Small Wonders

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. 

The Sioux City Boy Scouts were there to lead the assembly in the Pledge of Allegiance. And the school band from Central High offered some fitting selections. The Sioux City Journal claims there were 300 folks in attendance at the dedication that Sunday afternoon, a goodly crowd of citizenry in 1929. 

Wikimedia Commons / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region [Public domain]

Sunday, October 15, we went to church. The wind was then blowing wildly, but this became worse further along in the day. When we got out of church, we saw smoke in the distance, because the prairie was on fire. 

 

It is November, 1871, and Harmen Jan te Selle, a homesteader from Lancaster County, Nebraska, is writing home to the old country from a sod house amid grasslands he his family back home could never have imagined, an immense, roiling sea of grass.

Arnz and Company [Public domain]

There's a town there, a small one that likely grows a bit during summer vacation. It’s right on the river, Wisconsin side, just across the mighty Mississippi, which is not channeled right there at all and therefore, even today, streaked with cottonwood islands. 

Visitor7 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)] / Wikimedia Commons

I'd never heard of 3.2 beer until I got to college. Never was much of a drinker either. I had my first real beer the summer before coming to Iowa for school. Pulled one from an old refrigerator in the basement office of the state park where I worked, a fridge we kept stocked with six packs we’d confiscated from under-agers on the beach. If that fridge got short, we'd go on patrol some Saturday afternoon to restock.

Pure Celebrity

Mar 25, 2019
Loomis Dean / Flickr

[Editor's note: Larry the Cable Guy has canceled his appearance in Sioux City.]

Henry Simpson Johnston came to Perry, Indian Territory, in 1895. He wasn't born in Oklahoma, but then most white men in Indian Territory--Oklahoma didn't become a state until 1907--weren't natives. But then, in Oklahoma even the Natives weren't native. Like so many others, Henry Simpson Johnston came west looking for America's last frontier. 

The Keeley Cure

Mar 21, 2019
Internet Archive Book Images / Flickr

When Carry A. Nation, as tough an hombre as any Kansas outlaw, married her second husband, they lived in Medicine Lodge, Kansas, just down the road from Dodge City, Main Street of "the wild west.”

Carry Nation wasn’t shy about her calling—she was out to enforce a law banning the sale of liquor, a law prodigiously scorned by small-town constables who, often enough, looked the other way before slamming down a drink or two themselves.

Benjamin F. Gue / Wikimedia Commons

Long, long ago a massive chunk of pink quartzite was left behind in the immense wash of a turbulent inland sea. It's impossible to imagine a rock 20-feet high, 40-feet wide, 60-feet long--getting carted anywhere, but that's what happened. An ocean swept that massive thing south and east from its moorings on the outcropping of Gitche Manitou or Pipestone. In its fingers, the glacier picked it up and unceremoniously left it behind.

Vern Wigfield / RRPictureArchives.NET

Started out as a trading post named after the man who decided, right then and there, to do some business, Antoine LeBeau, a Frenchman, like so many other trappers of his time. In 1875, he put up his business on the east side of the Missouri, just across from the Cheyenne River Reservation, and started trading furs, pots, pans, and whatever his customers, white and red, thought worth buying and selling in LeBeau, South Dakota.

The archive office of the town Spillville in Iowa / Wikimedia Commons

Could have been different. Could have been a whole lot different. Anton Dvorak wasn't just the neighbor's distant cousin house guest. He'd already spent a year as the head of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, where he taught composition and led the choir and orchestra. The year was 1892, and the conservatory was celebrating four hundred years of European/American history with a true European at its head.

A Winter's Tale

Jan 29, 2019
Wikimedia Commons

If the tale is true, the immigrant Menning family had some significant bucks when they left the Netherlands for America. Most pioneers didn’t, of course. But some did. What it didn’t get them, however, was plush accommodations on the steamer they took across the ocean, a trip which was, for them, no piece of cake.  In the North Sea already, their ship collided with another. Both sunk, sadly enough. Down into the cold went healthy chunk of the Menning’s worldly possessions.

Randy OHC

Donald Jackson is the Queen's scribe, the man--the artist--responsible for the creating England's most important state documents. He's the royal calligrapher, an artist, a past chair of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators, a word so rare my spellcheck red-lines it.

Donald Jackson is a Brit of course, and he carries levels of sophistication capable of leaving Yanks like me stuttering in envy, despite our 250-year-old revolutionary history. 

Oddly, however, the story Donald Jackson relishes telling is of a morning walk to a place where the St. John's 

SDPB

If Oscar Howe’s Wounded Knee Massacre (1960) is rarely seen these days, it’s because Dwight David Eisenhower’s Presidential Museum is seldom visited. The place is undergoing a major renovation right now, so having a look at Howe’s memorable work is likely impossible. But even if that masterpiece wasn’t presently under wraps, Abilene, Kansas, hasn’t seen much traffic since the Chisholm Trail Days, more than a century ago.

Bering Land Bridge National Preserve

People I know have tipi rings on their South Dakota ranch, circles of stones visible only in summer, and then, only when cattle keep the grass down. But they're there, broad circles of half-submerged stones that mark the spots where, years ago our indigenous ancestors pitched tents, footprints of a different time.

