James C. Schaap

Contributor

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa. 

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James C. Schaap

Years ago, my grandma blessed me with a cache of ancient sepia photographs, cardboard-backed, studio shots. She wrote some things on those old pix because, Lord knows, she knew some day neither me nor anyone else on the face of the earth would have a clue who those old-timers are or were.

Biodiversity Heritage Library / Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t gold the man was after. Made good sense that the Ogallalas were suspicious and angry. Made good sense they wouldn’t tolerate yet another white man hanging around. They weren’t one bit taken with his presence.

What the white man was doing, he told them, was hunting for big bones. Some of the Ogallalas must have snickered.

That explanation didn’t help. Some white man coming into the heart of sacred land to look for bones of big four-leggeds who’d lived and died many winters before? Old bones they were digging, he said, not gold. 

A House Divided

Feb 1, 2021
Missouri Historical Society exhibit in Missouri State Capitol

Once you find the road in—it’s out of the way--the signs tell the story. The Marais des Cygnes Massacre State Historic Site is not a mess, but both times I was there the place could have used some TLC.

But why make it look clean when rowdy weediness is more appropriate? Five men were murdered here, gang-land style, stood up and then shot. Six lived to tell the tale, Free-Staters, newcomers to Kansas, still a territory in 1858. They were murdered because they opposed slavery.

Wikimedia Commons

We'd just arrived. Long trip. Hadn't planned ahead. We'd just hopped in the Chevy and left because that's what college students did; they just took off to Florida at spring break. We wanted to be among 'em. 

It was April, 1968. I was a college sophomore who thought himself already more worldly-wise than most of my clean-cut peers at the Christian college I attended, but I was looking to be more than that by getting lost in the annual orgy of fun down South.

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

To much of the world, Nebraska, alas, is fly-over country, even if you're in a mini-van, so boooooring because the landscape is so featureless. . .until you come up on petrified natural monuments like Chimney Rock, a site that pumps the traveler’s heart with pioneer hope.

All those old west Nebraska rock formations are something. They’re sandstone and hard clay, changing even as we speak. But when you're coming up the Trail, east to west, you get close to Chimney Rock and you can't help feeling you're getting somewhere. 

James C. Schaap

The endless prairie all around is so bereft of people and buildings that coming up on St. Stephenie Scandinavian Church from any direction is a joy, even though the old church is but a shadow of its former self. It's hard to imagine the neighborhood teeming with Danes and Bohemians and Virginians, a Great Plains melting pot, each family--eleventy-seven kids--trying to make a go of it on 80 acres of lousy land. There had to be a time, maybe early June, when you could stand beside the old church and hear the music of children's voices rising from homesteads miles around.

Ron Knight / Wikimedia Commons

Okay, maybe this isn’t about Christmas, but Christmas is the season for sweetness, so I’m hoping you’ll let me tell a story that fits, even if it’s set so many years earlier in a land that seems ever so far away.

There’s a baby in it. It’s short a manger and a posse of shepherds; but I can’t help thinking this little story is related.

There must be a thousand stories like this—more, in fact, stories about shady first impressions suddenly turned to gold. Here goes.

James C. Schaap

There weren't all that many people--three or four dozen. Most, like me, were on the far side of fifty. But a pandemic is raging, and being out at all is something of a risk.

In 1870, Luxembourgers came to this corner of the state, the only region of Iowa not yet homesteaded. For the record, forty of them unloaded their wagons and cut through virgin prairie.

She made a scene.  She could have simply left when told to, but she refused. She made a scene. She should have known better.

Her name was Emma Coger, and the reason you've never heard of her is that her story is so old hat that it shouldn't be news at all. But it is.

Emma was 19 years old and a teacher--middle school, sixth grade, maybe seventh, not much older than her students. History doesn't say whether or not she was on the road to be a master teacher. What's essential background material--is her age, her occupation, and her race.

To be sure, there was a good reason for the Poncas to cut the deal they did with the strange emissary who showed up one day from Washington. He’d come to let them know  that “the Great Father” wanted the Poncas to move from their homeland on the Missouri River, to Indian Country, what would become Oklahoma, to a place where, he claimed, they’d be safe from raids by larger and more warlike neighbors.

