My book, Destination Heartland, is not the only way one might have heard of the splendid historic site of Brucemore in Cedar Rapids, IA, but it is because I included it that I get regular updates. The reason updates are welcome is that in 2020, a horrific storm known as a derecho devastated a good bit of the Midwest, including Brucemore. (I actually did three posts on the derecho at the time, including this one, which offers a bit of history.)
I have followed the progress of repairs and just received this latest update. The damage on Brucemore is reported to have been among the most dreadful to any historic landmark in U.S. history. So I was glad to see the amount of headway that has been made. The Brucemore YouTube channel also has a shorter video that shows how extensive the damage was, including massive loss of old trees. There is still work to be done, but it is encouraging to see that so much headway has been made, and and definitely pleasing to see that Brucemore, while still hurt, has been able to resume its place as a center for the arts in the area.
There are so many things for me to love at Forest Grove No. 5, a one-room schoolhouse in Pleasant Valley Township, Iowa (Quad Cities area). It is history. It is education. It is community.
Opened in 1873, this is the last of the five schools that once existed in this township. It made it possible for children on the surrounding farms to get an education that was probably better than what was available in many city schools.
What drew me to this particular schoolhouse was friend Alane Watkins, whose family once lived on one of the farms once served by this school—though it was her father and uncles who attended here, not Alane.
The school closed in 1957. Over the decades, the school had fallen into disrepair, until a group of volunteers, including Alane’s father, decided that perhaps it could be salvaged. The whole community got behind the project—and if you visit, there is a wonderful, professionally-produced video you can watch that documents the restoration but also interviews the remaining teachers and students still around at the time the project began. It is charming and heartwarming to see the community pulling together to save this bit of history. There are additional videos on their website: https://forestgroveschool.org/ The Forest Grove No. 5 schoolhouse reopened as a museum in 2021.
The school, which accommodated grades K–8, actually still sits on the site where it was originally built, and Alane points out that the massive oak trees on one side of the building were there back when the school was still in use.
Inside tremendous attention to detail has brought the school as close to what it was a century ago as is possible. As was the norm in one-room schoolhouses, desks are different sizes, with the smallest up front and largest at the back, to accommodate the multiple grades. Students would go to the blackboard by grade level, with other grades focusing on reading, writing, or other projects they could do on their own.
If you compare the photo from the 1940s (when Alane’s dad was a student there) to the photo I took a couple of weeks ago of the interior, you’ll notice that the globe on the right is above the level of the blackboard. The rope attached to it allowed it to be lowered when needed but keep it out of the way when it wasn’t.
Alane now works as a docent at the schoolhouse, but she is not alone in this. Others in the community participate, plus there are special events, such as a costumed teacher inviting local students for a full day of instruction as it would have occurred in the early 1900s. Slates, pens and ink, and old books make participation really engaging.
There is an information sign out front, that gives a good bit of additional intel, but try to be there when it’s open, as there is much more to see inside—and if you visit, definitely ask your docent to explain the Giant Stride out on the playground (chained now to keep visitors from using this once popular piece of equipment). And if you’re really good, they might even let you ring the school’s bell.
So if you have any reason to be in the Quad Cities area, consider dipping into a bit of the past at the Forest Grove No. 5 one-room schoolhouse.
Why pre-order a book? Right now, prices on everything are going up, but if you order the book now, the price is guaranteed. It’s available on all the usual sites (including Amazon and the publisher’s, U of IL Press).
This is a fun book filled with surprising tales and delightful destinations. I take you along as I explore a much-overlooked region, the American Midwest. Everyone from Wyatt Earp to Henry Ford is there. Don’t just read about history, but learn where you can explore more about Native Americans, the Pony Express, shipwrecks, the Underground Railroad, early pioneers, the Civil War, railroads, and a lot of stuff that will make you wonder why it got left out of your textbooks!!!
Don’t be scared by the price of the cloth-bound library version. That is for libraries. The general population version is paperback and only costs $19.95 — and the e-book is cheaper still. But you owe it to yourself to pursue this adventure. The Midwest and its past really are remarkable—and the present is pretty cool, too.
I love meeting new people and sharing information, so having a career that involves going places to give presentations delights me, even when the speaking engagement is only a few miles away. However, I increasingly get invited to speak places I’ve never visited before, and this has offered the delightful opportunity of exploring locations that I didn’t know about previously, seeing new things and learning wonderful bits of history.
To me, the name “Burlington” was pretty much only familiar from the Burlington and Northern Railroad. But I’d never been there—until I was invited to speak at the local college. What a delightful town this turned out to be. It’s on a bend in the Mississippi River (which never ceases to amaze me with its impressive size), hills rising up from the water’s edge, offering a downtown and residential area filled with wonderful 19th-century buildings.
The site was chosen by Zebulon Pike in 1805 as a good site for a government fort (those high hills offer remarkable views over the river). Burlington was settled in 1833, and from 1837-1838, it was the capital of the sprawling Wisconsin Territory. Then, until 1840, it was the capital of the Iowa Territory.
There is a 29-block area known as Heritage Hill that is home to Victorian, Greek and Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, and Italianate houses. This area is also home to Snake Alley, named by Ripley’s Believe it or Not as the crookedest street in the world (even more so than San Francisco’s better-known Lombard Street). The reason it is so crooked is that, when the town was settled, people traveled on horseback, and in icy weather, you wouldn’t want to try to take a horse straight down a slippery street. The sharp turns on Snake Alley made it possible to get down the hill more safely.
I had a lot of fun at my speaking engagement, meeting a wide range of charming, interested people. But I was equally happy that I had the next morning free to explore the historic district and riverfront. I stopped at the Heritage Museum, and as is so often the case in these very old towns, it was remarkably good. Then it was time to drive home. But what a lovely discovery.
