|Iowa farmland, 1960s|
Of course, the year's not out yet, so there's hope for an upcoming post or two from the road. But for now, dear reader (dare I make that plural?), you'll have to settle for a decidedly more humble travel report from that vacation paradise known as...Iowa.
|Trolls Trolley in Decorah, Iowa, late 1970s. Eric, Arla, Mom, and me.|
|Making hay in Iowa, 1960s|
|On the farm in Iowa, 1960s|
|View of the Mississippi from Eagle Point Park in Dubuque, 2012|
Yes, Iowa. Specifically, Dubuque, Iowa. It's the best I can do for ya, as it's the only out-of-town getaway I've had so far in 2012. Think Iowa is boring? Think it's not a place worth reading about? Well, suspend your judgment for a few minutes, oh worldly travelers of cyberspace and earthspace. You might actually enjoy what I have to say here. You might actually learn something about a place that's worthwhile as anywhere else on this earth. You might at least look at my pretty pictures.
|Down by the river, Dubuque|
|Bridge over the Mississippi, Dubuque|
I was in Iowa at the beginning of July for a family reunion. Not my first time there, and I'm sure it won't be my last. But it had been a long time. My grandparents on my mother's side lived in Dubuque--a city on the Mississippi River on the border of eastern Iowa and northwestern Illinois--when I was growing up. Meanwhile my father's sister and brother-in-law--my aunt June and uncle Darryl--lived in Davenport, another river city right near the Iowa-Illinois border. June and Darryl still live there, but my mother's parents both died a long time ago. We used to be going to Iowa at least a couple times a year, for holidays and for annual family reunions of my grandmother's family. But with the passing of my grandmother and her many brothers and sisters (there were 10 surviving children in her family), the annual family reunion died off as well. The only one of my grandmother's siblings still alive is my great-uncle Vince. And this year, after a long, long gap, Vince's family and the families of his deceased brothers and sisters arranged a big reunion, digging deeper and wider into the family history than ever before--with the help of my brother Brian, the unofficial family genealogist--and finding and inviting relatives many of us never knew about just a few years ago.
|My grandmother (3rd girl from right) with 7 of her siblings and her parents, John and Suzie Welsh|
|My brother Brian, sister Bonnie, and brother Dan at our relatives' farm, 1960s|
|My great-uncle Francis Fagan milking a cow on his farm in Iowa, 1963|
After many years away, Dubuque has changed--and hasn't changed. It's like the face and personality of a cousin you knew only as a child--today it looks familiar and unfamiliar and has grown and asserted itself in ways characteristic and uncharacteristic, predictable and surprising. I suppose every place--and every long-lost relative--is like that. But Dubuque is more like that to me than any other place I've known. My hometown, Chicago, is too big to get a grasp of emotionally in the way you would someone who shares your same blood or DNA, and the suburb I grew up in has proven itself too static for me to develop much nostalgia for it. Ireland, specifically Inis Oirr, is a place that has tremendous meaning for me because of all the time I spent there when I was young--but I've had to face up to the fact over the years that neither Ireland nor Inis Oirr is my place. Neither is connected to me through anything stronger than emotion and wishful thinking, anything as recordable and factually potent as blood or birthplace.
So that leaves me with Dubuque...of all places.
My personal queen and king of Dubuque, my Grandma and Granddaddy Collins, weren't actually born there. They were both born on farms in small towns (if they can even be called that) a few miles from the river city--in Bernard (my grandfather) and Otter Creek (my grandmother). Their heritage is typical of many in and around Dubuque and eastern Iowa--Irish Catholic, a demographic far less typical in the rest of Iowa. The original inhabitants of the area were Mesquakie (Fox) Indians. In the late 17th century the French came to explore the Mississippi and trade with the Mesquakie. The following century a Quebec man named Julien Dubuque came along to mine the area's lead deposits. More miners and pioneers settled in the area, and the city that formed there on the western banks of the river was eventually named after the French Canadian miner who first opened it up to European settlement. It was an Italian missionary named Father Samuel Mazzuchelli who founded numerous Catholic parishes in the tri-state area of Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. But the bulk of the people who filled the pews and built the little towns and farms all around were German and Irish immigrants, with a fair number of French and German-speaking Luxembourgers. (It's said the Irish fudged the name of Father Mazzuchelli to "Father Matthew Kelly.")
