By Michael Novak
Originally published on January 10, 2003 on National Review
My wife Karen and I flew out to Iowa for a week during the Christmas break, to be with our son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren in West Des Moines, and to spend a few days with Karen’s mother three hours to the northeast in the little town of Cresco, near the Minnesota border. Karen once did a twelve-foot bronze of Nobel prize-winner Norman Borlaug (inventor of the miracle grains that saved India) that still stands nobly in the town park, under the elms at the corner of Route 9 and Elm Street. I highly commend it to tourists, and insist it’s worth going out of your way for — from Rochester, Minn., to the north, Waterloo, Iowa, to the south, or LaCrosse, Wis., to the east.
Besides being the birthplace of Borlaug (and my wife), Cresco is also the home of at least five admirals in the U.S. Navy, and Ellen Church, the world’s first airline stewardess (a nurse who persuaded United Airlines that stewardesses were necessary on airlines), for whom the local air strip is named. It is also the home, through marriage, of Air Force Lt Gen. (Ret.) Chuck Horner, the mastermind of the air war in Iraq in 1991, whose wife Mary Jo was my wife’s best friend in childhood, and we have remained close since.
Someone who knows told me that, per capita, Iowa sends more young men to the U.S. Navy than any other state, and that more Iowans travel overseas than do citizens of any other state. Farmers in Iowa follow foreign grain markets very closely, for they sell a high proportion of their immense product abroad. Agricultural specialists from Iowa’s universities are consultants all around the world. Even the Blue Bunny ice-cream plant in Le Mars, Iowa, producer for Haagen-Dazs and Disney World, is visited by delegations of ice-cream makers from scores of nations. Don’t ever let anybody tell you Iowans live in a self-enclosed world; they are a very curious and well-traveled people.
The thing that most scares me about Iowa is the sky. It is a vast sky. When you look outside, the sky fills five-sixths, or a bit more, of the horizon spreading out before you. I’m from western Pennsylvania, used to being sheltered by tall hills. The sun only falls on downtown Johnstown, between the hills, in a slowly moving swathe of light about four hours a day. In Iowa, should the wind begin to roar or a tornado twist down, it feels like there’s no place to hide. Just brilliant light, bright sky, and high, swiftly blown, wispy clouds.
One afternoon, my grandchildren’s sweet-tempered black Labrador Lily took me for a walk of about a mile and a half in the cold December air, pulling me rapidly along as she sniffed trails along the lawns beside the sidewalks. Big as she is, Lily must be part pointer. She loved rushing along, stopping and pushing her nose deeper into the grass. I won’t mention that she sniffed carefully around every tree and fireplug. Then she would pull hard and race along. She loved the open air and powerful scents. Her every sense leapt to life.
We ended up circling to the edge of town on the west, heading north to the town boundary and then straight east over to Elm (the main street), broad as a boulevard and sheltered by the most marvelous old elms in America, now in their stark, willowy, wintry nakedness.
When everybody is home for the holidays, the population of Cresco is about 2,000 souls. The local high school is famous throughout Iowa for its strong and clever wrestlers. Once, in the 1930s, led by a later All-American halfback at Minnesota, George Champlin, Cresco High even won the state football championship in its class.
As Lily led me along the western boundary, I was moved once again by the sight of silo after silo out across the western fields, silent and prosperous and orderly and peaceful. It is difficult to express the quiet that comes over my soul under that sky, with such long and stately vistas in my sight.
Dusk was coming on that Sunday afternoon, the sky a combination of wintry grey and twilit orange, edging into pink; low-lying clumps of trees turned violet and shadowed black; fields and silos a silent shimmering lead.
It’s not as if there isn’t significant poverty in the countryside, and fairly serious problems with drugs around town, and plenty of premarital pregnancy. Charles Murray (from Newton, Ia., down closer to Des Moines) some years ago reported that out-of-wedlock births among whites in Iowa had climbed past the rates once described by Daniel Patrick Moynihan as “crisis levels” among blacks in American cities. Iowa is no place to go to get away from tragedy. From murder. From suicide.
But then, neither were the little villages beloved of Agatha Christie. As Miss Marple once explained, there are in every little village all the passions and illusions of the whole wide world. It is a bad mistake to think that some idyllic environment or other eliminates evil.
Twenty years ago, I wrote a column describing Cresco as the heart of America; the column’s hook was the westward movement of the population center of the country at that time. Proud townsfolk made a great little bumper sticker out of it — CRESCO: HEART OF THE NATION. Well, it is.
