Books: Evelyn Copeland (Series), Research: Iowa History

DES MOINES, IOWA, 1937

Dorothy Schwieder, a renowned historian, summed up late 1930s Iowa scholarship in one brief paragraph (while entire chapters of this book were devoted to 1929-1932 in extensive, exhaustive detail, but I digress…):

By 1937 economic conditions had improved for both rural and urban dwellers in Iowa. The Agricultural Adjustment Act, passed in 1933, had brought improved conditions for Iowa’s farm families. In 1932 national farm income had totaled $5.5 billion, and that amount had risen to nearly $8.7 billion in 1935. Though participation in the A.A.A. was voluntary, approximately 75% of Iowa farmers took part. Many Iowans talked in terms of the Depression coming to an end in 1938 (1).

If this is the extent of late 1930s Iowa scholarship, where does a writer of historical fiction go in search of sources?

WPA Guides:

History:

48 state guides were published. Each guide provided general state history and offered suggested tours through varying parts of the state. (2)

Iowa:

Originally published in 1938 as Iowa: A Guide to the Hawkeye State, this tome covers Iowa in detail. General history, cities, maps, and suggestive travel guides. There are places in Des Moines that were either glossed over or intentionally excluded (see Maps: redlining) (3).

Newspapers:

Des Moines Register:

Gardner Cowles, Sr purchased the Register and Leader in 1903. By 1915 newspaper’s name changed to The Des Moines Register. Cowles, Sr. pushed distribution via train and truck (Or any transportation necessary to get his newspapers into readers’ hands). This newspaper focused on world news and ‘white-collar’ issues. It was Des Moines’ morning newspaper. (4)

Des Moines Tribune:

This was Des Moines’ evening newspaper. While it was also owned by the Cowles family, the newspaper maintained its own staff and was often considered a rival of the Des Moines Register. This paper covered more ‘blue-collar’ aspects than the Register (5).

Bystander:

Originally published as the Iowa State Bystander in 1894. By 1937 the newspaper was known as The Bystander. It was owned by James B. Morris a lawyer and political leader (6).

Maps:

Regular Map:

One of my favorite maps to reference is The Official Map and Guide of Des Moines. Des Moines, Iowa: Midland Map & Engineering, Co., 1920. It has wonderful details of parks, official buildings, and call-out locations. While this map is a decade earlier than my story (there are lots of places I know do not exist in 1920 but do in 1937), this map is still a great resource for getting a visual clue of Des Moines, Iowa (7).

Redlining:

Midland Map & Engineering’s 1920 map tells only part of the story. Where people lived and why is another. The mortgage industry and the U.S. government developed redlining maps from 1934-1938. Government agencies used and strengthened local segregation practices by establishing a color-coded system to highlight reinvestment possibilities. Areas deemed unfit for investment (predominately non-white neighborhoods), were given a red status. One such redlining map may be found here (8).

One of the joys and frustrations of historical fiction is the hunt for details. It can also be an excuse to avoid writing. There are a couple of rules I follow so I don’t fall into the research trap. (1) 1:2 Rule: One primary source for two secondary sources. (2) I stop digging when secondary sources site books I’ve already read. The setting is an important fiction element and should be a character of its own. Its job should be to shape the character(s) and establish the rules of society. Will the characters follow society’s rules? Or break them? What are the consequences of doing either one? Maybe answering those questions is why I love reading and writing historical fiction.

My own personal map of Des Moines in 1937 is found here.

Sources:

(1) Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa the Middle Land. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1996, p. 272.
(2) Corrigan, Maureen. “‘Republic of Detours’ Revisits A Group of Quirky, Depression-Era Guides to the States.NPR. 16 June 2021. Accessed: 03 August 2022; Elm, L.M. “Reviews.” L.M. Historical Novelist. 2022. Accessed: 00 August 2022; Elving, Ron. “In the 1930s, Works Program Spelled HOPE for Millions of Jobless Americans.” NPR. 4 April 2020. Accessed: 03 August 2022.
(3) WPA Guide to 1930s Iowa. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1995, pp. 227-246, 389-390.
(4) Friedricks, William B. Covering Iowa: The History of the Des Moines Register and Tribune Company, 1849-1985. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 2000.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Cotten, Sally Steves. “The Iowa Bystander: A History of the First Twenty-Five Years.” Masters Thesis. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University, 1983. Accessed: 03 August 2022; La Brie III, Henry G. “James B. Morris Sr. and the Iowa Bystander.” The Annals of Iowa, 42 (1974), 314-322. Accessed: 03 August 2022; 1894-1921 is available through an online subscription service; 1921-1972 is available on microfilm at The State of Iowa Historical Society archives in Des Moines & Iowa City.
(7) The Official Map and Guide of Des Moines. Des Moines, Iowa: Midland Map & Engineering, Co., 1920. Accessed: 03 August 2022.
(8) Johnson, Lauren and Kendly Larson. “Iowa’s Maps.” Redlining in DSM. 2022. Accessed: 03 August 2022.