|My maternal great-grandparents: John and Suzie Welsh and Mayme (Mary Theresa) and W.C. Collins, 1947|
One of the little Irish-built communities near Dubuque was a settlement called Garryowen, named after a place in County Limerick, where many of the new Iowa town's inhabitants came from. Many--but not all. My great-grandfather Cornelius Collins, who settled in Garryowen, came from County Cork, thank you very much. The Cork folks weren't too happy about the favoring of a Limerick name for the new town, but in the long run perhaps it didn't matter much--today Garryowen is less than a ghost town. The church that was founded there in 1840 and named after, who else, the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick, is still standing, with a cemetery nearby where Garryowen's many Irish sons and daughters (including Cornelius) now lie, very far away from where they started out in life.
|Buncha Irish boys taking a break from railroad work. My grandfather is 2nd boy from right on the tracks.|
|A year later, break time again. Granddaddy is 2nd boy from right on the ground.|
I can't remember if I ever saw St. Patrick's Church in Garryowen. If I did, my memory of it has likely blended in with those of all the other churches and religious places in the Dubuque area that I've been in. There are so many. Dubuque has about a dozen Catholic churches (and about 40 Protestant ones), plus several seminaries, convents, and religious colleges as well as an abbey and a monastery in the area. My grandparents were married in St. Raphael's, the oldest Catholic parish in Iowa, first built in the 1830s under the direction of old "Father Matthew Kelly" himself. When my grandparents moved back to Dubuque after decades of living in Chicago, they were regulars at St. Anthony's up the road from their house on Clarke Drive. When I think of St. Anthony's, I think of Easter, since my family nearly always went to Dubuque for that holiday and always spent Easter morning at St. Anthony's for mass. It was a big, cavernous place on the inside, with high ceilings and tall, wide columns--and little snap hooks on the back of the pews for men to hang their hats and little girls to hang their Easter bonnets. I admit I amused myself a lot during mass at St. Anthony's trying to quietly snap those little hooks over and over.
There was no excuse for missing mass while we were at my grandparents'--if we missed the service at one church we'd speed directly over to one at another. It's not like we were short of options, not in that town. The few times we went to St. Patrick's Church in downtown Dubuque (no, not the one in Garryowen), I kept my mind on the moment when mass would finally end and I'd get to run across the street to the little park where my dad (who isn't Catholic) would meet up with us. St. Patrick's had giant, grand old doors that fascinated me. I wanted nothing more than to run up the steps while a mass was on and pound on the doors to see what would happen. (Look, I wasn't sacrilegious or irreverent or anything--I was just a little kid.) Other visits to Dubuque were spent at the New Melleray Trappist monastery, where the 50th anniversary of my great-aunt and great-uncle Florence and Francis Fagan was celebrated with a big mass and picnic afterwards, and the Mount Saint Francis convent, where my mother's cousin Sr. Ruth once gave me a tour of where the nuns lived. And no, it wasn't creepy or weird. If anything, I felt privileged.