I even like the old opera house downtown, restored a couple of decades ago under the leadership of George Champlin, football player and very successful advertising executive. George came up with the name “Cheerios,” if I have the story right, plus a dozen other advertising hits, and after his retirement returned to town to become civic leader number one.
In the park outside the courthouse, a statue to veterans of the Civil War bears an awe-inspiring list of names. Yes, as long ago as then, farmers from these parts sent their sons to protect the Union and fight against slavery.
When my wife’s family first arrived in Iowa (to the south of Cresco) 25 years before the Civil War, a plow had never yet cut Iowa’s prairie soil. The wandering Indians who long preceded them maintained few semi-permanent settlements in Iowa, tending to migrate through as hunters.
One of Karen’s ancestors was among the founders the New York Central Railroad; his name, I kid you not, was Charley Brown. Another was the first Baptist preacher in Iowa. Another fought at Shiloh. Another later became a Methodist circuit rider. Another, an immigrant from Norway, invented the extension ladder, the most widely used lightning rod of the West, and, most important, the grubbing machine — don’t laugh, that was the device that cleared the West before there were Caterpillar tractors and excavators: A chain cable wrapped around the roots of great trees, and cut them off below ground for the clearing of the land.
I didn’t mention that one of the Czech farmers about a dozen miles south in Spillville sent his eldest son back to Prague about 1872 to study music. With all the work to do on a pioneering farm, he counted music more important. That son became Anton Dvorak’s assistant, and when the latter was invited to Carnegie Hall in New York came back as his translator — and, when the summer heat became unbearable, brought Dvorak back home to the cool breezes of the prairie. During this long trip, Dvorak heard the new sounds that inspired the New World Symphony. On Sundays, the great composer played the organ at the local parish on the hill in Spillville.
I have long been amazed by the thought that as short a time ago as 1830, or even 1860, Iowa was an undeveloped country. In some places, the roots of the prairie grass were two or more feet thick. Under it, of course, was some of the thickest, most fertile soil in the world. But that soil was of no use, and brought wealth to no one, until it was attended with love, labor, practical intelligence, science, and invention. Years ago, I tried to persuade Jim Michener to do one of his celebrated historical novels about Iowa and the people who built it. He had too many projects on his list; the whole world was his subject. Too bad, for this is a great story for the undeveloped world, a model, a laboratory.
On the 100th anniversary of the founding of Cresco, when our two youngest children, dressed in pioneer gingham and linen, were just old enough to ride on one of the floats, the town held a centennial parade. Leading off the procession was an original Conestoga wagon, and on its front seat a woman of 102 who had come out to Iowa on a similar wagon as an infant of two. Following it, after the high-school band as I recall, came several up-to-the-minute farm tractors and assorted implements — some taller than the one-storey buildings on Elm Street — brilliantly enameled green or red, carpeted and air-conditioned inside, one of them with a raised set of rakes that, lowered, could work a field 20 rows at a time. There in that parade — covering just 100 years — we saw in one vision that Conestoga wagon and those tall stunning John Deeres.
Not without sin, not without flaw, not without thousands of stories that would keep Damon Runyan busy for several lifetimes, and not without characters with habits, angularities, and complexities of life you wouldn’t believe, Cresco offers sun-rinsed colors for the eye, and a range of unfamiliar farm sounds and smells, and the scent of fresh fields in spring and wet snow in October, that would burst the heart of Emily Dickinson.
It lies as well at the heart of the red counties that voted for conservative values in the election of 2000. My wife at a tender age stood beside Harry Truman on his famous train ride through Iowa in 1948; he welcomed her as a younger reminder of his daughter Margaret. Her father was state committeeman for the Democratic party in Iowa, and a few years later introduced Happy Chandler to the Democratic convention. But his sort of Democrat was a different animal from today’s. In Iowa today, even the Democrats pretend to be conservative and to talk conservative talk, at least when they’re home, in state. (Washingtonians would absolutely not recognize some of them.)
Only the Des Moines Register echoes the national liberal tone of voice — but even it gives a good many inches to the more sensible statewide temper.
All the same, in Iowa you will still encounter passionate outbursts of the most-extreme liberal views you have ever heard. While in Iowa I heard of a certain mother of mature years who has recently given up her Catholic faith because her liberal Democratic views (on abortion, for instance) are in conflict with it, and had become more important to her. There is something in the climate — maybe that huge and searing sky — that pushes the mind to a certain ideological clarity, on all sides, as well as a certain sensible practicality.
I like going home to Iowa. I am glad my grandchildren are spending part of their childhood there. Few states, per capita, produce so many curious, inventive, and creative people.