The prairie grass was very tall, spread wide as the eye could see, an immense, shaggy hide over undulating hills, grass so tall and thick that it was a hazard for those white folks who determined to settle the land here. The only way to be sure you knew where you were going, should you want to walk with the family, was to hold hands and not let the kiddos get lost in the mess. Such things happened. In those first weeks and months, the only way to be neighborly was to dig trenches between the soddies.  

Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs

It’s near to nine, the evening of May 2, 1879. The courtroom is standing room only. It’s the second day of a trial that pits a weary band of indigenous people against a massive law-and-order government. 

Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs

“Warm County,” the Poncas called it--Indian Territory, what would become Oklahoma—didn’t sit well for the Poncas, didn’t feel at all like home, and offered no rest for the weary, just another hard-core stretch of hunger and sickness. Weary and hungry when they arrived, they stayed weary and hungry for months.

Forget every cavalry vs. Indian show you ever saw—get it out of your consciousness. The Ponca story is not like them.

There’d never, ever been a hostile problem with the Poncas. They’d signed a treaty sixty years before, so when the mounted cavalry from Ft. Randall came riding into the Ponca villages, no Ponca had ever seen the army before. Can you imagine?

The wailing that whole night was robust. No one wanted to leave. The next morning, in come these fighting men with guns and swords.

Seth K. Humphrey / Wikimedia Commons

To be sure, there was a good reason for the Poncas to cut the deal they did with the strange emissary who showed up one day from Washington. He’d come to let them know  that “the Great Father” wanted the Poncas to move from their homeland on the Missouri River, to Indian Country, what would become Oklahoma, to a place where, he claimed, they’d be safe from raids by larger and more warlike neighbors.

James C. Schaap

On a single visit to Lemmon, South Dakota, you can see the whole world. Seriously.

You want joy? Once a summer they put a tent up in Lemmon—a beer tent—for a town festival. A whole lot of people celebrate with a whole lot of beer, so many people and so much beer the town sells souvenir t-shirts with “I got bent in the tent,” across your chest.

You can buy that t-shirt any time of year, too. It’ll stop traffic. Even if people don’t ask, they’ll wonder. “I got bent in the tent.”

Edward S. Curtis / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

J. P. Morgan was the richest man in turn-of-the-century America. Edward Curtis, the largely uneducated son of a tub-thumping preacher, entered his Morgan’s office timidly, hoping for a contribution because the focus of Curtis's life was floundering, even though he’d already bagged the backing of President Teddy Roosevelt.

James C. Schaap

As late as the 1930s locals still found bones right here, on a flat spot of ground in what was once a wide river bed.  Bones--the skeletons of ponies that had belonged to Black Kettle's Cheyenne people. 

The Little Church

Sep 14, 2020
Ammodramus / CC0 / Wikimedia Commons

Listen, this is Believe It or Not stuff.

But first an old story you might have heard.

There's a guy, an old soldier maybe, some poor soul left behind on an otherwise deserted Pacific island (swap oceans if you'd like). Poor guy's been on his own for fifty years, sole occupant of this tiny unmapped island. 

One day finally, someone drops by, first visitor in way too many years. The visitor is astounded at the place the old guy has built. He had nothing else to do for fifty years, I suppose, so he built himself an entire town.

Winslow Homer / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

She remembers sitting up on the wagon and hearing the cobs bang, remembers horses going up the field pretty much on their own as Ma and Pa picked ears and flung 'em off the bangboard. Remembers, she says, how the sharp edges of a thousand corn leaves could cut up your arm but good.


She remembers bringing a load home from the field at night, in the dark. She was just a girl, but she remembers one winter when they finished picking corn on New Years Day! Can you believe it?

George Cable / Wikimedia Commons

Think Julie Andrews. Think "The Hills are Alive." It's unlikely the Sisters ever cavorted so sweetly amid the hills, but who knows? They loved their native Switzerland's shimmering mountain lakes and perfectly stunning peaks, so who knows what kind of dance they did when alone amid that mountaintop majesty.

It's huge. Created in the late '20s, during the heyday of memorial making, Bryant Baker's Pioneer Woman stands formidably just off one of Ponca City's main streets, right where Oklahoma oilman millionaire, Earnest Whitworth Marland, wanted it. It's bronze and it's big and it’s a lovely gift to the town, the region, and the entire nation really. 

