Our first taste of Big Sky: June 7-18, 2010

The Quad Cities

From St. Charles, MO, we drove north to the Quad Cities: Moline/Rock Island, IL and Davenport/Bettendorf, IA. We chose West Lake County Park, about 12 miles from the core cities, and it’s one of the best places we’ve visited to date. No reservations are taken, but the staff assured us that we would have no trouble finding a site starting on a Sunday. They were right. The sites were large and nicely laid out; gravel with concrete patios. No wi-fi, but we had enough left on the air card to carry us through.

There were plenty of trees for shade, but we selected a site that was only partially shaded to test out our new satellite antenna. When I ran out of swear words tying to point a portable dish at each site, I bought a dome that finds the signal automatically, as long as it has a clear view of the southern sky. Mounted on the top of the ladder on our unit and inconspicuously wired in, it can be easily removed and placed anywhere that allows a clear sky.

Our three in-town excursions were all to Illinois. On the first run, we stopped at the Rock Island City Hall to get a CD driving tour of the Broadway Historic District, a collection of downtown houses dating from 1854 through 1915 and exemplary of Queen Anne, Italianate and Colonial Revival architecture. Fifty of the 550 houses are on the tour. We stopped the car time after time to listen, gape and take pictures – as you’ll see below.

Our second trip was to the John Deere Pavilion in Moline. We were very fortunate upon arrival to be greeted by a man who was a retired teacher and part time Deere historian and tour guide. Bi-lingual, he also gets to lead tours to the major Deere presence in Mannheim, Germany. He transferred half an hour of his lore to us even before we began to walk around, and it was fascinating. We learned that Deere left behind a failing blacksmith business in his Vermont homeland, but once he reached Grand Detour, Illinois his new business in ploughs, especially his self-scouring polished steel plough, put him on the road to fame and fortune. He moved the operation from Grand Detour to Moline in 1848 and turned day-to-day responsibilities over to his son in 1857. Today, there are no Deere descendants in management positions.

Company management resisted getting into motorized units for many years. The history of their entry into the tractor business is worthy of note. Deere started by producing a tractor designed by (and named for) engineer Joseph Dain. No more than one hundred were built before Deere also bought a tractor-making facility, the Waterloo Engine Company. The “Waterloo Boy” was already in production and less expensive to build than the Dain. So the Dain was discontinued. But bring in the Twilight Zone music . . . it’s rumored that the company recovered and destroyed all but four of the Dain tractors to prevent any other company from reverse-engineering it. In fact, one story tells of a young boy who asked a local why he was missing fingers on his hand. “Happened when we blew up those Dain tractors,” he responded.” The Waterloo Boy was there, and one of the remaining Dains was due at the Pavilionin a month or so.

I spent several hours on Arsenal (formerly Rock) Island, the home of the Rock Island Arsenal Museum. Established as a US Government installation in 1816, the island was first the home of Fort Armstrong, as well as the enormous home of John Davenport. Davenport originally came to Fort Armstrong as a sutler, a camp-follower who sold provisions to military outfits. He became very wealthy during the Blackhawk War, earned an honorary commission, built his mansion, gave his name to the town across the river, and was murdered by a precursor of today’s gangs, the Banditti of the Prairie, in 1845.

The arsenal itself was chartered in 1862 and is distinguished by its 20 identical four story buildings. From 1863-65, it served as a Confederate prison camp (over 12,000 prisoners passed through there). Manufacture of military requirements began in the 1880’s and continues today. The museum details and displays the workmanship that’s taken place there, along with military collections of great significance. The Arsenal built many military items ranging from metal dishes and tableware to howitzers to tanks. Mostly, it built components, such as carriages or munitions carts. It built only one rifle, the 1903 Springfield. Hundreds of feet of cases along the walls, however, feature weapons of every description. The success of Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield was credited in large part to the Arsenal’s effective mobilization of essential materials to wage those “actions” on short notice.

The first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River was built near the island in 1856, and fifteen days later it was rammed by the passenger steamer Effie Alton. The ship burned and sank, and the bridge swing-span was badly damaged. In the infamous court case that followed, the attorney for the railroad was a Springfield attorney by the name of A. Lincoln. The Effie Afton’s bell is on exhibit.

Two exhibits stood out for me. One was the exhibit of rifles known to be used by the Native American combatants at the Battle of Little Big Horn. The other was a display that headlined the Arsenal’s extensive prowess in military leather work. The horse pictured at right is real . . . but isn’t. It’s the complete hide of a horse assembled over a plaster casting for exhibits, the only one remaining of the three that were made!

