Saturday, May 20, 2017

Grinnell's Beatrix Potter...

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) is justifiably famous for a series of delightful tales of tiny animals whose stories she illustrated with marvelous paintings of the heroes dressed in outfits borrowed from their human analogs. Peter Rabbit, first published in 1902, is probably the best-known story in which Potter's artistic skills depict a rabbit's encounter with Mr. McGregor. Other tales featured mice, cats, a squirrel, a hedge-hog and a duck, among others, all suitably attired in down-sized men's and women's clothes. Readers followed these stories in Tailor of Gloucester (1903), Squirrel Nutkin (1903), Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (1905), Tom Kitten (1907) and another nineteen books.

Few Grinnellians are aware of our own Beatrix Potter, Cornelia Clarke (1884-1936), who produced similar tales with her own cats, using a camera instead of an artist's brush to illustrate the story. Like Potter, Clarke kept a small menagerie of pets upon whom she focused her imagination. Clarke trained her pets to wear the miniature suits and dresses she provided, posed them with remarkable small-scale furniture, and then photographed them to tell a story. And, just as Potter applied her artistic skills to scientific illustration, Clarke, too, having attracted attention for her skills with the camera, went on to a career as a widely-published nature photographer whose photographs appeared frequently in scientific journals, newspapers, and popular science magazines. Her fame cannot compare with Potter's, but was nevertheless enormous, reaching far beyond the boundaries of Grinnell. The remarkable life of Cornelia Clarke is the subject of this Grinnell Story.
"Polly Made a Fine Housekeeper"
Cornelia Clarke, , "Peter and Polly," Country Life in America, v. 19 (Jan 1911):213.
Cornelia was the only child born to Ray Alonzo Clarke and the former Cornelia Shepard, July 4, 1884. Sadly, her mother died within a few hours of the baby's birth, so Cornelia was "baptized over the coffin with her mother's name," as her mother's obituary described it. At the time, her father was farming north of Grinnell, and, except for her father's mother, who came to Iowa to keep house and care for the baby, Cornelia lived a fairly lonely life, occupying herself with the animals and plants she found around the farmstead. Because her father practiced photography as a hobby, a camera was familiar to her from an early age, and she soon developed great skill in using it.

Cornelia attended Grinnell schools, graduating from Grinnell High School in 1904, then enrolling at Grinnell College. Originally part of the class of 1908, Cornelia spent most of 1906-7 traveling in Europe with her father, all the while putting her camera to use. After returning to Iowa, she completed her Grinnell degree, graduating in June, 1909. Soon she and her father moved into town, occupying the four-square at 1322 West Street. Here Cornelia did most of her later photography, including her work with Peter and Polly, her two cats whom she trained to accept the humanoid clothing and habits that she converted so effectively to film.
Cornelia Clarke, 1909 Grinnell College Cyclone
When her photographs of Peter and Polly first appeared in print in early 1911, there was tremendous response among readers. Country Life in America, a journal then widely read in middle America, devoted two pages to Clarke's Potter-like photographs. Brief captions outlined a tale of two kittens, who grew up together, fell in love, married, had kittens of their own, did adult-like chores, and grew old together.
Cornelia Clarke, "Peter and Polly," Country Life in America, v. 19(Jan 1911):213.
Interest in Clarke's photographs was instantaneous, so that already in March of that year the journal, remarking on how many readers had expressed pleasure at seeing Clarke's images, published another handful of similar photographs that had not been used in the January issue.

Because of the favorable reception of Peter and Polly, Clarke soon made contact with Elizabeth Hays Wilkinson, a Pittsburgh college teacher who authored several children's books, and the two women collaborated to produce a book version of the story, published in New York in 1912 by Doubleday and Co. under the title Peter and Polly. Just 97 pages long and priced at 50 cents, the beautiful little volume told the story of "two cats who lived most interesting lives and did things just like humans," as Publishers Weekly described it.

By this time Clarke was using her camera to record many other images, including, for example, photographs that Grinnell College commissioned of the campus and its buildings. But the broader public was fascinated with Clarke's ability to lure animals into poses that seemed very human, if most unlikely. In September, 1922 the Des Moines Register gave a full page of its Sunday magazine to explaining how "the wonder woman of the camera...gets animals to pose."
Des Moines Register, September 10, 1922, p. 13
The Register's correspondent noted that Clarke's success depended upon many factors, not least her brain. Explaining one of her most famous photographs, "Two cats kissing," Clarke observed that there was really no way to train cats to kiss, for cats feel no natural desire to kiss. However, cats do enjoy milk, a dab of which she put on the nose of one cat—voila! Clarke had her picture.
Cornelia Clarke, "Kissing Cats," Des Moines Register, September 10, 1922
By this time Clarke's photography had reached well beyond her pets, increasingly depicting the natural world. Nevertheless, to produce the images she wanted, Clarke routinely brought her subjects back home—often inside her West Street home. As she pointed out to the Register's correspondent, "It is impossible to get a good flower picture out of doors, because there is bound to be some motion, and the petals are so delicate that they move with the slightest breeze." Therefore, Clarke regularly removed the objects of her camera's gaze from their natural  habitat, and, with the assistance of her careful study of their natural environment, she reconstructed the context on her living room rug, where she could photograph the flowers without fear of any movement. Her success in this endeavor brought her to publish an entire essay on the subject for The Guide to Nature in May, 1924.

