Sunday, February 28, 2016

Desert Quietude

Sky warmth reflects peace,
Great blue quietude shelters;
Winter dares not set foot here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Well-Preserved Cities

As a young man, I can remember seeing a large old building along Ingersoll avenue in Des Moines. There was a raised concrete framework in the back that looked like an auto overpass, in miniature. It was at one time a main trolley barn for the city, but by the time I saw it was used to store buses. I had no camera at the time. Even though I stopped and walked through it, it was empty and ready to be torn down. Within a couple of year it disappeared, replaced by a popular restaurant chain. I moved on, and didn't give it another thought for many years. Over 30 years later, reading about the “old trolley barn” I recalled it again, now sorry I didn't take some photos.

Very old buildings do not last long in a modern, busy downtown area. Either they get torn down, or re-purposed for some recreational use. Thus an old Masonic lodge building becomes a restaurant and theater venue. Or an old, decrepit hotel gets refurbished as a modern office. A few flagship businesses get remodeled endlessly, and live on. Venerable hotel chains downtown are one example.

To honor and celebrate the history of an area seems a good idea. We can see what has come before, even while planning for better uses of our resources for the times to come. Pictures of what used to be in any one area can be astounding. There are many parking lots downtown, where old buildings stood. Everything from restaurants, to bus depots and even railroad depots. They get torn down, the track is removed, new pavement is laid. And memories of an era get lost or filed away.

Therefore it seems important to save a few meaningful structures, if only to show what has gone before. Before our age of convenience, when everything required physical effort. Back then, when the air was dirty with coal soot, and filled with the noise of clanking rail and trolley cars, an easier way would seem welcome. Now here we are, when the air has been cleaned up, and the clank and clang has been replaced by the quiet whoosh of speedy automobiles. And we wonder at what has gone before. We who live so much better than the average person could have hoped to back then, we wonder what it looked like when they struggled on. When they struggled to make a living, raise a family, achieve some kind of career goal perhaps.

So there are historical home tours in Sherman Hill and River Bend areas in Des Moines, and similar old neighborhoods elsewhere. We can see the cuspidors and chamber pots, the hand pumps and ice-boxes where real ice blocks went. In some cases the locations of old privies are pointed out, before indoor plumbing became common. Coal chutes and storage bins were common. Old pot-bellied stoves or wood cookstoves, some with a chimney going to an outer wall. All of the artifacts of another age, telling just how difficult it was to live a life back in the “dark ages.” They can be a real eye-opener, and a good education in just how far we have come, even in the last 75 years or so.

But those hardy souls who lived back then had only earlier times to measure their progress against. They thought that they had it good, compared to even earlier times. Old textbooks called it the “iron age”, and compared it against earlier ages. Our iron and steel tools sure were better than the stone tools of an earlier age, by golly. Our warm coal-heated houses were sure better than those heated by logs. A horse-drawn stagecoach is still easier and faster than walking on foot, and the telegraph is a miracle compared to the pony express. Everything is relative. But for those wonderful souls who had the foresight to put aside containers, papers and journals, and other things for future posterity, I have a big “Thank You!” Time always flows forward. Some folks saved important materials for future reference, and in so doing, preserved part of our history.

The State Historical museum is one place that has made dioramas of earlier ways of life. All the way from indigenous peoples hunting woolly mammoths, all the way up to typical household items of the 1970's, you can walk through and see it. County historical societies have done a good job saving artifacts like clothing from the 1800's and so forth. It is not difficult to get an idea of what life was like in earlier eras, despite the onrush of modernity we see today. 

Personal collections can be fulfilling and enjoyable. From saving old copies of the newspaper, to antique collecting and displaying. Some people fill their homes with antique bottles, furniture, cookery, etc. A pastime that can be as educational as it is entertaining.

But holding onto old mindsets in the face of new discoveries can be a bit more dangerous. As much as we would like to cling to comforting thought systems and beliefs, at some point we have to acknowledge realities that make themselves known. Old medical practices were long-ago discarded. So now we don't believe in the imbalance of humours, or in bloodletting, or demon-caused diseases. Instead we “believe in” bacteria and viruses. And we have found better treatments, like vaccination, that can eradicate diseases in whole populations. Likewise, in various thought systems we have gradually liberalized. It is okay to give prophylactics like condoms out, because on balance they could help stop the transmission of HIV. Conservative, strident religious beliefs tend to condemn this.
Sometimes physical preservation of historic properties can be a battle. Funds must be raised, public interest aroused, to save a structure. There was this old gas station, a one-story affair with a couple of pumps. It was a “training station” for a major oil company back in the 1930s. They needed to move it to make room for development, and instead of demolishing it, let it be known it was for sale. So offers were made, and finally a local church raised the needed funds to move it over to their property, and install it. Even though it was a church, they placed the structure on the opposite side of the building, where it can be seen by any and all who drive through the neighborhood. That was a victory for local preservationists, and a gift to the surrounding neighborhood.

