By Daniel J. Vance - Photo by Jeff Silker
On the windward side of Truman, Minn., and only ten miles north of where road-weary travellers crisscross I-90, The Whittler’s Lady Bed & Breakfast began as a monument to a homegrown lady’s poignant memories and to her wild dreams.
The shadow of her twisted silver maple out front throws a welcome mat onto this B&B’s surprisingly grape exterior. Guests wearing grins of anticipation often pause outside beside a mood-setting 1890s street lamp, hoping the inside digs really do match the pastel hues on her website. It’s really her own personal business dream, a fantasy of sorts, much more fulfilling than her former occupation of holding together a ceramic tile installer’s office in booming Apple Valley.
“It would have made more sense from a business standpoint to open a bed & breakfast in Red Wing, Stillwater or Rochester, high traffic areas near rivers,” says the business-savvy Yvonne Noorlun, 56. She and Lowell chose Truman primarily because it was her hometown, a friendly outpost of rural folk who had known her since childhood. Her twin brothers of Truman pound out dents at their Nick’s Body Shop. A third brother and her mother also live in Truman.
It’s not quite the perfect fantasy, though. Yvonne and Lowell Noorlun hold down separate lives. He works in the Twin Cities weekdays, and commutes home two hours to Truman every Friday. On the other hand, she has been immersed in The Whittler’s Lady since leaving Apple Valley in 1997.
“Truman made sense,” she says, running her hand over the woodwork on a living room chair. “Sometimes small communities can be sort of unfriendly to outsiders. Besides that, our risk in moving here was minimal because if the very worst happened, and we didn’t like running a bed & breakfast, then we would have a very nice home to live and eventually retire in — and we could go get outside jobs."
But the very worst hasn't happened. The Noorluns are still doing the B&B thing. In five years more than 3,000 guests have trod The Whittler's Lady's padded carpet, from wedding parties and business guests to class reunion gatherings. The only sore spot the last five years has been Lowell's inability to land comparable work in southern Minnesota. He's still clinging to a benefit-rich position at Lynden Air Freight in Eagan.
"[The commute] is getting old, but Lowell is only three years until retirement," Yvonne says. "We'll just have to weather the storm. The sacrifice will definitely be worth it."
Meet the Lady's Whittler
Yvonne's whittler is Lowell, 59, who has been woodcarving keychains, walking staffs, and features since 1972, initially for pure fun. Most of his whittling is confined now to weekends when he "comes home" to Truman after a long week at Lynden Air Freight in Eagan. When he started his hobby, he figured it wouldn't rob time from his precious home life, not like golf or snowmobiling can. He's more than content to while away summer hours in the soft shade of an old silver maple or oak, slowly whittling at his hardwood using a pocket knife. The hobby seems to fit his contemplative nature.
"I use everything from a pocket knife to a woodcarving tool," he says. "Our Minnesota Woodcarvers group used to have as a member a retired St. Paul art teacher. She enjoyed carving beautiful Norwegian trolls, or Tompteguvens. She said she'd use everything from a paring knife to a gouge in woodcarving. Anything works: whatever is comfortable for the individual carver."
Each of the five rooms in The Whittler's Lady was named after a hardwood used in woodcarving: Lacewood, Tulipwood, Rosewood, Kingwood, and Satinwood. For each of the rooms Lowell has carved keychains of that particular wood in order to hold the room's skeleton key. A display of these keychains earned a Grand Champion ribbon at the Martin County Fair. The whittling is a natural complement to his other hobby of "weekend visiting" with guests, which he enjoys as much as any other aspect of B&B life. "It may be selfish on my part, but I absolutely love talking with guests because I learn so much. Even from the young kids just married."
Like Yvonne, Lowell fits hand-in-glove with southern Minnesota living: he was born and raised on a farm northwest of Kiester, Minn. Being in Truman "brings me home again to my rural roots," he says. "It's a wonderful place, where the community spirit is electrifying. The city is fortunate enough to be kept alive economically by the close proximity of Fairmont and Mankato. Kiester is a good community, but it's nothing like Truman."
THE COUPLE BEGAN dating, awkwardly at first, after the cancer-related death of Lowell's wife, Judy, who passed away in 1990 at age 44. Yvonne and Judy Noorlun had been best friends since their dormitory days at Golden Valley Lutheran College in 1964, and then were roommates 14 more years. Yvonne's first marriage didn't last long, so she had been a longtime single mother when Judy died.