Books: Evelyn Copeland (Series), Research: Iowa History

Land Deed Restrictions

United States

Home ownership was an American Dream. While it was attainable for whites, it was not for nonwhites in the first half of the twentieth century. Corrigan V. Buckley, a Supreme Court decision, made segregation in real estate legal. Many discriminatory practices were established through land developers who placed restrictive covenants clauses into deeds as the land was subdivided and sold.

The language varied. But its goal was to exclude. “Hebrews” meant Jews; “Ethiopians” meant African ancestry; “Malays” meant Filipinos; and “Asiatic” meant anyone from the Asian continent.” Real estate agents, even though they had a fiduciary responsibility, funneled their clients into segregated neighborhoods. Many real estate agents wanted to do the right thing. Yet, doing so could mean loss of their jobs, or a potential risk of violence to themselves or their families when they attempted to ‘block bust’ or diversify an all white neighborhood.

Congress enacted the National Housing Act of 1934. This law used federal money to back home mortgages. Federal agents, using segregation practices already in place at local levels, set about defining individuals access to credit by where they lived. Places that barred everyone but whites, received blue and green colors on these new federal maps. Those areas not deserving of reinvestment where given yellow or red designations.

Home Owners’ Loan Corporation 1935-1938 (Source: Bleeding Heartland)

Access to little or no credit for those living in theses “redlined” areas, opened up individuals to unscrumptious speculators. White homeowners could sell to speculators instead blacks outright. Shadier agents could split the profits with the speculator once they sold a house on contract for exorbitant prices. “Articles of Agreement for Warrant Deed” were what contract loans were legally called. They had all the requirements of home ownership, with the vulnerability of payment. If one payment was missed they could be evicted and lose out on all of their premium payments.

And all of this was perfectly legal.

Today, many homeowners have had to confront these racial practices from the past. Removing racial exclusion language from deeds is often difficult or impossible. Some state legislatures are passing laws to begin repairing the wrongs of the past.

Des Moines, Iowa

Early History

Sixty-two acres on the northwest side of Des Moines once housed speakers, singers, and entertainers during the early days of the Chautauqua circuit. Des Moines College, a Baptist organization, purchased the property in hopes of building a new university. Funding and building material became scarce during World War I. The idea of a new college was abandoned. The property was not.

Courtesy of Des Moines Register (Source: College on the Northside)

Developers

Chautauqua Park developed into residential property by Des Moines University was auctioned off in 1923. Louisville Real Estate and Development Company of Louisville, Kentucky was in charge subdividing the property into 150 lots with serpentine drives, and seven acres set aside for a park. Various architects and developers built Tudor and Colonial revivals from 1923-1941. Peak construction occurred from 1925-1930 & 1938-1941. 1925-1930 29 homes 1931-1937 just a dozen dwellings; 1938-1941 51 homes were built. 26 more after 1942.

Restrictive Covenants

Des Moines University sale of the property in 1923 included this restrictive covenant, “This property is not to be sold or leased to any person of African descent. This however, does not prevent its occupancy as servants.” This restriction would be in place until a successful black engineer, Archie Alexander, challenged it in an Iowa court and won. Restrictive covenants were illegal in Iowa before the federal challenge two decades later.

All the action being reported in the newspapers propelled Catherine Switzer to write an editorial in 1944:

“We are strange people. We will dash clear across the world to fight for democracy and the underdog, while on our own shores, we, in part, lack that democracy.”

Switzer, Catherine B. “Sooty Skirts.” Editorial. Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 27 January 1944, p. 20
Archie Alexander purchased the property above in 1944. Litigation ensued when neighbors filed an injunction claiming Archie Alexander’s homeownership violated the restrictive covenant clause.
2200 Chautauqua Parkway.” Google Maps. 2021. Accessed: 24 April 2022.

SOURCES:

  • “1,200 Attend Auction at Chatauqua Park.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 18 July 1923, 14.
  • “Absolute, Genuine Auction Sale.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 13 July 1923, 15.
  • “Alexander Reports A Threat by Phone.” Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 22 January 1944, 7.
  • “Auction!” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 17 July 1923, 10.
  • “Chautauqua Park.” Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 09 July 1923, 19.
  • “Chautauqua Park to be Sold by School” Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 06 July 1923, 17.
  • City Map of Des Moines, Iowa. Des Moines, Iowa: American Lithographing and Printing, Co., 1931. “Redline Map.” Redlining in Des Moines. 2020. Accessed: 01 January 2021.
  • Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Ghetto, Public Policy, and the Jewish Exception.” The Atlantic. Online. 28 February 2013. Accessed: 01 January 2022.
  • “Drop Action on House of Alexanders.” Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 20 December 1944, 9.
  • FDR and Housing Legislation.” FDR Libary. Accessed: 01 January 2021.
  • “Home.” Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 17 January 1944, 1.
  • “House Sale Challenged in Court Action.” Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 26 January 1944, 11.
  • “House Sale Questioned by Group.” Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 17 January 1944, 1.
  • Landis, Leo. “Archie Alexander Built Equality Across the Nation.” Iowa Life. Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 28 February 2021, 1E, E4.
  • Lutz, Renda. “Ownership of Des Moines Home was in Dispute.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 16 February 2000, 9AT-SO.
  • National Housing Act (1934).” The Living New Deal. 18 November 2016. Accessed: 01 January 2022.
  • Rothstein, Richard. The Color of the Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright, 2017.
  • Satter, Beryl. Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2009.
  • Silva, Catherine. “Racial Restrictive Covenants History.” Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project. 2020. Accessed: 01 January 2021.
  • Spiegel, Robert H. “Price, Too, Is a Big Factor in Negro Housing Here.” Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 25 June 1956, 13.
  • Switzer, Catherine B. “Sooty Skirts.” Editorial. Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 27 January 1944, 20.
  • Thompson, Cheryl W., Cristina Kim, and Natalie Moore. “Racial Covenants, A Relic of the Past, Are Still on the Books Across the Country.” NPR. 17 November 2021. Accessed: 01 January 2022. Location:
  • United States Department of Interior National Park Service. “Chautauqua Park Historic District.” January 1989. Accessed: 18 December 2016.
Books: Evelyn Copeland (Series), Craft: Research, Research: Iowa History

Des Moines Redlight District, 1937

Official Map and Guide of Des Moines. Midland Map and Engineering Company, 1920, https://www.raremaps.com/gallery/detail/65490. Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps, Inc.

The Des Moines River in 1937 divided its namesake city into halves. White collar businesses and the wealthy resided on the west. The state Capitol and manufacturing occurred on the east (see Des Moines redlining map for a better look). Vice, mainly prostitution, centered in the city’s industrial hubs such as breweries, meatpacking, and railroads.

White Chapel District:

The district of slum houses along Elm St to Fourth St & Pelton Avenue near the Racoon River, was named after the vice area of London. Saloons and breweries kept the bordellos busy. The area was home to Des Moines’ most famous madam,  Jeanette Allen who was often referred as the “queen of Pelton Avenue”. Rumor had it she moved to Alaska once the red light district closed to make way for the Burlington Railroad switch tracks.

Police enforcement of prostitution was lax. A john arriving in the city could instruct their cab driver their desire for a prostitute and arrive at a bordello’s door. Unbeknownst to the john, the cab driver received a cut of what the john handed over to the house. Hotels such as Fort Des Moines or the Chamberlain did not allow prostitution. However, there were ways around the rules. A john could rent a room and the woman come up later or use the back entrance. Some hotels were stricter and had inhouse detectives to keep out vice.

White Chapel District, Des Moines, Iowa, c. 1930. Courtesy of Des Moines Register.

Black and Tan District:

If one was brave enough, one could venture out alone in search of vice. By 1937 the old White Chapel District had been razed. Vice moved north of city hall, east of the police station, and half a mile from the Capitol. The neighborhood was rank and noisy from the near constant railroad activity and the meatpacking plants. Most prostitution occurred in derelict homes on East Des Moines Street from East 2nd to East 5th. There, prostitutes solicited customers by sitting on front porches or tapping on windows to get their customers’ attentions.

The statistics for V.D. rose to such an alarming rate, the State Health Inspector requested the aid of the American Social Hygiene Association with the hope of getting the infection rates of syphilis and gonorhea below the 6,834 reported cases in the city.

Sources:

  • Behind the Badge: Stories and Pictures from the DMPD. Des Moines, Iowa: Des Moines Burial Association, 1999.
  • Churchill, G. W. “City Moves to Wreck Grim Reminder of Old Red Lights.” The Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 14 Oct. 1928, p. 13.
  • City Map of Des Moines, Iowa. Des Moines, Iowa: American Lithographing and Printing Co., 1931.
  • “Gone Is White Chapel District But Old Signs Recall ‘Glorious’ Days.” The Des Moines Tribune-Capital. Des Moines, Iowa: 21 Aug. 1929, p. 13.
  • Landeck, Kendyl. “The Legacy of Redlining and Segregation on Des Moines, Iowa.” 01 January 2019. Iowa State University Digital Repository. Accessed: 19 December 2021.
  • Mills, George. Looking in Windows: Surprising Stories of Old Des Moines. Ames, Iowa: Iowa University Press, 1991.
  • “Passing of Old White Chapel District Recalls Palmy Days of Late Nineties.” The Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 31 Oct. 1931, pp. 1, 11.
  • “Old White Chapel District Being Leveled.” Des Moines Tribune-Capital, Des Moines, Iowa: 30 Oct. 1931, p. 1.
  • Redlining Map.” Redlining Des Moines. 2020. Accessed: 19 December 2021.
  • “Signals ‘War’ on Vice and Disease Here.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 05 September 1937, Section 6, 1, 4.
  • “White Chapel Homes Defended in Council.” Des Moines Tribune-Capital. Des Moines, Iowa: 18 Oct. 1928, 1.
  • “White Chapel Faces Destruction.” The Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 16 Oct. 1928, p. 10.
Books: Evelyn Copeland (Series), Research: Iowa History