There have been other battles lost, alas. There was a larger, three-story schoolhouse in Luther, Iowa that was used as a storage facility. It was a shame to see it finally get torn down, and a new modular building go up in its place. A very old commercial building sitting downtown had a fire. Then it sat vacant, with no funds available to renovate it. Some efforts were made, but the building was too big, too far gone. They finally sold it, and it was razed to make way for a new office building. Some structures just cannot be saved. The old Younkers building in downtown Des Moines was scheduled to be renovated into apartments and condos, and street-level shops. But there was a fire there. It seemed like a total loss, but miraculously was not. Another company has come in, cleaned it up, and resumed renovations. So that one, instead of being a total loss, may end up being a partial success. The old Tea Room restaurant might even be saved, resurrected. The YMCA building that was constructed in 1957 had to be razed to the ground. There was no way it could be re-purposed to some other use. So that was lost. But a YMCA built earlier, in the 1920's, is still in use as the headquarters for the Iowa Blind commission. Ironic but true. And the new YMCA struggles for funding to finish their swimming pool.

In other towns there have been successes. In Rock Island, Illinois an old train station has been remade into a restaurant. Many small Iowa towns have re-purposed old RR depots into comfort stations for bicyclists. Huge RR depots in Omaha have been made into museums and shops. Some small churches have been turned into businesses or even homes. One-room schoolhouses have been made into museums, homes or businesses. Many large mansions have seen new life as antique stores or Bed & Breakfasts. There have even been entire downtown's dedicated to antiquing and preservation. Walnut, Iowa has a brick-street old-fashioned downtown. All that seems missing are a profusion of horse-drawn wagons and buggies. If you go there, hang on to your wallet or purse. Everything is for sale. Other towns have done the same. Mt Horeb, Wisconsin has a historical museum reflecting on their Nordic heritage, and a Swedish-Norwegian store. And there are other antique and collectible shops scattered about. The old downtown's are trying to survive in the age of shopping malls, doing everything they can to stand out. 

In an ironic twist, many larger urban centers are building housing to get people living there again. Des Moines in particular is in the midst of a condo building boom. The young are gradually moving in, deciding to go car-less and live near downtown attractions. So we are seeing people go full-circle once again. Social activity will center around the city centers, with easy access to transportation and entertainment. As some malls struggle to survive, or even go dark, many city centers are seeing a renaissance of activity. Light rail has been put in place in larger cities. The old trolley system went to buses, and is now interconnecting with or changing to electrified rail systems again. So not only can one feel nostalgic, one can experience some of the charm of the old days. Even while breathing cleaner air.
Some writers are even using old-fashioned typewriters once again, enjoying the sensation of pounding out their works one letter at a time. Not this one, though. Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Local places to visit in Iowa

      As the winter winds on, we sit (mostly) stuck inside wondering what to do. Here are a few ideas, for the coming warmer months, to explore what our home state has to offer.
      Every state in the US has some places of historical or scenic significance, and Iowa is no exception. Even though we are an agricultural state, in some cases because of that, we have our own local 'hot spots'. In every one of the 99 counties there is at least one place of interest. I'm going to point out some of them here, but there are likely many more that can be found. Many of these interesting items spring from creative, dedicated hands of local townspeople trying to improve the places they live in.

I'll start in the central counties. Polk, Jasper, Warren, Dallas and Madison. In Des Moines, there are many places of interest. The Statehouse is a prominent example, with its shining gold dome. One feels impressed by the majesty when you enter the building, and see sate offices, or assembly rooms. The Law Library is ornate and beautiful, with gold and wrought-iron staircases throughout.

The grounds around the statehouse are full of memorabilia, including civil war cannons, monuments and statues. A walk around the grounds during the summertime is an enjoyable experience, and aside from parking doesn't cost a nickel. 

Nearby is the State Historical building, full of informative displays. There are special programs held, and a restaurant is located on the top floor, with an outdoor area. As you head west downtown, there are many outdoor features. Cowles Commons has a big new sculpture, and water jets to wade through to beat the summer heat. Further west is the Sculpture Garden, a huge outdoor area to walk around and enjoy public art of all kinds. The library, with its green roof, is located here, and has watercourses running throughout the grounds. At the west end of the garden, food trucks are setting up frequently, offering exotic fare. 

