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.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mike Even and the town that wasn't supposed to be--III

(continued from yesterday)

With all those fires, what’s remarkable about Alton is the sheer number, as well as the size, of remarkable frame homes that have made it through the entire last century.  Today, every Sioux County town has luxury homes, but none of them rival the parade of spectacular ancient mansions that line Alton’s streets, right out of what historians call “the Gilded Age.”  Ostentatious almost to a fault, those gaudy monsters are a vivid reminder of the wealth that accrued in a town that wasn’t supposed to be but grew up anyway, powered by the commerce carried along on the iron rails laid across prairie grass, commerce that created quite a unique culture.

In those early years of the county’s white history, only Alton had a Christian Science Society and its own chapel in classic Greek design. 

Only Alton had a golf course, the oldest privately-owned golf course west of the Mississippi.  That’s right--you read those words correctly.  Matty Even used to make golf bags  for his boys by welding oil cans together.  Most any time in the summer, the Even boys would caddie for a quarter (maybe a tip too) and, on their own, pull drowned golf balls out of the creek when the groundskeeper wasn’t looking to make a few more shekels.

Only Alton has the statuesque St. Mary’s, a mighty Romanesque cathedral with 2300 square feet of breath-taking stained glass and an altar that begs silence and begets worship.  Mike will tell you how his father, just ten years old in 1908, working for Even’s livery business, used to drive a team up the hill’s muddy, rutted streets to the church, the wagon filled with bricks that had come in on the railroad, bricks that created a façade unlike any other house of worship in Sioux County. 

Only Alton lays itself gingerly on emerald hills above the gracious Floyd.  Only Alton still showcases a dozen turn-of-the century homes unlike any others for miles around.

Okay.  Hawarden still envies the fact that Orange City has the county seat, and Orange City, with righteous pomposity, lets the rest of the county know, disdainfully, that it has, therefore, the courthouse.

They’re right, of course.  The courthouse is a gem.  In 1901, when it was clear that the county needed a new one, F. M. Slagle, owner of Alton’s Slagle Lumberyard, campaigned for that new courthouse to be built among Alton’s own show houses.  

He lost, as did Alton.  After all, there were more Hollanders in western Sioux County than there were Catholics in the east.

But what most of Sioux County has likely forgotten is that the beautiful new courthouse built that year was designed by a man named Beach, and if that name rings a bell, it should.  Wilfred Beach was an Alton boy, after all; in fact, he was the first white kid born in Sioux County, Iowa, son of a railroad man who decided to put down roots on the new tracks in a place called, for a time East Orange.

In fact, you can still find the guy’s house if you look, or if someone like Mike Even takes you on a ride around town.  It’s called the Beach House, and it’s down there along the tracks of the old Omaha.

If you want to know all of this, visit that new library, and if there is no one downstairs in the new museum, just ask for the key.  That’s the way it’s supposed to work.  You’ll want to go there because, believe me, Alton has history.



Dutchoven said...

Growing up in NW Iowa for me was centered on Hospers and Alton; the two towns were linked together being the outposts on the eastern beach of Sioux County.

The two were the original Floyd Valley School District when Hospers High closed- forever linked by their children, with the exception of those CRCs who sent their children to Hull Western or Unity Christian in Orange City creating a unique three way rivalry that today seems humorous, but years ago something that could only be settled in a tractor pull or a late steamy night softball game between the churches on the Hospers ball park in the shadow of the Catholic cemetery.

While Hospers was named after one of the original Dutch NW leaders and a few Dutch circled the wagons in the town, the town was a mix of Catholics, Presbyterians, Reformed & CRC church goes that all co-existed somewhat carefully.

If you lived in Hospers as a teen you cruised around the statue on main street Sunday night then buzzed over to Alton to catch the forbidden fruit of a movie, there were also a few Orangemen & ladies there from the nearby center of Dutch.

When you parked your car in near the Alton Theater it was in the shadows so not to be found by Elders of the church who would wander over to see who would be attended the next consistory meeting confessing their sins:-)

Alton has fond memories- from the swing of the golf clubs as a youngster on the back fairways to avoid the course staff, to the slow drive around the town on Sunday nights.

Anonymous said...

Have you played golf there yet, Jim?

J. C. Schaap said...

Years ago, but not in the last week or so.