Dropping Those Eaves Pays Off

Our hosts in Minnesota, LuAnn (second from right) and her sister.
Our hosts in Minnesota, LuAnn (second from right) and her sister.

On our loop of the upper Midwest — through Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin — we paid visit to friends in Elk River, Minn., and Mount Horeb, Wis.

In Elk River, Tim stayed at our hosts’ house working while Gage went gadding about with his fellow seminarian, LuAnn. In Mount Horeb, Tim set up his workstation in a coffee shop while Gage went sightseeing with our friend and former colleague, Jane. (See a pattern there?)

In a providential case of eavesdropping, Tim overheard the people at the next table. Certain words caught in his ear, like “UCC” and “LGBT” and “Open and Affirming” (or ONA, the UCC’s designation of a congregation that accepts everyone regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, physical and mental abilities, etc.)

Unable to control himself, Tim later walked over and introduced himself. It turned out that the man was a minister at the UCC church in nearby Mount Vernon. He had been discussing another church’s efforts to become ONA. He invited us to come visit his church, which we did.

Mount Vernon Zwingli UCC
Mount Vernon Zwingli UCC

Mount Vernon Zwingli United Church of Christ is a lovely country church. The building is about 100 years old. The congregation is ONA, very progressive and welcoming. They recently reached out to the area’s Muslim community with a letter of support, thoughts and prayers and a denouncement of Islamophobia.

Gage and Tim offered some advice on the ONA process, which was pertinent because the other church in question has a lesbian pastor. That can complicate the process if it appears that the pastor is pushing ONA for personal reasons. We suggested that the pastor step back and let the congregation lead the process.

Hooterville! with Jane
Hooterville! with Jane

Other highlights of our trip to Wisconsin included dining at the Grumpy Troll and at the Hooterville Inn, a great little dive with great burgers and brats.

On Laura’s Trail, Part 2

The next stops on the Laura Ingalls Wilder trail were Walnut Grove, Minn.; Pepin, Wis.; and Burr Oak, Iowa. The first town celebrated the “Little House on the Prairie” TV show more than the books; the second town was the setting for the first book, “Little House in the Big Woods”; and the third town was not part of the original books at all.

Walnut Grove, Minnesota

The Ingalls lived a mile or two north of Walnut Grove, first in a dugout and later in a house that Pa built. Laura and Mary started attending school in town, where they met Laura’s TV nemesis, Nellie Oleson. They suffered crop failures, locust infestations and a blizzard. This is also where Mary went blind after contracting scarlet fever. And, the Ingalls’ son, Charles Frederick, was born there. He died nine months later, and he is not mentioned in any books.

They lived there only for about two years, although the TV show depicts them living there much longer, into Laura’s adulthood. That time in their lives is described in the fourth book, “On the Banks of Plum Creek” — but the town is not mentioned by name.

Apparently, Walnut Grove (pop. 850) was caught off-guard when “Little House on the Prairie” was on TV. Visitors arrived looking for Laura, and they had nothing! Over the years, the town has put together a nice little museum, with period-style buildings (“a schoolhouse like the one that Laura and Mary would have attended”) and some artifacts (a quilt that may have belonged to Laura”) and memorabilia from the TV show. Walnut Grove has an annual pageant with a “family-oriented outdoor drama based on the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder in Walnut Grove.”

Walnut Grove does have the Ingalls Dugout Site, which was tracked down in the 1940s. It is indeed “on the banks of Plum Creek.” The roof caved in years ago and all that is left is a deep depression on the hillside. But features mentioned in the book — the plum thickets, the Big Rock and the Spring — are still there. You can imagine the Laura playing in the creek.

Replica of the “Little House in the Big Woods” on the original Ingalls land outside Pepin, Wisconsin.


Pepin has even less than Walnut Grove. The Ingalls family didn’t leave behind any artifacts when they left the Big Woods, so the tow’s museum also has a covered wagon “like” the one the Ingalls family may have used.

There is a reconstructed cabin on the site of the original, so you can see where the Little House in the Big Woods stood. (The woods aren’t nearly as big as they used to be.)

