Category Archives: history

The Meier House Has Known Quarantine Before

Delbert and Grace Meier House - an American System-Built Home in Iowa

We, like much of the rest of the country, are sheltering in place to help stop the spread of COVID-19. As we go about our days trying to create normalcy out of an abnormal situation, we keep finding ourselves talking about how strange this all is, how it feels unreal to be living this experience. And then we’re reminded that this is not the first quarantine this house has known.

When Delbert and Grace Meier, along with their daughters Esther and Martha, moved into their newly constructed American System-Built Home in the fall of 1917, they were most likely filled with excitement. The family had been renting an apartment above Del’s office while the house was constructed so we can imagine that the three-bedroom single family home must have been a welcome change from the cramped quarters of that temporary lodging. Little did they know that they were about to spend an extended period of time getting acquainted with their new abode.

The flu outbreak of 1918 was the deadliest pandemic to hit America, infecting an estimated 500 millions and claiming the lives of over 600,000 Americans. The country, already gripped by its entrance into World War I, struggled to respond to the virus. Much like today, cities and communities disagreed on whether quarantining was necessary. Quite famously, the city of Philadelphia held a parade that set off a second wave of the virus that went on to claim some 15,000 lives. Still, other communities heeded health officials’ warnings and closed schools, movie theaters and other public gatherings to prevent the spread. (source)

Monona, Iowa, was one of the communities that took protective measures against the Spanish flu.Delbert likely closed his law office temporarily and the girls would have stayed home from school. And so we can imagine that the Meier family sheltered in place in their newly constructed home on Page Street … and somehow everyone managed to get through it.

If you think it’s hard to shelter in place in 2020, with our televisions and computers and internet and a whole world at our fingertips, can you imagine what it would have been like in 1918/1919? With many stores closed and even some mail service interrupted by the pandemic, the Meiers would have been limited to reading the books they had on hand and working on crafts and projects for which they had already purchased supplies. Whereas we receive up-to-the-minute updates from radio, television and streaming press conferences, news would have arrived slowly to this rural community via newspaper. That newspaper must have felt like a lifeline and as a welcome distraction during the quarantine.

All this is to say that we’ll get through this, too. This experience may feel strange and the world may not look the same on the other end of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it could all be much, much worse. Medical advances of the past 100 years are helping to keep the death toll from spiking as high as it did during the Spanish flu pandemic. Global transportation networks are keeping us supplied with necessities even as much of society is shut down. But, most importantly, we could be dependent on early-20th century technology to get us through this quarantine.

Thank Gore for the internet!

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.

Happy Birthday Carole Lombard! Thanks for Introducing Us to Mustard Soaks

Today – October 6th – is Carole Lombard’s birthday. We have a little tradition in our house. When a celebrity birthday pops up – especially if that celebrity is a beautiful actress of yesteryear (bonus points if she met a tragic end!) – we watch a film or two to celebrate. Today, to honor Ms. Lombard, we watched her 1932 film No More Orchids. And that’s how we learned about mustard soaks.

“Did she say mustard?” I asked The Mister as the grandmother in the film mixed a foot soak for Carole Lombard’s character.

“That can’t be right,” he replied.

But, yes, mustard soak! A quick Google search confirmed that a mustard soak is indeed a thing. An old-timey English thing, to be exact. Mostly used for heading off colds and flu. In the film, the grandmother made her own mustard soak – likely using ingredients similar to this recipe on Joy the Baker – but here in the 21st century you can also buy Dr. Singha’s Mustard Bath, premixed mustard seed powder, eucalyptus, rosemary, wintergreen and thyme, on Amazon.

With temperatures dropping and cold and flu season just ahead, we’re certain to try a mustard soak sometime soon. You better believe we’ll be picking up the ingredients for the DIY mix on our next trip to the grocery store! Follow us on Instagram for a blow by blow on the mustard soak.

Speaking of Carole Lombard, take a little peek at the house in Fort Wayne, Indiana where she spent her early years.

Image Credit: IMDB

Original Elements: The Carriage House & the Virginia Creeper

Virginia Creeper growing over the slate roof of an old garageWith all the changes that have been made to the Meier House in its 100+ year history, we cherish the features that are original to its construction. We do our best to restore and maintain the entire house, but we give special attention to extant original elements. One of those original features is also the largest: the carriage house. Well, that’s what we call it. It’s actually the garage that was built when the house was constructed in 1917. It was built for an automobile so it never really housed a carriage per se. Still, this vine covered little structure begs to be called carriage house, doesn’t it? Continue reading

History Repeating: Snow on the Meier House

Meier House in Winter

The below photo of the Meier House from the 1920s was sitting on the kitchen counter when we first toured it. Looking back, that was a smart touch by the sellers and real estate agent. We had driven five hours northwest of the city to see a house that we didn’t think we would actually buy. (Or did we?) They couldn’t have known it but these two guys who were about to walk through the house love a little bit of history. Throwing down a couple of black and white photos is like tossing a dog a bone. We panted over the old photos of the house before bouncing around its empty and echoey rooms, oohing and ahhing and planning what we’d do with it.

The Delbert Meier House pictured in the 1920s

It’s one of only two photos of the house as it used to look. The other photo, standing directly in front of the house, was taken at the same time. In both photos the snow looks like it’s drifting off the middle of the roof on the front of the house.

Romantics that we are, we’ve looked at these photos many times over the past five years of homeownership. We’re looking back at how the house used to look, sure, but we also find ourselves thinking about what life in this big, boxy house in this small, Iowa town must have been like back then. Why did the Meier choose this day – and not a beautiful summer afternoon – to photograph their house? And how is that snow drift just hanging off the roof like that?

It’s that last question that we may finally be able to answer. During a recent snowstorm and deep freeze here in the midwest, we noticed that snow had collected in the same spot as in the vintage photos. Directly above the front door and in line with the belvedere up at the top of the house, a drift of snow seems to be dangling off the edge of the roof. Scroll up to the top of this post and look for yourself.

In our years of ownership, this is the first time we’ve noticed this snow drift phenomenon. Perhaps this is a clue about why the house was photographed that day. Perhaps the Meiers had just experienced a big snowfall and deep freeze, much like the one we’re experiencing here in the 21st century. They may have been documenting the weather, a photo that they would include in a letter to relatives in which they’d share their experience hunkering down and staying warm in front of the fireplace.

It’s in these moments that we feel a closeness to the house’s original owners. It’s also a reminder that we are total nerds who spend too much time imagining life in the past!