Author Archives: Michael

Local History: The Clydesdale Colony’s Connection to Monona, Iowa

Yesterday, we set off in search of what little remains to commemorate a most remarkable social experiment that happened some 170 years ago just south of our little town of Monona, Iowa. It was a little like trying to find the wreckage of the Titanic under the vast Atlantic Ocean, but amidst our own local “seas” of prairie grass and farm fields, we finally found the hauntingly beautiful burial ground under which rests a small group of pioneers who courageously tried to make real a shared (if doomed) dream.

In 1850, just a year after our house’s first co-steward and co-namesake Grace Burgess Meier’s family migrated to this area of northeastern Iowa, another young idealist named Alexander Gardner and other representatives of a proposed “utopian society” also came here from Scotland. This company purchased land on which they established a cooperative community. Gardner returned to Scotland to raise funds and recruit more members for this venture, called the Clydesdale Joint Agricultural and Commercial Company, and oversaw its operations from afar while his fellow colonists and their families settled on the land in the winter of 1850-51. But by the time Gardner and his own family eventually emigrated in 1856, the Clydesdale Colony had disintegrated due both to a devastating outbreak of tuberculosis and dissension amongst its surviving members. Gardner would move on to New York, where, after working for the pioneering photographer Mathew Brady, he would establish himself as a renowned photographer in his own right, creating many now-iconic images of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and the conspirators to Lincoln’s assassination.

Meanwhile, many of the survivors of the doomed Clydesdale Colony remained in northeastern Iowa, joining the growing communities of Monona, then a little village at the top of the Mississippi River bluffs, and nearby McGregor, a still charming resort town on the Mississippi itself. In 1869, an itinerant minister named William Carey Wright and his family moved to McGregor, where Wright briefly served as the pastor for a Baptist congregation. The earliest known photograph of his then two-year-old son, Frank Lincoln Wright, was taken there. Nearly 50 years later, long after changing his middle name following his parents’ divorce, Frank Lloyd Wright would design an American System-Built house built in 1917 just 13 miles from McGregor, in Monona: the Delbert W. and Grace B. Meier House – our house and home.

As “city boys” taking on small town Iowa living, we’ve often idealistically fancied ourselves as being “modern pioneers.” But on that serene ground under which so many brave (if also idealistic) pioneers lay, whose shared dream and lives were decimated by a pandemic (the echoes of now are certainly not lost on us), we realized we certainly can’t stand with them. But perhaps FOR them, we might, in encouraging everyone who is reading this, as well as reminding ourselves, to stay safe, stay socially responsible, and stay steadfast in pursuing your dreams, wherever they may lead you.

So Long Frank Lloyd Wright … and Delbert Meier

Last Monday marked the 59th anniversary of the death of Frank Lloyd Wright. Just three months before Wright’s passing in 1959, another visionary departed this world: Delbert W. Meier, the man who, with his wife Grace, boldly decided to build a Wright-designed American System-Built Home in a small town in northeastern Iowa in 1917, and lived happily thereafter and, indeed, passed on in that house – this “American house.”

Del Meier was the beneficiary of a very colorful obituary in the local newspaper, The Monona Leader, which we post here in tribute. We’ll leave it to Simon and Garfunkel to properly fete Frank on this anniversary.

D.W. Meier Funeral Held

Funeral services for Delbert William Meier, 78, were held Saturday afternoon, Jan. 10, at 2 o’clock at the Schultz Funeral home with Rev. E. Wayne Hilmer officiating.

Burial was in the City cemetery.

Mr. Meier died at his home Thursday morning, Jan. 8, at 3:30 o’clock from a heart attack. He had been suffering from a heart ailment for some time.

Music at the services was provided by Mrs. George Martin, soloist. She was accompanied by Mrs. Ivon J. Schultz at the piano.

Honorary pallbearers were: H.T. Orr, G.F. Fox, K.W. Rash, Edward Wirkler, Reuben Bernhard, Clayton County Bankers association, and Clayton County bar association.

Active pallbearers were: F.J. Peglow, Elmer Kurth, George Martin, W.C. Kruse, Ivon J. Schultz, George Wiethorn, Raymond Mielke, and William Hubacher.

Mr. Meier was born on a farm north of Postville, May 6, 1880, the son of John H. and Louisa (Splies) Meier. He was one of five children. Milo S. Meier of Minneapolis, Minn., is the only one who remains.

In that early day, life was rigorous, but he and an older brother spent many happy hours wandering over the wooded hills and fertile fields.

Then there was the country school to which they traveled with their swinging dinner pails for their early education. The family moved to Postville, later, so the children could have a better education.

He graduated from high school, then entered Upper Iowa university at Fayette. He was a good student and became a member of the debating team which won high honors for the school. His liking for forensics helped him decide to study law.

In the fall of 1903 he entered the University of Chicago, graduating there in 1905, taking two degrees, bachelor of philosophy and doctor of jurisprudence.

Then the question arose where to “hang out the shingle.” Being of a venturesome spirit, Indian territory seemed a likely place, so accordingly, Tulsa, Okla., was the town of his choice.

