The historical society’s ‘attic’ is the county’s memory of who we were | Opinion

The historical society’s ‘attic’ is the county’s memory of who we were | Opinion

Editor’s note: Lowell Carlson delivered this speech during the Jackson County Historical Society’s annual meeting July 8.

Members of the Jackson County Historical Society Board, Curator Bonnie Wells Mitchell, staff members, society members and honored guests, it is a privilege to say a few words in the cause of local history.

I have to say this feels a lot like re-entry into society, reconnecting with my community. For a year it was groceries and gas and the occasional doctor’s appointment. No visits to family, no touching or hugging loved ones, no coffee gatherings and no meetings, so I really appreciate this opportunity to relearn social skills.

Full disclosure — I am standing here before you today in no small part because, let’s face it, 80% of success is simply showing up. It has been 10 years — a decade — since I faced my last deadline and wrote my last column.

I came to be a community newspaper journalist because the late R.T. Melvold took a long shot chance I might become an editor, a column writer. I came to the profession if not through the front door at least a side entrance. I came to finally understand being a small town newspaper editor meant I presided over a never-ending public conversation. I was also fortunate to work with people who cared as much or more than I did about the same goals.

When I look at the faces here today, some of you played a big part in my being able to put out next week’s newspaper.

When I told Dad I was coming back home to Iowa to work at Maquoketa Newspapers, his first advice was, “Make sure you make friends with the janitor first.” It was sound advice, as it turned out. Some of the most important tips and background information sometimes came from sources you least expected. I was the first on the scene of a horrific multiple murder because a pressman at our printing plant called me at 3 a.m. to say something bad was happening in Delmar.

There were other stories like that: a hunch an acquaintance was in danger led to the discovery that nationally known Bellevue tattoo artist and historic artifact collector Greg May had vanished and a stream of stories resulted in the shocking murder and search for his murderers turned into a forensic mystery and cross-country trail of clues. A tip from a county official about an unusual group seeking permits for dormitory facilities on a farm led to the discovery of a secretive religious cult’s effort to gain a foothold in the Bellevue community.

I have crossed over into “Geezerdom,” that age where you can say things that 20 years ago I would have been punched out for saying. Now when I spin cobwebs to the moon, people just shrug and think, “ah, he’s a geezer.”

One of the things I told our three children was, “I expect you to be an ordinary person, doing extraordinary things under extenuating circumstances.” Their eyes rolled, of course, but each of them came to understand what that meant. That is the subject of these comments.

Impressions of local history

After the pandemic’s shocking loss of life, mandated separation, social distancing, and the arrival of life-saving vaccines we have lived through a first draft of county and state history that will only loom larger as time goes on.

We once thought the loss of more than 400,000 dead during World War II was a heavy price; this pandemic has taken over 600,000. It is a blow we have yet to come to terms with as a county.

How do you compress 175 years of Iowa statehood and Jackson County history into a comprehensible half hour of summary? This might be one way: in Jackson County, circa 1950, an acre of land averaged $168; in 1975 it averaged $1,263. Last year an acre of land averaged $7,056. We have homes and they are standalone rural residences now that are valued at $1 million.

In 1932, perhaps the worst year of the Great Depression, a bushel of corn was selling for an average $0.23. Last year a bushel of corn averaged $3.48. A few short years ago corn reached $7 a bushel.

You could describe Jackson County, and Iowa, by the people who created, discovered, wrote, painted:

• Charles Cornelius, rural Bellevue, corn grower who founded a company that turned plant genetics into improved yields with hybrid corn;

• Or, physicist Robert Millikan of Maquoketa, the man who discovered how to measure the magnitude of an electron charge;

• Or Lucy Hobbs Taylor, Bellevue dentist, the first woman in the world to graduate from a dental school;

• Cliff Lamborn, who attended country school as a kid and rose to Iowa Senate majority leader;

• Bob Osterhaus, pharmacist/legislator key figure in creation of health insurance for Iowa low income children;

? Ed Tubbs, farmer/banker national president of banker organization. Tubbs and Osterhaus, as did their sons, went on to lead national organizations in their professions.

• Carolyn Pendray, Maquoketa, first woman elected to the Iowa House of Representatives.

Once you begin to look, there are a lot of exceptional people here.

In our lifetime, really within the last 20 years, the shocks have been steady and deeply unsettling: the pandemic, an attack on the nation’s Capitol by fellow Americans, the worst financial collapse and job loss since the Great Depression, the Farm Crisis. Without seeking to pander to this audience, you are a resilient people if you keep faith with these democratic institutions the founding fathers created.

In Iowa’s 175 years as a state, from territorial Iowa’s first governor Robert Lucas to Kim Reynolds, there have been 41 chief executives, including Andrew’s own Ansel Briggs. Among modern governors my personal best was the late Robert Ray. Ray, a Republican, embodied the servant leader concept as well as any Iowa governor, before or since.

