October 20, 2002 - Pioneer Planet: Burkina Faso RPCV Lawrence Diggs starts International Vinegar Museum

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Burkina Faso: Peace Corps Burkina Faso : The Peace Corps in Burkina Faso: October 20, 2002 - Pioneer Planet: Burkina Faso RPCV Lawrence Diggs starts International Vinegar Museum

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Burkina Faso RPCV Lawrence Diggs starts International Vinegar Museum





Read and comment on this story from the Pioneer Planet about Burkina Faso RPCV Lawrence Diggs who decided to settle in Roslyn, South Dakota and turn the former town hall into what is believed to be the world's only International Vinegar Museum at:

Sweet and sour*

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Sweet and sour

BY RICHARD CHIN

Pioneer Press

Lawrence Diggs displays entries in this year's Mother of All Vinegars contest at the International Vinegar Museum in Roslyn, S.D. The vinegars are available for tasting at the museum's vinegar bar.
CRAIG BORCK PHOTO
Lawrence Diggs displays entries in this year's Mother of All Vinegars contest at the International Vinegar Museum in Roslyn, S.D. The vinegars are available for tasting at the museum's vinegar bar.

You know those movies about Brigadoon-like towns in such places as Alaska or Ireland or Newfoundland? Towns populated by eccentric characters pursuing quirky, offbeat passions?

You think, "That only happens in Hollywood, that doesn't happen in real life, except maybe in those specials with Charles Kuralt, and he's dead now."

We think that, too, except when we stumble across a place like Roslyn, S.D., and a guy like Lawrence Diggs.

Roslyn, population 225 and dropping, is like many dinky towns in the northern Midwest: rural, Norwegian, Lutheran, high school team named the Vikings, aging, not exactly booming economically.

Which makes it hard to understand how Lawrence Diggs African-American, Zen Buddhist, former California radio journalist, paramedic and Peace Corps volunteer decided to settle there and turn the former town hall into what is believed to be the world's only International Vinegar Museum.

Mount Horeb, Wis., has the Mustard Museum. And Rochester, Minn., is famous for the Mayo Clinic. But thanks to Diggs and the townspeople who made him feel at home on the prairie, only little Roslyn has a shrine devoted to answering "all you never knew to ask about vinegar."

The tale of Diggs and the museum and Roslyn is partly a lesson in race relations, partly the story of how a crazy economic-development scheme is helping to keep a small town on the map and partly a long overdue tribute to a humble but useful and ubiquitous puckery potion.

THE PERSON

At first glance also the second, third and 18th glance a guy like Diggs seems like the last person who would choose to live in northeastern South Dakota. Predictably, his path to Roslyn and vinegar boosterism is a convoluted one.

The 54-year-old Houston native grew up in San Francisco, where he made a name for himself as a radio journalist but also did a lot of other jobs, including driving a bus, working as a license examiner and becoming a paramedic.

He had stints traveling or living in Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia and Latin America, including working as a Peace Corps volunteer. Once, while training paramedics in West Africa, he taught some local kids too poor to buy ice cream how to make their own.

"That was my first exploration in food science," he said.

And that's what he decided to study when he returned to the Bay Area and started attending San Francisco State University in the early 1980s. He initially thought about specializing in cheese but didn't have the equipment to make the kind of cheese he was interested in. Almost by accident, he started doing some research on vinegar, intrigued partly because it seemed like it had been largely ignored by food scholars.

"It's a fascinating subject," he said. "It's probably the most common manmade condiment there is, yet people know almost nothing about it."

The research led to a book, "Vinegar: The User-Friendly Standard Text, Reference and Guide to Appreciating, Making and Enjoying Vinegar," and a new career: vinegar consultant.

Diggs, who calls himself "The Vinegar Man," promotes vinegar appreciation through a Web site (www.vinegarman.com), a newsletter, a couple of organizations he founded (Vinegar Connoisseurs International and the International Vinegar Research Institute) and lectures ("The Wonderful World of Vinegar," "A Toast to the Taste of Vinegar," "The Healing Power of Vinegar").