She says, "Lowell and I had always spent time together as friends anyway, and so we continued to spend time together after Judy's death. We liked bowling. We each had a 16-year-old boy at the time, and our boys were best friends. Then all of a sudden, Lowell asked me to go to a woodcarving show with him. Then he took me out to dinner; then a movie. We kind of looked at each other and said, What are we doing here? To make a long story short we got married. And our boys were excited to be brothers."
The pair with the sad past — both had lost the same friend, Judy — then began healing their hurts and dreaming of opening a small business together. First it was an antique shop, which Yvonne had more than a casual interest in, that is, until a firsthand look under the hood canned the idea. While investigating antique shops they found themselves staying at bed & breakfasts, and an idea started to unfold: their master plan in time would be to open a bed & breakfast as soon as possible, before retiring, and to build the business up as an income supplement in their retirement.
Truman was a logical choice — again, as explained earlier — but leaving Apple Valley was no easy matter. Both Yvonne and Lowell had spent their adult lives in the Twin Cities and were fond of the life-style. At the ceramic installer business, she ran the office, measured blueprints, and dealt with customers. Says Yvonne, "I liked Apple Valley a lot. From a business standpoint, it was an extremely progressive community. When I first moved there I remember that we drove across the old Cedar Bridge, and if you could get across without scraping paint off the sides of your car you thought you were doing well. Within 20 years, the Mall of America arose. There were lots of opportunities and it was a great place to work. It was easy to access the two downtowns and the airport."
But there was this home tugging at her, this one home. It had remained in the back of her mind all these years as an absolutely poignant memory, a special home on Ciro Street owned by an elderly couple, the Malhereks, on the windward side of Truman. She'd been in the home as a child, and had remembered the elegant woodwork and maze of rooms, but now she was questioning her memory. Was the home available? Had it really looked that grand? After all, childhood memories can be like the impressionism of a Monet: pleasing to the mind, yet with fuzzy edges and no detail.
She believed the home was one of only a Truman few that had the potential to be converted into a moving bed & breakfast experience. The Malhereks had taken good care of the home. Then a miracle: a spontaneous stop by the Noorluns magically ended in an informal agreement to purchase it for only $80,000 — inexpensive by Apple Valley standards. Yvonne was ecstatic. After first checking with a plumbing contractor to make sure the home's plumbing could handle major bathroom expansions, "we were able to sell our modest home in Apple Valley, buy this home, do all the upgrades, and start a business for the price of our home in Apple Valley," she claims.
The renovation started immediately, literally, as the Malhereks were backing out the driveway after closing. Contractors installed new plumbing, carpet, and electrical wiring. Yvonne and a high school friend, Beverly Grabowski, added thousands of dollars in sweat equity by making major cosmetic improvements themselves, including all the wallpaper, trim, and most of the painting. One personal touch was the addition of the couple's own extensive antique collection. Displays of Lowell's woodcarving hobby added spice. The entire renovation cost only $40,000.
The B&B Breed Is Set Apart
When tucking cotton sheets into mattress corners or beating eggs to a froth for a dozen hungry guests on a Saturday morning, sometimes a negative thought will creep into Yvonne's mind, one of not wanting to make another bed, of not wanting to fry another egg, or of not wanting to exert the elbow grease to run their bed & breakfast. But that thought is fleeting. "I then remind myself rather quickly that all my life I had worked for someone else ten hours a day," she says. "Then I would leave work to care for my own family. Running a bed & breakfast is my job now. No one can tell me when or how to work. I get all the rewards. And it's very rewarding."
A good portion of that reward is in dealing with her guests. For whatever reason, bed & breakfast travellers tend to be "grateful, kind, and enthusiastic," she says. "We learn something from each one of them. When they visit, it's like we're travelling right along with them, whether they hail from the British Virgin Islands or Alaska. We have some wonderful table conversations over breakfast."
Since opening they've had three open houses, a few wedding receptions, been in a tour of homes, and had dozens and dozens of luncheons, slumber parties, murder mystery packages, and of course, the regular overnight guest. Their guestbook has logged more than 3,000 visitors the last five years. Yvonne says, "I can honestly say to you that I can't single out any one guest and say that I wouldn't want them back in our home. No one has been disrespectful, no one has stolen anything, no one has damaged anything. They are truly wonderful people."
