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city boys, history, iowa, small town life

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

04/24/2020

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.

garden, iowa, setting up home, small town life

Get the Garden Growing: Memorial Day 2019

05/27/2019

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?

 

 

history, iowa, small town life

All We Owe We Owe Ioway

08/23/2017

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.

iowa

Thank God for Daffodils

03/28/2017

There’s a reason that midwesterners are strong, hardy people. It’s because midwestern winters are long, bleak periods of torture. Everything is brown and gray and barren and depressing for months on end. And then one day you see daffodils at the grocery store and you heave a sigh of relief.

“Soon, it will be grey no more,” you whisper to yourself.

In a matter of weeks the leaves will populate the trees, flowers will dot the landscape and life will seem worth living.

Until then, we have these little stems of sunshine.

iowa, Pic a Day

The First Snowfall of the Season

12/05/2016

This American House: An American System Built Home

Here in the upper Midwest, the first snow of the season – whether it comes in October or December – is always exciting. Snow has a way of quieting the world and making the newly naked trees seem a little less obscene. It’s winter, folks. Grab the beauty while you can. For a new year awaits us on the other side.