While in college he had met Miss Grace Estelle Burgess. They were married in 1903.

Not liking the climate in the southern territory, the couple returned to Iowa and Mr. Meier took over the law office of Ed Otis.

Two children were born to the couple, Esther, now Mrs. John Roberts of Darlington, England; and Martha, now Mrs. Walter Renk of Sun Prairie, Wis. These, with two grandchildren, John and Richard Renk, and a new great-grandchild, Wyatt Farley Renk, survive him.

Mr. and Mrs. Meier have resided in Monona for more than fifty years. On Dec. 28, recently, they celebrated their fifty-fifth wedding anniversary.

Mr. Meier served in official capacity in the town as mayor, and on the town council. As a school board member, he was instrumental in building the new addition to the “old building,” and the construction of the present one, serving again as a member of the board. At the time of his death, Mr. Meier was serving as president and director of the Union State Bank, in which capacity he faithfully served for many years. He was a life-long member of the Iowa State Bar association.

During World war I, he was a member of the Clayton County Draft board, and during World war II he served for a time as government appeal agent. For this effort he was given citations from two presidents, a selective service medal in the name of congress of the United States, signed by Harry S. Truman, and a certificate of appreciation signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

So passes another of the older residents of Monona. Few are left who took part in the social and business life of the town when he opened his office here in 1907.

Through the (Drinking and Looking) Glass

Frank Lloyd Wright Drinking Glass

The very first Frank Lloyd Wright-designed glass I ever looked through was a highball containing a vodka soda. We’d bought a beautiful set of Miller Rogaska barware (made for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation) at the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center on our very first visit to Spring Green back in 1999. Alas, much of that barware hasn’t survived the years, but we still have a few existing glasses, a decanter, and an ice bucket in regular service. As I look out now through our genuine Frank Lloyd Wright-designed windows – sometimes with a highball in hand – I often reflect upon our journey “through the looking-glass” into our own Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Wonderland here at the Delbert Meier House. And it all started with these drinking glasses. Bottoms up, Mr. Wright!

All We Owe We Owe Ioway

We didn’t make it to the 2017 Iowa State Fair, alas, so we missed our chance to see the famous butter cow (literally, a cow sculpted out of butter) and her companion this year, a butter likeness of Laura Ingalls Wilder, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Little House on the Prairie author’s birth. Given that this year also marks what would have been Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th birthday, and that like Wilder he also has an Iowa connection, we wonder if he was also under consideration for this honor. After all, other buttery boys have served as milkmaids in previous years at the Fair, including a simply creamy Elvis Presley, John Wayne, and Garth Brooks.

But let us not be bitter over butter, or churn up any controversy here. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a fine and fitting choice, especially given the dairy-themed nickname her Pa famously gave her, “Half Pint.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder Butter Sculpture via USA TODAY

via USA TODAY: Sarah Pratt standing by the Laura Ingalls Wilder butter sculpture

The Iowa State Fair also brings to mind that wonderful old movie, State Fair (the 1945 version, that is), with music by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Especially this delightful little ditty in which they really spread it on thick – the butter, AND the good ol’ Iowa “corn”.

Given the house and half acre of Iowa we’re paying a mortgage on, we might slightly adjust the song’s title to read, “All We Owe, We Owe in Ioway.” But putting aside that IOU we owe IOWA, we do also owe Ioway our thanks for its brand of good wholesome fun, which of course is not just limited to state fairs and butter sculptures. After all, Iowa is home to several Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings, if not a Butter Frank – not yet anyway. We’ll do our best to butter up the selection committee for next year’s State Fair sculpture.

This American House: Orson Welles’ Birthplace

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Our long commute between Chicago and Iowa takes us past and through a number of towns that contain their own treasured “American houses.” On a recent drive, we pulled off the highway into Kenosha, Wisconsin to find the birthplace of the legendary filmmaker, theatrical titan, and actor Orson Welles.

Welles was born in this house, located in Kenosha’s pretty Library District, in 1915. He wasn’t a Kenosha resident for long, relocating to Chicago at age 4 upon his parents’ separation. After an affluent, nomadic childhood marred by his parents’ untimely deaths, he finally found a true “home” at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, where his prodigious talents were nurtured and his illustrious career launched.

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Thereafter, Welles would express conflicted feelings about his hometown of Kenosha, at once calling it “vital and charming” and then saying it was “a terrible place.” Our brief tour through downtown Kenosha (including a delightful ride on a vintage trolley) revealed a vibrant if faded city outshone by its sparkling lakefront.

Welles’ Citizen Kane famously opens with its aged, dying protagonist gasping out his final word, “Rosebud” – a remembrance, we learn at the film’s end, of (spoiler alert!) his beloved childhood sled. I’ve not read that Welles, on his own deathbed in 1985, muttered anything at all related to Kenosha, Wisconsin or this still-lovely house, but who knows. Perhaps in his own mind at the end, he was picturing an innocent, wintry scene outside of this very house, and himself a happy young boy, but he expired just as he was about to say…

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