Pixabay

The miracle of Christmas reveals itself to a father and his teenaged daughter in "First Cry in a Stable" by James Schaap, originally published in Finding Christmas: Stories of Startling Joy and Perfect Peace.  

Wikimedia Commons

Once upon a time, his name was a household word, so great was his fame. He gave us a headless horseman and bearded old man with a rusty shotgun who appeared in town after an absence of umpteen years—tales like “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Yesteryear Once More

Old Elizabeth--she picked up a white woman's name--never heard of Susan B. Anthony. Couldn't have. She didn't know English, knew nothing about a right to vote. But that didn't mean she wasn't a feminist. No sir and no ma'am.

Old Elizabeth had little to do with men, but a lot to say. Outspoken? Yes, on all things gender-related. Opinionated?—you bet. She flat out didn't like men.

State Historical Society of North Dakota

Teddy Roosevelt’s ego is legendary, his ambition quite amply illustrated by his unsuccessful run for a third Presidential term, backed as he was by a political organization with the goofiest name in American political history, the Bull Moose Party.

Wikimedia Commons

Robert J. Casey: from The Cannoneers Have Hairy Ears

In cities and towns around the nation, Armistice Day was a joy. In France, the engine of war was difficult to slow or stop. Robert J. Casey remembered exactly—almost to the minute—how the armistice went on the battlefield.

And this is the end of it. In three hours the war will be over. It seems incredible even as I write it. I suppose I ought to be thrilled and cheering. I am merely apathetic and incredulous.

We got the word about 5:30 this morning amid a scene of great anticlimax.

Wikimedia Commons

Almost a year passed before she heard anything at all from her brother. Not that she didn't try. She did, hard and often, writing letters that would return stamped, "Addressee Transferred" or "Return to Writer." One has a note penciled-in: "wounded 8/7/18. We have no further record of this man," then a date "4-2-19," six months after the First World War ended. 

She must have been worried sick. The war, people claimed joyfully, was over. But what did she know of her brother? Nothing. A profound, inconsolable emptiness must have left her sleepless in a nightmare.

Wikimedia Commons

  

By the time American troops got to Europe in 1917, African-Americans had an established, but not celebrated history in military service of our country. In 1862, under the direction of Thomas Wentworth Higgenson, the sworn abolitionist and literary heartthrob of Emily Dickinson, the first federally authorized Black military unit, the First South Carolina Volunteers, went to war.

The Great Killer

Oct 15, 2018
Wikimedia Commons

When Edgar Hartman came down with the mumps, it laid him up for a month. That may seem unlikely. Mumps? Hartman was a 26-year-old soldier who'd just completed basic training and was actually aboard the ship and awaiting departure when he got hit with what most of us think of a simple childhood disease. 

Hennessey Public Library

Like just about every other town from sea to shining sea, Hennesey, Oklahoma, will celebrate its own pioneer days this summer--parades and burgers, gospel quartets, and a mud bog full of slippery pigs. There’ll be more horses and cattle than your ordinary burg, because Main Street, Hennessey is the Chisolm Trail. In the 1870s, downtown Hennessey was the world's largest cattle yard.

Wikimedia Commons

We don't know much about the boy. Maybe he was everyone else's last choice. Could be. Not much of a warrior, maybe his parents set him up with this girl, or there'd never have been a marriage at all. 

The girl wore some scars from the smallpox that rampaged through her village. Her Huron father and Mohawk mother both died, as did a host of others. The truth? --the girl, Tekakwitha, was forever sickly thereafter. She couldn't have been a doll, but her adoptive father was the village headman. 

Wikimedia Commons

Seems easy enough, simple and true: once you're free, that’s it--no going back. Free at last. Makes sense.

Well, not so. In the case of more than one slave and former slave, being free for a time, or having been free for months or even years, was not a ticket to ride because by law in these United States it was altogether possible and perfectly legal for a free man or woman to be returned to an owner and thus chained up once more, improbable as that may seem.

Wikimedia Commons

I was a boy in the 1950s, forty long years after November 11, 1918, Armistice Day, when the unimaginable carnage of the First World War finally ended. As a kid, I knew very little about my great uncle, who, by way of a grenade thrown 100 years ago next month, met his death in some battlefield gully in France. What I knew is that he'd been killed in the Great War, and that my parents had better attend Decoration Day rallies in the cemetery south of town.

Wikimedia Commons

Seems to me that houses these days have no attics, and I think that’s sad.

In what might be his most famous book, Curtis Harnack, born and reared just outside Remsen, spends an entire essay on the attics he explored as a kid in his ancient Iowa farm house, one complete chapter of his celebrated We Have All Gone Away. 

That wasn’t enough. A few years later he followed up with yet another memoir of the farm, The Attic, proving thereby that attics are actually treasure troves.

Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

Those in the know were not particularly surprised to see Kaitlin Bennett come on campus around graduation dolled up as she was--her mortar board darlingly decorated with a dare, and her brother's assault rifle, with scope, slung over her shoulder. News stories claim that she was an outspoken 2nd Amendment advocate during her tenure as a student and that she wasn't at all shy about shooting off her mouth about guns.   

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