Small Wonders

Battle of the Spurs

Aug 13, 2018
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There's something vintage Old Testament about the whole story, something that feels like myth. But it happened; and just a bit north of Topeka, an unkept highway marker up on a hill tells part of the story that can't be doubted. What can is far more fascinating.

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It's like a movie, a set piece from a show like The Music Man, set right here in Iowa. Pioneer days, 1865: a steam engine belching a plume so thick you can hike on it pulls a string of cars through eastern Iowa's rolling hills. Aboard a flat car sits a church bell, sturdily strapped to prevent carnage. 

That bell attracts a crowd, so whenever the engine blasts out a warning to a town down the pike, people gather to gawk--and listen. A whole crowd of rubber-neckers have heard about that bell, so it's rung in every hamlet.

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It's a stretch to think of Robin Hood on the Great Plains. Dakota warriors could do magic tricks with a bow and arrow, but somehow the hero of the Sherwood Forest would be a foreigner in a landscape without trees. The plains just ain't the place for Robin Hood.

But let’s try. Think of him emerging, angel-like, from a broad field of 12-foot hybrid corn in yet another Field of Dreams. Suddenly, there he is in green leotards. Friar Tuck is with him, and Little John, and his entire merry band.

Don't remember where I heard it, but the conversation wasn't directed at me.  I must have been sitting somewhere among a whole group of people when I overheard a mom telling someone else about her boy, how he was really into his own music, how he was in three or four bands and had already produced his own CDs, how he was going to make music his career, wanted to be a singer/songwriter.

Sure, I thought. He and a half million others. Maybe more.

"That's all he lives for these days," she was saying, or something to that effect. She was proud of him, and I was cynical.

When it killed, cholera did so with astonishing quickness. From the moment symptoms appeared --excessive diarrhea and vomiting, sunken eyes in a blueish face--till the moment those eyes closed forever was often a matter of hours.

Once the contagion was recognized, a steamer named St. Ange pulled over just south of here at the mouth of the Little Sioux River.

Two Roman Catholic priests, Black Robes, were aboard, holy men, Belgian born but dedicated to missions here. Both had notable records of selflessness, but only one would do good any longer.

Amy Meredith

You've probably never heard of Hermann the German and likely never stopped to greet him in New Ulm, Minnesota. Then again, you could have driven through town and not seen him at all. You've got to go south and up into the wooded hills.

But once you're there, he's a can't-miss. Hermann the German stands 32-feet tall--you heard that right. What's more, his statue stands 102 feet above town--way up there. Hermann the German ain't no "small wonder"--he's huge.

Howard Chandler Christy

Willa Cather’s My Antonia is 100 years old, published the same year tens of thousands of doughboys were killed in France and Belgium, thousands more dying of epidemic influenza even before they arrived in Europe. Cather’s classic novel brings the region alive, just as does “Roll Call on the Prairie,” an essay she published in the Red Cross magazine.

Today, Willa Cather’s tall-grass people are the “small wonders.” Here’s what she wrote.

You got to love Carry A. Nation, a woman who listened when the Lord God almighty told her to uphold the law in Kansas and bring to an glorious end the miserable indecency of those who pedaled booze in utter disregard of the law.

US Bureau of Land Management

You have to hunt to find it, but here and there along the way you’ll find stone markers, set down a century ago to memorialize a highway that for a couple of rowdy decades swept through the land not so far away, on its way to nothing less than the promise of the good life. It’s the Oregon Trail.

The first white folks to "do" the trail were the Whitmans, a couple of newlywed missionaries bound for eastern Washington. It was 1836. Mrs. Whitman's letters home were a marvel when they were published out east, sparking a romance for the west in hearts and minds all over this nation.

Caroline Fraser says that what Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote down about Kansas, long ago, says a great deal about her, even though the Kansas prairie was home to her very first memories. She wrote those memories down on "Big Chief" tablets and never intended them for publication, unlike so much else she put to writing. Just for the record, Caroline Fraser's Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, just won the Pulitzer. It's a great read.

