The West, 2021: Day 2: Rolling Across Iowa
Annette on the Road
Continued from Day 1: The Wagon is Packed
When I think about Iowa, which isn't often, I think corn and Grinnell College (which I once visited with my son). I don't expect to think of Iowa as the home of a Danish windmill, a Dutch colony whose children included Wyatt Earp (the gunfight at the OK Corral guy, whose last name, I suddenly realize, was Dutch) or, on another Western theme, the birthplace and only museum dedicated to movie cowboy John Wayne, who went West in an epic sort of way on the back lots of Hollywood studios. And before you ask, no, the Iowa Tourist Board has not written me a check.
Yesterday, as you may recall, He Who Shall Not Be Named on the Internets (HWSNBNOTI) and I set off from Madison, WI, with our trusty (Honda) wagon and oxen (engine) for the two thousand mile journey to Sacramento. It's a journey that will take us across mountains and desert, with only a cooler full of sandwiches for sustenance. When the wagon supplies run out, and they will soon, we shall be forced to rely on the only resources available, several thousand gas stations and fast food joints, not to mention our cellphones. Honestly, I don't know how I could ever look the Gold Rush migrants in the face (were I called upon to do so, which seems unlikely).
If you haven't read my typically long-winded orientation post for Non-Boring History, I do recommend looking over it from time to time. Why? Because, as I'm fond of saying, there's method to my madness. Pay close attention, and you'll see the post is a road map, providing at least a claim to an orderly story to what I'm really doing on this site, and it’s not distracting you with historical trivia. The post gently suggests that there is an order of a kind, mostly to do with my impulse to teach, not to instruct or drill. I want to share my enthusiasms with you, and along the way, painlessly, I’m sharing the weird ways in which historians think.
But all maps are also illusions. Part of the job of the historian is to reveal the conjuring tricks that documents play on us, and that includes maps. When I talk to kids, I sometimes show them how maps lie, how they stretch our imaginations to the breaking point. What looks on a map like an easy half-inch journey across a thread-like river and a two-dimensional piece of paper, soon reveals itself in living color to be a long nightmare ordeal of near-drownings, tiring treks across massive plains, exhausting climbs up hills and terrifying descents. And this is before we begin to mention all sorts of experiences that maps don't cover, like running out of decent food and being forced to eat chain hamburgers… I mean freshly-slaughtered buffalo cooked over fires of buffalo poop . . . Or being exposed to coronaviru . . . I mean cholera, by people who are ignorant of the spread of disease and the most basic public health measures.
Maps to the traveler are predictions of a future that doesn't exist. They may get you there in the end, but they certainly don't deliver the predictable experience they promise. I could tell you great stories about the many, many ways in which 19th century westward migrants were misled by the optimistic simplicity of maps and guidebooks, but let's save that for later.
Tackling Our Short Attention Spans (or to give them their medical name, Facebookitis)
Let's start by zooming in on one of the promises I keep making to you, dear readers, in my orientation post, and in these, the early weeks of Non-Boring History: Variety. There are many reasons why I do my very best to deliver on this particular promise.
One big reason:
Hard though it is to believe now, I once labored painstakingly for several years on a single article in history. I read 10,000 18th century letters, mostly on microfilm, and that was just the beginning. In the way of academic history, the article then took several more years to hit the scholarly big time (woo hoo, literally no financial rewards, just the possibility that other historians might read my nametag at a conference elevator and not then pretend I don't exist).
By then, I had run away screaming from university life, for reasons that had nothing to do with my scholarship or teaching.
Fortunately, having been a practicing journalist from ages 10-22, I never stopped thinking like one. I like doing something different every day. And you, in this age of short attention spans, are right there with me. If I'm seriously going to teach you (and I already am, by the way, although you are more than welcome to think of me as an entertaining time-travel guide if “professor” is too off-putting) I need to keep you on board, including through the days when I write on subjects that don't interest you. That's why I insist you shouldn't feel like you must read all my posts, or read everything the moment it arrives. At the same time, of course, nothing makes me happier than when you do.