Baker won the commission, a 1929 contest among some of the nation's leading sculptors, after a nationwide tour of the submitted possibilities. Hundreds of thousands of people voted. 

Big Bluestem

Jul 27, 2020
Paul Chelstad

Big Bluestem.

 

Used to be, there were far more of them than there are of us. Tall and spindly, it grew up every 

summer from a thick bundle of shorter stuff at its base, like a grass skirt, a thicket that a host of critters thought of as home. Spindly and thin up top, Big Bluestem, the tallest of our native grasses, gets tossed around so mightily by gusty winds that not even a goldfinch can hold on. But the skinny stem doesn't break, it just waves, waves away, waves beautifully, waves like an inland sea. 

Wikimedia Commons

If you look closely into a single, little nook of the elegant, spirit-riddled Crescent Hotel, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, you'll see an arc, I’m told, a portal that’ll usher you right into the fifth dimension. I’m walking fearfully through the place.

“Look closely because at this very spot it frequently appears,” our guide told us, a true believer, giving us the tour. She jerked her arm sideways, in a motion I simply assumed was conjuration, and I took the picture.

I’ll show it to you sometime. You got to look hard, worse than hard.

Strange place to start, but let’s just go for it.

Ninety-five years ago, just about everyone in Sioux City would have recognized Mother Bloor, a 70-year-old wrecking crew who’d stormed into town from North Dakota just to agitate, to stir up a batch of trouble with mad farmers here, and there were more than a few because the whole lot of ‘em could do nothing but watch their operations slip-slide into receivership.

Wikimedia Commons

On the night of April 23, 1865, eight days after President Abraham Lincoln met his end in the Ford Theater, a young man named Silas Soule, a Civil War and Indian Wars veteran and a constable in a frontier town called Denver, Colorado, ran into two cavalrymen, late, who, presumably drunk, were shooting their handguns irresponsibly.  No one knows what was said, but in a matter of minutes, Charles Squier, a ne'er-do-well with a rap sheet and a venomous hatred for Abraham Lincoln, shot Silas Soule in the head.  Soule died almost instantly.

Meisy's Resistance

Jun 2, 2020
R/DV/RS / Flickr

The Battle of the Bulge had not gone well for a California kid named Ralph Ellis, who, like countless others in the fog of war, had lost track of his outfit. He was in awful shape, as so many were when the Hitler sprung an immense December surprise and bullied their way through Allied lines in France and Belgium. Ellis was alone, wounded, frozen and famished, hiding out in an uninhabited house in a town pummeled--for the second time--by the Nazi advance. He thought he was dying.

NPS

Astonishingly, this gorgeous American folk song has no story, no source, and no author. For more than a century we've associated it with the battle-weary Civil War soldiers or flatboat rivermen--maybe even freed slaves, or lovesick sweethearts far, far, far from home. Maybe you’ve always thought its honey-coated saga, set somewhere in the mythical American west, starred a white man who fell in love with the beautiful daughter of Native chief.  "Shenandoah,” is an all-American favorite, and, oddly enough open book.

James C. Schaap

Cathedral of the Prairie

A couple of farmers don't just get together over coffee at the Coop and decide to build a cathedral like St. Anthony of Padua, Hoven, SD. Putting up a that sized cathedral requires a vision.
 

  

St. Anthony's visionary was a priest named Anthony Helmbrecht, who wanted a cathedral not unlike the ones he remembered from his Bavarian boyhood. In the early years of the 20th century he went door-to-door until he collected enough money to contract the artisans he wanted, who then began to build the "Cathedral of the Prairie."

Wright, Robert Marr (1840-1915) / Wikimedia Commons

  

So give me a home where the buffalo roam

Just get me the heck out of this sod house.

 

You know, I used to say there weren't any great songs about sod houses because no one went all rhapsodic about living in thick dirt. A sod house kept out heat and cold in remarkably efficient ways and likely never blew away. Let it be said—or sung—that sure as anything a soddie was a shelter in the time of storm. But far as I knew, nobody ever picked out a song about a sod house that found its way into the American soul. No siree.

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