James C Schaap

We were standing atop a miniature mountain, looking out over the Big Sioux River from a statuesque bluff not all that far from the confluence of the Missouri and the Big Sioux, over the prairie land of Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve, 3000 acres of sheer beauty.  No one else was there.

James C Schaap

Oddly enough, the empire began by way of a very sore bum. An Englishman named William Brooks Close, who, with his brothers, was in Philadelphia for a rowing match in 1876, so banged up his posterior in practice, that he could not sit without pillows. While the rest of the crew continued to work out, but he had to sit out. 

Eleanor Grandstaff Collection

She and her husband went to the revival because the church was their church too, sort of. They hadn't been shy about telling their neighbors they liked the United Brethren fellowship but weren't that hot on all that stuff about hell.

Maybe the revival’s title should have kept them away: "Hell, What it is. Where it is. Who Goes There." They went anyway.

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President Woodrow Wilson, like each and every President--and all of us--was a bundle of contradictions, his very soul a nest of hooks. From the time he was a kid, he wanted to be in government. A portrait of Gladstone hung in his boyhood bedroom, and he made no bones about it--he wanted to be a statesman.

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It took me 31 years of Iowa living to take my first steps on real native prairie, the kind my great-grandparents must have set upon when they arrived in northwest Iowa in the 1880s. Thirty-one years. Seems like a lifetime.

But then, real native prairie goes at a premium in this corner of the state. You can stumble on a few sloped patches of original grasses along the bluffs of the Big Sioux River, but for decades already the land has been drawn-and-quartered by the endless row crops of a gigantic garden. 

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Given the scale of what once was, it wouldn’t be difficult to call the place “Siouxland's biggest fossil,” a sprawling, endless petrifaction. Walk out the door of the lobby, keep the walls on your left and circle the entire place--it'll take you the better part of a half hour because the place is gargantuan.

A century ago, it had to have been perfectly colossal because 116 years later it still is. If you've never seen it, drive up sometime. It’ll stop you in your tracks.

National Park Service

Very little of the great Missouri River looks as it did when Standing Bear and his Ponca band lived beside it, right there at the confluence of the “the Big Muddy” and the Niobrara. Four huge dams brought discipline to a madcap river far too unruly. But some say the segment of the river most like the Missouri Lewis and Clark navigated is right there—from the mouth of the Niobrara south to Yankton.

Bleeding Kansas

Feb 26, 2018
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Since 1920, the Osawatomie/Paola game was the Super Bowl, the game no one missed, the big one that shut down both Kansas towns and most the countryside. For 93 years it went on.

But the rivalry got started long before that, if you read the history. For a time in the 1850s, those two burgs did a whole lot more than mount great passing games. Kansas was bleeding in the 1850s. Just about everyone opening up the sod on the new state's eastern edge did so because they wanted to fight, wanted to win, sometimes at all costs. 

Hammerin' Hank

Feb 19, 2018
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He was just 23 years old when, in 1957, he won the MVP award. I was in third grade, and hard as it might be to believe, I don't think I thought of him as Black. He'd come up from the Negro league in fact, the very last player to arrive in the Bigs, at a time when African-Americans were just beginning to get a place in major league baseball dugouts. 

Seems to me that Billy Bruton played next to him in centerfield, so he wasn't the only African-American on the roster. But he was early. Those old pics of that 1957 team--World Champ Milwaukee Braves!--have four or five others.

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When James Fennimore Cooper complained about the novel he was reading, his wife told him to put up or shut up, to write a better one himself. That tiff launched the Cooper’s career, a man considered America’s first novelist. His output was huge, even though Mark Twain claimed, “his English is a crime against the language.” That's an unsettling review. 

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If you can take I-90, west, most people think you’d be downright crazy taking Highway 18, a meandering two-lane-r that slows through small towns you’d never otherwise notice. Highway 18 barely deserves the word highway.