He even has a song: "Here comes the Vinegar Man."

He views his primary work as teaching people around the world how to make artisanal-quality vinegar. A recent venture is providing advice on an apple-vinegar project in Kazakhstan.

THE PLACE

Apparently, when you make your living as a vinegar consultant and you're not married and don't have kids, you can live wherever you want. Diggs decided in 1989 to move to someplace quieter than San Francisco.

"I wanted a place with no distractions," he said. "Where there's nothing to do, you don't end up doing it."

He considered the Pacific Northwest, the Four Corners area of the Southwest and somewhere on the Rio Grande, but then a house in Rosyln came up on a real-estate list he was consulting.

"I was looking for a place that typically had a stable or declining population, so I could buy at intrinsic value, some people would say cheap," Diggs said.

That fits Roslyn, where it's easy to spend more on a car than a house. The most expensive house in town probably costs only $60,000, but the average price is close to about $15,000, according to Mayor Ken Walker.

But it was the reaction he got from people in the town when he went to the look at the house that persuaded Diggs to buy. The next-door neighbor wandered over to tell Diggs he could borrow his truck if he needed it.

"I had grown up feeling that I had to keep my hands in my pockets so that no one would accuse me of stealing. I was completely unprepared for his offer," Diggs later wrote in a little book about the help he has received from people of different races called "Allies: A Positive Approach to Racial Reconciliation."

When he went to lunch at the town's bar and café, a group of men beckoned him over to their table.

"They asked me if I was going to move to Roslyn. I said that I hadn't really made up my mind yet," Diggs said. "After making eye contact with the others in the group as if to confirm consensus, one of the men said, 'We've never had a black guy live in Roslyn before, but if you are willing to work at it, we are.' I will never forget those words. I made up my mind to work at it."

Walker said it did take some work for the townspeople to get used to Diggs.

"How many people in Roslyn, S.D., have actually seen a black person who you could actually come up and talk to?" Walker said. "Like, wow. What's he want? What's he doing?"

Roslyn, after all, is a town where everyone seems to be distantly related to everyone else, and you don't see many newcomers, Walker said.

"I moved to town in 1973, and we're still probably the new people in town," Walker said. "The first thought of many people was that (Diggs) was hiding out from something."

"People think it's a miracle that I live here," Diggs said.

But Diggs attended church in town, got involved in community affairs, and Roslyn residents responded with small-town friendliness.

"I'll go home and open my refrigerator, and there's like bags of food in it," Diggs said.

"He fits in just fine. He's one of us," said local banker Shelley Deutsch.

In his book, Diggs writes, "Many of my African-American friends ask me how I could bear to live in South Dakota. I don't bear it. I love it."

THE PLAN

One of the groups Diggs got involved with was Community Advancement for Roslyn and Eden, a group started by Roslyn and the even-smaller neighboring town of Eden to create economic-development projects and stem the exodus of young people from the area. According to the latest census, the median age of Roslyn in 51. The biggest employer in town is a nursing home.

"At some point, if it keeps going, there's not going to be a town anymore," Diggs said. "Living in the Bay Area, it doesn't occur to you that a town in the 20th century is going to disappear because everyone moves out."

Experts told the group that even though Roslyn is the hometown of "Lawrence Welk Show" accordionist Myron Floren, Microsoft wasn't going to build a plant there. The area had to capitalize on something that was already there.

"We were looking for something that would be unique," said Eden Mayor Mary Dunn.

It didn't take to long to realize that the most unusual thing in town was a vinegar guru with a collection of vinegars from around the world.

"I couldn't say no," Diggs said when the museum idea was proposed. "I said, 'You know, if I had a vinegar museum, I could get all of this stuff out of my living room.' "

With the help of volunteers, the museum opened in June 1999 in what's probably the town's most imposing building, a hall built in 1936 as part of a Works Progress Administration project. By the 1990s, however, it was largely unused, and the town rented it to Diggs for $1.

