Small Wonders

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.

National Photo Company photograph via Library of Congress website / Wikimedia Commons

  

On Thursday, October 17, 1918, the editor of the Maurice Times, Maurice, Iowa, had no idea what was to come. In just a couple of days, he would have loved to edit that off-base lynching reference and burn the evidence. Thousands died in October, 1918. No one pushed them to flatten the curve. 

Joel Emmons Whitney (1822-1886) / Public domain / Minnesota Historical Society

There was a war in 1862, and it wasn't all that far away. As wars go, this one was short, over and done with in little more than a month. But it was very bloody. In no other war in U. S. history were as many civilians killed in such a short time.

James C. Schaap

Out in the middle of nowhere, an old white frame building is all that remains of a heart-felt dream that, as an answer to prayer, opened its doors in 1893 to a dozen kids who wanted an education not otherwise available in the Dakota Territories before the turn of the century. 

Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

You'll find it just over the Mississippi, next door to Dubuque. The rolling hills all around hide the place, so when you drop down into Galena, Illinois, it feels like a discovery. It’s a 19th century gem where 85 per cent of the buildings are restored and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Galena, Illinois, the whole of it, is a museum.

James C. Schaap

"What places do I really have to see when I'm here?" I asked her. 

"Oh, you have to see our church," she told me from behind the desk at the Osage visitor's center. She was clearly herself at least part Osage. I liked the way she had pushed the church at me, as if it was simply not to be missed--"our church," she said. I knew she meant the tribe's. 

"Our church," is Immaculate Conception, Pawhuska, Oklahoma, a red-brick cruciform built in 1910 and 

  added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

Thomas M. Easterly

Had I gone to school in Iowa, perhaps, I’d have known a headman, a chief, named No Heart; after all, his people left their name behind when they travelled west and south. We're Iowans because of him--and them. They left their name behind, but little more we design to remember.

Nonetheless, you should know that No Heart’s descendants are a proud people who live in Oklahoma and have for years, despite their name. They call home just outside the town where my son's family lives, just across the Cimarron. 

The Algona Nativity

Dec 23, 2019

The first one was twelve feet wide, still quite a production because Jesus, Mary, and the babe were mud-sculptured, then baked, then painstakingly painted. Back in Germany, Eduard Kaib had been an architect. That’s not to say his hand-made Nativity–all of twelve feet wide–required architectural expertise. It was Christmas, 1944, and Kaib was a long, long way from home. Things just got to him; so he decided to create this most famous barnyard scene, a fully manned–and animal-ed–nativity.

James C. Schaap / Siouxland Blogspot

One of the cement plates standing in the park holds an image of the house she lived in here in Earlville, a little white house now long gone. What's here is a little commemorative park someone keeps up. Doesn't require much, I suppose. 

An old-fashioned merry-go-round stands just beyond the picnic tables, the kind of machine that scared me long ago, when some big kid would push and push until we'd sail around so fast I started to believe if I didn't fly off, my stomach would. 

Keystone/Second Roberts Commission [Public domain] / Wikimedia Commons

It's 1944. Otto Steinke is too old to be drafted, his son just a few months too young. Besides, both are needed because the Allied cause requires mountains of food, food the Steinkes can produce on their Iowa farm. Not everyone can be a soldier, even some who really, really want to be. 

James C. Schaap

On August 17, 1962, President John F. Kennedy stood behind a podium just north of Pierre, South Dakota. The President of the United States was here for the dedication of Oahe Dam, an earthen monster that created the fourth largest man-made reservoir in the world. 

Seven mighty Oahe turbines create enough electricity to power whole regions of the country. Oahe Dam stands 245 feet above the river bottom and required 92 million cubic yards of fill dirt, plus well over a million cubic yards of concrete.

Jan Polack [Public domain] / Wikimedia Commons

To the Lakota people, they were the "black robes," those insanely-overdressed white men who, in flat, black hats, moved in as if out of nowhere to bring the basics of the white man's religion.

The Benedictines among them were led by Father Martin Marty, who would become the Vicar Apostolic of Dakota Territory and eventually Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Paul. The Benedictines wore black robes long before they came to America; in fact, they identified themselves thereby and wore those monster cloaks, well, religiously.

Mostly.

LeMars Semi-Weekly Sentinel Tuesday, October 1, 1929

You can know a ton about this story just by knowing the guy who robbed the bank, was driving a Graham-Page, an showroom vehicle in October, 1929, sure to draw a crowd when it was parked right there on Main in Sioux Center. 

If you're going to rob a bank in 1929, in a burg like Orange City or Sioux Center, it's not a good idea to leave a shiny Graham-Page a block down. There lies the tale. 

A Family Plot

Sep 30, 2019
Jim Schaap

There's no fort there anymore. Unlike Laramie or Robinson or Scott or Wingate, where you can still almost hear the history, Ft. Randall has only a busted-up chapel and a long, thin graveyard. If a state highway didn't run right by, no one would ever stop and only a few would remember. 

Fort Randall's claim to fame is having held Sitting Bull and his people when they returned, entirely diminished, from Canada some few years after Little Bighorn. Once upon a time, the legendary Sitting Bull was incarcerated right here. 

Jim Schaap

There’s some debate about exactly why Chief Black Hawk left Iowa in 1832 and crossed the mighty Mississippi. He claimed that he and his band had been robbed of their homeland, and all he ever wanted was to return to the land where his ancestors were buried.