Yvonne says a successful bed & breakfast has a private bath for each bedroom, nice linens, comfortable beds, comfortable chairs, ample lighting and a terrific breakfast. "Beyond that," she adds, "the rest is fluff. If a guest comes here and doesn't get a good night's sleep and doesn't get a good breakfast before they leave, they have no reason to come back."
"I was pretty much a slave driver," she says. "I had a mission, and wanted everything totally completed by the time it opened. I worked 16-hour days, seven days a week, from November to April and didn't know I could work so hard." One day in the midst of a mess, when nothing resembled what it would one day become, Yvonne almost broke down in tears. She thought the banging and scraping and painting would never end. She also feared spending "all this money and then have Lowell leave me," she says. To quell her growing fears she began focusing on one room at a time. And eventually it all fell in place.
"I had the living room entirely finished except for a border along the ceiling," she explains. "Then my sister-in-law said I should have wood moulding instead of a border along the ceiling. I agreed, but the more expensive wood wasn't in my budget. It turned out that my brother's brother-in-law owned a cabinet shop in Sioux Falls. My brother measured the ceiling, and the cabinet shop milled the moulding for us at a great price. My twin brothers stained the wood to match other woodwork."
They were able to cut costs by using their own furnishings, including an elegant baby grand piano and the antiques and woodcarvings. All they had to purchase were tables, lamps and chairs. They inherited the Malhereks' 100-year-old living room couch. The upstairs Kingwood Room became the repository for the Noorlun's antique camera collection. The new bed & breakfast, which tentatively had been scheduled to open January 1997, was finally ready in April 1997 for an open house.
Today, the B&B receives most of its traffic on weekends when Lowell is around, with room prices and a full breakfast in the $65-75 range. Businessmen and women can take advantage of a corporate discount package for extended stays.
"We receive lots of Internet traffic off our http://www.thewhittlerslady.com/ website," says Yvonne Noorlun, co-owner of The Whittler's Lady in Truman, Minn. "We also belong to the Fairmont Area Chamber of Commerce, which is a very good organization that has been very good to us. We also belong to Explore Minnesota, which puts us on their website and in their state B&B guide. Once you're out there, other publications pick up your listing and without your knowledge you're put in dozens of places."
For B&B aficionados weary of the center-line stripe on I-90, the ten miles it takes to get from the Fairmont exit to Truman isn't any drive at all. Some have been known to travel more than a hundred miles off the beaten path for the special experience. Businesspeople from Rochester, the Twin Cities or Sioux Falls occasionally use The Whittler's Lady as a meeting point: it's exactly two hours from each city.
And then there are her guests: all highly interesting, a few famous, others with fascinating stories to tell. Here are several of Yvonne's memories since opening in April 1997:
Yvonne says, "A Rochester couple dropped in one day. He had been one of Truman's first dentists many years before. He told us he had lived in our home for a short while upstairs after moving to the town, and had eaten off a hot plate. His family had given him a gift certificate just to bring him back for the memories. They were lots of fun. His daughter is Linda Kelsey, formerly the curly redheaded actress on the Lou Grant Show.
One touching scene comes to mind. "One elderly Truman couple was married here many years ago, and had come back to visit. I didn't know it then, but this man was in the early stages of Alzheimers. He was sitting in this chair, telling me how comfortable it was, and looking over at the stairs. When I came in from the kitchen later, he said, 'You know, I watched my bride come down those stairs.' That day we took pictures of them on the stairs. He had a tear in his eye. I later found out they had no wedding pictures. Within a short time he was placed in an Alzheimers unit at a nursing home. It was special that they could get those pictures, to relive the memories after so many years."
Then, memories of uproarious laughter. "Some of the most fun we've had is during our murder mystery packages. People stream in from all over: Iowa to Minneapolis. We plan the game with eight people, and the roof literally raises off the house because we're laughing so much and carrying on. Our slumber parties are just as fun. We had a "slumber party" of 60-year-old ladies from Fairmont who were celebrating a birthday by carrying on until three in the morning."
And the personal relationships built: "I have people who, for whatever reason, really enjoy watching me make breakfast. It doesn't make me nervous. They're just trying to be comfortable, I suppose, by making themselves at home. One guest actually sat on the floor to watch me make breakfast. He said he did that at his home, so he'd like to do it here, too. He liked his stay so much he gave us a statue that's sitting today in one of our rooms."
[Daniel J. Vance is a free-lance writer based in rural Blue Earth County.]
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