Still. I have my work cut out for me, like when I put the word “Iowa" in the post title. Even saying “Iowa" makes us yawn.
So, judging by the mental map I have of the United States, and by one previous trip through the state from north to south, I saw Iowa as: Square state, corn, flat, nothing to do.
This trip, I allotted one day to cross Iowa.
And now I regret it. No, before you say anything, I do NOT mean I regret crossing Iowa at all. I mean I regret not having more time to spend in Iowa. A vacation in Iowa sounds like the prize in a bad raffle, doesn’t it? First Prize is a week in Iowa! Second Prize is two weeks in Iowa!
At the Iowa Welcome Center in Dubuque (HWSNBNOTI's verdict on Dubuque: “Even the tattoo parlor looks nice”) the very nice, very Iowa lady seemed so disappointed that I wasn't actually staying in Iowa, I felt bad for letting her down. But, come on, Iowa? Even for a historian who actually likes museums (many of us don't) Iowa is a tough sell. But Iowa surpassed my admittedly low expectations by a long shot.
Let's start with the fact that the eastern half of the state turned out to be hilly and full of idyllic dells in which many farms were nestled among trees and hills. No, I did not get a picture. No, I am not making this up. Yes, you will either have to believe me, or go look on the internet.
Iowa does have scenery. And it has history too.
A Windmill Full of Hot Air
I was excited to read that Elk Horn, Iowa, which has a large population of Danish descent, boasts, among other attractions, an authentic Danish windmill, built in 1843. So, even though it was late in the day, we detoured six miles to see it. And sure enough, here it is!
What they failed to mention on the freeway signs?
Sure, it was built in 1843.
In 1977, the folks of Elk Horn, Iowa, raised $100, 000 in plentiful American dollars to buy it. Danish carpenters disassembled it, it was shipped across the Atlantic, and American carpenters reassembled it in Elk Horn, following the Danes' careful instructions, despite some confusion over the metric measurements.
And voila! A tourist attraction for a tiny town in Iowa that was Danish in descent but, in reality, looked like every tiny town in Iowa!
So what I had hoped would be a remarkable example of Danish cultural transfer to the New World turns out to be a massive bit of cultural appropriation!
Before you sharpen your wokey pitchforks on behalf of the exploited Danes and start making plans to go to Elk Horn, Iowa, here's the first of many reminders: America is a giant bit of cultural appropriation. Elk Horn's Danish (including Viking!) attractions are in a great American tradition of fake.
For similar examples, I give you Solving, CA, Frankenmuth, MI, and Helen, GA, just a few off the top of my head. There's nothing more American than suddenly remembering your ancestors, extensively researching their ancestral culture (passed down only to you in recipes of questionable authenticity) by watching a couple of YouTube videos, and then building your own ersatz identity around them that's more Epcot than Copenhagen.
And there, folks, is a subject for historians that's far more fun (to me at least) than another ancient bloody windmill, to examples of which I was often taken on school trips in my youth, memories that include freezing in terror at the top of the frightening windmill steps at age 9 or 10, and having to be rescued by the somewhat contemptuous Mrs. Hildreth. She had survived the Blitz, I'm sure she was thinking, what was the problem with this little snowflake?
I'm sorry, but windmill vertigo is a thing.
The Duke of Iowa
I wish I could report to you that we visited the John Wayne Museum, but absolutely no time, and, anyway, HWSNBNOTI'S eyes narrowed at the suggestion, especially when the website extolled Wayne's “courage and patriotism", when the only uniforms John (aka Duke) Wayne wore came from the MGM costume department. Honestly, sometimes, museums with an overt, out-there bias are my favorites (see presidential museums as great examples). That's because they are a great way to teach how to read a museum, which adds hugely to your actual enjoyment. But I'll start showing you that in future posts, as I will, I hope, one day tackle the John Wayne Museum, with or without HWSNBNOTI.
