Small Wonders

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Some may believe that standing, hand over heart, for "The Star-Spangled Banner" is a profoundly patriotic gesture, but as a measure of homage to homeland it out-and-out pales in comparison to the giddy excesses America--and the world--took when going off to war a hundred years ago. 

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Some may believe that standing, hand over heart, for "The Star-Spangled Banner" is a profoundly patriotic gesture, but as a measure of homage to homeland it out-and-out pales in comparison to the giddy excesses America--and the world--took when going off to war a hundred years ago. 

The Bloody Benders

Oct 31, 2017

For reasons that likely have to do with desired ends, the Oregon Trail has a more wholesome reputation than its southern sidekick, the Santa Fe. The Oregon Trail once carried the hopes and dreams of whole families. The wagon trains leaving Missouri carried hundreds of thousands of little girls in sun bonnets and boys in bibs bobbing along beside the oxen, Mom holding the youngest up on the seat of the wagon.

O'Brien County Historical Society

Charles and Caroline Ingalls notwithstanding, some of our pioneer forbearers regularly ran afoul of the law, even though they were the law, the only law.

Once the federal government declared the land of the Yanktons, the land beneath my feet, was no longer the Yanktons and therefore open for settlement, the first white faces to make their way here were shysters. No one like them on Little House. All they cared about were the empty spaces this country might fill up in their own ledger books.

My Father's Tears

Oct 2, 2017
Dorothea Lange

It's a simple human story, repeated countless times in countless settings.

It begins with absolute necessity of very hard work and the will power to get it done, an ethic white rural folks have celebrated proudly for 150 years--"that kid really knows how to work."

At 98, barely able to walk, my father-in-law still apologizes for having done nothing all day in the Home. That laziness grieves him. He dreams of working all afternoon--doesn't really matter how, as long as he sweats. You know?

What happened in the lumber town of Hinckley, Minnesota, on September 1, 1894, was beyond horror.  Four hundred white men, women, and children died, as well as countless Ojibwa in the pine forests all around.  It's probably impossible to know how many human beings died in total, since more than a few transient logging camp workers from as far away as Nebraska were simply never accounted for. 

Custer's Gold Rush

Sep 12, 2017
Humboldt State University

There was no good reason for General George Armstrong Custer to ride into the Black Hills in 1874, nefarious reasons abound, however, including Washington’s determination to set yet another fort out there to make sure untoward things didn’t happen to that multitude of white folks on their way west.

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Rarely has the first meeting between white folks and Native people been as richly visualized as it is in Terrance Malick's The New World (2005), when, in the middle of a tall-grass field, an Englishman named Capt. John Smith meets the Powhatan princess Pocahontas. Not only did neither know either, neither had ever seen anything quite like each other either. They stand and stare in awe. Both of them. 

Good Samaritans on the Prairie

Aug 23, 2017
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Okay, at least the man in the ditch in the famous New Testament parable, put upon by robbers, says the gospel of Luke, wasn't alone. What passed along the road above as he lay there was hardly a freeway, but at least there were passers-by, even if neither of the first two paid him the time of day in his suffering.

But the third one helped the guy out and up. What I'm saying is, at least the poor guy in the ditch wasn't alone.

History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century Volume 1

To call it a “rogue’s gallery” just might be understatement.

But first, let’s admit that distinguishing history from myth or legend is not only difficult but impossible, witnesses long gone, histories copywrited years ago.  So exactly how evil these bad guys were is answerable, truthfully, only by saying they were inspiringly bad.

James Schaap

We visited Stratford-upon-Avon, toured Shakespeare's house and watched the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Julius Caesar in the Royal Shakespearean Theater. I vaguely remember the grave of Jane Austin, but Piccadilly Circus is gone completely.

For reasons I can't explain, nothing in jolly old England left as hearty an impression as the bombed-out hulk of Coventry Cathedral. For a moment, the Battle of Britain was more than a grainy newsreel or a whole album of old black-and-whites.

Palace of the Governors Collections, Museum of New Mexico

It’s hard to know where to start because the roots of this incredible story originate all around the world.

That there were Frenchmen here long, long ago will surprise no one. The French arrived not long after the Sioux showed up—fur trappers, hundreds of them, and their dealers, men with largely unpronounceable names like Sioux City’s own founding father, Theophile Brugeiur.

How long ago? Ages. Ben Franklin, the Ben Franklin was 14. George Washington wasn’t even born—and wouldn’t be for a dozen years, Thomas Jefferson for 23. Early, early, early.

Anthem from the Mud

Jul 26, 2017

Let’s get the objectionable stuff out on the table, okay? William Clayton had nine wives. Not nine lives, like the Tom catting around out back, but nine wives. William Clayton was a Mormon, baptized in his native Great Britain, a man of some rank among the saints, a man who worked alongside none other than Joseph Smith the Prophet.

James Schaap

A full rack of ribs, with beans and slaw, will cost you twenty bucks at Buffalo Chip Saloon and Bar, Cave Creek, AZ. Sounds reasonable, even inviting. But seriously, who'd want to eat anything served up at a saloon named by way of ruminant excrement?

Bad Village

Jun 29, 2017
Smithsonian Institute

Her father doesn’t ask her consent, but promises his greatly-admired daughter to the old warrior anyway, despite her silent protest. Many years separate the girl from the man she is bound to marry, and secretly—her parents know nothing of it—she had promised herself already to a young warrior from the village.

All of that is the first act of this somehow familiar drama. What it clearly suggests is an ancient human conflict: love versus community, tradition, and family. This version belongs to Omaha lore.

