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Tea at the Sperry House offers genteel taste of history

WILLMAR -- Amid the turn-of-the-century trappings of the historic Sperry House, guests sipped tea Friday afternoon and nibbled on dainty sandwiches and cakes. Volunteers moved from table to table, pouring tea from china teapots and handing around...

Briana Sanchez / TribuneThe Kandiyohi County Historical Society on Friday hosted the annual Tea at the Sperry House, both to showcase the Sperry House in Willmar and also to raise funds for ongoing maintenance.
Briana Sanchez / Tribune The Kandiyohi County Historical Society on Friday hosted the annual Tea at the Sperry House, both to showcase the Sperry House in Willmar and also to raise funds for ongoing maintenance.

WILLMAR - Amid the turn-of-the-century trappings of the historic Sperry House, guests sipped tea Friday afternoon and nibbled on dainty sandwiches and cakes.

Volunteers moved from table to table, pouring tea from china teapots and handing around platters of carefully arranged delicacies.

"It's almost too pretty to eat," declared Shannon Eckhoff as she prepared to taste the assortment of sandwiches on her plate.

The genteel event, hosted by the Kandiyohi County Historical Society, is a window into the social rituals and tastes of a bygone era. It also gives the Historical Society a chance to showcase the Sperry House and raise funds for the ongoing maintenance of the 124-year-old house and grounds.

In the 13 years that it has been held, the annual Tea at the Sperry House remains a popular event, said Jill Wohnoutka, executive director of the Historical Society.

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"It's an opportunity to see the Sperry House in a different way," she said. "It's a nice afternoon of conversation and good food."

This year's tea commemorated the entry of the United States into World War I in 1917. The Historical Society is observing the centennial with talks, exhibits and other special activities year-long.

Poppies and American flags decorated the tea tables, and the menu included "trench cake," which families baked at home and sent overseas to soldiers in the trenches of Europe.

It relieved the monotony of canned beef and hardtack, Wohnoutka explained.

"When they got this, it was like tasting a flavor from home," she said.

Like the other food served at the tea, the trench cake recipe came from cookbooks of the era. Because of rationing during the war, the cake was made with ingredients that were more readily available: flour, brown sugar, vinegar, currants and a touch of cocoa - but no eggs.

It was the first time Eckhoff, whose ancestors fought in the American Revolution, had attended the annual tea at the Sperry House. She and her mother, Deborah Gort, decided to come after recently joining the Daughters of the American Revolution.

"We thought, what a perfect time to come and get to know people and step back into history," she said.

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The atmosphere of the Sperry House - ornate furniture, floral wallpaper and old-fashioned high-ceilinged rooms - added to the experience, Eckhoff said. "It's not like being in a museum. You feel like you're actually part of it."

Syd Eddy also was drawn by the opportunity to experience a slice of the past.

"For one thing, I like tea," she said. "And I'm very interested in history and genealogy."

Judy Augustson Heath donned a hat and a lace shawl for the role of hostess Jennie Wilson Sperry, then sat down to join the tea.

She grew up in the Sperryville neighborhood nearby and used to steal apples from the Sperrys' yard, she recalled. When the Historical Society needed a volunteer to play Mrs. Sperry's role at the tea, she volunteered.

"I always wanted to be on the stage," she said.

The Sperry House was built in 1893 on what was then a farm site owned by Albert H. and Jennie Wilson Sperry. It was acquired by the Kandiyohi County Historical Society in 1970 and is now part of the museum complex on North Business 71. The downstairs has been restored and furnished with period furniture and items from the museum's collection as well as items originally in the house.

Funds raised at past teas have been used for projects ranging from plumbing repairs to the purchase of rugs, Wohnoutka said. Plans are underway to begin restoring the upstairs and eventually open it up to the public.

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