Our most enjoyed visit, however, took us thirty miles west to the President Herbert Hoover Library and Museum in West Branch. Hoover was the first president to be born west of the Mississippi. His father Jesse, a successful blacksmith, and his mother Hulda, were devout Quakers. They died, respectively, when young Bert was five and nine. He spent most of his growing up years with an uncle in Oregon and he enrolled in the first class at Stamford University in 1891, graduating with a geology degree in 1895.


An inveterate go-getter from the start, Hoover grew a beard and passed his 22 year old self off as a 35 year old to be eligible for a job in Australia. In short order, he became manager of a gold mine commanding an annual salary of $30,000 — in 1897!! His renown and fortune continued to grow; in 1908 he became an independent consultant and traveled worldwide, gave lectures, and published definitive textbooks and treatises.

His world changed from engineering to philanthropy in August, 1914, when he took on the challenge of bringing 120,000 Americans home from Europe at the onset of WW I. Humanitarian efforts of all types continued unceasingly for the next five years. Politics followed, and after a failed run at the Republican nomination in 1920, he became Secretary of Commerce and won both the nomination and election in 1928 after Coolidge rejected a second full term.

Family Home

Back to West Branch. Bert’s boyhood home is restored, as is Jesse’s blacksmith shop and the family Meeting House, all in original locations on the edge of what is still the town of West Branch. Walking toward the Library/Museum, one encounters a Bronze statue of Isis, Egyptian goddess of life, given to Hoover by Belgium in gratitude for his relief commission that fed millions during WW I. The library itself covers all aspects of his life and that of his devoted wife Lou, a caricature in her own right! The first exhibit is The Hoovers’ Attic, an eclectic exhibit of personal furnishings and belongings. Other exhibits display their love of the outdoors – especially fishing, the mining and engineering successes, the major government reorganization and revitalization efforts, the contributions to the building of the Hoover Dam, the humanitarianism and major distribution of their own wealth, the Presidency, and many specific tableaux within. Not ignored, the terrible economic collapse for which he was widely blamed, is handled fairly and thoroughly.

The Amana Colonies

Following six days in the Quad Cities, we moved about 70 miles west through the beautiful landscape of Iowa cornfields to The Amana Colonies. A brief history: In the early 18th century, two Lutherans, one a minister and the other the son of a minister, “held the strong mutual belief that a prayerful relationship with the Lord would lead to a goodly life.” They also believed in a biblical prophet – an instrument or Werkzeug – through whom God would speak to his people. The movement, called the Community of True Inspiration, grew slowly in small clusters and was constantly threatened by the orthodox establishment. In 1842, then Werkzeug Christian Metz sailed to America and bought 5,000 acres near Buffalo, where the colony called Ebeneezer was established. Everything was owned in common; there was no currency exchange among residents. Communal kitchens supplied all meals. Farming and related industries provided for the colonists and for sales outside the community. Activities spanned home, work, school and eleven worship experiences a week.

Running out of space and finding the outside world getting too close, the group relocated en masse to Iowa in 1855. Renamed Amana, meaning “remain true,” the colonists created six towns. The central town was Amana and the others were named for their relationship – Middle, High, West, South and East. A seventh colony, Homestead, was purchased in 1861 to provide access to the railroad line for shipment of their goods to market.

In 1932, yielding to modern pressure, Amana reconstituted itself as The Amana Society, abandoning their communal ownership in favor of a stock corporation. Today, it retains its community spirit and religious fervor as a proud community of individual capitalists working for their own and their community’s good.

Undoubtedly the most successful result of the new Amanan entrepreneurial spirit was George Foerstner. Challenged by a local businessman to build a reliable commercial beverage cooler, Foerstner founded the Electrical Equipment Company in 1934. It was renamed Amana Refrigeration when he sold it to the Society in 1936. He and a group of investors bought it back in 1950 and sold it to Raytheon in 1965, which led to the introduction of the first microwave, the Amana Radar Range. It is now owned by Maytag and produces Whirlpool products in West Amana, the original factory location across the street from George’s home until his death in 2000. A savvy marketer, he contracted celebrities of all stripes to promote his products and was friends with the likes of Vince Lombardi and President Eisenhower.

Tourism is a staple, as you might imagine. We experienced the flavor of both the old and new upon arrival. You begin your experience in central Amana and walk its quaint main street with shop after shop featuring the best victuals, fine linens and many quality crafts. We had dinner the first night at the Ox Yoke Inn, very commercialized and touristy but featuring top quality meals of the heritage. Dot had brats, while I had Wiener schnitzel. If you selected “family style,” you got six side dishes, including two salads (mine were German coleslaw and cottage cheese!). Of course, good German beer was everywhere.