Trouble in Mind: Syphilis in the 1930s

Felix Underwood testified before Congress in 1938 regarding his experiences managing Mississippi’s Board of Health. One patient murdered his wife and his mother-in-law then killed himself. Tragic–yes. Even more tragic because the man had lost his mind due to syphilis (1).

What did doctors know in the 1930s?

  • Caused by the corkscrew bacteria spirochaeta pallida
  • Spread through contact with sores
  • Higher percentage of cases found in cities
  • Rates of infection for Negros was higher than Whites
  • Prostitution played a larger role in its spread
  • Treatment took 6 months to a year but it didn’t guarantee a cure
  • Children were not treated for congenital syphilis (2)

Stages:

  1. Primary: A chancre develops after several weeks at the initial infection site. There may be only one, or several, or simply not visible. The chancre is painless and heals roughly between 3-6 weeks.
  1. Secondary: Several months after the chancre heals, a rash appears all over the body and may include fever, aches, and swollen lymph nodes. These symptoms may last several weeks or on and off for over a year.
  1. Latent: Considered the ‘silent stage’ where the bacteria lays dormant for years or awakened to destroy other areas of the body
  1. Tertiary: 15%-30% of those infected develop damages to ocular, neurological, or pulmonary issues from the disease (3)

Diagnosis:

Wassermann Test:

First developed in 1906 as a means to diagnosis 80% of primary stage syphilis cases. Blood was drawn from a possibly infected patient and examined under a microscope. However, the rate of diagnosis plummeted after the patient moved out of the primary stage (4). The cost to administer and have the blood tested was $25.00, which put a simple diagnosis out of reach for many (5).

Kahn Test:

Developed in the mid 1920s by a immunologist working for the Michigan Department of Health. It was another means to test syphilis (6). The test didn’t prove any better at diagnosing second stage syphilis anymore than the Wassermann Test did (7).

Road to Ruin. Dorothy Davenport, director. With Helen Foster, Nell O’Day, and Glen Boles. 1934. Youtube. Acccessed: 18 April 2021. Interesting that the name of the test is typed incorrectly…?

If the blood test returned a positive result, the patient had several options:

  1. Mabel Dodge Luhan, a famous patroness of the arts in New Mexico, swore off sex all together after becoming infected for a third time by her third husband (8). Let’s be honest, not everyone would devote themselves to celibacy
  2. Do nothing (run the risk of infecting children, spouse, or other sexual partners)
  3. Wear a condom
  4. Option for Cure

Condoms:

Danny McGoorty hated wearing condoms. He equated it to, “jacking off with boxing gloves.” Prophylactics could be purchased for around $ .25 and came in a little tin. Mary Crosby’s boyfriend didn’t share Gooty’s sentiment and preferred Merry Widows. However, during post-coital bliss, Mary recounted her boyfriend holding the spent condom up to the light (she was never sure if he was marveling at his ejaculation or checking for leaks) (9).

Condoms by the 1930s were made with varying degrees of rubber and fell under the radar of government regulation. The wearer had to basis their purchase on trial and error. However, by 1937 the federal government shed its reluctance and got into bed with the condom industry.

Borth, Gail. “Condom Testing, 1935.” America in the 1930s. Facebook. 15 Mar. 2021

Option for a Cure:

The 1930s saw a dramatic rise in reported syphilis cases. FDR appointed a Surgeon General with his main focus in eradicating syphilis through education, diagnosis, and treatment (10).

The first part was easy. Surgeon General Parran wrote a book and flooded local newspapers with articles from 1936 to 1937 making readers even more aware of the S.T.D. Diagnosis in the late 1930s became free to anyone willing to take the Wassermann Test. (11) Treatment, however, was not.

Treatment didn’t guarantee a cure. It was also long (six months to two years depending on the type of treatment). And pricy (running anywhere from $50.00 to $500.00) (12). One had to hope they could trust their doctor to cure them and not gouge their pocket book.

Ballard, Michael. “Quack Doctor, 1938.” America in the 1930s, Facebook. 30 Jan. 2021.

Arsenic/Mercury:

One received 20 injections over a twenty month period supplemented with mercury, creams, and sodium bismuth. Side effects included constant pain at the injection site, vomiting, and headaches (13).