Wild animals proved less easy to pose than flowers, but Clarke explained that patience and careful planning could overcome most difficulties. To illustrate, she told the background of another of her well-known photographs, "Twenty froggies at school." The idea of such a picture must come first, of course, and Clarke explained that she had conceived of the photograph long before she began preparations. She then set about finding tadpoles whose progress she watched carefully until she thought them ready for her experiment. She brought the tadpoles and one bull frog home, sank a dishpan into the back yard, and provided nearby rushes. But this is where patience proved decisive.
This picture caused me more trouble than any picture I ever made, [she told the Des Moines Register]. Just as soon as I would get them all lined up nicely, they would play leap-frog and jump off into the rushes. Or the old frog would jump down and they would climb on his back.... But finally I got the picture.
As she confessed when showing this image to a 1927 audience at Grinnell College, it took her four hours to achieve the picture she wanted (Scarlet and Black, December 14, 1927).
Cornelia Clarke, "Twenty Froggies Went to School," Photo-Era Magazine, vol. 50(1923):247
But if many of Clarke's early photographs required an imaginative story as context, over time she became a serious nature photographer whose pictures appeared regularly in publications like Nature magazine (at least 62 photographs between 1925 and 1939) and Science News-Letter, the latter often using Clarke photos for its covers (at least 24 cover photos between 1930 and 1937). No longer relying upon clever or cute photographs, Clarke used her growing camera skills to reveal the secrets of biological process, as when she documented the life history of the mosquito or the stages of butterfly generation. Collaborating with Grinnell College professors like Henry Conard gave her occasion to produce images—often enlarged many times over natural scale—of great scientific accuracy and value, confirmed by the Grinnell College herbarium of local plants that she founded and of which she became the volunteer curator (Scarlet and Black, February 4, 1928).

Without demeaning in any way the scientific importance of Clarke's photography, even a casual observer recognizes that some of these photographs went well beyond the boundaries of science, and still today strike the eye powerfully, invoking art as much as science.
Cornelia Clarke "Dandelion Fruits," in Bertha Stevens, Child and Universe (NY: John Day Company, 1931), p. 64

Cornelia Clarke, "Land Snail Shell," in Bertha Stevens, Nature: The Child Goes Forth (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1936), p. 255.
At the  height of her talents, Clarke was publishing photographs regularly in the Des Moines Register (by my count more than 100 photos between 1921 and 1933), and periodically in the Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, among other newspapers. Specialty journals such as American Photography regularly published her images in the 1920s. She also provided photographs for a series of children's books written by Edith M. PatchHoliday Meadow (1930); Holiday Pond (1930)and Holiday Hill (1931)—and did the same for two of Bertha Stevens's nature books aimed at children (Child and Universe [1931] and The Child Goes Forth [1936]). For Insect People, an introduction to insects written by Eleanor King and Wellmer Pessels (1937), Clarke authored nine photographs of grasshoppers, bees, dung beetles and other bugs. William Morton Barrows included seventeen of  Clarke's pictures in his Science of Animal Life: An Introduction to Zoology (1927), and Robert William Hegner, who published several zoology textbooks, used 76 Clarke photos in his Parade of the Animal Kingdom (1935).

