On the road to Eagle Grove, Iowa, site of the 2018 Wright County Fair
Yesterday we went to the Wright County Fair as it winds down on the last weekend. My daughter and I went with my mother and father, all of us not ready to run any foot races, in fact, looking forward to viewing the small fair at a snail’s pace, two of us walking with canes.
It has always been a small county fair. But it has become almost depressing to see how much it has shrunk since I was a kid and competed there. Of course the beneficent pumpkinhead that runs the country now has put a cloud over it all by cutting off farmers’ primary markets in the trade war with China. Soon there may be no agriculture community at all to celebrate with a county fair.
The Iowa Township Hawkeyes Club that I used to be a part of
We toured the 4-H projects exhibit building and saw all the baking, woodworking, photography. and sewing projects that the kids in 4-H had worked on all year. As always they were impressive in the way that enthusiastic kid-work inevitably is. But it was depressing to see that there are only three 4-H clubs in Wright County now where once there were seven. The elderly viewers of the goings-on outnumbered the kids about two to one. Iowa’s farm community population is getting older and older. Schools are shrinking. People per county numbers are declining too.
But as depressing as the long-range view is, the County 4-H program is still giving kids a firm farm-kid grounding in the values that made America great. It proves that pumpkinheads don’t need to try to make it great again.
It is important to celebrate who we are and what we do. Especially in a time when a tractor-and-cornfield way of life seems doomed. And a county fair does that. I helps us define who we are, what values we hold dear, and who we are determined to be for as long as we can be that.
My middle child, Henry, is sixteen and anxious to learn how to drive. And like all young drivers, he has yet to get into his first accident, is awkward behind the wheel, and is determined to be the best driver the world has ever seen. So, we gave him a driver’s instruction course, which he completed by July 15th, though he hasn’t taken the wheel yet in a driver’s ed car. And I had to come to terms with the idea that, even though I shelled out more than 300 dollars to have someone else teach him to drive, I was still going to be the one riding in the passenger’s seat and cringing every time the car lurches towards oncoming traffic and hideous, painful death.
I decided that since we were visiting Iowa where populations are shrinking and little towns like ours are dying, we might as well take advantage of nearly empty streets and lack of other drivers competing for road space. We went to Rowan to practice driving.
Of course I had forgotten how narrow the streets are in my little home town. Some of the avenues can’t sustain two cars passing in opposite directions at once. And there are more than a few junk cars, old tractors, and other wheeled things parked in the way, just begging to be hit and make a dent in our affordable insurance.
Leave it to me to be multi-tasking while teaching the boy to drive the family battleship down the narrow streets of Rowan. I wanted to take pictures to do this post. I also wanted to take my mind off the depressing realization that Donald Trump will likely be the next president, and our lives will continue to go down hill as we are treated more and more like cash-generating farm animals for billionaires, corporations, and the owners of all the debt we have accrued by selfishly spending money on life’s necessities in order to keep on living. We stopped to take a picture at the house I grew up in. It was depressing to see that the house has not been painted since I put that blue paint on it when I was a teenager. Dang! I’m sixty now. And the poor people who live there now couldn’t afford to paint it even once in the last forty-two years.
But even with all the potential distractions, we managed to practice driving and parking and driving again without any catastrophes or sudden fiery death. We did pass the same lady walking her little white dog four different times on four different streets. We only made a wide turn and nearly squished her dog one time. And we only had one incident where he accidentally pressed the gas instead of the brake while the car was in reverse instead of drive. Unfortunately, that happened on Main Street. Fortunately, the one and only car parked on Main Street was in front of us and not behind us. So we were successful. An hour and a half of driving practice with no costly accidents and no blood or death.
I have had a practically life-long fascination with trains. Where did that come from? It came from a Methodist minister who once upon a time saved my life.
Reverend Louis Aiken (in the cowboy hat) was a lover of HO model trains, as well as country music… and, of course, God.