Burr Oak

Laura did not write about the Ingalls’ time in Burr Oak, at least not in the Little House series. She did tell about the experiences there in her autobiography. It was a sad time in their lives. They moved here after Walnut Grove, after the crop failures, after Mary went blind. And on the way, the baby boy, Freddie, died.

The Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa, where Pa managed and Ma ran the kitchen. No pics allowed inside.
The Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa, where Pa managed and Ma ran the kitchen. No pics allowed inside.

In Burr Oak, Pa managed a hotel and Ma cooked the meals for the travelers. The building still stands, and the tour guide will show you the tiny room where all five Ingallses slept, the kitchen where Ma cooked three meals a day for dozens of weary men, the tiny rooms upstairs that accommodated three men to a bed.

The family never got ahead here. They were so poor that a doctor’s wife tried to adopt Laura. They were deep in debt, and they left town in the middle of the night before the sheriff could come and take their horses for taxes.

They returned to Walnut Grove for awhile, before moving west so Pa could work for the railroad and help found the town of De Smet, South Dakota (which we visited in Laura’s Trail, Part 1).

On Tim’s Trail, Part 1

Exploring Gage's Dutch heritage at Jaarsma bakery in Pella, Iowa.
Exploring Gage’s Dutch heritage at Jaarsma Bakery in Pella, Iowa.

Both of us are going to have opportunities to visit ancestral stomping grounds. Our journey back in time technically began in Pella, Iowa, where Gage’s mother’s maternal grandparents were born in 1867. Their parents came from Holland and joined that Dutch community in south-central Iowa.

But, we didn’t really do any family-searching in Pella; we were more interested in getting Dutch letters and other tasty treats at Jaarsma Bakery.

However, on our way north out of Des Moines, we detoured in the direction of Sac City. Tim’s great-great-great grandfather, Daniel T. Rising, was the second doctor to settle in Sac County, in 1857, according to “History of Sac County, Iowa,” by William H. Hart (Bowen, 1914). He was also elected superintendent of schools in 1858. He and his wife, Ruth, stayed there for five years and moved to Grant City, about 20 miles away. They died on the same day in 1865.

According to his grandson, Harry Rising, “Our Grandmother was sick with pneumonia and [Grandfather] worked with her so hard trying to keep her alive, got her on her feet and walked her back and forth. He must have loved her a great deal. I think when she died he was broken hearted and he didn’t live much longer, just a few hours.”

The cemetery in what used to be Grant City.
The cemetery in what used to be Grant City.

Daniel and Ruth Rising were buried in the cemetery in Grant City. Unfortunately, according to a genealogy researcher, “Grant City, Iowa, was a small town, had many storms … and in 1919 a tornado went through and wiped the town away. There is a cemetery, and stones and such were not replaced after 1919. No one seems to have the old records of the cemetery to know who is actually buried there or anything on when they died.”

So, we drove to where Grant City used to be, and we did find a cemetery. It had headstones, but most were dated after 1919. We walked around a little bit looking at the older ones, but as expected, we didn’t find the Risings.

Sac City has, of course, grown and developed, and there’s not much there that would have been there in the 1860s. There’s a Civil War monument, and we did find Memorial Park, where the town has preserved a cabin that was built in 1854. It has no connection to Tim’s ancestor, but it is contemporary to his time. And who knows — maybe the people who lived in it were Daniel Rising’s patients.

A cabin built in 1854 now resides in Sac City's Memorial Park.
A cabin built in 1854 now resides in Sac City’s Memorial Park.

THE Great State Fair

Poster for the 1945 remake of the movie "State Fair." The first version was filmed in 1933 and starred Will Rogers. A 1962 version starred Pat Boone. A Broadway revival won a Tony Award in 1996. All are based on Phil Stong's novel about an Iowa family attending the Iowa State Fair.
Poster for the 1945 remake of the movie “State Fair.” The first version was filmed in 1933 and starred Will Rogers. A 1962 version starred Pat Boone. A Broadway revival won a Tony Award in 1996. All are based on Phil Stong’s novel about an Iowa family attending the Iowa State Fair.

