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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

We're Here Because We're Here Because We're...

The trip to Iowa was filled with interesting things. We drove north through most of Missouri and then into southern Iowa on a 4-lane highway (2 lanes each direction), so we passed through a lot of small towns and out into country. Miles and miles of farmland--beef (black Angus) and dairy (Herefords* mostly) cattle, sheep, and acres and acres of corn. If you ever thought that Big Corn was a myth, just drive through this part of the Midwest.

Between the ubiquitous corn syrup in nearly all processed foods to the quest for biofuel, corn is king here. It may be November but in Iowa they're still harvesting. We saw the combines at work many times over the hours.

The topography looks a lot like Alberta. I was just there this summer so the memories are fresh. You can't see the blur of the Rockies in the distance like you can in Alberta, but otherwise it's very similar: flat prairie farmland. In both places you can look east or west and see the weather miles and miles away. You can be enjoying a perfect blue sky, but over there dark clouds are shooting down rain. Or it's gloomy where you are but on the distant horizon, God rays of light zip from the clouds.

What struck me as different, though, were the towns caught between the prairie. There's a feeling of decay in these American towns that you don't sense in Alberta. On our journey we saw abandoned buildings, empty warehouses, falling-down wood homes. Other parts of town are doing okay--there's a Hardy's or an Arby's. A Domino's, maybe. The used car lot(s), the auto parts place, the muffler repair shop, the farm supply store. In Washington Junction we saw a couple of smoke stacks that indicated some manufacturing still happening there. But it does make you wonder what all the people in these towns do and how they make it through the year. They can't all be farmers...

We arrived, finally, at our destination: Muscatine, Iowa, population somewhere around 23,000. Situated right on the Mississippi, it, too, feels like a place out of time. We passed through the downtown and the brick facades look like a Hollywood set for a movie set in 19th century. Not much different from the picture, but with cars instead of carriages. No awnings, either. Today, some stores are occupied and thriving, but not all.

Much of the older homes are built on a hill overlooking the river--what's now called the historic district. I had the sense that this is where the well-to-do lived, while the working folks lived on the flat. Now, I'm told, everyone lives cheek to jowl whether professional or executive or chicken factory workers.

I'm staying in a brick home built in the early 1880s. There's a front stairway for the family and a back stairway for the servants. The back stairway leads to the attic where there's a single room with a door. Was the cook a day worker? Did the housekeeper get the room? Were there scullery maids living under the eaves? I won't say the house is haunted, but there's a feeling of past lives here.

Looking out over the river, the whole town feels like a 19th century manufacturing center. I could imagine it, too. The factories close to the river. Gristmills, sawmills, railroads, and then Muscatine's claim to fame: the button factory, which manufactured pearl buttons from clam shells found in the Mississippi. I can see the workers making their way to these industrial centers, the women trailing their long skirts, the men in their caps and serviceable boots. And the judges, the factory owners, their wives and children, high up on the hill.

Mark Twain worked for the Muscatine Journal, which was partly owned by his brother, Orion. Did he live on the hill or on the flat? I have my suspicions, but we'll see. And as soon as I find out, I'll let you know. I'm off to explore.

*If this bothers you, see "Correction" posted 11-25-08. If you noticed nothing untoward, you're as clueless as me when it comes to cows, and don't need to rush off.

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Blogger Unknown said...

I've driven thru Iowa before on a roadtrip to Florida with my family... oh that's never gonna happen again lol we were at each others throats by the time we got there...

Iowa has a lot of fields... especially corn fields... interesting...

November 18, 2008 at 4:34 PM  
Blogger Annie Solomon said...

yup, it sure does have that corn, danie. But I've just been through Muscatine and learned there's lots of history, too.

November 18, 2008 at 11:43 PM  
Blogger Marie-Nicole Ryan said...

I don't think I've ever been to or through Iowa. You make it sound very interesting.

November 21, 2008 at 7:47 AM  

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