My best friend growing up was a PK, a preacher’s kid. And as we hung out and played games and got into imaginatively horrible trouble, we invariably wound up in the basement of the parsonage where his father kept his HO train layout. I learned lessons of life in that basement in more than one way. I have to explain all of that somewhere down line. But for now, I have to limit the topic to what I learned about trains. They are a link to our past. They are everywhere. And they do far more for us than merely make us cuss while sitting and endlessly waiting at the railroad crossing.
When visiting Dows, we absolutely had to stop and take pictures at the train station.
This is, by my best guess, an SD40 locomotive parked at the restored train station in Dows, Iowa.
Spotting trains to take pictures of, gawk at, and totally make cow-eyes over has become a way of life to me. When visiting Iowa, especially Mason City, Iowa, we always have to stop at the engine on display in East Park.
When I was a kid, this old iron horse was not fenced in to protect it from kids, weather, and other destructive forces. Now, however, it is fully restored and given its own roof. This is a 2-8-2 steam engine with two little wheels in front, eight big wheels in the middle, and two little wheels at the back (not counting wheels on the coal tender). I have ridden on trains pulled by such a behemoth. I love to watch the monkey gears grind on the sides of the wheels forcing steam power into the surge down the tracks. And I can’t help being a total train nut. Of course I don’t deny being more than one kind of nut. But being a mixed nut is another post for another day.
Bustling downtown Dows with the grain elevator in the background
There are many simple truths to be gleaned from a simple visit to the scene of your childhood. You need every so often to get in touch with where you came from and the roots of who you are. Dows is not the town where I grew up. But we played them in 4-H softball, and we won almost as much as we lost to them. It is a town near enough to my little home town to be a place that impacts who I am.
You have no idea what this is, right?
Day before yesterday we went to Dows for a dinner with relatives. My cousin and her second husband were there. Her parents, my uncle who still lives on Uncle I.C.’s farm place that has been in the family for more than a hundred years, and my aunt who is going bald a bit, were also there. We ate in a totally Pepsi-Cola-themed restaurant and had a Rueben pizza with roast beef and sauerkraut on it (talk about your total cultural potpourri!) The experience taught me a simple lesson. We come from a bizarre mixture of themes and things cooked together in a recipe for life that can never be repeated and cooked again for our children.
You don’t order Coke here.
We avoided talking about politics because Iowa is very conservative and none of us enjoy yelling at each other about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton using fact-free Fox News talking points and cow poop about how building a wall that Mexico pays for will cure all our economic problems because we all think we know how Hispanics moving into Iowa are ruining our lives. So, instead, we talked about how Eaton’s machine tool manufacturing plant in Belmond is facing more lay-offs.
The restored and re-purposed Dows’ Rock Island train station.
We talked about businesses that have gone out and not been replaced in the little Iowa towns around us. We talked about how no one walks beans any more, walking the rows of soy beans to pull button weeds and cockle-burrs by hand and chop rogue corn with hoe. We talked about how farming has gone to spraying weed-killing chemicals and factory-farming pigs instead. It is a simple lesson in how ways of life come to an end and are not necessarily replaced with something better.
There is an artist working on a patriotic project to put one of these in every county in Iowa.
We constantly remake ourselves as the world changes and ages around us. Nothing lasts forever. Life is a process of growing and withering and regrowing. A simple word for that is “farming”. Who we were impacts who we have become and will affect what comes after. But we learn simple lessons from going to the places we love best and doing our dead-level best to get from there to here and move eventually to someplace beyond. And Dows, Iowa is just one of those places… I guess.
By golly, I finished it. It may not look like it, but this map of a place that really only exists in my memory and imagination took a lot of work. I surveyed the town and made a set of rough map sketches back in 1994. Some of the places on this map don’t exist any more, while a few never existed at all in any real sense. I finished drawing it out in pen and ink yesterday, February 15th, 2016.