In our wanderings across the country, there are only a handful of places we can only visit at a certain time. One of those is the Iowa State Fair, which runs for 10 days in the middle of August.

When we lived in Des Moines, we sometimes went to the fair every day. Some of that was due to our jobs, reporting and editing stories and web features for the Des Moines Register. But a lot of our attendance was due to our passion for the fair.

The Iowa State Fair is quintessential Iowa. It is very much a celebration of the state’s agriculture. The fair honors the state’s history, preserves its traditions and promotes its modern economy.

All across the fairgrounds, there’s something to see. On the west side, at the Food Sciences building, you can watch judges award ribbons for apple pies and fried chicken. On the east side, at Pioneer Hall, you can watch contestants throw cow pies and rubber chickens.

Then there are the Big Animals. There’s the Super Bull — Desperado, an Angus bull weighing in at 2,972 pounds; the Big Boar — Fred, a crossbred boar, pigging out at 1,155 pounds; and the Big Ram — a Rambouillet ram (apparently with no name) who was a baa-aad ass 438 pounds. The Largest Rabbit was Suzie, at 17 pounds 6 ounces.

Of course, there’s every conceivable type of food on a stick, from your basic corndogs (and Gage’s favorite veggie dogs) to deep-fried brownies, Snickers and Twinkies. There’s even chocolate-covered cheesecake on a stick and peanut butter & jelly on a stick.

But if you want to go whole hog, you must have a pork chop on a stick. This is no thin piece of shoe leather on a popsicle stick (like I’ve had at a certain other state fair *cough*Minnesota*cough*. This is an inch-thick, juicy slab of meat still attached to the bone — which is the “stick.”

As I said on Facebook: “The Iowa State Fair! Where thousands gather each day to sweat, eat too much fried food on a stick and stand in line to see cows sculpted in butter, big boars with huge testicles, and big bulls that are hung like … bulls — and love every minute of it!”

On Laura’s Trail, Part 1

1wagonWhile planning Le Voyage Extraordinaire and researching possible waypoints along our indefinite odyssey across the country, we discovered that the path kept intersecting with places that had a connection with Laura Ingalls Wilder and her “Little House” series.

  • Pepin, Wisconsin — “Little House in the Big Woods”
  • Independence, Kansas — “Little House on the Prairie”
  • Maple Grove, Minnesota — “On the Banks of Plum Creek”
  • De Smet, South Dakota — “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” “The Long Winter,” “Little Town on the Prairie,” “These Happy Golden Years” and “The First Four Years”
  • Mansfield, Missouri — where Laura and Almanzo Wilder settled, where she wrote the books.
  • Burr Oak, Iowa — not depicted in a book

So, we decided, why not try to hit them all?

The first stop on Laura’s trail, and actually, the last stop for most of the Ingalls family, was De Smet (emphasis on the ‘Dee’). They spent many years there, beginning in 1879. The town has preserved their homestead and opened it as a living history site. Also, several buildings associated with them have been restored, including the “Surveyor’s House” where they lived when they first moved there, the house Pa later built in town, a store that was open back then, and the “Church That Pa Built.”

That church began as a Congregational church! (Congregationalists merged with other faith communities to become the United Church of Christ in the late 1950s.) The building itself, however, was sold to another church, and the UCC building (“the Church That Pa Founded”) is elsewhere in town. (We missed the worship service because we didn’t know what time it started.)

Also, Pa and Ma — Charles and Caroline — and sisters Mary, Carrie and Grace, as well as Laura and Almanzo’s infant son, are buried in the De Smet Cemetery.

We stayed in a “covered wagon” on the homestead, visited the cemetery and took a guided tour of the Ingalls buildings in town. The young lady who led the tour did a great job remembering all of the facts and dates and trivia. It was kinda cool when she described a passage from one of the books, and pointed to a certain spot. “This is the door where Laura first entered the house. She crossed this floor (with its original boards) and opened this door to look up into the attic at the huge bedroom.”

