Well, it’s February and some Brits are going to be a bit glum this month, what with the colder weather. As historians, we can reflect on past times to escape. I’m currently reading a nostalgic book about a nostalgic man: Travels with Steinbeck. The author, currently riffing on post-war health, wealth and prosperity, cites 1957 as a key year in American happiness. So, let’s journey awhile, away from dreary February, and back to 1957…
In this story we will be looking at: Chevrolets, food-processors, toasters, FM radios, electric blankets, Ronald Reagan, prefabricated affordable homes, diners, ‘the twist’ and new interstates. Okay, are you all settled in?
In little Spencer, Iowa, (pop. 8,864), elderly Joe Harris, 82, is getting ready to tell the young folk what life was like in his day. We read this in the Spencer Sunday Times of 29 September, 1957. I stumbled on this article, as Joe, my Joe, is a cousin and it turns out he had plenty to say. So come on, pull up an armchair and join Joe Harris at the fireside as we listen to tales from his day.
Harris, better known as Joe to his friends, turned 82 last Saturday. He recalls the trip from the Cornish lead-mining stronghold of Mineral Point 300 miles west to Spencer, across most of Iowa. It was 1881 and Joe was five. Looking through his vast collection of pictures, many of them from this time, one can almost hear the creak of wagon wheels across the Prairie.
One incident which Joe clearly recalls from the trip was the loss of the family Shepherd dog, Shep. ‘We got as far as Ruthven’, Joe recalls, and for some reason or another had to turn back for a few miles. Shep evidently thought we were heading back to Wisconsin because he kept right on going. The next day Dad inquired of a farmer if he had seen a shepherd dog, and the fellow said ‘Yes, he was headed east as fast as he could go, and you’ll have to travel a darn sight faster than that if you want to catch him!’ Well, we never caught him, but a few weeks later he showed up back in Mineral Point, stiff and sore and he came out to visit us with about a year after that, with his new owner. For a long time after that I never liked Ruthven, Joe recalls with a smile.
At twenty, Joe got his dray licence and here he is a few years after that, in the photo, below. One of his duties was fire fighting. You got a dollar per fire. One time the Congregational church belfry got struck by lightning and the hoses couldn’t reach it. So we had to build a scaffold around the belfry to put out the fire. That time we worked all night.
Later, Joe ran a profitable bus service, he says, taking folks out to the Iowa Lakes for a dollar. In the summer his bus line ran non-stop, taking in $12,000 in one memorable year. He was by now married to Ida Smith, a girl from Spencer. She would have been born in the State except for the humble, but greedy grasshopper. The year she was born was a ‘grasshopper year’, so she came into the world in the next state over: Kansas.
At this point the erstwhile staff writer, Ken Brown, wipes the September heat from his brow, and pauses in his short-hand. No doubt he is partway through Mrs Harris’s shortbread, but his glass of lemonade might be getting warm. He summons a bright smile, as it’s photo time. The Harrises are busy people, and right now are literally heading out the door to get on the road to Fort Dodge to see his older brother, a retired minister. Just in time for a photo! Taken by K. Brown. (This author had a virtual dinner with Joe’s great-grandson many years later.)
If you’ve stuck around this long, you deserve the meat in this story.
Among the possessions belonging to Joe are three pieces of gold ore from the 1849 California Gold Rush (just the day before yesterday!). These belonged to his grandfather, F. Harris, who made two trips to California via ship by the way of Cape Horn.
The last trip of 1852 was an ill-fated one, and his grandfather Harris was drowned at Virgin Bay [La Virgen], Lake Nicaragua, in Central America. (The lake evidently is famed for capricious, un-navigable storms.) He was on his way back to Hazel Green, Wisconsin, then known as Hard Scrabble. A tough place.
You can read the snip from the article, below. What’s the most romantic part for you? The gold! The promise? The dress? The dripping wet lode of the story itself? Tell us!
Click here to see the full article.
Written by Deputy Managing Director, David Walsh