Housing history: Sweet Reeds display keeps tales of old alive

Published 4:12 pm Friday, June 9, 2023

By Linda Baier

For the Austin Daily Herald

When Linda Nemitz was a junior in high school her mother gave her a set of Beatrix Potter small books that included Peter Rabbit for her birthday. Along with the books came a stuffed Peter Rabbit. That was in 1974, and her mother would carry on the tradition of giving her Beatrix Potter books and stuffed animals for Christmas and birthdays until 1984.

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“She was the spark that got everything started, and it helped me grow as a person in every possible way,” said Nemitz.

Perhaps gifts of children’s fairy tales for a teenager were a little out of the ordinary, but Nemitz’s mother knew her eldest daughter wanted to be a teacher of small children, and without saying, this was her way of setting her daughter up for success in the classroom. A beloved aunt Kathleen Sherman who recently passed away in Austin, also gave her Dr. Suess books every year.

“She was a big reader” said Nemitz, “It was her goal to get a collection started (for me)”.

Nemitz began her teaching career in Audubon, Iowa in 1978. The town of about 2,500 people was about 90 miles southwest of her hometown of Fort Dodge, Iowa. She taught kindergarteners and reading to grades 1 -6. She moved on the next school year to Gray, Iowa which was just a short distance away, and taught the same classes. From 1980 – 1985, she taught in Badger, Iowa as well as back in her hometown of Fort Dodge.

Her Beatrix Potter books, and stuffed animals traveled with her everywhere she went. She introduced them into her classroom in reading corners and for author studies, a student-centered approach to literature that helps students develop their reading, writing, research, and critical thinking.

Eventually Nemitz and her Beatrix Potter collection traveled world-wide to places like Alexandria Egypt, Milan Italy, and Tokyo Japan. Always teaching young children from 3 to 8 years old she found that no matter where she was in the world, Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit story was universally recognized by her students.

“In every single classroom, in all the different places of the world, it didn’t even matter if it was in English, they could always pick out Peter Rabbit”, said Nemitz.

Whether they were just learning how to speak English, flipped the pages of the book from back to front, or read from right to left, they all knew about the adventurous little rabbit.

Beatrix Potter, the author and illustrator of The Tale of Peter Rabbit was taught at home by governesses, while her younger brother Walter attended private schools. Her parents were artistically talented, and her brother was an adept amateur photographer. During the summers she spent much of her time outside in the garden and drawing nature scenes. Most of her illustrations were fantasies featuring her own pets – mice, rabbits, kittens, and guinea pigs. In the 1890’s she printed Christmas Cards of her own design, and she was first commercially successful for her works as an illustrator for other authors.

In 1901, Potter wrote and illustrated The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and privately printed 250 copies after being turned down by publishers. It was first commercially published in 1902. In June of 1903, a trade edition of the tale was published and by the end of the year, 28,000 copies were in print. Potter was far ahead of her time as a woman in Victorian days as it was not customary for a woman to make her own money selling greeting cards and publishing her own books. In 1903 Peter Rabbit became the first fictional character to be made into a patented stuffed toy, making him the oldest licensed character. Potter eventually purchased 15 farms in the English countryside that she loved so much and illustrated in so many of her books. She would go on to write 23 more children’s fairy tales. Over the years, The Tale of Peter Rabbit has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide, and as of 2008, the Peter Rabbit series of six books has sold more than 150 million copies in 35 languages. Potter died in 1943 of pneumonia and heart disease. She bequeathed the 15 farms and over 4,000 acres to the National Trust, a gift which protected and conserved the unique Lake District countryside.

In 2001 Nemitz visited the home of Beatrix Potter and the Lake District countryside that is still protected by Potter’s trust, for Peter Rabbit’s 100th birthday. While there she added many pieces of commemorative items to her Beatrix Potter collection. A collection that had grown over the years to include puzzles, shopping bags, paper cut-outs, a Christmas stocking, dominoes, paintings, and of course many books and stuffed animals. When asked what she thought would be the most valuable piece in her collection she said, “probably anything with the 100th birthday commemoration on it.”

After so many years of Peter Rabbit being a part of her teaching curriculum she shared the 2 by 4 foot. decorative rug that is in the collection and has many of Potter’s fairy tale characters on it. It was her favorite piece because it was always a place for children to gather and learn.

In 2003 Nemitz moved to Austin after retiring from teaching. Her parents Wayne and Sally (Sherman) Nemitz had retired here as well, and she knew that she would end up wherever they were. The family was originally from Austin before her father began working for the Hormel company in Fort Dodge. They came back to Austin to retire. Recently Nemitz decided to downsize and move into a smaller home. In doing so she had to part with a lot of her book collections and other items from her teaching career. Some have gone to teaching centers like Apple Lane.

Her beloved Peter Rabbit collection has found a new home at Sweet Reads bookstore in downtown Austin for the time being. Incidentally the building once housed Nemitz’s Bookstore, and when asked about the connection she says, “we are distant cousins” and indicated that there needs to be more research into the family dynamics. Since the display went up early this year, some other residents of Austin have added some items to the collection, and Lisa Deyo owner of Sweet Reads already had a 3 and a half foot stuffed Peter Rabbit in the store that she has incorporated into the display.

“When people come in and see something that they might have had a few of, or remember someone in the family collecting one of the articles, they are just delighted,” Deyo said.

The Sweet Collections Museum at Sweet Reads started with a display of Berenstain Bears belonging to former Austin teacher Brad Mariska about three years ago. Since then there has been a variety of different collections on display from Hot Wheels Cars, Russian Art Boxes, Star Wars, among other things. Each exhibit is set-up for three to four months. Visitors to the store can view the collection free of charge, Monday – Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“It is all about connecting with the community, and also showing visitors (out of state) our midwest culture and community,” Deyo said.