This map is Norwall, Iowa, population 275 (If you count the squirrels… and we had a lot of squirrels in this town… in more ways than one). The map is attributed to Bill Stuyvessant, known to the locals as “Cherries Bill” because he loved cherries more than any other fruit and it was the exact same color of red he had on both his cheeks and nose. For the last decade of his life, the 1960’s, he lived alone. His wife died in 1958. His only son, Christian, died near Bastogne in December of 1944 at the Battle of the Bulge. He lived alone with a house full of stacks of old newspapers. It is believed by many that he was a sorcerer and knew practically everything. Some even said he was God. The map probably had to originate with him because it shows the locations of key settlements in the Faery Kingdom of Tellosia, which of course is known only to practicers of magic and those with vivid imaginations.
Norwall is the setting for my hometown novels series. They are not exactly science fiction and not exactly fantasy, but have heavy doses of both. They are actually about real life as it can be warped by imagination and dreaming. You can make the argument that they are surrealism. The four pictured above are completed novels, except for When the Captain Came Calling on the right. It is undergoing a complete rewrite and is only about 50% complete. I have one published novel in this series through I-Universe, an imprint of Penguin Books.
I also have a number of novel projects in the planning and rough-draft stages that are also set in this little imaginary Iowa town. I am continuing to write and expand it all as time continues relentlessly forward.
I was fishing for ideas to keep my every-day-of-2015 posting streak alive even though I am ill and feeling too congested and head-achy to write much. Then, an Iowa friend of mine who still lives in the town where I went to junior high and high school posted pictures of old restored tractors from the Belmond Area Arts Council photos on Facebook. Voila! I can post about tractors!
This little work tractor is just like the one that Uncle Alvin used to teach me how to drive a tractor. He set me to driving it in circles, actually a rather large square, around the farmyard at his place near Sheffield, Iowa. It was easy enough for a ten-year-old to handle that I graduated to using an actual John Deere tractor to use a hay rake on a clover-hay field to feed his Brown Swiss cattle, milk cows who were very dark brown and Uncle Alvin claimed gave chocolate milk. Uncle Alvin was never serious about anything, and when I was ten and pretty stupid in the ways of the world, I thought he was a real hoot.
The John Deere we called a “Johnny Popper” because of the noise it made whenever it was chugging along through the fields. It was a sturdy dang-old tractor and survived my many gear-shifting mistakes. Uncle Alvin said as long as I never found the self-destruct setting, the tractor would be all right.
Uncle Larry always preferred a Farmall tractor. I liked them too, even though they were much harder to drive. I liked them because they were red. St. Louis Cardinals’ fan, don’t ya know. My favorite color is red.
Never did I ever drive an Allis-Chalmers tractor.
I did, however, play with a toy one that looked just like this one when I had to stay at Jenny Retleff’s farm place. Mom was a nurse and dad was an accountant, and sometimes after school neither of them was available to look after us, so we got dropped off at Jenny’s place a number of times. That wonderful old farm widow who looked after us was the mother of one of my Mom’s best friends in high school. Jenny is now gone. So is the farm place. Corn and soybeans grow where once the house and barn stood. Much of the way of life we used to know that was so interspersed with tractors of various sorts is now gone, a victim of modern ways.
Now we look at tractors more as museum pieces and touchstones that help us remember a world that no longer exists. Oh, there are still tractors out there in the fields of Iowa… but not family farm tractors. Not member of the family tractors. Not the simple Farmalls and Johnny Poppers we used to know so well. Thinking about tractors has made me feel a bit better. (Even though it hasn’t made my purple paisley prose more readable.)
Did you notice? I wrote about 400 words more than I had intended to.
Farmgirl is adapted from a picture borrowed from the Belmond Area Arts Council.