During Ray’s terms Iowa experienced the Oil Embargo — an energy crisis, the reaction spurred our first efforts at alternative energy, conservation methods with home insulation innovations, and using wood heating again.

I reported on a lot of fire calls because of wood stove’s overheating and chimney fires.

What does it mean to be a resident of Jackson County? Who can describe the essence of being a Jackson County resident, an Iowan? It means knowing words like Polar Vortex, drought index, pollen count, pork bellies.

Our home county, this early version of greater Iowa, is home to ancient indigenous cultures that date back thousands of years along the bluff line overlooking the Mississippi. If all human culture was just one hour long the clock would just be minutes into European and American settlement here.

In that same vein, we have a bit of an inferiority complex toward neighboring counties. We see ourselves as somehow “less” than Dubuque or Clinton or Scott counties, where land values traditionally outstrip the price of an acre of ground here.

When you list the infrastructure, the cultural assets, Jackson County seems like a remarkable place indeed. Two state parks, a new hospital, expanded public school facilities, interpretive nature center, three newspapers, a radio station, an art exhibition facility, a community theatre venue, this museum complex, college annex facilities.

We have artists of national stature in Rose Franzen and Thomas Hipschen, chief banknote engraver with the Treasury Department.

I always told visitors to Bellevue this was the kind of town where your worst enemy was also your seventh-best friend. There is an unspoken awareness you should greet strangers and seventh best friends.

Would it be appropriate to call Iowans the “Canadians of America?” Even today, we are seen as basically decent people with a work ethic, still in touch with life’s basics, a friendly face to strangers but cautious, a bit too conservative and contrite. In short, Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” is still our destiny, our fate.

We export food to the rest of the country and to the world so efficiently we’ve industrialized, automated, standardized and optimized the very thing that makes us who the world knows us for, agriculture. We build farm machines shipped around the globe. This past April I watched an Iowa-built high tech row crop planter loaded west of Andrew early one morning, on its way to the Port of Houston and then by ship to a huge Russian farming corporation.

Iowa, Jackson County and the Civil War

Jackson County and Iowa as a whole sent some of the highest numbers of Civil War volunteers to suppress the Southern Rebellion in the 1860s. In all, over 76,000 Iowans served in the military, 48 infantry regiments, 9 cavalry regiments, 4 artillery batteries, 1 black regiment. More than 1,200 Jackson County men enlisted during the Civil War.

Jackson County witnessed vigilante lynchings in the Panic of 1857 and shocking support for the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s as intolerance of race and religion roiled local and national life.

A century ago we struggled through the then-vaccineless Spanish Flu pandemic that claimed millions of lives worldwide and took the youngest child of my Swedish immigrant grandparents in Codfish Hollow.

You have a lead curator in Bonnie (Mitchell) who has long since morphed into the very essence of what local history and preservation is. She is a key to keeping the vision of local history relevant and we’re very lucky to have her.

Sometimes it’s hard to wax poetic about a state with pollen counts through the roof, a landscape that relies on clouds to complete the scenic view

The good news? This society has been a force for good in this county. Can you even imagine what this county would be like if this museum didn’t exist, if Clinton Engines had been bulldozed into a hole in the ground, if the narrow-gauge depot had been allowed to fall into oblivion?

The bad news? The work of the society has to be rediscovered by each succeeding generation of county residents, no easy task to be sure.

Perhaps looking at just one of Iowa’s 99 counties will illustrate the promise and the challenge of being an Iowan. In 175 years of Iowa and Jackson County history our population has increased at a glacial rate, barely changing from one century to the next.

In fact in the 2010 Census report, 89 of Iowa’s 99 counties actually lost population, over 25,000 people. We were one of those losers.

One of Iowa’s earliest frontiers

Preserving and interpreting local history has got to be one of the loneliest commitments imaginable. And aside from a very tiny staff and some very dedicated volunteers it is an effort that goes largely unnoticed, unheralded and unappreciated by the public as a whole.

Here in Jackson County’s official “attic” are stored some of the holiest of our local history’s relics. Very little on display or in storage lacks a human story connected to the larger landscape of state and national history.

There are more than 3,000 counties in the United States and that doesn’t count the boroughs, parishes, independent cities and census areas. And every one of them has a story that is at the same time familiar, and yet unique.

Local history is often politely overlooked by the very people it is preserved for and presented to. An inheritance they neither comprehend nor want. The truth of the matter is local history reflects the reality of our lives and the field it covers is immense. There is still a world of work to be accomplished in the name of local history.

So, remember folks, Iowa expects you to be ordinary people, doing extraordinary things, under extenuating circumstances.

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