Salvaran:

A hypo-thermotic treatment where the solution was highly unstable when exposed to air, needed to be refrigerated, and diluted with water before usage. Possible side effects were kidney failure, seizures, rash, infections, and death. It’s cousin, Neo-Salvaren was more stable and offered up the same side effects. Both were ineffective in treatment of second stage sphyilis. (14)

Fever:

Also called the Wagner-Jauregg Cure developed in 1917. It amounted to getting the body to 103-107 degrees to kill the bacteria. The means could be done via a machine or giving a patient malaria to induce the high level of constant fever. It was also ineffective with treating anything beyond first stage syphilis (15).

Penicillin:

Did not become in steady use for the curing of syphilis to the masses until WWII even though it was first discovered in 1928 (16). Danny McGoorty said, “Think how easy it is today. The doctor just gives you a shot of penicillin and you don’t have clap or syph [sic] anymore. Kids today don’t know what hell is.” (17)

IOWA

“New Cases of Syphilis in Iowa.” Des Moines Register, Morning, 27 Sept. 1937, p. 10.

By 1937 Iowa had 7,500 reported syphilis cases (18). The state of Iowa in 1937 did not require a blood test as a perquisite for getting a marriage license. Many couples in Illinois simply hoped the boarder to get one (19). The Wassermann Test was still the basis and the results were sent to the University of Iowa laboratories for testing. Results were then sent privately to a physician who would share the results and discuss treatment with the patient (20).

SOURCES:

  1. Lord, Alexandra D. Condom Nation. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010, 52.
  2. Even the Assistant Surgeon General to the United States couldn’t help but play the race card when trying to explain his reasoning behind Iowa’s lower syphilis rates when compared to other states (“Syphilis Rate Low in State.” Des Moines Register, 29 Apr. 1936, p. 3). His superior left out race in his “The Reasons for War on Syphilis.” Des Moines Register, 31 Jan. 1937, p. 16; Do a google search on Tuskegee Syphilis experiment and you’ll see how race bias controlled how doctors justified the spread and treatment of syphilis. 
  3. Syphilis.” Mayo Clinic. 2021. Accessed: 18 April 2021. Location:
  4. Hemarajata, Dr. Peera. “A Brief History of Laboratory Diagnostic for Syphilis.” America Society for Microbiology. 6 January 2020. Accessed: 18 April 2021. Location:
  5. Poirier, Suzanne. Chicago’s War on Syphilis, 1937-1940. Chicago: University of Illinois, 1995, 62.
  6. Shapiro-Shapin, Carolyn. “‘In the Course of Routine Analysis’: Re-Envisioning Research in State Departments of Health, 1920–1940.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vol. 70, no. 3, 2015, pp. 333–364.
  7. Osmond, T. E., and Douglas McClean. “A Comparison Of The Kahn And Wassermann Tests On 500 Serums.” The British Medical Journal, vol. 1, no. 3301, 1924, pp. 617–618. 
  8. Ropper, Ph.D., Allan H. How the Brain Lost Its Mind. Peguin Random House, 2019, 130.
  9. Both Danny McGoorty and Mary McCarthy recount their experiences with sex in the 1920s and 1930s. Byrne, Robert. McGoorty: A Pool Room Hustler. Broadway Books, 2004, pp. 23, 24; McCarthy, Mary. How I Grew. Harcourt, Brace, Joranovich, Inc., 1987, pp. 77-78.
  10. Lord, Alexandra D. Condom Nation. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010, pp. 49, 52, 56, 67.
  11.  “The Reasons for War on Syphilis.” Des Moines Register, 31 Jan. 1937, p. 16. Newspapers.com accessed 17 April 2021, displayed 252 articles combined in The Tribune and The Des Moines Register referencing syphilis from January 1, 1936 to December 31, 1937. Articles ranged anywhere from what Iowa was doing as well as neighboring states, doctors, symptoms, cures, testing, statistics, and editorials regarding syphilis.
  12. Poirier, Suzanne. Chicago’s War on Syphilis, 1937-1940. Chicago: University of Illinois, 1995, p. 52.
  13. Ropper, Ph.D., Allan H. How the Brain Lost Its Mind. Peguin Random House, 2019, p. 131.
  14. Ibid, pp. 119, 123, 130, 131.
  15. Ibid, p. 139.  Grant, Donald. “Fever Device to Fight Two Diseases.” Des Moines Register, 14 Oct. 1936, p. 3.
  16. Firth, John. “Syphilis — It’s Early History and Treatment Until Penicillin and the Debate on its Origins.” History, 4. Volume 20. Accessed: 18 April 2021.
  17. Byrne, Robert. McGoorty: A Pool Room Hustler. Broadway Books, 2004, p. 27.
  18. “New Cases of Syphilis in Iowa.” Des Moines Register, Morning, 27 Sept. 1937, p. 10.
  19. Poirier, Suzanne. Chicago’s War on Syphilis, 1937-1940. Chicago: University of Illinois, 1995, pp. 55, 67.
  20. Owens, Herbert G. “Calhoun County Drive Against Syphilis.” Des Moines Tribune, 9 Dec. 1937, p. 20.