It was really quite a nice place to visit. It reminded Tim of some of his ancestors — who also moved around a lot. We will be visiting some of their homesteads and towns later.

Sacred Ground

last-standIt’s hard for me to put into words how I feel about the Little Bighorn National Battlefield.

On the one hand, it is hallowed ground; hundreds of veterans from all of the nation’s wars are buried in the national cemetery here. And 250 soldiers gave their lives here in service of their country.

custer-stoneBut it’s the reason they gave their lives that gives me pause. The Battle of the Little Bighorn — “Custer’s Last Stand” — was a pivotal point in the centuries-old system of genocide inflicted on one people by another. The blood spilled here is a dark red stain on our history books. Those books too often gloss over the fact that from the beginnings of European colonization, every single treaty with the native people of this continent was ignored. Every single promise the White Man made was broken.

At Little Bighorn, people who had been pushed out of their homes, chased out of their lands, and herded into reservations, said, “Enough!” They banded together and achieved total victory in this famous battle. But, as they say, in winning the battle, they lost the war. U.S. policy became one of single purpose: wipe out the Red Man.

monolithThe soldiers of the 7th Cavalry became martyrs to that cause. At the battlefield, a huge monolithic memorial lists their names. Headstones mark the exact spot where every man fell. For many years, the site was called the Custer Battlefield, ignoring the “other side.”

Only 20 to 50 Native Americans died at Little Bighorn; that’s how big the victory was. But until recently, their voices had not been heard. There is now a second memorial, built as a sacred circle, telling their side of the story. Native art and quotes are carved into the stone. The most poignant section depicts an 1869 peace-pipe ceremony between Custer and Stone Forehead, Keeper of the Sacred Arrows.

Custer is quoted as saying, “I will never harm the Cheyennes again. I will never point my gun at a Cheyenne again. I will never kill another Cheyenne.”

custer-quoteStone Forehead is quoted as saying, “If you break your promise, you and your soldiers will go to dust like this. [The ceremony included the pouring of the pipe’s ashes on Custer’s boot heel.] If you are acting treacherously toward us, sometime you and your whole command will be killed.”

The battle on June 25, 1876, would seem to have fulfilled that prophecy.

It’s likely that there were some soldiers who were not hell-bent on killing Indians; they were just following orders, serving their country. So they cannot be condemned for giving the ultimate sacrifice. Whatever their motives, we do know what the Cheyenne were fighting for, as the two headstones below say:

JUNE 25, 1876,


Top o’the World, Ma!

Smoke on the horizon!
Smoke on the horizon!

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Smoke on the horizon!

On Aug. 10, leaving Yellowstone National Park through the Northeast Gate, we headed in that direction on U.S. 212, the Beartooth Highway. About 15 miles out, we began to see smoke on the horizon. As we neared, the air was thick with gray smoke.

We later found out that lightning had struck, and more than 3,000 acres were burning at Hunter Peak in the Shoshone National Forest. As of Aug. 15, it was still burning. Structures have been evacuated; trails have been closed.

2016-08-10 15.15.43But that was just a dramatic prelude to our drive that day. The road kept rising and rising and soon we were zig-zagging up switchback after switchback. The Beartooth Highway is a National Scenic Byways All-American Road. It is the highest elevation highway in the Northern Rockies, at 10,947 feet above sea level. The surrounding mountains have 20 peaks reaching over 12,000 feet. It is one of the most rugged areas in the lower 48 states.

Our vistas were actually blocked — or hazy — because of the forest fire that was now about 10 miles behind us. About 70 miles east of Yellowstone is a lookout point, Rock Creek Vista. It has a walkway that goes out to a viewing platform. And the views are amazing, even when hazy.

From there, the road winds down with switchbacks and cuts through a beautiful valley. We left the Beartooth Highway at Billings, Montana, and headed to the 7th Ranch RV Park in Garryowen and the Little Bighorn National Battlefield.

2016-08-10 15.42.36