This Pair of Historic Homes Was the Birthplace for the "Betsy-Tacy" Books
Read the original story, first published on Houzz, here.
"Betsy’s house, a small yellow cottage, was the last house on her side of Hill Street, and the rambling white house opposite was the last house on that side." Who was the Betsy who lived in that yellow cottage? Who lived in the rambling white house opposite? Where was Hill Street?
Ask any of the fans of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books, and they’ll tell you. Betsy was Betsy Ray, 5 years old when we first meet her in Betsy-Tacy—the first of Lovelace’s books about her. The rambling white house was newly occupied by Tacy Kelly, who becomes Betsy’s best friend with just a few pages. Hill Street in Deep Valley was based on Center Street in Mankato, Minnesota, where Lovelace had grown up.
“Some characters become your friends for life,” the distinguished contemporary children’s author Judy Blume has said. “That’s how it was for me with Betsy-Tacy."
Real-Life Setting of a Most Popular Fictional World
Blume is not alone: nearly 80 years after Lovelace published her first Betsy-Tacy book, the stories of the two devoted friends and their families remain among the most charming and evocative portraits of childhood in American literature. Starting with two small girls in the 1890s, the series follows Betsy and Tacy into young adulthood. Along the way are birthday parties, adventurous excursions up The Big Hill behind Betsy’s house and to the Opera House downtown, elementary and high school, and, eventually, Betsy’s efforts to find true love and begin a writing career.
What not all Betsy-Tacy readers may realize is that Lovelace drew the Deep Valley stories from her own life in Mankato, a small city about 90 miles south of Minneapolis. There was a real Betsy (Lovelace, originally Hart) and a real Tacy (her friend Frances “Bick” Kenney). Their parents, siblings, and friends all appear—under different names—in the books. Both the Hart and Kenney homes have been restored and opened for tours by the Mankato-based Betsy-Tacy Society. Both houses give you the opportunity to experience the real-life setting of a uniquely appealing fictional world.
Maud Hart was born in Mankato in 1892. Her family moved into the house on Center Street a few months after her birth and stayed there until 1906. From an early age, she was set on a literary career. “I cannot remember back to a year in which I did not consider myself to be a writer,” she recalled decades later. “Back in Mankato I wrote stories in notebooks and illustrated them with pictures cut from magazines.”
The Hart family home was pretty, but not luxurious. Built in the early 1890s, it had a kitchen, dining room, back and front parlors, and one bedroom downstairs. Upstairs were two more bedrooms, one shared by Maud and her older sister, Kathleen (Julia in the books).
In 1906, the Harts moved from this house to another, larger Mankato home; the family moved to Minneapolis in 1910. In the decades that followed, the Center Street house had a number of owners and eventually fell into disrepair. It might have been demolished if it hadn’t been purchased by the Betsy-Tacy Society in 2001. The society worked with local contractors to restore the home. Additional work was done by the crew of the PBS program Hometime. Today, the small yellow cottage—like the white house opposite, now also owned by the Betsy-Tacy Society—is a home that Betsy Ray would happily recognize.
The kitchen was the center of life for the Harts and for the fictional Ray family. Here’s where Betsy and Tacy dyed Easter eggs, and—even more memorably—where they and their friend Tib made Everything Pudding, whose ingredients included everything they could find in the kitchen from bacon grease to tapioca. (The finished pudding gave them all stomachaches.)
Dominated by a large wood stove, the kitchen lacked conveniences we take for granted. There was no electricity and no running water—water was carried in from the neighborhood pump. Because the house had no bathroom, baths were taken in a tub in the kitchen. Nevertheless, the kitchen was a cozy, inviting room. Today, it’s enlivened by decorative touches like the set of china hand-painted by the Harts’ friend Louise Willard—in the books, Mrs. Sibley, mother of Betsy’s friend Carney.
The Dining Room
The dining room was the setting for many family meals and celebrations.
One of the most memorable was the surprise party for Betsy’s 10th birthday, where 10 of Betsy’s friends gathered to have cake, cocoa, and sandwiches. It was, Betsy realized, a mark of her newfound maturity—it was the first nighttime party she’d ever had.
