April 10, 2017
It’s difficult to write while the party is going on around me. I’m in Iowa, which is sort of my second home, and various groups of my friends came over to see me and spend some time. I hadn’t realized how many people are following my travels so closely and noting the change in my usual habits.
I spent the first three nights in Iowa in Shenandoah, a place where I had always intended to dig a little more deeply. I’ve probably been there half a dozen times over the years, and I know something about the town, but it’s not the same as slowing down and getting a real feel for it from those who have spent the great majority of their lives there.
Iowa lacks dramatic history, which may be to its benefit in that people have lived stable lives there for a long time. It would be hard to think of a state with a more developed small-town culture, one that has evolved ever since Iowa’s statehood in 1846. Not all the towns have prospered; some have died and others are hanging on as America becomes increasingly urbanized and fewer people are needed in the rural outlying areas. But others continue to provide interesting opportunities and a strong sense of community for those residents who have chosen to remain.
Surely Shenandoah is one of these. The town was originally founded near its present location by Mormons who chose not to make the long trek west to the promised land of Zion in Utah. Even more than today, there was diversity and dissention within the church. Not all members practiced polygamy, and when founder Joseph Smith died in 1844 (murdered in Carthage, Missouri, while being held on charges of bank fraud and inciting a riot), some did not accept Brigham Young as his successor. When the railroad came to that area of Iowa in 1870, the Mormon settlement moved two miles and was gradually supplanted by non-Mormons who purchased land for farming.
The most interesting period of Shenandoah’s history was from about 1920 into the 1950s. The fertile soil and relatively mild (for Iowa) climate had made the area a center for seed production and nursery stock. Two of the notable entrepreneurs were Henry Field and Earl May, who operated competing seed companies. They were also radio pioneers who saw the new medium as a way of promoting their products throughout rural America. In the mid-1920s when there were fewer than 150 commercial radio stations spread across the U.S., two of them were in Shenandoah, Iowa, population about 6000.
I think it can be fairly said that more than anything else, radio was responsible for bringing rural Americans into the 20th century. The two Shenandoah stations, KFNF (which was sold, changed call letters and became a Christian station in the 1970s) and KMA (which still operates), offered a folksy but also factual mix of country and folk music, news, weather and farm business information, humor and practical tips of use to rural residents about gardening, homemaking, food and raising families. Listeners felt they were part of an extended family and welcomed the personalities and ordinary people who were on the air into their homes. They became incredibly loyal.
Radio was entirely live in its early days, which created a nearly insatiable demand for programming. Sometimes it seemed as if the entire town of Shenandoah was on the radio, and soon others moved there to provide additional talent. The names of both local residents and transplants comprise a who’s who of music of the time and even into the edge of the present day: country guitar virtuoso Merle Travis, inventor of bluegrass music Bill Monroe, gospel music quartet the Blackwood Brothers, free jazz bass player Charlie Hayden, and among the original inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Everly Brothers.
As my guide, and host with his wife Deb at their beautiful home (I have been so incredibly lucky to find such warm and deeply informed hosts), Bill Hillman, put it, “When I was growing up, I didn’t know any better. I thought everybody was on the radio.” His own grandmother, Edythe Stirlen, was an ordained minister who for many years had an on-air show of devotional music and inspirational and human interest stories.
Bill wears so many hats it’s hard to know which one fits him most or best. For 34 years he has owned and operated the Depot Restaurant and Lounge in the restored Burlington Railroad freight depot, among the town’s most popular gathering spots, with great food and huge portions, as well as the beer Bill brews in the small onsite brewpub. Almost single-handedly, he spearheaded the creation of the Wabash Trace Nature Trail, a 63-mile bicycling/walking/recreational trail on abandoned railroad right of way that runs northwest to Council Bluffs and now ties into the city of Omaha via a striking modern bicycle/pedestrian bridge across the Missouri River. In 1986 he organized a reunion concert that brought the Everly Brothers back to their hometown for the first time in many years. More recently, he solicited donations that allowed the purchase of the Everly childhood home and its relocation adjacent to both the town’s historical museum and his restaurant. The restaurant features live music from regional and occasionally national artists. He has an occasional show on KMA radio with old music and stories of local historical interest. And he somehow finds time to serve on Shenandoah’s Economic Development Corporation.
“Some people say there’s nothing to do in a small town,” he said. “I don’t know how there’s not too much to do.”
