The American Corn Patch

In Travels With Myself on August 2, 2013 at 9:34 pm

Eastern Nebraska and all of Iowa are virtually one great big corn field. In Nebraska, nearly all the fields have signs running along the road indicating which hybrid variety of corn or other produce is being grown in the field. In Iowa, not so much. As I drove along US 20, however, it looked as though the corn was growing green and healthy; but one local man told me that the stalks aren’t as tall, and the ears aren’t as large as they should be; and the ground water and wells are drying up. This was less apparent along the highway, where there were large farming operations, with crop dusters flying overhead at 7:30 in the morning, and the corn fields stretched on for miles and acres upon acres. When I got off the highway, however, and followed Iowa D20 out of Fort Dodge, I was able to get a look at some smaller farms, where watering from a tank truck wasn’t keeping up with what was needed. Here the farms were dry and struggling.
One sign of progress in the area was the large number of wind turbines that shared the fields with the corn, as they had shared with the wheat and the cattle in Washington. Unlike Washington, however, I saw no high-tension towers leading away from the turbines. I can only guess that those must have been at the further reaches of the fields, rather than positioned along the roads.
Iowa along US 20 clearly does not think of itself as a tourist destination. The indication of an historic site or special feature is rare. Most of the signs labeled “Tourist Information” give directions to some kind of tourist business, such as a hotel or restaurant. So I was actually surprised when I took a small detour off of US 20 into Fort Dodge to refresh my coffee cup and make a rest stop, and there on my left was the Fort Dodge Museum and Historic Village. I pulled in and was confronted with a good-sized log-walled western fort. Since I had plenty of time, I decided to pay the small price of admission and tour the grounds. It was an interesting, eclectic, and confusing sort of place.
One of the first things I learned as I looked over the self-guided tour sheet, was that Fort Dodge actually never looked like this. The original fort, which was an army outpost from 1850-1853, had no walls, log or otherwise. It was just a collection of buildings sitting open in the prairie. Then I noticed that the buildings along the town street outside the fort were all either reconstructions of what such buildings might have looked like, or had been brought there from someplace else. The artifacts inside were certainly historic antiques, but mostly not from the time of the fort, but from later years after settlers had arrived and begun to build a town and then on up well into the first half of the 20th century. Until I realized this, I was a bit disconcerted to discover that I was familiar with many of the items on display. In first grade, I sat in desks just like the ones in the schoolhouse; I was familiar with the student inkwells and with the two-edge safety razors and manually operated hair trimmers in the mercantile.
Inside the fort walls, there was exactly one building, the commander’s office that was original to the fort. All the others were reconstructions, made from original materials, but brought in from all over Iowa. Just as I was settling into the idea that this was intended to represent the kinds of things one might have found in a 19th century Iowan fort and town, I entered the first of two long buildings where there were displayed a wide variety of Native American artifacts, military artifacts from the Spanish American War, World War I and World War II, plus a variety of domestic objects such as sewing and cooking utensils, hand-made and store-bought women’s clothing, and some early radios and one of the first GE refrigerators.
In the far corner of the fort was one of the more intriguing displays: the Cardiff Giant. Now if you have heard of the Cardiff Giant, you know that it was a hoax perpetrated in Cardiff, New York, by a farmer who arranged to have an enormous “petrified” figure of a man dug up for the astonishment of his neighbors and his own and his relatives’ enrichment. Well, it turns out that the stone used for carving the giant was quarried near Fort Dodge and shipped east for carving and burying. Now that would be an interesting bit of history, but for some reason, the designers of the exhibit felt it would be more interesting to create a fanciful story (told on the signage without any indication of tongue in cheek) about how the local people called in a sculptor to create a replica of the hoax, only to have the exact same figure emerge from the stone with just a few whacks of the hammer to loosen the surrounding material; thus making this figure the “real” petrified giant.
I did take a walk around the gift shop, however, where I found a mix of wooden and plastic toys, some out-of-place tropical/Polynesian items, some stones and arrowheads, and a few books about the history of Iowa. The best part was a brief conversation with the man who had greeted me on my arrival and was in charge of the store. We talked a bit about the weather and a little about Marshall Bill Tillman, a f one-time Marshall of Dodge City Kansas who was born in fort Dodge and with whom I am familiar because I had an interest as a youth in stories of the old west outlaws and the lawmen who opposed them.
And thus I spent a refreshing and enjoyable hour before setting off once more on my drive across the cornfields, which had become in Iowa once more barren of trees except for a few distant groves. And thus the road and the landscape continued until I passed through Dubuque and crossed the Mississippi into Illinois, where the road suddenly dropped down a long hill toward the river, bounded up over a two-lane bridge, and climbed on the other side into a whole new place of hills and trees and industry.

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