My own personal experiences aside, to get the best sense of Dubuque's religiousness--as well as its oldness--without sitting through masses and church services, just ride the old cable car on Fourth Street--a very steep, very short, and quite ancient and rickety funicular that takes you up to a bluff where you can look out at the Mississippi and all the steeples, spires, domes, and smokestacks that make up Dubuque's modest skyline. A real old town and a real working-class town is the impression you get, as well as a realization that eastern Iowa (and northwestern Illinois) is much prettier and scenic than most people think. Dubuque is surprisingly hilly--situated like a midwestern San Francisco. You may laugh at the comparison--but go see it for yourself. Go up to the top of the Fourth Street Elevator or to lovely Eagle Point Park (where my family has had all our reunions and where my grandma liked to tell us kids gruesome stories about stoned or drunk hippies who fell to their death off the bluffs--she meant well). Go there and look for the flat, dull landscape of corn fields you were expecting. See instead a mighty riverfront of locks and dams and arch bridges and hills hiding old lead mines and railroad lines. Or go for a drive around town. Try mowing a local's lawn. My brothers and sisters and I used to dare my dad to drive down the steepest old streets in town. We wanted him to go fast, like on a roller coaster, but he sensibly took it slow. Meanwhile, my brothers' idea of fun was using my granddaddy's rider lawn mower to cut my grandparents' steeply sloping front lawn successfully without tumbling over.
|The old cable car in Dubuque, 1980s|
|Looking up the cable car tracks|
|View of Dubuque from Fenelon Place Elevator|
|Looking down the cable car tracks from the bluff|
|View of Illinois to Iowa bridge over the Mississippi from Fenelon Place|
|My sister and I on the lookout at Fenelon Place, early 1980s|
|The Mississippi from Eagle Point Park|
I described Dubuque as working class. That's as apparent by the presence of old mines and railroad depots as by the barges that cruise the river and the old meat-packing plants and breweries that line the riverbanks. In this lower section of the town, which was vulnerable to flooding, huge volumes of timber and other commodities were shipped in and out of the area. It was here where many of the immigrants arriving from Ireland started out, working on the docks, in the lumberyards, and in the factories of the lower town. Cornelius (my great-great grandfather who settled in Garryowen) and his brother Dan worked in a sash factory when they first came over in the 1850s. In the old days, fun meant drinking in the many taverns and pubs around town (remember, folks, Irish and Germans originally settled this spot--one of my ancestors, John Welsh, ran a tavern in the working-class lower town) and going to local fairs that featured corn roasts and livestock contests. There was also the local greyhound races. And oh yeah, going to ball games at baseball fields built in the middle of cornfields. Guess what? My relatives got the idea way before Kevin Costner and W.P. Kinsella and their "Field of Dreams" ever did.
|Loras Collins baseball field, built on his farm in 1979 near Dubuque. Suck it Dyersville.|
|Fair at Key West, Iowa late 70s. Note the keg rolling contest going on in the background.|
Dubuque retained its blue-collar character well into the 1980s. So much so that it served (without much alteration) as the location for the movie F.I.S.T., a Sylvester Stallone feature from 1978 about union organizing in the 1930s. The movie's story is actually set in Cleveland. But in the late 1970s even Cleveland was looking better--or newer--than Dubuque. In the 80s Dubuque was chosen again for the filming of a Texas-set movie about brewery workers called Take This Job and Shove It. (Yes, the movie's title was taken from that classic country hit by Johnny Paycheck.) The old Dubuque Star Brewery on the riverfront was featured prominently in the film. My great-aunt Margie was an extra in a scene with Art Carney (who coincidentally bore a strong resemblance to my granddaddy Collins). I remember my Iowa relatives were pretty excited about the movie being filmed in Dubuque and were eager to see it when it came out. "Don't bother," my great-aunt Mae told us afterwards. It was a crass waste of film, a crude, Hollywood-dumb portrayal of the working class.