Further west along Grand Avenue is the Art Center. Here you can enjoy a free walk through many styles of art and sculpture. It is sited on a large park area, that can be enjoyed in the spring, summer and fall. Another fun place to go is Valley Junction, west of the Art Center just as you cross into West Des Moines, on 5th street (again, just off Grand ave). There are many collectible, antique and boutique emporiums. Valley Junction has fairs, farmers markets and other special events during the summer and fall. 

But in any large metro area, it is a given there will be things to do, places to go and see. What about in outlying areas, one may ask.

There are things out there to see. The town of Perry, northwest of Urbandale, has been busily re-inventing itself. They have a new library, restaurants, and the renovated Hotel Pattee. They have festivals and events, and roll out the welcome mat to visitors. Perry joins many other small towns, including Redfield and Adel, in converting old railroad depots into refreshment stations along the huge Central Iowa trail system. This is a series of recreational trails that go through many small towns. The Milwaukee Road went through some of these towns, so the depots feature their uniforms, and relics from passenger rail days gone by. 

Adel, in Dallas county, is a brick-covered downtown that holds a sweet corn festival every fall. The bike/rec trail goes through here, as does the Raccoon river. Canoeing events occur here, and the town is a delightful place to cycle through on a summer ride. As one travels north, you run into Panora, with Lake Panorama and its recreation offerings. Further north, you arrive at Jefferson. In that typical small town, a citizen bequeathed funds to erect a tall bell tower. You can take an elevator ride to the top for a donation. Some folks have weddings there. The RR depot here has also been restored, and the Raccoon Valley bike trail goes from here all the way to Des Moines.

If one follows the bike trail, you might end up going through Ankeny, and north through Baxter, then all the way through Slater-Sheldahl, and on to Madrid. At Madrid is the high trestle trail, a scenic former railroad bridge that goes 400-plus feet above the Des Moines river valley. All it takes is the gas, or pedal power, to get there and you can ride across for free. Stop and take pictures if you want, since there are pullover places out of the main path, along the bridge. Infographics provide facts about the bridge and area ecology. At night, the bridge is lit up by blue light bars. Just another of those delightful surprises that hides in our humble agricultural state.

Many small towns along the recreational/bicycle trails have spruced up their main streets, opened specialty shops, or comfort stations. Some of these, as noted, are converted RR depots. Flower plantings, flagpoles, and infofrmative signage is placed nearby. Of course, regular summer wildflowers are easily seen along the trails. Thistle, black-eyed Susans, phlox and other species brighten up the way as one pedals along. The Central Iowa trail system is a real asset to town and country both around the area. 

While around north central Iowa, the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad is a must-see. A train museum is full of old artifacts, and once finished there, you can take a ride on a steam trail or dinner train. (Boone was once a major repair area for the Chicago Northwestern railroad.) Just walking around the yard and looking at the old engines can be enjoyable. Boone is also home to an area ski and hiking resort in the area (seven hills). 

In Madrid, Iowa there is also located a large Hindu temple and cultural center south of town. This serves ethnic peoples settled here around central Iowa. One more step towards cultural diversity and acceptance. If one travels south to Fairfield Iowa, they can see Maharishi University, and a new town constructed along Vedic Principles. Students there study meditation and other subjects. They hold chess tournaments too. 

Iowa has three major universities, as well as some smaller colleges. In Ames (Iowa State), and Iowa city (University of Iowa) there are many cultural opportunities and sporting events. Art museums and world-class libraries, and picturesque campuses beckon a casual visitor (or potential student). In Cedar Falls resides the third, UNI. Even here there are special events, cultural offerings, and area recreational trails. Ames features Reiman Gardens, itself a big draw from around central Iowa. They have a large indoor butterfly collection, arboretums and outdoor plantings. They seem to add more every year. Iowa City recently finished the River Landing at Coralville, a large new complex of shops, clinics and a hotel. There are many restaurants in the area, and Kinnick Stadium is a short drive from Coralville into Iowa city. Carver-hawkeye arena is nearby, too. 

On a smaller scale, Grandview University, Drake University and Grinnell college all offer cultural programs of one kind or another. Grandview and Drake (located in Des Moines) both offer live theater productions with their students, for a reasonable price. There are many sporting events taking place throughout the year. Notably, Drake hosts the world-famous Drake Relays. This event attracts runners from around the globe, and features a marathon coursing through town. 