Books: Evelyn Copeland (Series), Craft: Research, Research: Iowa History

Famous Iowa Trees

Two of my favorite trees are the burr oak and the cottonwood. I played under a leaning, rickety, crooked-limbed burr oak filled with all sorts of imaginings as a ten year old. While I stayed with my grandfather on his farm, he told me stories of how the giant cotton wood which loomed directly east of the house helped make the family butchering easier.

Elm Farm (Dec 1965)
Elm Farm, 1965 — Courtesy of Lisa Taber

Both tree species had a strong influence in altering the landscape of the native prairie. The Timber and Culture Act of 1873, granted 160 acres of public land to a claimant as long as forty acres of it were planted in trees. With any law, abuses mounted, amendments were added in 1874, 1878, and it was repealed in 1891.

IMG_0165
Tree in the Middle of the Road, 2020; Courtesy of Lisa Taber

Burr oaks and cottonwoods are native species found along rivers, streams, or in groves out in the middle of the nowhere. They were favorites of the pioneers because of their hardiness, height, girth, and wonderful buffers against the harsh prairie. The female cottonwood often gets a bad rap and many cities have banned their planting. According to Rick Hall, professor of Natural Resource Ecology and Management the wispy white seeds produced in late June early July are in fact similar to the cotton plant, “but much shorter fibers and much smaller aggregation around each seed than the cotton plant has” (Iowa Radio).

Volunteers such as Mark Rouw have been on a mission since the 1970s to map Iowa’s largest, oldest, and biggest trees (“Meet Iowa’s Big-Tree Hunter”). If you feel a local tree deserves to be cherished for future generations, you may nominate it to Iowa DNR’s “Big Tree Program”. Nomination forms may be found here.

If you’re looking for a quiet, scenic tour of two of Iowa’s famous trees, you can’t beat Tree in the Middle of the Road or The Plow in the Oak.

TREE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD:

Off Interstate 80 and up and down steep minimum maintenance roads, and at the convergence of four intersections, sits a giant cotton wood some 100 feet in height and 20 feet in diameter.

IMG_0160
Tree in the Middle of the Road 2020; Courtesy of Lisa Taber

According to local legend, the tree was planted in the 1860s. Two brothers were surveying the land. One of them had used a cottonwood sapling as a walking stick. Once they reached the invisible boundaries between Cass and Auburn counties they sharpened the sapling and stuck it into the ground to serve as a marker. The tree sprouted and so it remains.

THE PLOW IN THE OAK:

Roughly thirteen miles away sits another famous tree. Alongside Hwy 71 in a small park is The Plow in the Oak.

Tree Near Exira Iowa 1934
Shari Beymer,  “Tree Near Exira, Iowa, 1934.” Facebook. 6 June 2018. Accessed: 16 August 2020.

Local legend has it a farmer upon hearing of the Civil War, set his plow against an oak tree, joined the Union never to return. Paul Walther, the agriculturist for Audubon County, said there could be some truth to the legend as the oak does predate the Civil War (Klingaman). An image from Shari Beymer on Facebook from 2018, shows much more of the plow in 1934. By 2020 the oak has pretty much swallowed up the plow.

IMG_0178
Courtesy of Lisa Taber 2020

If you feel like you want to take a scenic drive to one or both of these two famous Iowa trees, you won’t be disappointed.

Directions:

  • Tree in the Middle of the Road: Tree in the Road, 2401-2449 350th St, Brayton, IA 50042
  • Plow in the Oak: Plow in the Oak Park, Exira, IA 50076

Map of the Two

Sources:

Beymer, Shari. “Tree Near Exira, Iowa, 1934.” Facebook. 6 June 2018. Accessed: 16 August 2020.
Big Tree Program.” Iowa Department of Natural Resources. 2020. Accessed: 08 August 2020.
Bur Oak.” Extension and Outreach. Iowa State University. 2020. Accessed: 16 August 2020.
Butler, Bill. “Cottonwood Tree.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 27 May 1990, 5B. Newspapers.com Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Cottonwoods, Maples ‘Overproducing’ Seeds This Spring.” Radio Iowa. 2 June 2008. Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Goetz, Katheryn R. “Land For Trees: The Timber Culture Act of 1873.” MinnPost. 4 June 2013. Accessed: 14 August 2020.
Ise, John. “The Early History of the United States Forest Policy.” Ames Forester, Vol 3, Article 5, 1915. Accessed: 14 August 2020.
James, Bob. “Iowa Has Two Historic and Unique Trees, Just Miles Apart.” 98.1 K.H.A.K. 10 January 2019. Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Klingaman, Mike. “Iowa Harbors Two Legendary Trees.” The Baltimore Evening Sun Online. 4 October 1990. Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Kutzi, Marilyn. “The Secrets of the Cottonwood Tree.” Clinton Herald Online. 24 September 2016. Accessed: 16 August 2020.
Meet Iowa’s Big-Tree Hunter.” The Gazette Online. 01 July 2018. Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Raffensperger, Gene. “Motorists Yield for Fabled Tree.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 27 May 1990, 1B & 5B. Newspapers.com Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Tree in the Middle of the Road to Plow in the Oak Park“. Google Maps. 2020. Accessed: 16 August 2020.
Tree in the Middle of the Road.” Travel Iowa. 2020. Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Young, Aaron. “This Iowa Road Has a Massive Tree Growing in the Middle of It.” Des Moines Register Online. 14 December 2016. Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Books: Evelyn Copeland (Series), Craft: Research, Research: Iowa History