|In Dubuque. The gate and sign were made for the movie F.I.S.T.|
|Old railroad bridge across the river|
|Same old railroad bridge, same river, different angle|
|First sight of Dubuque from the bridge|
But maybe that brush with Hollywood held a mirror up to Dubuque that got the locals thinking about making some long-overdue changes. Or maybe the farm crisis in the 80s forced the city to finally pull up its socks and figure out a way to adapt and survive. The 90s saw a diversification of the local economy, with less dependence on manufacturing as in the old days in favor of expanding the education, tourism, and publishing sectors. Riverboat gambling and casinos came to town (as they also did in nearby Davenport and Bettendorf) as old riverfront businesses were razed to make room for a lovely riverwalk with semi-swanky hotels and glittering new museums. Those old buildings that weren't demolished were restored or transformed, as with the Dubuque Star Brewery, now a popular riverside restaurant and micro-brewery. I admit there are now parts of Dubuque that I don't even recognize anymore. Parts of it have been subjected to retail sprawl--there are shopping centers in places where there used to be just rolling green hills and farms. The old red-cobbled streets in downtown Dubuque that were still there in the 80s have been paved over, and sure the drive over those roads is less bumpy now, but when did Midwestern people ever complain too much about the bumps in the road? The old shot tower, where lead ammunition was manufactured during the Civil War, has been carefully restored in recent years. Sandwiched between a railroad and the Star Brewery, the tower has a guard rail around it now, and there's something less fun or interesting about the place than when I was little, when the whole area was run-down and neglected and us kids were free to run all over the tracks and climb around the old boxcars and explore.
|My sister Arla, brother Eric, mother and me in front of the Star Brewery, 1970s|
|The Dubuque Star Brewery today, Shot Tower on the right|
|Flower beds on the new riverwalk|
|The new riverwalk in Dubuque|
|Looking up at the shot tower, 1980s|
|My brother Eric, my sister Arla, and me by the shot tower|
When my grandma (who was born in 1905) was growing up on the family farm in Otter Creek, she was so isolated that she believed in Santa Claus until she was 12 years old. Her father had to take her aside and break the news to her gently. She was the eldest (of 10) and her father thought it was time she finally knew. My grandmother said she was stunned. She had no inkling Santa wasn't real. It's hard to imagine that any kid growing up in Iowa today so isolated and innocent. With the Internet, TV, radio, movies, cell phones, and perhaps most important, compulsory education (none of my grandparents, in Iowa or Chicago, made it past a year into high school--my grandfathers not even beyond grade school), country life and small town life aren't what they used to be. Any city slicker who would still stereotype an Iowan as a know-nothing hick is only proving himself quite out-of-touch. And in some ways I see more intrusion of farm and country life in the big, brash city of Chicago--with its glut of seasonal farmers' markets, network of community gardens, and rule of a park for every neighborhood--than in Dubuque. This summer my parents and brother and I took a ride by my grandparents' old house on Clarke Drive. It used to have hedges and trees and flowers decorating the front and side, but now it's all bare. The current owners must not have much interest in fostering a connection between their house and the land it sits on. Very unlike my grandparents, and especially my grandfather, who built a small farm plot in their backyard, complete with corn stalks and tomato plants and raspberry bushes, and even a little vineyard. My granddaddy made his own wine and beer. My brother Brian and his son Colin have recently started carrying on that tradition...but they live all the way in the suburbs of Chicago, not Dubuque.
|My grandmother is 2nd from left (wearing the hat)|
|My granddaddy Collins, under the grape vines in his backyard|
|My grandparents and my mother, sister, and brother, and me, in front of their house on Clarke|
|The house on Clarke today. Very bare.|
|Once there was corn, tomatoes, berries, grapes, and more growing here|
Some things are constant though. That family reunion I went to this summer? Back when we had it every year, the one thing you could always count on at the reunion was buckets and buckets of fried chicken. We all brought our own food--homemade casseroles and pies, crockpot specialities, jello creations, mounds of mashed potatoes, you get the drift...Midwestern grub--but if you couldn't cook or couldn't think of what to bring, you couldn't go wrong with a bucket of Colonel Sanders' finest. This summer's reunion was no different. We all brought food. No catered crap. But unlike in years past--when whoever showed up just showed up--we had a deadline to RSVP. Why do you need a head count, my mother asked the cousin in charge of organizing. My cousin told her: We want to make sure there's fried chicken for everyone.
|Food at the family reunion. We ain't Californians.|
|The star of the show--fried chicken.|
|My great-grandparents (John and Suzie Welsh) with 6 of their children|
|Granddaddy Collins re-visiting one the one-room schoolhouse he attended in Washington Mills, near Bernard, Iowa|
|Over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house we'd go|