An Unexpected California Connection
Abbe Creek School Museum, or, for the full experience of the surroundings on a windy but sunny Iowa summer day, here’s the video, showing the creek in the right, fed by a spring that supplied the teacher and kids with water:
This isn’t the oldest school in Iowa (which we drove right past by mistake), but it is typical. A log cabin on this site was the first public school, built in 1844. This is shortly after the Danes built the Elk Horn windmill in Denmark, but the school was actually built right here in Iowa. This present building dates to 1855, and the museum is open on Sunday afternoons in summer, or by appointment, so we didn’t go inside, because you can’t make an appointment to visit something you didn’t know existed.
Iowa was traditionally one of the best-read states with a strong commitment to formal education (Americans, remember the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, or that many American authors are products of the same writers’ workshop at the University of Iowa, not that I am saying either of these is a good thing?) Sadly, I don’t think Iowa’s superior literacy is still a thing, but this public school is a good example of their early commitment, at a time when rich white Southerners had no interest in funding schools for white kids, much less black kids.
The school is named for and next to Abbe Creek, named for William Abbe, who, according to this Informational Boulder was the “first white settler” (as opposed to indigenous):
So what, you say? William and Olive Abbe (who isn’t usually given joint credit for settling on stolen Indian land) came to Iowa from Ohio in 1837 with their kids. William built the family a cabin, and hunted and traded with Ho Chunk people, learning to speak their Siouan language, as did their kids, who played with Ho Chunk kids, because that’s what kids do until more white people come along, and they’re ordered to play with their kids instead.
Two years later, Olive died. William then married again, to Mary Wolcott. According to the county site, which is my main source for all this (plus added prior knowledge and intuition on my part), Mary was known far and wide for her cooking, and people came from all around to eat.
How did that work, I ask myself? Did people turn up at all hours expecting her to cook them free food on demand? Or was Mary running a side hustle as the local restaurateur? I would say the latter is far more likely.
So what’s the unexpected California connection? In 1849, after ten years of marriage, William and Mary learned of the California Gold Rush. William went to California. He wasn’t poor: The trip to California was expensive, and he, as one of the most well-educated people in his community, was a Justice of the Peace and sometime state politician. Plus he ran an unofficial bank, loaning money so people could stake claims to land. These things couldn’t have hurt when he bid for the contract to supply food to federal troops and agencies in the area. So he headed for California, intending to return to Iowa for his family once he had grabbed a big pile of gold. As you might guess, it didn’t quite work out like that.
Two years later, William returned to Iowa. But I guess he still had hopes of wealth, maybe in gold, or more likely in business. He and his son took off for California in 1852. Two years later, William died in California from a heart attack, aged 54. Mary, never to be a Californian, lived in Iowa until she died in 1861. There’s no mention of what became of her Western son. Maybe they wrote letters, maybe they didn’t. Most people’s letters are lost.
The story of people moving to California isn’t a simple one. And there’s your evidence.
Moving On . . .
Similarly, Iowa isn’t a square filled with corn. It’s a place, and it’s rich in history. I didn’t mention the 18th and 19th century utopian communities that still live along the I-80 freeway in Iowa, did I? The Amish are here, and the other I shall leave you to wonder about. Come find out for yourself: It’s cheaper than travel overseas, and just as interesting if you let it be. In fact, having often watched Americans wander dazed around London, I would say it’s probably even more interesting, since visiting a country famous for its history without knowing something about it first is more of a challenge than folks realize.
Leaving Omaha today, and crossing Nebraska. For now, here’s a photo from Elk Horn, Iowa of me with that other famous storyteller Hans Christian Andersen (he was a DANE, you know!)
And here’s a photo of HWSBNOTI which he kindly consented to allow me to take:
Last but not least, here’s an Iowa sunset with genuine Iowa windmills:
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