Jim Schaap

What’s there today is more of a grave than a memorial. Once upon a time—well, for more than 100 years—an obelisk stood mightily atop that chunk of granite, rose twenty feet into the air above the Missouri River.

But the obelisk is gone. A naked steel bolt reminds you that something once stood there. But then, maybe that’s okay. The issues aren’t mine to determine.

The WPA in Le Mars

Jun 14, 2017
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Once upon a time, twenty-five buildings were built just outside of LeMars, Iowa, at a fancy recreation complex/golf course, a facility otherwise unheard of in the area, each building blessed with the very same Kasota limestone veneer, a building material so weather-averse that the collection at Willow Creek looks as if they’ve never yet seen a Siouxland storm.

The Willa Cather Foundation

So it turns out, finally, that much of the trip you might take to Catherland, to south-central Nebraska, where Willa Cather grew up, tends to trace the life of one of her own central characters, Antonia Shimerda, from My Antonia, itself a hymn to the prairie. It’s as much about Antonia as it is about Willa.

Collateral Damage

May 29, 2017
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Karen Edelman Williams had never been here before, never seen unending fields of corn and soybeans amid the tawny prairie grass, never seen anything like the yawning openness all around. So when, sometime later, she wrote a letter to those people she’d met on a visit out here, she told them she’d never forget the place. “I will never forget the kindness of the people we met there,” she told them, “or the beauty of your Nebraska skies.”

Wessels Living History Farm

Even though I must have been through the place a thousand times, I didn't even know it was a place--James, Iowa, just up the road from Leeds. From up above on Google Earth, James, looks more like a camp ground than a suburb; but right there on highway 75, it sits peacefully alongside the meandering Floyd, far southern Plymouth County. 

Truth is, this story has little to do with James, Iowa. The town merits mention only as a setting, as in, "this whole business went down right here in James, Iowa." Nobody in James had a thing to do with it.

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I’d like to think of them as ours, but they aren’t—not really. Bison will be forever associated with our own Great Plains, but evidence of their roaming has turned up from Florida to Alaska, Maine to Mexico. They don’t “belong” only to those of us who live here.

I'm thinking you have to be of a certain age, a certain vintage, to use a word like ungodly with any seriousness. For added bluster, sure, as in, "It was ungodly cold last night, wasn't it?" That was it as an adjective, an add-on. "Who on earth made this ungodly mess?" You know.

But the word ungodly lost currency as a noun long ago, a usage that was once theological and judgmental. Fifty years ago, it didn't matter if you were Protestant or Catholic, you knew very well who the "ungodly" were: they were them and not us.

Remember Sacagawea

Apr 10, 2017

What happened to her when she was a kid wasn't all that unusual among nomadic, war-faring Great Plains tribes. When her people--the Shoshones--started into a bloody fight with another--the Hidatsas--she got herself kidnapped, lost her home, then got another she surely hadn’t asked for, and was eventually--sad but true--sold into slavery. At the time, she was only ten years old. 

Hairwork

Mar 27, 2017
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Think of it as a tiara, a delicate little crown your daughter may have worn for her uncle’s wedding, a princess-like thing made up of clusters of what might seem dried tendrils of garden plants. It’s nothing at all like a wig. It’s far too, well, artsy; but there’s no denying that it is a hair piece, even though I’m sure no one ever wore one. They decorated their sitting room walls, these delicate crown-like objects of human hair framed artfully and hung proudly.

Exactly where the Corps of Discovery was when William Clark took men to a beaver dam that day no one really knows. Historians guess the place was once somewhere above Macy, Nebraska; but wherever it was, it isn’t. Too bad.

It’s not altogether clear what kind of gear they employed to catch fish. Clark described the technology this way: “the men picked up Some Small willow & Bark [and] we made a Drag.” A seine of some sort, I’m sure, which would have required a couple of the men to drag the ends through the water to thereby trap fish within.

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There's very little to see now but row after row after row of foundations, a procession of rectangles angling down a long slope toward where there once stood a front gate. If you get there in June, the whole expanse will be awash in wildflowers, a bright yellow smiley face on a place you can’t help but grimace to remember.

Go up the gentle hill west of LeMars sometime. Take a right when you get up the rise, and you'll find an abandoned place with an old house square enough to be a dorm. 

Once upon a time, it was.

Up there, you could well be on top of the world. East, the Floyd River snakes around the city of LeMars, which was far smaller back in 1880 when Captain Reynolds Moreton built the place where you're standing, a place he called Dromore Farm, named after a castle in Scotland. In his day that house was twice as big, but it’s still lordly, although silent now, abandoned. 

James Schaap

The only means of getting man and woman, beast and wagon across the rain-swollen Niobrara was by rope, hand over hand. Dozens of oxen and as many as 500 horses had to get to the other side, as did 523 Ponca men, women, and children. 

And the rain wouldn't stop. All those wagons were disassembled and shouldered through and over the raging Niobrara. It took a day to recover, yet another rainy day.

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We’ve taken that razor-straight county road east and west often enough to have stopped, but never did. Last week, with time to kill, I pulled off where a bleached sign announced a historical marker with the headline Fort Brule.

When Sven Johnson, his wife and two children, left their native Norway, they spent the next eight weeks crossing the choleric Atlantic in a sailboat. Impossible to imagine.

A brother lived here in this new land, 100 miles from a place called Omaha, where that brother promised to meet Sven and his family, and did, although a couple days later than he'd said. If the Johnsons worried for a couple of homeless days, Sven doesn't mention it in his pioneer memoir.

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