Summer Nostalgia

I just wanted to know more about private swimming pools.

A lead character in my current WIP comes from a very wealthy family. He had an injury where swimming/exercise alleviates pain and lessens his dependence on prescribed opiates.

I put off researching swimming pools for a couple of reasons:

  1. I hadn’t yet reached the necessary point in my story,
  2. Ignorance (how they work/who had them/ect.; swimming, as a child, wasn’t my thing).

One of my go-to sites is a closed group on Facebook called “Lost Des Moines“. Pictures and stories are posted about Des Moines, Iowa, where nostalgia often supersedes fact. For the most part, I treat this site as I would Wikipedia. It’s a good starting point, but if I want better truths I look elsewhere.

Terrace Hill Pool Party, 1937
“Pool Party at Terrace Hill, 1937.” Courtesy of John Pemble & Terrace Hill. “Terrace Hill Pool to Return.” Iowa Public Radio. 19 November 2015. Accessed: 08 August 2020.

“Lost Des Moines” posts regarding public pools were from adults who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. Private pools, like anywhere else in the United States, were reserved for the wealthy. I was able to find swimming pools belonging to The Hubbells and Ding Darling (across from the Hubbell mansion, Terrace Hill, now home to the Governor of Iowa). Pool houses and how the swimming pools worked, I found in books centering on the wealthy elite from New York or Los Angeles. Technically, I found what I’d set out to find: the what, how, and why of private swimming pools. But in the back of my mind, I knew I wasn’t done. An NPR story and Clare Foran’s CNN article on Senator Tom Cotton solidified for me just why my research wasn’t complete.

The insidiousness of sites such as “Lost Des Moines” is nostalgia erodes the sharper points of history. The troupe of “things were better back then” may be true for one person, but not another. While Des Moines was often touted as an “open town” in the 1920s-1940s, well intentions often bucked reality.

When Marguerite E. Cothorn took her son swimming in the 1940s, she was often harassed or made to feel uncomfortable for allowing her son to play in Birdland Pool. Her harassers wanted to know why she wouldn’t take her son to Good Pool.

Good Park
“New Swimming Pool in Good Park, The.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 25 June 1936, 13. www.newspapers.com Accessed: 21 July 2020.

Good Park has University Avenue on the north and Keosauqua Way on the east. The park and pool were also located near Center Street, a segregated African American business district (destroyed under the guise of urban renewal and McVicar/235 Hwy). Good Pool was a WPA project completed in 1936. The upkeep of the pool amounted to $3,000 a year for the city. The Des Moines Register and city ofificals perpetuated racism in several ways. While articles never specifically stated it was a segregated pool, they did a make a point to state, “There will be a Negro lifeguard at the pool.”  Or when other pools in Des Moines had to list the prices for admission ($ .25 for adults; $ .15 children), Good Pool’s cost would “probably be lower than at the other two pools”.

Misogyny plays a far bigger role in my current work than racism (single woman/P.I. 1937–you get the picture). However, when I am confronted with the uncomfortable realities of the past, unlike the Senator from Arkansas, I make a conscious effort to try and educate myself. And I still have a long way to go.

Sources:

“13 Acres Along River Wants City to Buy a Park Purchase Price is Set at $2,200.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 29 May 1937, 3. www.newspapers.com Accessed: 21 July 2020.

“City Swimming Pools Open June  1.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa, 13 April, 1937, 3. www.newspapers.com Accessed: 21 July 2020.

Cothorn, Marguerite E. “Civil Rights and Black History of Iowa.” Audiocassette. Vol. 72. 2 vols. Iowa Oral History Project. Des Moines, Iowa, 1986.

David, John. “Stalking Des Moines with my Camera.” Lost Des Moines. Facebook. Accessed: 22 Juy 2020.

Foran, Clare. “G.O.P. Senator Tom Cotton Pitches Bill to Prohibit Use of Federal Funds to Teach 1619 Project.” CNN Online.  24 July 2020. Accessed: 24 July 2020.

