When we booked a couple of nights at the Beiderbecke Inn, we didnt know the historic significance of the Victorian mansion overlooking the Mississippi on Davenports historic Gold Coast. I decided to explore details about the home and the owners, talking with host Dennis LaRoque, who, with his wife Pam, owns the elaborate lodging in Davenport, Iowa.
Where are we? I asked. Dennis was working on oatmeal with raisins, not instant, which he had prepared himself. He defended his basic breakfast food: If a jackass can live on this all its life, so can I.
He also had a leftover poppy seed muffin. I awaited the lavish breakfast Pam was preparing for guests.
Were in the formal parlor, he explained, in the home of Grandpa Charles and Grandma Louise, 1880s, grandparents of the famous 1920s jazz composer-cornet player Bix Beiderbecke.
The beautiful burgundy Victorian drapery, held back with brass tiebacks, graced the room decorated with forest green plush carpeting and antiques. Dennis ate on the Victorian settee covered in peach upholstery.
You have a pool table in the middle of the parlor, I pointed out.
Louise would probably die, Dennis said.
Many of the furnishings are Eastlake.
Charles Eastlake was a designer in mid-1800s, he explained. His influence was to move away from the high Victorian, the ornate, over-the-top gaudy.
What are the penalties for eating in here? I teased.
Probably very severe back in 1880, he said.
And your wife? I asked.
Theres nothing there as long as I dont make a mess, Dennis said.
Its very European to chat and eat slowly, I said. Only Americans wolf their food down.
Ill do it in 15 minutes, he informed.
Dennis was raised on a northern Minnesota farm.
Crops are delayed in Minnesota, so my father would come south and work back north to Minnesota, Dennis said. He was always a tenant farmer. He really couldnt afford his own farm.
Dennis parents met in Iowa at a farm where his father frequently stopped on his way north.
We lived in four different houses on three farms as I was growing up, he said.
As we chatted, the grandfather clock in the parlor began its eight chimes for morning call.
Were you aware that you lived in houses for hired hand help? I asked.
Yes, but I was in kindergarten, so it didnt really matter, he said.
When one owner retired, his dad negotiated, and they moved to the big house.
Did you want to be a farmer? I asked.
Science and technology interested me, Dennis said. My parents wanted me and my two siblings to go to school. My dad always said any nincompoop can farm. Hed tell us to go get an education and see if we can do something different.
Youre back to living in the quarters for hired hands in this huge Victorian mansion you own, I said. Is that emotional?
No, he said. When we first got the house, we lived in the Mississippi Rose Room. In my mind, thats the nicest room with the sitting porch views the Mississippi River.
I remember my father playing Beiderbecke records, I said.
Oooh, we have no original recordings of Bixs, he said.
I made a mental note to look for the old albums.
People call from all over the world…from the Beiderbecke Society…to ask if they can bring over people from England who want to see the home.
While Dennis studied electrical engineering at Iowa State in Ames, he worked at Alcoa in Indiana during the summer. On the way back home from Evansville one summer evening, his life changed.
My car burned up in front of Pams parents house, he said. They were home having their 25th wedding anniversary. Pam and all the girls were home…in the yard barbecuing chicken. Heres this car burning up on the road. Pams dad called the fire department. I was 50 miles from home. My sister was with me. They invited us to stay there until the folks came to pick us up.
Pam was a secretary at Iowa State. A couple weeks later, Dennis asked her out to a football game.
We started dating, he said. We were engaged in three months, and married in another four months.
Do you believe in love at first sight? I asked.
I do now, he smiled.
This girl intrigued me…her personality…her love of life, he said. Shes very involved in what she does. We were married between my junior and senior year. My folks thought I would flunk out. This was not on their radar screen. I graduated in 1970…but the economy wasnt great.
Alcoa offered him a job in Davenport. After only three months, even with a wife and infant son, David, he was drafted. He had used up his deferment as a student.
Marjorie Stradinger is a free-lance writer residing in Roscoe. She has covered food, drama, entertainment, health, and business for publications in California and Illinois for the past 25 years. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
from the March 28-April 3, 2007, issue