Small Wonders

The birthday of Sinclair Lewis is now a bit behind us now, but in his honor, I thought I’d sing the glories of a Sinclair Lewis 1/3 pound cheeseburger, served up with pickle and fries at the Palmer House, downtown Sauk Center, an old hotel that's not changed its features for more than a half century and fronts on Sinclair Lewis Street. I'm not kidding. Just down the way a few blocks, you can find the Sinclair Lewis home and on the south side of town, the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center. All true. Google it.

James C. Schaap

I'm lucky to have grabbed a shot of my neighbor last night. The dickcissels behind our place are not particularly rare, and I love having them back again when they arrive in early summer. They're no bigger than a parakeet, and the endless ratcheting they make seems to make them almost akin. To call what they do "singing" is a stretch. It's a bleat, rough and horse, nothing like the robins’ varied melodies. 

On some balmy early fall days out here on the edge of the plains, it’s not hard to believe that we are not where we are. Warm southern breezes sweep all the way up from the Gulf, the sun smiles with a gentleness not seen since June, and the spacious sky reigns over everything in azure glory.

On exactly that kind of fall morning, I loved bringing my writing classes to what I call a ghost town, Highland, Iowa, a place whose remnants still exist, eight miles west and two south, a village that is no more.

The only way to get to the Prospect Hill monument is a map or GPS. There is no signage to speak of, and the monument isn't what you might call stunning. It's big, but not huge. Both itself and what it commemorates seems little more than a footnote. Go on up and read it for yourself.

On Prospect Hill, Sheldon Jackson, T.C. Cleland and J.C. Elliott, strict Presbyterians all, pledged in prayer to beget a campaign, as the monument still claims, to “win the west for Christ."

James C. Schaap

It wasn't upkept--I'll say that much. The grass could have used a trim, but the City is keeping it up adequately, as well they should. It stands at the very top of Prospect Hill, where once some obscure Sioux City history was created. The Prospect Hill Monument, as it’s called, attempts to remember an event 152 years ago that today wouldn’t snag a Journal headline. 

Honestly, I don’t need to show you the old picture because you’ve already seen a dozen just like it. The mustached man looks uncomfortable in a suit and a vest and one of those little ties that barely peaks out of a collar that’s way too tight. He stares at the camera as if he’s forgotten how to smile. His wife—you may remember me talking about this couple—is half his age (or more). She stands beside him, her right hand on his shoulder.

Once upon a time, he shot at surfacing German subs in the North Atlantic, tried to pick off the crews who were aiming anti-aircraft at Navy bombers whose depth charges could blow those subs right out of the water.

Silvanica1 / Wikimedia Commons

Look, if anything in the vast Powder River neighborhood—out there just beyond the Black Hills—if anything merits the word "monumental," it's this thumb-like, mile-high monolith called Devils Tower. It rises out of nowhere, a dinosaur-sized whatchamacallit that long ago shook off the apostrophe meant to indicate the Devil’s ownership. With or without punctuation, this heavyweight protuberance deserves the title it’s been given.

Paul Hermans / Wikimedia Commons

They're sweet these days, as long as they stay in their banks. When and if they flood, they're a pain, and most do come spring, unless they're damned up somewhere and brow-beaten into behaving. Outside of swelling up after some gully-washer, rivers are little more than a sweet feature of our landscape, home to ducks and geese, and life itself for deer and coons and a whole gallery of neighboring wildlife. You can pump ‘em out and sprinkle what you get over parched land. But that's it: rivers are just, well, rivers. We notice them only when they get out of line.


It's hard to estimate, given Covid, but it wouldn't be a risk to guess that, this summer, more than three million visitors to Yellowstone will stop by this park behemoth. It's not as great a favorite as Old Faithful, but the Glacial Boulder, Yellowstone calls it, sits in state like a great gray relic between the trees, as if, like Gulliver, it’s imprisoned by matchsticks. The Glacial Boulder is huge. It shall not be moved, nor has it since it got washed along--that's right, washed along--by an anonymous glacier, impossible as that is to imagine.

Gertrude Kasebier / Smithsonian Institution

It began in the 1830s, when President Andrew Jackson blazed “The Trail of Tears” and deported “the Five Civilized Tribes” (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole) far out west to what eager white politicians called “Indian Territory.” The plan was simple: stick the whole bunch together out there on open land (it wasn’t) to prosper in their own native ways (pipe dream).  

Harvey Dunn

Let me describe this rather mediocre painting. The big tree at the heart of things is a bit too perfect; the winds maul trees out here on the edge of the Great Plains. Hers seems too Joyce Kilmer. The roof tops in the background make clear the artist was out near a farm somewhere, but the outline of that house--see it, beneath the branches of the tree?--doesn't look much like a Siouxland homestead. Seriously, Corinthian columns out front? Hills like that line the Missouri River, but eastern South Dakota, the place where the artist, Ada B.

It's romanticized into sheer silliness. The only painting I’ve ever seen that concerns the massacre just up the road at Lake Shetek, Minnesota, features fancy white horses pulling an ornate wagon packed full of ladies in Sunday-go-to-meetin' dresses, while three gentlemen in suits and fedoras are running alongside. It’s Downton Abbey in rural Minnesota, circa 1862. There are no smiles, and the woman driving is switching every bit of speed she can from the steeds. Their hurry is concerning, as is the fear on all of their faces.

Harvey Dunn

Not so long ago I stumbled on the little book by a man who lived in a place where people haven’t and likely shouldn’t even try to live. It’s a memoir. Don’t look for it in bookstores. You won’t find it. Homesteading in the South Dakota Badlands, 1912, "The Last Best West," a tiny little book of deeply lodged memories put to paper by a man named Ernest G. Boermann—it’s his story.

Civil War collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

If the place sounds cliche-ish, you can't blame Garretson, because not every Siouxland burg is blessed with a built-in tourist trap. Seriously, Garretson has a brand—"Jesse James was there.” He was. Not some lousy impersonator. The. Real. Jesse James. And there lies the tale.

"Devil's Gulch," someone once called it, like something out of John Wayne--"the dust in Devil's Gulch was thick as hide on a buffalo hump." You know. 

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.

Jim Schaap of Small Wonders and Siouxland Public Media's General Manger Mark Munger bring stories of Christmas to lighten our load in these difficult days.

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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.