But if you’re crazy enough to wander and you have the time, you could do worse than score a big sky sunset some late afternoon over Hwy. 18. It’ll take you through endless reservation lands, two of them—the Rosebud and Pine Ridge—side by side in the lower echelon of west river South Dakota counties.

Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) Library

It was a highly fashionable method of getting across the Atlantic, a cruise ship bigger and faster than any other. A cruise ship with its own electrical system. elevators, and lavishly advertised passage space, especially for those hosted in first-class passage.

And it was May, May 7 to be exact, and while early May can sometimes feel alarmingly like late February, it so happened this this May 7 was mild, as was the sea. People were out of their cabins that day, out and about, anticipating arrival in England after a delightful voyage from New York.

Des Moines Local History

That it was a government in absentia was not unusual. Several freshly-born northwest Iowa counties were run from afar in the 1860s, if run has any meaning. 

Sioux County's first government declared such jobs as bridge-building and road-construction to be their work and paid themselves royally for their labor, even if there wasn’t any. Government was a hoax, a racket, a fraud, a scam--but if you were part of it, you could pocket some cash.

Public Domain Pictures

Some psychologists want to drop the last initial in PTSD. They claim that to call PTSD a “disorder” makes the condition appear unusual. It isn’t. They claim that if you’ve been to war, you have post-traumatic stress because war is trauma.

I can’t help thinking such distinctions wouldn’t have mattered to the woman in the casket yesterday. Her husband took Nazi fire at the Battle of the Bulge and came home with a purple heart from wounds that were visible–and some that were not. “He just wasn’t the same when he came back from the war,” one of his relatives said.

Lully Lullay

Dec 31, 2017
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Coventry, an English city of 250,00 in the West Midlands, was home to significant industrial power when World War II began, a line of industries Hitler wouldn’t and didn’t miss. When the Battle of Britain began, a specific Coventry blitz started immediately and didn’t end for three long months--198 tons of bombs killed 176 people and injured almost 700.

But the worst was to come. On November 14, 1940, 515 Nazi bombers unloaded on Coventry’s industrial region, leaving the city in ruins. Its own air defenses fired 67 hundred rounds, but brought down only one bomber. It was a rout.

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Okay, it’s time to get serious. Before you talk about miracles and magic, let's have a good cold look at what happened in No Man's Land between British and German troops, December, 1914. Before you grab the Kleenex or get all teary and sentimental, you should remember that perfectly good reasons explain why peace broke out amidst war, why, for one unforgettable Christmas, a battlefield became an enchanted cartoon.

Be reasonable. The magic of that moment is perfectly explainable.

James C Schaap

Legend has it that back in the fifties, when the county spread blacktop over the gravel on the road straight west to the South Dakota border, one farmer held out. “That cottonwood,” they told him, “is going to have to go before the road goes in. He’s too blasted close to the roadbed. Look there at the way he hangs over.”

Farmer shook his head, said no way. Farmer said he loved that tree, cottonwood or not, tallest one on his place, best shade too; and you know what?-- he could give a fig for that blacktop because who needs the traffic out here anyway?

Ames Historical Society

It’s the summer of 1971, on Highway 34, southwest Iowa. Some big digger, a lumbering monster doing the dirt work for road construction--maybe they were going to widen the highway—chewed up ground as such monsters do so well. But it stopped, politely, at the graves of 28 people it found in the way.

You can’t just go charging through. Some kind of recovery had to be done.

One of the men running the show, a man named John Pearson, came home that night after work with the news.

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The only picture we have of the guy makes him look like a criminal. His nose seems overlarge, as if swollen, as if he might have been beaten. If it weren’t for the thin moustache, he’d pass for a boy, a kid, someone more than slightly afraid of whoever held the camera. His hair is tousled, as if he’d not slept.

He doesn’t look like a criminal, although the picture itself looks like a mug shot, which it might have been.

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