Although not so well-known as her specialist, much-enlarged photographs of animals and plants, Clarke's images of natural vistas also won her praise. For example, Clarke won first prize in a 1922 competition hosted by Photo-Era Magazine for "After the Storm," which depicts lake and mountains caught in the dim light of evening.  Her skill in this genre of photography recommended her to authors like Seldon Lincoln Whitcomb (1866-1930), who, composing a volume devoted to Iowa's natural landscape (Autumn Notes in Iowa [1914]), had Clarke supply photographs of evocative scenes such as "The Skunk River at Lynnville" or "A Country Road Near Newburg."  Even long after her death, an early photograph of "Stacked Grain," evidently taken around 1910, appeared on the pages of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the photo having been rescued from the effects of Clarke's heir, C. J. Turner.
Cedar Rapids Gazette, August 1, 1965
Without the archive of Clarke's photography, it is impossible to know the exact dimensions of her work, but even with what can be known through the public record it is clear that Cornelia Clarke was prodigiously productive, her work valued at both a popular and scientific level.
Despite all her success, Clarke's last years were not happy. Difficulties began when in May, 1929, she and her father were involved in an automobile accident. Ray Clarke and his daughter were riding their Ford roadster about a mile east of Grinnell when they decided to turn around. Backing out onto the road, Clarke did not see another vehicle approaching over a slight rise. Mrs. Elmer Wolfe of LaSalle, IL, who was driving the other car, could not avoid Clarke's Ford, and the collision destroyed the Wolfes' Buick and instantly killed Mrs. Wolfe. Although the original newspaper story did not mention injuries to the Clarkes, both suffered from the collision, and Ray, who was also dogged by threats of litigation long after the accident, "slowly but steadily failed until the end came peacefully," March 21, 1932. Cornelia carried on, and continued to publish her photographs, but soon after her father's death she was diagnosed with cancer, for which she sought treatment at Iowa City, Newton, Rochester [MN], Grinnell and Iowa City. Death, attributed to breast cancer, came to Cornelia Clarke September 29, 1936,
Last Will and Testament of Cornelia Clarke, August 10, 1936
Poweshiek County Probate Court Records, 1850-1954, District Court Will Record, 1923-1954, Vol. F, p. 36
When she died, Clarke seemed almost as lonely as she had been as a child on her father's farm. Her will assigned small sums to several Grinnell women, the Grinnell Congregational Church, Professor Henry Conard (to whom she also willed her camera equipment and all her glass negatives and lantern slides), and a few others. "All the rest, residue and remainder of my estate, both real and personal...I give, devise and bequeath, share and share alike, to Dr. and Mrs. C. J. Turner," her will announced to the surprise of some. As the 1930 U.S. Census confirms, the Turners lived in Clarke's house (as renters, perhaps?), and evidently proved themselves helpful during Clarke's last illness. But the fact that these people should inherit the bulk of Clarke's estate—which turned out to be $20,000, a sizable sum in 1936—seemed suspicious to Mildred Fuller, who claimed to be Clarke's cousin. In mid-October 1936, both the Grinnell newspaper and the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported that Fuller was filing suit to forestall probate, contending that Clarke, at the time she composed her will—August 10, about seven weeks before her death—had not been mentally competent. Whether the suit ever went to trial I cannot say, as I found no record of it. In any event, Fuller's objection was not sustained, as Clarke's will entered probate November 30, 1936, just two month's after her death.
Grinnell Herald-Register, October 15, 1936, p. 1 
As news of her death traveled around Grinnell on the heels of her published obituary (Grinnell Herald-Register, October 1, 1936), the editor of the local newspaper added what he titled "A Belated Tribute." Regretting how little Grinnell knew of her fame, the editorial emphasized how much Clarke loved beauty, visible not only in her photography but also in the wonderful gardens she maintained at her West Street home. "Miss Clarke should be remembered here," the paper remarked, "not only as a photographer of superb attainments, but as a humble and unassuming lover of beauty...No more beautiful flower beds have existed anywhere. Her lawn was always lovely with fragrant blossoms and her greatest pleasure was in showing her treasures to those who came to admire." Like the flowers she loved and photographed so successfully, "hers was a shy and retiring nature, full of beauty and charm, ... ready to expand and spread its petals at every friendly touch...." Indeed, as surviving photographs confirm, Cornelia Clarke used her camera to share her love of nature and all its beauty, making us all beneficiaries of Grinnell's own Beatrix Potter.
"More Pictures of Peter and Polly," Country Life in America, March, 1911, p. cdxviii

Saturday, May 6, 2017

When the Liberty Bell Visited Grinnell...

Like everyone else, I first saw the Liberty Bell in person when I visited Independence Hall—in my case, on a school visit in the 1950s. Nowadays the Liberty Bell can only be viewed at Independence Mall, but it may surprise some readers to learn that it was not always this way. Several times in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the famous bell went on long journeys: to New Orleans in 1885, Chicago in 1893, Atlanta in 1895, Charleston in 1902, Boston in 1903, and to St. Louis in 1904.  In 1915 the Bell made one last journey, this time going the farthest west ever, reaching San Francisco in July, 1915 to help mark the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. When the Liberty Bell made its epic trip across the country, Grinnell was one of the lucky cities where the special train bearing the bell stopped long enough for citizens to admire—and perhaps even touch—this famous symbol of American independence. And it is that 1915 visit that forms the subject of this Grinnell Story.
The route west of the Liberty Bell, July, 1915 (
Proposals to send the Liberty Bell across the continent appeared even before the Panama Exposition opened in San Francisco in February, 1915, but fears about potential damage to the cracked bell frustrated most early efforts. Only after the May 7 sinking of the liner Lusitania and the vocal support from President Woodrow Wilson and former President Theodore Roosevelt did the proposed adventure become a reality. The loss of American lives in the sinking—the United States had not yet entered the war—aroused patriotic sentiment, and made the proposed trip of the Liberty Bell across the country almost inevitable.

