Exploring for Ancestors

Tuesday, October 28, 2008 -- Winterset, IA

On Monday, yesterday, we drove over to Indianola, IA., to meet up with one of my cousins, Kevin, a contemporary of mine, who is the grandson of a sister of my grandfather. I'll pause here for a few seconds while that sinks in.

(Pause.)

Kevin grew up in Melcher, IA., just a few miles from Bauer, IA. where my ancestors settled in the early 1870's. Not only has he lived here in the area all his life, he's also done a lot of research and genealogical work of his own. He's a walking family-tree encyclopedia; he knows where all the bodies are buried and most of the stories about them. We couldn't have had a better tour-guide for the day.

The last time I was in this area I was 4 years old. In 1955, my Mom and Dad, Grandmother and Grandfather, my younger brother and I... we all loaded into Dad's Plymouth and set out on the biggest trip I'd ever been on. From Beaver Dam, it was a two day ordeal on two lane roads to cover the 300 miles. These were pre-Interstate Highway days, which were only someone's crazy idea at that point.

About mid-way, we stopped for the night at some road-side cabins. Six people in one car -- two of them squirmy kids -- probably had a lot to do with the decision to stop for the night after only 150 miles -- I'm guessing. Cabins were common in the early days of automobile travel as budding business people could easily get into the lodging business by building one or two small cabins for a reasonable cost. Then, as demand grew, they could easily add more. It was only after the Interstate Highway System was being built that someone had the idea to nail some cabins together in a line and call it a motel.

I have vague memories of the trip, mental snapshots of staying at someone's house in the country, next to some railroad tracks, standing in tall grass, grasshoppers jumping all over the place, a rickety-looking wooden bridge over the tracks, a summer-kitchen in the basement of the house where it was much cooler than the main floor, and a lot of happy and friendly people.

Kevin took us to that spot, which had been his grandmothers house. I stood in the grass, near the tracks, looked at the concrete bridge that long ago replaced the wooden one. I didn't see any grasshoppers this time.

We also saw the Hoch home place where my Great-Great-Grandfather and Grandmother raised their family of 10 kids. One of those kids, my Great Grandfather, took over the farm operations and raised his family of 7 kids in the same house-- one of which was my Grandfather who eventually moved to Beaver Dam.

Kevin had the connections to get us into the little de-commissioned Catholic Church that was so central to their lives -- where they came into the world and where they left it. Just down the road from the Hoch home place in Bauer, it was where they were baptized, worshiped, married, had their funerals, and were buried in the cemetery out back. We could have spent a day just going through the cemetery, but thanks to the magic of digital photography, we now have dozens of headstone photos.

I also learned that coal mining was an important industry in this area for about 25 years in the early 1900's. The opportunity for land and farming brought German immigrants, the mines brought Welsh and Croatians. But the coal didn't last long and the farm land is so hilly, rocky, and creased with streams that it was difficult to farm efficiently. Today, I'd say the area is surviving buy not thriving. It's a comfortable place full of friendly people who often must drive to larger towns 30 or 40 miles away for work.

Kevin also arranged to have the Mining History Museum in Melcher opened for us -- it's normally open just on the weekends. There we learned a lot more about those old mining operations as well as how people lived and the things that were important to them. The original organ from the church in Bauer is in the museum. It's operated by crank -- there was no electricity in those days so if you wanted organ music it was a two person job -- one to play and one to provide the power by cranking. It still works so Kevin, who is an accomplished organist among his other talents. played a song while I, yours truly, provided the cranking power. The sounds that came from the organ were the same sounds many of my ancestors heard. It was another sensory element that made me feel closer to them.

Kevin and Thom play the old Bauer Church crank organ

This was an important day for me. Putting more meat on my memories from more than 50 years ago. Being in the same places these ancestors lived. Seeing the same hills, streams, gravel roads they saw. Being in the same little church that was so important to them. For a while I was in the same three dimensions they lived in, separated only by a fourth dimension -- time. The images made up by my mind before that day morphed into the reality of the place. The images I gathered that day will remain with me for the rest of my life.

T
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