Naturally, there were people who thought a vinegar museum was a crazy idea.

"Definitely," Walker said. "Especially vinegar. When I hear the word vinegar, you think, 'Eew, sour, icky.' "

THE MUSEUM

Or that's what you might think until you took a tour of the museum.

There you learn that vinegar is acetic acid that can be made by natural fermentation of an astounding variety of substances, including wood, fruit, grains, grasses, roots and tree sap.

The museum has more than 300 different kinds of vinegar on display, including vinegars made from coconuts, milk, carrots, lime and honey. There are vinegars aged in oak barrels; vinegars flavored with beer, bananas or hazelnuts; vinegars that taste like smoky Chinese tea, vanilla or pecans; and vinegars that cost about $200 for a 100-milliliter bottle.

You can learn about great moments in vinegar history like the time Cleopatra won a bet with Mark Antony by dissolving a pearl in vinegar or how Louis Pasteur did a groundbreaking study of vinegar production.

"He actually made more money in vinegar than milk," Diggs said.

You also can sample and buy some exotic vinegars.

"New tastes come out as you hold it in your mouth. It's like a rose opening up," Diggs said of the flavor of an authentic high-quality balsamic.

You can learn about the multitude of uses humans have found for vinegar: preserving, flavoring and changing the texture of food; cleaning chickens, coffeemakers, clothes, windows and linoleum; treating jellyfish stings, genital warts, head lice, ear infection, foot fungus and mosquito bites. It's even believed to kill weeds and ward off the plague.

The museum also covers biblical vinegar, like the drink that Roman soldiers gave to Christ on the cross, a diluted vinegar popular among the poor and the soldiers themselves.

"It appears that the Roman soldiers gave Jesus the equivalent of a soft drink to quench his thirst," Diggs said.

In the vinegar-centric view from Roslyn, "Ketchup is just a way to make vinegar stick on french fries." And "Saying vinegar is spoiled wine is like saying wine is spoiled grape juice."

"We're trying to give an overview of how huge and exciting the world of vinegar is," Diggs said.

THE TOURISTS

Perhaps the most amazing fact about the vinegar museum: People came to see it. There were 500 visitors in the first year, about 1,000 the next year and 1,500 last year. This year, about 3,000 are expected.

"We don't have a lot of competition in South Dakota," Diggs admits. "We're competing with Mount Rushmore and Wall Drug."

But getting 3,000 visitors in a town of just over 200 people, "that's like 40 million people coming through a museum in New York."

The visitors have come from all over the country, even from other countries. They've heard about the museum in articles in newspapers and food magazines. They've come in bus tours.

They spend money on vinegar T-shirts, postcards and exotic specialty vinegars. They attend the annual International Vinegar Festival, which includes the Mother of All Vinegar Contest, a vinegar parade, a vinegar queen, a pickling contest and a pet dog race.

A crew from Korean television came to do a story.

"That does a number on people's heads," Diggs said. "As one kid said, 'The only time we used to see Roslyn on the TV was when we had a tornado coming.' "

"People from quite a ways away, you'll tell them where you're from, and they'll say, 'That's where the Vinegar Museum is,' " said Mary Ellen Keintz, a member of the economic-development board. "It kind of makes you proud."

The next project Diggs and the town are working on is developing a commercial shared-use kitchen to encourage people to start specialty-food businesses.

For his efforts, Diggs got the key to the city and congratulatory letters from the state's U.S. senators. But he likes to give credit to others.

"This place is not me. This is we," he said.

Over the door to the museum, there's a sign that says: "All praise to the Almighty."

"I don't like to take credit and blame," Diggs said. "Whatever created the universe, the prime mover, that's why I'm here."

For more information about the museum, call (877) 486-0075 or click on www.vinegarman.com.
Richard Chin can be reached at rchin@pioneerpress.com or (651) 228-5560.



About the Museum

Visit the web site of the International Vinegar Museum at:

International Vinegar Museum Roslyn




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