focus.
Due to this year’s theme, “Women Who Made a Difference,” each table is named after a Victorian-era woman who made history, such as Polish physicist and chemist Marie Curie or Juliette Gordon Lowe, the founder of the Girl Scouts.
“We’ve all heard of Florence Nightingale and what she’s done, but I have Charlotte Ray,” said Carson, referencing the first black lawyer in the United States. “That’s why it’s fun. It’s fun to do research. We serve not only tea but education and entertainment.”
Past events have been themed after the Kentucky Derby, with tables named “War Admiral” or “Man o’ War,” and the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, when Buffalo Bill’s outpost was set up outside the fairgrounds. At that year’s tea, Merhar surprised ladies by learning how to shoot a (fake) gun. “I was almost like Annie Oakley,” she said.
Guests play along, too. The table hostess jump-starts conversation by asking if they arrived by way of buggy or train, and “every year, more women wear hats and dresses,” Shirley said.
“There are quite a few seamstresses,” Merhar said. “Some of the costumes are just amazing.”
“There are so few opportunities to dress up these days,” Carson said. “Young girls will come with their mother and wear their hat and their Easter dress. It’s just fun to see how people do get into it.”
Merhar initially got involved with Dakota City as a performer for its Chautauqua tent shows. Before she took on the role of Lady Jane, she made an appearance at one of the teas as popular Victorian actress and singer Lillian Russell.
“I fell in love with her songs,” Merhar said. “If I was born in another era, I would have been her.”
Merhar said that for last year’s tea, “each table was named after a musical instrument and arranged as an orchestra.” At the end of the tea, she assigned a note to each section, “and we performed a ‘musical chord’ that felt wonderful to hear,” she said. “Two hundred voices together. It was fabulous.”
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.