Perhaps it is because I have developed a deep affection for Iowa over the several years that I’ve been writing about Midwestern agriculture. Or maybe it’s because I was actually in the part of Iowa hardest hit by the storm only five weeks before the storm, so it feels like a friend that has been attacked.
Once again, it is good to remember that the storm wasn’t just the wind speed and statistics. It hit individuals. Here is another video that just popped up of a young man stuck inside his place of business when the storm hit–and until the place of business vanished.
Last week, a massive, fast-moving wind storm known as a derecho swept across the Midwest, destroying property and crops in Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Winds exceeding 100 mph ripped up trees and tore off roofs in both rural and urban settings. The news stories give the statistics, can tell you where the storm hit, and give general details, but it’s important to remember that this involves people. My brother, who lives in Chicago, took this photo of the trees that came down and blocked his street (and cut in half cars parked along the streets). The derecho actually became a tornado in this section of Rogers Park and became a waterspout when it hit the lake, a block to the east.
The video below examines the impact on one farm in Iowa — the farm of an enthusiastic youngster who is determined to not let it get him down, even though the financial loss will be horrendous. The video begins with his plans for his home, but by about 5.40, the storm kicks in. The thing that might not be clear for those not familiar with farming: even if farmers manage to harvest some of their corn (because not all was destroyed), the destruction of so many of the grain bins means there is no place to store the grain, which creates big problems for farmers–and for everyone who relies on that grain.
Important to remember that things can change in a few minutes. Be grateful for every good day. My sympathy to all affected by the storms, in town and out in the country.
I have for several years followed a British YouTube cooking show called “Sorted.” It’s good fun and offers some imaginative recipes. But every once in a while, they wander off to show us something outside the kitchen — usually around London, but sometimes in the U.S. This video was published on Oct. 14–which was just two days before my newest book was released–Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs — a book that looks at the history of pigs, as well as current trends in raising and consuming pork. The book covers about 12,000 years, but it has a fair bit about the culture of Iowa–and the Iowa State Fair, the destination for the Sorted crew in this video. And I was happy to see that they feature some of the special dishes mentioned in the book, including the Iowa Pork Chop, the Pork Chop on a Stick, and the Iowa Pork Tenderloin Sandwich. (The book even includes a recipe for this last item.) So I was delighted at both the timing and the content of the video, as it makes it possible to share a bit of the noisy joy of a state fair — and a look at Iowa’s pork culture. (And a bit of Iowa’s corn culture, as well — which features in my book Midwest Maize. Iowa is # 1 in both corn production and pig raising.)
So here are the four Sorted lads enjoying a bit of Midwestern hospitality and food at the Iowa State Fair.
Shortly before my book came out, I was working at the Culinary Historians booth at a Whole Foods heirloom foods fair. There were a lot of interesting offerings, from vegetables and fruits to packets of seeds to fragrant flowers. In the booth next to the Culinary Historians booth there were people offering samples of a remarkable heirloom popcorn with tiny kernels. When there was a lag in the traffic, the women staffing that booth offered us some of the popcorn they were promoting. It was tiny but flavorful — living up to its name, Tiny but Mighty.
Then today, on YouTube, this video appeared among the suggestions for my viewing pleasure (interesting how they figure out what is likely to catch one’s attention). It was about that tiny popcorn. The video, however, showed more than the demo at Whole Foods, including that one seed gives you many stalks. This interested me because the plant from which corn originally developed, teosinte, while smaller than even this diminutive corn, likewise has many branches — and it pops. So more than just being an heirloom, this popcorn seems to be a real throw back to earlier varieties–much earlier. So it has now been added to my shopping list — but I thought I’d also share the video. Enjoy.
As you can no doubt imagine, I take corn very seriously. Wrote a whole book about it (Midwest Maize). I take Iowa seriously, as well — but like the Bible says, “A merry heart does good, like medicine,” so I’m sharing this video that a friend forwarded to me. It is an oversimplification — but not by much. 🙂
When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, president Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover to run the U.S. Food Administration. Again, Hoover refused to take a salary—he wanted to be a volunteer among volunteers. He didn’t want to ration food, so instead, he encouraged people to raise food in their neighborhoods. He introduced Meatless Monday and Wheatless Wednesday, to reduce the amount of food consumed locally, so more could be sent to our soldiers and those of our Allies. His motto, “Food will win the war,” got everyone on board with the plans. Cookbooks were created, and corn became a key part of making those Wheatless Wednesdays as tasty as they were. Within a year of starting the program, Hoover had doubled the amount of food being shipped to Europe—but without rationing and without any heavy bureaucracy.
When the war ended, Hoover was placed in charge of the American Relief Administration. He organized shipments of food to the starving millions in Central Europe. He was Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge. It was during Coolidge’s presidency that Hoover spearheaded efforts that led to the construction of the Hoover Dam and the St. Lawrence Seaway. He became one of the most admired men Washington. Then, in 1927, his fame reached new heights because of his extraordinary service assisting the victims of the Mississippi River Flood. So when Coolidge declined to run again for office, Hoover was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate (though he considered himself a Progressive, in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt). He won by a landslide.
Columnist Walter Lippmann wrote that he thought Hoover, given the chance, could “purify capitalism of its …commercialism, its waste, and its squalor.” Continue reading →
This blog will relate discoveries made as I explore and study the Midwest. It will feature places I visited in pursuit of tales for my books but will also follow other threads of history, travel, and culture in the Heartland. For the remarkable tales of corn and its importance in the world and U.S., check out the book, Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland. For the fascinating tale of our earliest domesticated food animal, check out Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Bagonfest. I hope you’ll consider buying them. (And stay tuned for future titles.)
Eric Hoffer Award Winner
Midwest Independent Booksellers Association selection