When I look back on growing up in small town Iowa during the 1960s and 1970s, I realize that for the first 18 years my world consisted of a 20-mile radius from my house. My town had enough businesses and services that we could get most everything we needed from one of the hardware stores, one of the grocery stores or Dawson’s Variety Store. Occasionally we would make the 20-mile trip to Waterloo for school clothes or on incredibly special days a movie at the Paramount or lunch at King’s featuring a Frenchie and onion rings. Those trips to the city were rare.
Our shoes were purchased nine miles away in Traer at Frank’s Shoe Store where you could get a pair of patent leather shoes and a toy in a golden egg laid by the big red goose. Those trips always included a stop at the bakery for a treat like a cinnamon swirl cookie to eat now and a bag of treats in a white wax covered bag to take home for later. I can still smell that bakery today and when I am in Traer and walk by the building the olfactory memory hits me hard and I crave something sweet.
My mom’s family lived 20 miles to the south of Dysart in Belle Plaine where we went to visit them and later attended to their graves in the cemetery. These trips usually included a coveted trip to the Maid Rite for a sandwich with a little bit of extra salt, ketchup, mustard and pickles. Add in fries and a malted milk served with the extra milkshake in the metal mixing container and a long spoon and I was in heaven. I loved to look at the circus train display that adorned the top of their cupboards while I ate a slice of pie.
My dad grew up near Elberon where we would go to see family friends the Homires: Cletis, Cody, Curtie and Evelyn whose names all seemed magical to me somehow. Elberon, with its sidewalk which was higher than the street and looked like something out of an old western to me. A trip to Elberon meant a cold pop from the Coca-Cola cooler in front of the gas station and maybe a bag of Lay’s potato chips.
My dad loved to drive around so we took a lot of rides out into the country. Since my grandparents owned a farm, he had the opportunity to be a farmer but did not appear to want that life. He preferred to farm by observation and conversation, I guess. After leaving the farm, he drove truck for the local feed and seed company and as a result, knew the name of every farmer in our part of the world. It was not at all unusual for him to suddenly turn down a long gravel driveway to someone’s house just to visit. He and the farmer would stand in the yard, smoke cigarettes, and talk about the latest news. I would usually find a kitten to play with or if I were lucky there would be a kid who wanted to show me their barn which was a real treat. I loved the smell of hay in a barn and the adventure of exploring this unfamiliar and to me, dangerous world.
A few miles out past the cemetery which lay on the edge of town, we purchased eggs at Olga Finzen’s. Her son, John, was the best man at my parent’s wedding. Olga was a fascination for me. Dressed in a flowered dress, with a full body apron covering her clothing she would slip on her large men’s rubber boots to go out and retrieve eggs. She seemed tough as nails and sweet as sugar to me. Their house held a hundred smells of cooking and baking and farm life. She spoke with a heavy accent which I found mesmerizing.
My parents owned a business in Dysart but every Thursday night, we would leave town and go out to eat as a family. These trips took me to the Washburn Truck Stop, the Lincoln Café in Belle Plaine, Vesley’s Drive-In in Traer for broasted chicken, The 218 Café in Vinton, and The King Tower in Tama. Sometimes we would go to Blazek’s Park on the Old Lincoln Highway in Chelsea. Mom would tell me about its heyday when it was a dance club drawing a large crowd on weekend nights with a lighted outdoor dining area and live music. I so wanted to see that in person.
My dad knew every farm pond and creek in the area and somehow had permission to fish at all of them. At least that was what we were told. Afternoons would find us fishing in a pond behind a cemetery in Geneseo or along the banks of the Wolf Creek near the Brandt’s house outside of La Porte. Those trips usually included a stop at the quarry on the dirt road that that led to the creek. Sometimes we would go to Dudgeon Lake by Vinton and hunt for trilobites along the banks of the Cedar River. My parent’s friends had cottages over by Mt. Auburn where we would spend the day with the Hixes, the McAndrews and the Thorens.
It seems to me now in retrospect that my dad was a bit of a rolling stone. I do not remember spending much time just sitting at home when he was not working. In my memory we were always out driving, fishing, or exploring. I should not tell on my mom but she enjoyed exploring abandoned houses. She was not afraid to go peek in their windows. She never took anything from these lonesome dwellings, but her sense of adventure included having to have a “look see”. She also liked to collect wildflowers and many rides included her telling my dad to “pull over Alvin” so she could retrieve the shovel that she had brought along in the trunk and dig up a plant from the roadside or ditch.
Most of the kids I knew growing up experienced “the family ride” and I suppose that many did not enjoy these, but I did. I like to think that growing up in a time without cell phones and electronic distractions allowed me the luxury of developing observational skills. Our rides seemed like mini adventures to me. I spent a good part of my early life either fighting with my brother over the window ledge in the back seat of a car or the bench seat of whatever pickup my dad was driving at the time wedged between my parents, both with their arms resting comfortably out of the window with the wing windows blowing cooler air into their faces. We did not have air conditioning in our home so these drives offered moving air instead of the oppressing humidity that is an Iowa summer day.
My dad also seemed to know where all the best free fruit and nuts were in the county, and I can remember tromping through some woods that were located in the Bohemian Alps along the Duponda Blacktop near Toledo searching for hickory nuts or walking through the woods that would later become Hickory Hills Park hunting for morel mushrooms. I was terrible at finding them. My dad would walk behind me and pick up the ones that I had not already crushed. We picked raspberries along train tracks and pears from my grandparent’s orchard.
We went to other places near our home like Clutier, Gladbrook for the Corn Carnival, Vining, and Keystone to attend family reunions at the Turner Hall. We drove out north of town to see the pampas grass by Milne’s farm which still takes my breath away. We went to Vaubel’s pond and the Seven Hills Road where we marched as boy scouts and girl scouts. We drove my brother back and forth to the Boy Scout Camp near that sign for Mooreville, a town which no longer exists.
Further north were the remnants of the wagon tracks that brought settlers west in the late 1800’s and the big round barn. If you look at a map you will see that all of these are within about a 20-mile radius of my house at the corner of Wilson and Grant.
As a child, I knew my town well because it was the center of my life. It was the place where I rode my bike and went to school and swam in the pool and played at my friend’s houses. For a large part of that childhood, I stayed in my neighborhood, a short one block street running north and south connected to two streets that ran the whole distance of my one-mile square world. A collection of nine houses with fifteen kids, give or take a few, depending on who was living next to the Goodwin’s at the time. I was a truly fortunate child. I grew up in a peaceful place full of happy memories and good people.
When we returned from our short trips out of town, we were greeted at three corners by a sign that read, “Dysart, The Golden Buckle of the Cornbelt” and, it really was. I have not lived there in many years, but it stays in my heart as one of the finest places I have ever been.
Dysart came into being because of the westward expansion of the railroad. It was incorporated in 1872 which means this year, 2022, she turns 150 years old. Over the years, I have collected a number of stories about Dysart and surrounding area. In honor of that anniversary, I have set a goal to bring to life some of stories that I have garnered from the past. I am taking it easy on myself and shooting for a goal of one story per month but hoping for more. If you are reading this and want to join the adventure, I say “Welcome aboard!”. I’d love to have you along.