Bill even provided me with a suitable historical ride for my investigations of the town, an extremely well-preserved 1972 Mercedes-Benz diesel car. His name opened doors wherever I went in Shenandoah. I was a guest on KMA’s morning show, where I said one of the purposes of my trip was to plug myself into local history, and I couldn’t imagine anything more a part of the history of Southwest Iowa than KMA. And Bill introduced me to the person he called “the real historian of Shenandoah,” 90-year-old Spike Spargur, still extremely sharp with an encyclopedic knowledge of the town. Spike and Bill carried on a wide-ranging conversation that included fascinating (to me) trivia, such as where each of the some 30-odd small grocery stores that once dotted the town were located. Such information will pass along with Spike, and while insignificant in terms of the world, it’s an indication of what a sense of history and place can mean.
Spike had practical information as well that will apply to many of us someday. Less than a year ago he sold his house and his car and moved into an assisted living facility. I asked him what it was like to have to leave his home and many of his belongings behind. “Sure, it was hard,” he answered. “You don’t give up your life without a fight. But you learn to get over it and move on.”
I was also fortunate to be reunited with old friends in Shenandoah. I’ve known Lisa Falk-Thompson since my first RAGBRAI in 1978; her first time on the cross-Iowa bike ride goes all the way back to 1975 when she was a teenager of 15. She, too, has a claim to Shenandoah history; her great-great grandfather was the town’s first lawyer and platted the land that was settled by its first residents. For many years Lisa has lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, but she frequently returned to Shenandoah, especially as her parents grew elderly and their health declined. Now recently retired, she and her husband Denny Thompson, also a RAGBRAI rider, drove five hours each way in order to greet me and ensure that I was treated right in town. She need not have worried, but it was a great pleasure to see them.
On my last night in Shenandoah, I was joined by three additional RAGBRAI friends and riders, brothers Doug and Steve Miller, and Russell Seaton. They had stashed their cars in the small Iowa town of Avoca, my first night’s destination out of Shenandoah, and ridden their bikes 58 miles through the rolling hills in a withering 25 mph headwind. They were tired but unfazed. Doug may be my most reliable cycling friend. A lifelong athlete, at the age of 62 he can still ride circles around many cyclists half his age. I’ve always been somewhat in awe of his physical ability.
My own ride into Shenandoah had been the culmination of a number of days of hills, cool weather and headwinds, so I was a little fearful of a long (for me), hilly ride. But I had nothing to worry about. The weather gods absolutely smiled on us. The fierce winds continued out of the south, but we were riding north, and the temperature warmed into the 70s, making the Iowa prairie positively welcoming in early April. The others volunteered to carry some of my gear, lightening my load by about 30 pounds. We were literally blown north. Doug would point out a long downhill and the two smaller hills toward the bottom, saying, “There’s two free ones ahead.” He was right; we spent a lot of time spinning in our highest gears, and completed 56 miles in less than five hours, including a nearly 90-minute lunch at a good barbecue restaurant.
As if I hadn’t had enough visitors, my former work colleague Heidi Lackmann and her husband Todd, now both RAGBRAI riders as well, drove over from Des Moines and joined me for dinner at the restaurant next to my motel. I felt like my cup runneth over with good friends and conversation. No wonder I haven’t had time to write in Iowa.
The next day I continued 35 miles north, again with a strong tailwind and initially cloudy weather that eventually cleared with the temperature rising to a record high of 77 degrees when I reached my ending town (and current stopping point) of Denison, Iowa, where actress Donna Reed, known for her roles in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and other films, grew up. Who says you can’t go back home again?
I suppose the Hawkeye State is something of a second home for me, especially in terms of bicycling:
I was a guest on the morning show on KMA, a piece of radio history that is still going strong after more than 90 years:
The Depot Restaurant and Lounge, a center of local history lore and headquarters for my stay in Shenandoah, Iowa:
The childhood home of Shenandoah’s own members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Everly Brothers:
Posing at the Everly House with my wonderful Shenandoah host, Bill Hillman, responsible for more things in the town than could ever be imagined:
My good bicycling friends Lisa Falk-Thompson and Denny Thompson. Lisa is a direct descendant of Shenandoah’s first resident:
My cycling friends and companions for the 56-mile ride from Shenandoah to Avoca, Iowa, (from left to right) Doug Miller, Steve Miller and Russell Seaton: