Small Wonders

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.

Duncan, Patricia D. / Wikimedia Commons

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
Wikimedia Commons

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
Wikimedia Commons

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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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
Wikimedia Commons

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.

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