That claim may have been deceptive. Some historians believe he wanted to build a Native Confederacy. More and more white faces were showing up on land that once belonged to the tribes who trapped and hunted the lush woodlands along the Rock, the Pecatonica, and the mighty Mississipi.

Pinkerton's Detective Agency / Wikimedia Commons

For the record, the Rock Island Express the boys hit that night was eight cars long--four coaches, two sleepers, and two baggage and express cars. It left Council Bluffs at five, on a run to Chicago. Oddly enough, the last sleeper was full of Chinese students on their way to colleges out east. The date was July 21, 1873.

Thomas Tran / National Resources Conservation Service

Hattie says that just before her mother got married, she’d left the farm to start working in a grocery in Springfield, SD, where some young men “seemed suddenly to have a greater hunger for candy and cigars.” One of those young men would become Hattie’s father, who, she says, in all candor, “had need of a girl like this." 

A century ago, when a man got to a certain age, and he came to know he’d better get somebody to help with chores--a man needed to get a wife like he needed to get a haircut. 

Ron Sterling / Wikimedia Commons

Maybe you've heard. As unlikely as it seems, trees may be our saviors. Researchers have determined we could plant 2.5 billion acres of new trees without losing an inch of farmland or cutting back at all on urban sprawl. Those billions of trees—take a deep breath here--can sweep up and away 200 gigatons of the carbon that's warming us dangerously. As Margaret Renkl said in a recent Times Opinion piece, "Planting trees. . .could go a long way toward saving us from ourselves."

George Caleb Bingham / The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202.

It's morning, mid-summer. A haze lies over everything. The river valley seems veiled, the horizon indiscernible. What shrouds everything isn't fog, but a glowing wet glaze you can feel against your face. Likely as not it's August. George Caleb Bingham's style of painting is called luminist, the landscape ever so tranquil, yellow-y in the generous morning light. 

H. Bullock Webster / University of British Columbia

Don't know whether he actually carried the Good Book through the west in those early years. The story goes he took carried a copy of the Journals of Lewis and Clark, but whether or not he lugged the scriptures along may not be all that important. What nobody doubts was that Jedidiah Smith forever carried the Good Book in his heart, which made him peculiar among fur-trappers who traveled the Great River Trail, circa 1820. 

He didn't carp about religion, didn't hound people like some old parson. He just kind of lived it, selfless. Everybody knew it.

Dreamers

Jul 22, 2019
Antonio Saltini / History of Agricultural Sciences , Vol. II p. 673. The sun 24 hours Edagricole, Bologna 1987. ISBN: 8820624133

It’s gone now, but the recent Somalia exhibit at St. Paul's Minnesota History Center featured a Somali plow, a wooden contraption, the ox-drawn ancestor of, well, what we might see out here in Siouxland, some huge 21-bottom plow pulled along a Big Bud behemoth, 900 horsepower.

Imagine coming from a Somalian mud hut to the agri-world we live in. That massive tractor could open up more prairie in an hour than you could hope to see in a decade behind a sweaty team of oxen and that old wooden one-share doohickey.

Welcome to America.

Albert Colgrave [Public domain] / Wikimedia Commons

I was tired. Not sure why, but I was; and even though we'd been gone for little more than a day, I was anxious to get home. Besides, it was July-hot, thick and humid. We were alone on a two-lane highway, coming back from a small-town Fourth fest. Hardly anybody else was out on the road, which made driving nice, so nice I didn't want to stop.

I had planned to. I knew the old battlefield lay there right along the highway. I could have been in and out in a quarter hour, if I wanted to; but we just drove right on by. It was hot, too--not in the car, but outside.

Library of Congress

In the Bible, when Job’s friends handed out their opinions of his suffering, they had his health in mind; but none of them, nor their arguments, could satisfy the emptiness in his soul. He'd lost his family, his land, his enterprise, even his health in a tsunami of bad times. Job likely numbered his days as "the worst hard times,"  the title of Timothy Egan's masterful portrayal of an American time and a place we've commonly become to describe as "the Dust Bowl."

Tall, dark, and handsome? --all of that. Virgil Earp and his brothers were big buffalo-shouldered guys who could make every man bellied up to the bar feel prune-ish. The Earps were Iowans, did some growing up here, anyway, their father a gold-digger forever looking west.

I’m talking Wyatt Earp here of OK Corral fame. He was an Iowan. Raised here, in Pella, tulips and wooden shoes down a straight-and-narrow path of Calvinist righteousness. Once upon a time, law-bible-toting, Dutch-speaking Pella was home to the Earp brothers of shelf full of dime novels.

Tony Webster / Flickr

When white settlers moved into northwest Iowa in the late 19th century, they squared the landscape with mud roads that make the flat land a grid. Of 23 townships of Sioux County, 19 are cut out into perfect squares.

Alfred Jacob Miller / Wikimedia Commons

Some call it the West's "golden age." I got to be convinced. Back then there was no Sioux City, no Iowa, no South Dakota, no Nebraska--what was here was the confluence of three rivers, one of them named after a young white adventurer who happened to die in a camp just off these hills. 

One of those river, the Missouri, was a I-29, an interstate that carried just about everybody who was anybody in our world. Those who didn't ride on water, walked or rode horseback. Few who passed here stayed back then. Those who did tried hard to get along. 

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