Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Alton, IA--our new hometown


[Once upon a time I wrote a story about Mike Even and a town he loved--Alton, IA--a town that's now, for us, just down the road.  The story has never been published, and Mike died in April of 2011 already, but he loved the story because he loved his hometown.  In his tribute, and in tribute to Alton, our hometown, I'll share with that several-year-old unpublished story because as Mike Even knew and was oh-so-proud to admit, Alton is an great little town.]



Mike Even and the Town that Wasn’t Supposed to Be

Right now, they’re finishing up work on a brand new library in Alton, IA.  It ought to be a beauty, and it ought to be ready quite soon—maybe summer.  You ought to check it out.  You can be sure it will be special.

And while you’re there, have a look downstairs at the new city museum.  If the door is locked, no matter.  Some librarian will be more than happy to give you the key—at least that’s the plan.  Once the new library opens its doors, if you want to know the history of Alton, Iowa, it shouldn’t be all that difficult to discover--just go to the library.
 
Hawarden has Calliope, of course, the first white settlement in Sioux County, a pioneer village recreated along the banks of the Big Sioux.  At the fairgrounds, Sioux Center is working at something they call Heritage Village.  And Orange City—well, Orange City has Tulip Time and, of course, the courthouse.  Need they say more?

The truth is, that’s all peanuts.  The Sioux County town with real history is Alton, and that history starts with the river, the shapely, warm-hearted Floyd.

Quick now, what historic figure named the Rock River? For that matter, who named the Big Sioux?

Who cares?


You want history?  Then start in Alton.  The Floyd River, named by none other than Lewis and Clark, isn’t so much a river as it is a bit of authentic American heritage, a river that honors the only white man to die on the Voyage of Discovery.  Sgt. Floyd met his Maker when some kind of stomach ailment (no one really knows for sure) did him in somewhere in the neighborhood where Sioux City stands today, at the place where the Floyd River empties into the Big Mo.  


The sweet Floyd River may well be the most historically noteworthy feature of the whole county. It outlines the town’s northeast borders like a line of perfect penmanship from the hand of some beloved schoolmarm, and it makes Alton a river town with a Norman Rockwell history of kids and cane poles and catfish, of ice skating and ice harvesting, of precious water in historic droughts, times when the river offered its own kind of grace to parched souls in nearby righteous Orange City.

And it wasn’t really supposed to be—Alton, that is.  When the railroad came through in the early 1870s, shiny new track was laid between LeMars and Sheldon, a full two miles east of early Orange City.  The station plunked down in the middle of wide open prairie was quickly given the name of East Orange, as if Alton was really nothing more or less than an afterthought suburb of a staunch Calvinist village named after Dutch royalty.
 
But a railroad man, a man named Beach, put down roots along the tracks.  His house is still there, still inhabited, almost 140 years later.  It’s marked with a sign.  Look for it.

Better yet, take a ride with one of Alton’s amateur historians, someone like Mike Even.  He’ll show you the Beach House, and he’ll be more than happy to point out a whole lot more about Alton history, from St. Mary’s at the top of the hill, to Lovers’ Lane—East Division Street, down near the tracks at the river flats—to the spot where his own grandfather’s livery barn burned to the ground a century ago.

If you’re lucky, he’ll spin you a few tales off the record too.  Like the time, during church, when his brother called and told him that he and a young woman he shouldn’t have been with themselves got themselves stuck on the golf course because, like a ninny, his brother, looking for a dark corner, had simply driven his blasted car out onto the fairway beneath an old oak that’s still there.  Mike pulled him out with a tractor from Cambiers.




[To be continued:  tomorrow--more off-the-record stories from Mike Even.]

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