The following day, we purchased a CD from the Visitor’s Center in Amana that provided routing along the Amana Colonies Trail and a narrative for a two hour tour of all the communities. We were treated to a typical communal kitchen in Middle, the Arts Guild Center in High, a tractor barn museum in West and an agriculture museum in South. South was also the home of the Schantz Store, arguably the source of the best furniture and basketry in the Colonies. Homestead hosts three museums and a winery; there is also a brewery in the main colony. We crossed the Iowa River twice and also learned all about Lily Lake (almost choked with white blossoms and green pads) and the Amana/Hotpoint factory.

Finally, we took in the main heritage museum complex in central Amana. After a 20 minute movie in the Schoolhouse, we visited the Noé House. Built in 1864, it was a communal kitchen before becoming a doctor’s residence after the great change of 1932. There are dozens of exhibits in every room on every floor chronicling all aspects of times gone by. We also toured intricately through a building that housed the communal laundry and woodshed. Today, it includes exhibits of wine making and agriculture equipment.

Amana Campground

Our campground was a hoot! It was a 60 acre open field, once agricultural. It was laid out in a perfect grid. Main streets, both north/south and east/west, were either paved or improved gravel. Inside the delineated squares were pairs of 200 foot-long paths with facilities in the middle. Each path was two campsites; the first in had a “pull-thru” while the second had to back in. There were 400+ sites, several community buildings for major events, a theatre and other ancillary facilities. You’ll note several unique camping vehicles in the picture above – they are “A-Liners,” pop-up trailers that open up in A-frame format. There were over forty of them there when we arrived; by the next day there were almost 150 in a national rally.

Alden, Iowa

Getting tired of Iowa? We weren’t. We still had one more exciting adventure to go.

While in Rockport, TX in March, we met Marsha and Jim Roland. They are from Alden, Iowa, founded in the middle of the 19th century by Henry Alden, a Mayflower descendent. Since I, too, am an Alden descendent from the Mayflower, we struck up an immediate friendship. The more we talked, the more interest we took in each other. And we vowed to try to meet up with them in their home town when we both headed north.

And so it happened. The closest campsite we could find was a state park facility in Eldora, Iowa, about 30 minutes away, so that’s where we headed from Amana. The upcoming weekend was the celebration of Alden Days, but we couldn’t stay at the campground over the weekend. So Marsha and Jim arranged a very special, splendid day for us on Thursday.

Henry’s grave

Other family — repair required!

Upon our arrival in Alden, they escorted us to the town cemetery, and we stopped at the gravestone of Henry Alden himself. Waiting for us was Jerry Bishop, a retired Alden science teacher and the town historian. He prepared a special presentation for Alden Days called The Night Watchman’s Tour of 19th Century Alden, and after Marsha pulled out folding chairs for all of us, we spent a spellbound hour listening to it. We all became a mutual admiration society very quickly; I was able to add a couple of tidbits and references about the root family that Jerry didn’t know. A tour of related headstones followed, and we were then off to the Rolands’ house for a lovely lunch.

Marsha reading text

Jim is a native of Alden. Marsha grew up 35 miles away. They still live on the Roland family farm, though all but 14 acres have been sold off. Still, acres of corn surround the house, and livestock was raised for many years. Jim was about to retire from the Pioneer Seed Company, for whom he has been a salesman for 35 years.

Downtown Alden

After lunch, Marsha took us down to the town waterfront along the Cedar River (think Cedar Rapids and Cedar Falls, Iowa), plying us with more lore and history. And after a trip to the farmers Co-Op for diesel fuel, we took our leave with a promise to meet again in Texas this coming winter.

Here’s a brief on the Alden history. Henry Alden, sixth generation from John and Priscilla, headed west from Massachusetts in 1854 and had a chance meeting in Naperville, IL with another western Mass. emigré, Sumner Kemp. Kemp was much younger but equally anxious to stake his future. Heading west together, they bought land along the Cedar River and dammed it to provide power for a sawmill. The following year, Henry sent Sumner to Fort Des Moines to register land claims for both of them. Sumner sold his interest in the mill to Henry and went on to become a farmer. Henry organized the community with other locals and it was incorporated as the town of Alden in 1879 – the year, ironically, after his death. Near the end of the century, Sumner, then about 70, lost his wife and advertised in eastern newspapers for a new companion. A reader not only joined him but bore him children; a son survived until 1985 and was able to provide a greater trace of that family.

On Friday, June 18, we left Iowa with newfound love for its space and its people. We learned later by e-mail from Marsha that Jerry made a special point of relating our meeting during his Alden Days presentation.

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