Gary, Thomas A. “The Rise and Fall of Center Street: 1945-1972.” Masters, Iowa State University, 2003.

Gillespie, Bob N Betsie. “Terrace Hill.” Lost Des Moines. Facebook. 9 July, 2017. Accessed: 22 July 2020.

Jabbar, Akil. “Terrace Hill Pool.” Lost Des Moines. Facebook. 14 April 2015. Accessed: 22 July 2020.

Leeuwen, Thomas A.P. van. The Intimate History of the Swimming Pool. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT, 1999.

“New Swimming Pool in Good Park, The.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 25 June 1936, 1, 13. www.newspapers.com Accessed: 21 July 2020.

Terrace Hill Pool to Return.” Iowa Public Radio. 19 November 2015. Accessed: 08 August 2020.

Wiltse, Jeff. Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Craft: Research, Research: Iowa History

Speakeasy in Des Moines

Two years after statehood, the Iowa legislature attempted unsuccessfully to pass its first prohibition law. They finally succeeded in 1916. Up until the federal government enforcement four years later, sheriffs and local agencies did the enforcement. Prohibition worked but wasn’t popular. While federal prohibition ended in 1933, many states continued to have some

In January a tour of an old speakeasy became available through the Des Moines Historical Society.

From the outside, the 1920s bungalow didn’t appear to have secrets, but there were clues if one looked close enough. The rocked arched way could have clued patrons to the basement stairway. Inside patrons could have enjoyed all kinds of booze. A huge boiler remains. There was speculation by the owner that it may have been used to distill alcohol. Elaborate designs on the woodwork and peepholes added to the general mystery. If only these walls could talk I’m certain they would have a lot to say!

Sources:

Bauer, Bryce. Gentlemen Bootleggers: The True Story of Templeton Rye, Prohibition, and a Small Town in Cahoots. Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press, 2014.

Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner, 2010.

Porter, Sierra A. “Shhh! Des Moines Woman Discovers Hidden Speakeasy.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 05 January 2020, p. 1E, 3E.

Books: Evelyn Copeland (Series), Craft: Research, Research: Iowa History

Booze and Writing

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammitt is one of my all-time favorite novels. It’s relatively short, hits all the marks for what a mystery should be, and the dialogue is just plain awesome. I adore the sexually charged banter between Nick and Nora Charles (and they’re actually a married couple!).  Re-reading it again recently I was also struck by the exceedingly high levels of their alcohol consumption.

My current novel takes place in Des Moines, Iowa in 1937, where Hammitt placed his characters in 1934 New York. After Volstead was repealed each state was left to determine how much alcohol they’d allow their citizens to consume.

Iowa has a long history of tried and failed attempts at prohibition. They were one of a handful of states that went dry prior to the Federal government demanded it with the passage of the Volstead Act. When prohibition was repealed in 1933, the Iowa legislature passed the Iowa Liquor Control Act the following year, giving the state a monopoly over the wholesale and distribution of all alcohol except beer.

Liquor by the drink was banned in restaurants and taverns (beer had to be > 3.2% alcohol content). However, an individual could still buy liquor by the drink. They applied for a liquor logbook which they were required to take with them when they made their purchases at the state-run liquor store. These stores were often in run-down and out of the way places. Browsing was not allowed. An individual filled out a form and the liquor store clerk pulled the bottles off the shelves. From the 1930s to the 1950s punch cards were used. The store clerk had sole discretion on what and how much they sold to an individual. If you had more punches then they thought reasonable they had the right to deny the sale. By the 1950s the punch cards were replaced with logbooks.

Many businesses flouted the rules to meet the needs of their customers. Illegal “key” clubs were the direct results. The business kept a row of lockers where individuals would store their liquor. An individual would give the waiter their key and the restaurant would supply the set up (glasses and ice). The legislature in the early 1950s made key clubs legal, but selling booze directly to restaurants was not. It wasn’t until the 1960s when a charismatic politician decided to change the law that Iowa’s liquor by the drink controversy would meet its end.

Harold Hughes was a WWII vet, former alcoholic, truck, driver, and, astute politician. He made it a part of his platform as governor to change the law. He said:

Let’s face it. You know and I know and every honest person in Iowa knows that we have liquor-by-the-drink in this state now…The moral issue, then is: Shall we straight-forwardly legalize the sale of liquor-by-the-drink, enforce the law and really control the liquor traffic in this state? Or shall we perpetuate the present wide-open club system that subsidizes the bootleggers and racketeers with revenue that rightfully belongs to the taxpayers of Iowa?

In January 1963 Hughes wielded his powers of the executive branch and began a system-wide crackdown on businesses, taverns, and even places like the VFW. Public pressure pushed the Iowa legislature to act and by July 4, 1963, liquor-by-the-drink was legal. The legislature, however, continues to hold a monopoly on the distribution of all liquor (except wine and beer) in the state.

Sources: