Saturday, February 11, 2012

Iowa by car, pt. 3.

My late-winter road trip through southeastern Iowa continues . . .

History & Architecture, the Skunk River War and National Public Radio

I stopped in Crawfordsville because there was a sign outside of town announcing that it was the birthplace of the Republican Party.  The fellow at the general store, the only place open, said that it was so, and phoned over to the bank and a lady brought me a photocopy of an old newspaper article that told the story.
     In February of 1854, the state convention of the Free Soil Party, the Liberty Party and others met at the Seceder Church in Crawfordsville and resolved to create a Republican Party.  A month later another meeting, this one in Rippon, Wisconsin, attended by some of the same people, also resolved to create a Republican Party.  Crawfordsville feels it is unfair that Rippon gets all the credit, though they concede that there is not much riding on it.

Keokuk County was the site of the Skunk River War of 1863.  In August of that year, a young preacher from Tennessee named Talley had rallied secessionist settlers and set off with an armed band to drive the Yankees out of the nearby town of South English.  In the ensuing shoot-out with Union sympathizers, Talley was killed.  Inflamed by their leader’s death, rebel supporters from surrounding counties formed the Skunk River Army.  When word reached the state capital, Gov. Kirkwood immediately departed for Keokuk County with eleven companies of militia.  By the time he arrived, the Skunk River Army had disappeared.  In 1967, the County historical society put up a plaque to commemorate the “war”.

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Towns were seeded across the state at approximately ten-mile intervals, so that a farmer could drive to town in his wagon, do his business and get back by dark.  The pattern survives to this day, though so many of these small towns are no more than shells, with empty brick store fronts left over from the days when these places served an economic purpose.  In the summer, grass from front lawns and vacant lots spreads out, encroaching on sidewalks, giving the nearly deserted towns a pleasant, park-like carpeting of soft green, though this time of the year looking more like brown shag.

In the countryside and in the towns the old buildings are beautiful.  Gaunt and upright, two-storied wooden-framed Gothic Revival homes, sometimes forlorn and empty, with windows broken, their families moved away.  They make noble ruins, monuments of a happy age, now departed.  Others stand occupied, with wide porches from before the time of air-conditioning, in winter their windows covered with clear plastic to keep out the bitter prairie cold.  Along a street in Iowa City I saw a row of Gothic cottages, in sad repair, with flattened pasteboard boxes insulating their foundation; poor people living in homes that, with a little work, could be architectural jewels.

In small towns the old buildings around the square are usually red brick, with iron stars in their side anchoring metal reinforcing rods.  Lamentably, many of them have been modernized, with sheet metal or Masonite panels over the lovely old brickwork.  By a happy practice, it usually happens that the bottom floor only is disfigured this way, and above the insipid improvement rises the old brick or stone crown of the building, often with a marble medallion bearing the date of its construction or the name of the pioneer businessman who caused it to be put up.

On the cornerstone of a high school I saw the date “1917” and thought of their first graduating class going off to the Great War.  Young men who had gone to church and done chores and studied Latin and sent off to France, some of them maybe not to return, in a quarrel that had nothing to do with Iowa.

I talk about the history of these places because that is a way to distinguish them, as their current appearance all seem in my memory alike.  Homes and buildings mostly from the same era and in the same state of repair.  If there is a new  commercial building it is usually in some franchised design for a nationally-branded product, and on the edge of town, more oriented to the highway than to the old business center.  Their populations seem all about the same: a few hundred claimed on the sign, though you’d never know there were that many by looking, particularly not on cold days like these.  It’s their history that brings them alive to me, that reminds me that these spare things I see are just the visible part of something older and deeper.  Not just things set in a landscape, but also symbols of things.

The names on the old stores were not chosen to be clever, but mostly honest German or Swedish surnames.  One gets the feeling that if you had some problem at Hofsteader’s Department Store that there was a Mr. Hofsteader somewhere that you could talk to about it.  Nowadays, in every town of any size there is a computer store.

A most amazing piece of commercial architecture is George Preston’s service station on Rte. 21, in Belle Plaine.  I don’t think Mr. Preston really sells gasoline there.  The ancient pumps don’t look like they have been used since the Coolidge Administration.  It is a simple wood frame structure, but the wonder of it is that every inch of the building is covered with obsolete metal filling station signs for products and companies, many now long vanished into memory.  I remember Red Crown gasoline and Studebaker-Erskine Service, and Voltmaster Batteries, but Iso-Vis “D” Oil and Nevrnox Ethyl and Manhattan Gasoline? 
    The all-knowing Wikipedia tells me that George died in 1993 and the building is maintained by his son.

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As I drove, I listened to the radio.  I listened to high school basketball games.  “Yeah, Bob, we figured that if we kept up the pressure that we could wear ‘em down and I guess that’s what we did.”  I listened to evangelists: “It is no accident that you are listening to this program” and, of course, “Your contributions make our ministry possible.”  I heard folksy commercials: “We are sellin’ so many eggs that we are gonna have to hire more chickens.”  There was trucker music about “Rubber Duckie” and “Smokey” and “Look out for them bears.”  There was country music about a good-lovin’ woman in love with a good-livin’ man, and a poor fellow worrying that his Ruby was going to take her love to town.

Punching the dial one night I found National Public Radio.  An earnest young woman was explaining that the male-dominated art establishment was threatened by feminist aesthetic criticism.  That is not what is going on in Iowa.  For the real Iowa, listen to Christian radio.  When the concerned wife says to her husband, “John, you’re slipping back into your old life,” you know that John has been drinkin’ an’ chasin’ women again.  That’s what people worry about out here, not sexism in the arts establishment.

One evening I went into a truck stop.  Accustomed to the pure air of Palo Alto, where smokers are as despised as slaveholders, I asked the young fellow at the register for a seat in the no-smoking section.  Rheumy-eyed teamsters looked up from their coffee, peering at me through clouds of blue smoke from their Marlboros, wondering no doubt if I were one of those New York Jewish liberals they had heard about.  The young fellow at the register found the idea of a no-smoking section interesting, though of course impractical, but he seated me as far away from the other diners as possible, an arrangement which undoubtedly pleased them as much as it did me.

(to be continued . . .)


  1. This trip must have been taken awhile back? Iowa has had a Smokefree Air Act in place since spring 2008. Now you can go in any truck stop, bar, etc. and it is all smoke free.

    1. Ed: I realized when I wrote it that it was a jarring detail in my otherwise timeless narrative. A reminder of how recent was a past when things were done differently.