The meals served in this dining room were generally cooked by Mrs. Ray. When the family moved to the larger house, they were prepared by a hired girl, Anna Swenson. Anna was deservedly proud of her cooking: “You may think you know how to cook,” she told Mrs. Ray, “but wait ’til you taste my cinnamon buns. They melt in your mouth.”
The telephone on the dining room wall is similar to the one used by the Hart/Ray families. While the cottage lacked electricity and running water, it was connected to the outside world by phone.
The cottage has both a front and a back parlor, and both were much used. The front parlor contains a piano similar to the one Mrs. Hart/Mrs.Ray enjoyed playing. The back parlor holds the ornate rocking chair Mr. Hart was given in honor of his service to the Knights of Pythias Lodge. (The chair is one of the few original pieces of furniture in the house.) It also has a desk similar to the one Mr. Hart used for business and which Maud may have used for her writing. The room even includes a large coal-burning stove, which—in the books—Betsy and Tacy love to sit near on cold winter nights.
When Maud was 14, the family moved to a larger Mankato home, a move echoed in the book Heaven to Betsy. The new house boasts modern conveniences—gas heating, a bathroom—the old home lacked. Betsy’s parents and older sister are thrilled by it. Betsy, though, is devastated: “Didn’t they know how much she loved that coal stove beside which she had read so many books while the teakettle sang and the little flames leaped behind the isinglass window? … And she thought it was cozy to take baths in the kitchen beside the old wood-burning range." Worst of all, Betsy no longer lived across the street from Tacy. It would take some time—and Tacy’s devoted friendship—to turn the new house into a home for her.
“ Didn’t they know how much she loved that coal stove beside which she had read so many books while the teakettle sang and the little flames leaped behind the isinglass window?”"Heavens to Betsy," Maud Hart Lovelace
Built in 1891, the house occupied by the Kenney family—Tacy Kelly and her family in the books — is larger than the Harts’ cottage. With nine children, the Kenneys needed the room. “A merry, crowded house,” Betsy thinks of it. Its downstairs is dominated by a big bow window that was “the heart of the house. … Here Betsy and Tacy used to cut out paper dolls, looking up at the overhanging hills. The Kelly house had few of the so-called modern improvements. It was lighted by lamps, there was a pump in the dooryard. But the views from the windows would have graced a castle.”
Today, Tacy’s house serves as headquarters for the Betsy-Tacy Society. There are exhibits on Maud Hart Lovelace’s life and career, and a gift shop well-stocked with Betsy-Tacy books and memorabilia.
The Brass Bowl
Among the objects on display in Tacy’s house is a handsome, large brass bowl that played a key role in one of the most famous chapters in the Betsy-Tacy books. In Heaven to Betsy, Christmas is approaching, and Mrs. Ray lets her husband and family know that all she wants is a decorative brass bowl she had spotted in the window of the local department store. Her husband scoffs: “I will not give you a brass bowl!” Mrs. Ray is insistent. Her husband balks at buying the bowl until Christmas has nearly arrived—but when he finally goes to the store to buy it, the bowl has already been sold. He and his family feel bad until Christmas morning, when the brass bowl sits gleaming in the living room. Mrs. Ray, it turns out, bought it as a present for herself.
Visiting the Betsy-Tacy Houses
The Hart family moved from Mankato to Minneapolis in 1910, and Maud never lived there again. She attended the University of Minnesota and married Delos W. Lovelace, another writer. They later lived in New York and California. But Mankato, and the friends she made there, stayed with her. She told Mankato stories to her daughter, Merian, and then decided to turn some of these stories into a children’s book: Betsy-Tacy, published in 1940. The book was successful enough to inspire sequels. Eventually, she wrote 10 Betsy-Tacy books, plus three other novels centered around other Deep Valley characters. She and Frances “Bick” Kenney (Tacy) remained friends for the rest of their lives.
Now owned by the Betsy-Tacy Society, Betsy’s and Tacy’s homes are open for tours on Saturday afternoons March through December. At the society gift shop, you can pick up a printed guide, Discover Deep Valley, that will steer you to other Betsy-Tacy landmarks in Mankato.