As one fans out into smaller outlying areas, there are a lot of small towns that may hold something unique. Stuart has a bank that was robbed by Bonnie and Clyde, and some interesting signage. Adair has the signature smiley-faced tower. As you proceed further west, many wind turbines can be seen. This is a recent change, and one not universally liked. Nevertheless, the future has arrived to the sound of whup-whup-whup and alternative energy. Even the rest stop on I-80 west has part of a turbine blade as ornamental artwork. A nice thing about the new rest stops, by the way – each features a different aspect of local history. The one near Iowa City has excerpts of writings, relating to the Writers Workshop in Iowa city. Another one further east has lanterns and brick décor. The western one has a turbine blade. The first rest stop on I-35 coming into Iowa from Missouri features quaint trails and décor. An extra touch of interest for weary travelers to take their mind off of traffic.

The town of Walnut, Iowa is an antiquers paradise, just south of I-80 on hwy 83. The streets are all brick, and the antique shops are legion. Even on a Sunday later afternoon a few are open. One can enjoy looking at the storefronts themselves, and then go in and make your best deals. The town of Elk Horn (North of I-80 on hwy 173) has a strong Danish heritage, and features a museum and windmill. Then there is the town of Pella, south of Des Moines on hwy 163. So Dutch they have re-constructed downtown with a giant windmill, and a canal. The Tulip Festival draws many thousands each year, to enjoy the flowers, and snack on Dutch letters. They would be happy if you spent some money in their trinket shops, too, I'm sure.

Hopping around some more, if you go to Northwest Iowa, there are many gorgeous spots to enjoy. Decorah has great scenery and fishing opportunities. There is a Norwegian museum there too. Strawberry Point has the “worlds largest strawberry” and themed motels, shops, restaurants. Near there is a large state park (Backbone) to enjoy. The Laura Ingalls Wilder museum is sited nearby as well.

There are scenic drives along the Mississippi, with bluffs and wildflowers to take in. Many parks dot this area. Dubuque, Iowa is itself located on several tall bluffs around the river. There are lots of stately old homes to see overlooking the river. And some antique shops to check out, of course. There is a short, uphill tram ride one can take. Nearby, across the river, is Galena, Illinois with all of its offerings – a whole flock of antebellum homes. Dubuque is one of the oldest towns in Iowa, with some homes dating back to the 1840's. There were lead mines and a gunpowder factory in the area, among other industries. 

All the way southward along the eastern border is Keokuk. This area is home to the nearby Geode state park, and also the longest electrical dam station in the state, constructed in 1912. There are many outdoor places of interest, and pedestrian trails. North of there is the town of Burlington. Here you have Snake Alley, the most twisty ally there is. There are also river views, galleries and shops, and parks. Driving along the Mississippi, there are many chances for a good view or a picnic, all the way back northward. 

Thanks to the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, Iowa has some great recreational opportunities and views. But there are many small towns in the state that have re-imagined themselves, cleaned up their “act” so to speak. And in doing so, added a lot of tourism and scenery capital to our state. So next spring and summer (or even this winter in some cases) feel free to drive and experience the major areas, like state parks and rivers. But don't overlook the many small towns, and their museums, shops and other venues they have created from 'whole cloth.' They will welcome you graciously in most cases, and you will be amazed at what they have accomplished. Thanks for visiting, and thanks for reading. 


Saturday, February 06, 2016


Another year got dropped on my head,
Ill-prepared but better than no time at all.
A few friendships are still in good stead,
The finances are not yet in a free-fall.

Some ask about resolutions and goals;
Like asking a drowning man what he wants?
Keep the head above water, air in the lungs.
Publish all of my poems in readable fonts.

My cat surprises me with affection,
My boss may surprise me with a dinner;
My bank surprises with an interest payment,
Stock market surprises all with a steep fall.

The best surprises of all,
aside from a lottery windfall:
a stranger lavishes affection,
Social times more fun than expected,
Workday goes smooth and pleasant.
Shared intimate times with a lover,
fun fellowship with family and friends.

Here is hoping that surprises like these
will catch everyone unawares sometime.

- end

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Gone at Last

The campaign ads have stopped,
no more flyers in the mail.
We can go back to normality,
Iowa greatness no longer hailed.

Cafes will serve only the regulars,
Hotels will clean many rooms;
restaurants will clear empty tables,
snowy streets will get groomed.

For the caucus circus has left town,
on the road to the next willing victims;
Smiles on the streets outweigh frowns,
Winners can grin and say “We licked 'em!”

Memories of a democratic experience resonate,
As we view the coming general election and speculate.
The candidates will keep strutting and pontificate
on why they should be chosen by a gullible electorate.

But no longer here in these parts, no longer here.
  • end