Beckwith House is latest creation in Mitchell woman’s four-decade devotion to gingerbread
If Santa’s workshop trafficked in gingerbread, it might look a bit like Barb Feilmeier’s house at Christmastime.
The Mitchell woman has turned baking into an art, creating elaborate models of churches, businesses, and most recently, the historic Beckwith House on the grounds of the Dakota Discovery Museum.
And, 43 years into the effort, Feilmeier still has the recipe and pattern that got her started making gingerbread houses. They’re tucked into a scrapbook filled with pictures of most of her gingerbread creations, a pastime that has grown into an intensive seasonal job. “It all takes time, but I’m retired,” Feilmeier said with a big smile. That original pattern was a church, which is what Feilmeier made the first couple of years while she and her husband, Leon, still lived in Chamberlain. Some years she made simple homes. It wasn’t until 2005, when she retired, that she began making more elaborate creations. In 2007, she said, “That’s the first year I got carried away.” Now, she’s got her system down to a science. Starting in October, she and Leon scout the location she hopes to re-create, and take pictures. From those pictures, Feilmeier figures out the proportions of the house, converting the dimensions into centimeters. “That’s my pattern,” she said. But before she even gets close to an oven, she cuts out each piece of her pattern and assembles a paper model to scale. For this year’s creation, the Victorian Beckwith House, Feilmeier said she had to start over on the roof four times. “This roof was a pain in the brain,” she said while studying the paper model held together with masking tape that sits on her kitchen table. Once she has her paper pattern perfected, she starts cutting out the gingerbread pieces. “It’s a slow process to cook them,” Feilmeier said. Unlike regular cookies, she said the object is to let the gingerbread get very dry. Once the pieces are ready, using her confectionary prowess, she begins assembly. The Beckwith House had about 50 total pieces to fit together — and those were just the gingerbread pieces. Once those are assembled, Feilmeier gets to work on the details. Referencing the photographs, Feilmeier pays close attention to the most minute of features, from the red paint accents to the widow’s peak wrought-iron railing to the snow on the windowsills. “You can cover a million sins with snow,” she added with a chuckle. She gets excited about the creative solutions she finds to make details fit, like red pull-apart Twizzlers for the Beckwith House windows, or chocolate frosting-dipped spaghetti for the upper level railing. Feilmeier chose the Beckwith House because she had wanted to try a Victorian home, something she’d never done. It joins an impressive list of creations, from the home of George Washington, to the church where she and her husband were married, to the world’s only Corn Palace. She remembers details of each, from the cross-shaped roof on the Holy Family Church to the 80-some tiny, green shutters she made to complete her model of Washington’s estate, known as Mount Vernon. “They all have their different challenges,” she said. “It’s all about the challenge.”