Category Archives: small town life

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.

Bovine Battle: You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Springtime at the Meier House means stretching out the retractable clotheslines on the back of the new garage and drying our laundry with sunlight and fresh air. It’s kind of a yearly tradition here. Come late-March you’ll start seeing sheets, duvet covers, towels, curtains and other laundry flapping in the wind. After being cooped up in the stale indoor air all winter, there’s nothing more refreshing than laundry dried outdoors. It makes the laundry and, in the case of bedding, the entire room smell as fresh as a summer afternoon.

Unless, that is, the farm across the street from our house is spreading manure. Suddenly, as we experienced over the weekend, that fresh air takes on a whole different fragrance. Did you know that a strong manure odor will transfer to laundry that’s drying on a clothesline? We certainly didn’t think it would! But we were wrong. The bedroom still smells like a summer afternoon … if you’re spending that afternoon standing in a cow pasture.

Cows: 1, Misters: 0.

Get the Garden Growing: Memorial Day 2019

gardening at an American System-Built

It has become somewhat of a tradition that we plant our garden over Memorial Day weekend. Not only is Memorial Day the unofficial kickoff to summer and the first long weekend of the year, it’s also when it’s finally warm enough here in the upper Midwest to put plants in the ground without fear of a final frost.

We had never really intended to garden. While we both love food and frequently shop farmers markets for fresh, local produce, we’ve always seen our thumbs as more black than green. Judging by our record with houseplants, we’d be sentenced to life in prison for the neglectful death and overwatering of many a poor, unsuspecting little life. Still, former owners had a garden already plotted out and that first spring we put in a few plants as an experiment. By midsummer we were feasting on lettuces and green beans and vine ripened tomatoes. And let me tell you: after you’ve eaten a tomato fresh from the vine, you’ll never touch a mealy, tasteless tomato from the grocery store again. We’ve been putting out gardens ever since.

There seems to be something magical in this Iowa soil that makes our gardens successful. No matter what we’ve planted in the garden, it matures and produces fruits or vegetables. The only thing we’ve had difficulty growing is green beans. That failure has nothing to do with the soil, mind you. We did get a healthy harvest of green beans during our first summer of gardening. Every summer since then, however, the green bean plants are attacked by rabbits before they ever get a chance to grow. As soon as the bean seeds sprout and break ground, the rabbits come along and eat the leaves. The poor little plants never have a chance to produce a single bean.

There are some other plants that we’ve learned not to repeat. Brussels sprouts are easy, but it takes too long between planting and harvest and the plants take up too much space in the meantime. The same goes for broccoli. We’ll just stick to getting those vegetables from the grocery store.

Last year was the first garden that had a singular purpose: salsa. We planted more tomato and pepper plants that we thought necessary and ended up with crop upon crop of salsa ingredients. We froze dozens of containers of salsa and canned dozens more in jars. We’re still eating last year’s canned salsa!

And so we’re repeating that plan this year. We got the tomatoes and onions in the ground this weekend but forgot to pick up pepper plants when we were at the greenhouse. We also got a few kale plants in the ground because you gotta love those leafy greens!

Our garden definitely won’t win any prizes. We tend to take a rather haphazard approach to the task. And since we can be away for weeklong stretches, the weeds tend to get away from us, making it difficult to discern between invasive plants and something that will actually produce edibles. We’re trying to keep things as simple and organic as possible so we’re not spraying the garden with weed treatment. As you can see in the photo at the top of this post, we’ll always have a healthy harvest of dandelions!

Beautiful or not, gardening has become a seasonal treat that we both savor. After a week in the city sitting behind desks or countless hours stuck in traffic, there’s no better treat than crouching in the garden with the moos of cows carrying across the distance as we pull weeds or clip kale leaves for lunch.

What are you planning for your garden this year?

 

 

Rites of Summer: Mother-in-Law’s Rhubarb Crunch

My Mother-in-Law's Recipe Box and Rhubarb Crunch Recipe

“What’s this?” I asked our friend Joan as I pointed down at the ground. It was our first spring in the house and Joan, the real estate agent’s wife, was kindly helping us get the mess of a yard into shape. (And helping two city guys avoid a freakout over the amount of work they had just taken on with this new house!)

“Oh that’s rhubarb!” Joan said, and then furrowed her brow. “That’s a strange place to put it.”

We were standing in the front yard, pulling plants out of a bed that the previous owners had installed.

“It’s grows like a weed,” Joan said. “We used to just mow over it!”

I dug up the fledgling little plant and plopped it in a corner of the garden. Joan was right. Rhubarb is an easy plant that will thrive anywhere you put it. By the end of that summer I was able to get a few mature stalks off the plant. And we’ve had rhubarb ever since. Continue reading