I was born in Mason City, Iowa (the original River City of Meredith Wilson’s Broadway musical, the Music Man). But my parents didn’t hold with no big-city Ioway sort of life, so we eventually moved to my mother’s home town, Rowan, Iowa. It was roughly about 275 people (if you count the squirrels… which a lot of the townsfolk were… qualified squirrels). My two maternal uncles and my grand parents were busy maintaining the family farm there, and though I lived in town because Dad was an accountant for a seed corn company instead of the farmer he grew up as… I got more than my fair share of farming-type opportunity. You know the stuff… shoveling pig poo… cow poo too… I got to help feed the chickens (and get chased by roosters, and get pecked by hens when we checked their nests for eggs, and watch the rooster rodeos as revenge for all the chasings… because roosters don’t lay eggs and the only thing they are really good for in an egg farming setting is lopping their heads off, and watching them flop around like rodeo bulls with no heads for fifteen minutes until they finally figured out they were dead, then plucking ’em and watching Grandma Aldrich cook ’em). I got to drive a tractor, although they didn’t trust me to do more than the simplest of tractor-driving jobs like pulling the hay rake. I got to shovel chicken poo out of the hen house and out of the brooder house. (Notice how a lot of the world of the lowly farm boy centers somehow on poo?) It was a rustic rural life reminiscent of Norman Rockwell… although he depicted mostly town life and not as much of the fields and animal pens (and poo) that are central to Iowegian farm culture.
Brent Clarke is a me character in my stories… but also one of my farm boy friends.
Growing up a farm boy has a few advantages to go along with the many drawbacks. First off, you learn young where babies come from. Piglets and calves and puppies and kittens are not born in secret. And it doesn’t take much spying out on farm life to learn how those baby animals are made either. There is ample opportunity to learn what you are not supposed to learn at a young age from farm girls too… but we were gentlemen… and extremely embarrassed by the fact that baby people are made in the same grisly, awful way that baby animals are out in the barn.
You also learn to be somewhat self-sufficient. I learned how to tend a garden. I learned how to fix a flat. I learned how to repair a roof and build a rabbit pen. Hammer, pliers, screwdriver, saw… I learned to use them all and make stuff. Crude stuff, sure… smashed-finger-with-hammer-stuff too. I made a bookshelf in shop class that had a bit of Michael blood built into it. But I learned things that boys should know, and really don’t any more.
So, I guess I am claiming that because I am an Iowa boy… a farm boy… and despite my many short-comings and short-changings my life has been good and worthwhile… being a farm boy is good. And one of the greatest shames of the modern world is this… there just aren’t many farm boys any more.
I was born in the 1950’s in Mason City, Iowa… the town that produced Meredith Wilson, the creator of the Broadway Musical, The Music Man. Yes, River City in The Music Man is Mason City. So I was born into a unique Midwestern farm-town heritage where swindlers came to town and saved the day with music and an eleventh-hour change of heart. I was born into the land of Chmielewski Fun Time on the black-and-white TV, Lawrence Welk champagne accordion music, and the Beer-Barrel Polka, courtesy of loads and loads of German ancestry. I am that unique crossbreed of Scandahoovian and sqare-headed Deutschmann known by the only slightly racist term of Iowegian.
Land of Long Winter and the ice-storm breezin’ down the plains.
And if you ask an Iowegian if he loves Iowa, he will answer, “You bet!”
And if you ask a northern Iowegian the same thing, he will say “You betcha!”
Iowans talk funny, don’t you know…
There are still corner stores and farm supply stores, though they have gone to brand names now, like Casey’s, BP, and Tractor Supply Co. You can still find HyVee and Safeway grocery stores. There are still a precious few family farms that haven’t been swallowed whole by big corporations and agri-businesses. If you go to the county fairs, you will still find kids showing the cattle or pigs that they raised for 4-H projects, and if you go into the barns after the auction, they are still producing tearful kids hugging and kissing that calf that won a red ribbon and now has to be sold… and they will never see poor Barney or Moo-berry again…
It is the land of the lonely gravel road… the back-street cattle pen… the Saturday night tornado (nearly every Saturday in Spring)… The VFW and the Lion’s Club Fish Fry at Lake Cornelia….And it is a place where most everything reeks of the past and old ghosts and times long gone, soon to never be remembered because there’s no longer anybody around who is old enough to tell the stories that grandparents and aunts and uncles used to tell. I not only miss it desperately, but I feel deeply saddened by the loss. Would I like to go home again?