Once the decision was made, officials had to address the very real problem of how to transport the bell safely. Critics complained that previous journeys had harmed the bell, perhaps even enlarging its famous crack. Consequently, officials at the Pennsylvania Railroad felt pressure to provide maximum security to the independence icon. The result, rushed because of the delay in deciding on the trip, was a "Liberty Bell Special" train, which, according to Stephen Fried, "would be a private, all-steel train with luxurious Pullman cars—sleepers, a dining car and a sitting car—the very best the 'Pennsy' had to offer." The Bell itself would occupy a specially-built gondola car, upon which was constructed a wooden yoke with the inscription, "Proclaim Liberty—1776," visible atop the bell. Fears that the Bell's famous crack would open wider obliged experts to replace the clapper with a metal "spider" to improve stability. The car also included lights that would make the Bell visible even as the train continued its trek through the night-time darkness of the American land mass.
The Liberty Bell arrives at unidentified city, July, 1915 (
When word of the Bell's proposed journey went public, politicians all across the country engaged in a noisy scrum as localities and rail lines campaigned to get a place on the itinerary. Grinnell joined the conversation at the initiative of M. J. Douglas, Grinnell agent of the Rock Island Railroad. In late April Douglas circulated around Grinnell a petition addressed to the Philadelphia mayor, asking that the Rock Island line carry the bell beyond Chicago. Telegrams from the Grinnell Commercial Club, the mayor and city council, the principal and faculty of both the high school and the college, and state Senator H. W. Spaulding all urged "that the famous bell be routed through Grinnell and time allowed for a short stop here." Numerous other localities also pressed their cases, but within a month good news appeared in the Grinnell Herald: "Liberty Bell Will Stop Ten Minutes" in Grinnell, the newspaper announced. According to the Chicago Tribune, whose reporting the Herald borrowed, the Liberty Bell Special would depart Chicago early in the morning of July 7, stop at Peoria for an hour, then on to Rock Island for 15 minutes, Davenport for 30 minutes, Iowa City for 15 minutes, Marengo for 15 minutes (later reduced to 5 minutes), and reach Grinnell at 3:50 PM, stopping for ten minutes before moving on to Des Moines for a five-hour visit.
Grinnell Herald May 21, 1915
The weather on the appointed day was less than wonderful. According to a newspaper report, the previous day's heavy rains and the continuing damp cast an unwelcome and dim light over the town. Nevertheless, the special train arrived in Grinnell right on time (3:47 on the new schedule). The Grinnell Herald observed that "the station platform was crowded as the Liberty Bell special came thundering in. The train pulled past the station and stopped with the car bearing the bell right across the Broad Street crossing." With all Grinnell businesses closed at 4:30 PM to allow everyone to view the spectacle, the crowd that gathered around the train was impressive. The Des Moines Register reported that some 3,000 people turned out in Grinnell, which would mean most of the town's 1910 population of 5,036. Of course there were plenty of visitors from other towns, riding into Grinnell for what might amount to their only chance ever to view the famous bell; even so, no one in Grinnell on that day could have been unaware of the arrival of the Liberty Bell.
A Child Touches the Liberty Bell, Moline, IL, July 7, 1915
In the original plan, direct access to the bell was supposed to be rare, intended mainly for the blind and disabled. But in Grinnell, as elsewhere, "many people clambered aboard the gondola car to look more closely upon the bell and to touch it...Many children were handed up by their parents, in order that in years to come they might be able to say that their hands had touched the Liberty Bell." Philadelphia officials had prepared a printed brochure about the Liberty Bell which was to be distributed to visitors as the train made its way westward ("compliments of the City of Philadelphia"). According to newspaper reports, in Iowa City "each child was given a pamphlet with a history of the bell, an American flag, and a card and button with a picture of the bell." Perhaps some Grinnellians received such mementoes when the train stopped in Grinnell, but the newspaper made no mention of them, nor have I found any extant examples in local archives.
Liberty Bell brochure intended to be given out as a memento of the 1915 trip
Too soon the train was ready to depart, and, as the Grinnell band played, "the train moved out, and amid the waving of hats and final cheers the Liberty Bell slipped behind a box car and was lost to view" (Grinnell Herald July 9, 1915).
News of the Liberty Bell's journey attracted various causes that hoped to capitalize upon the publicity attaching to the event. One of the most famous appropriations of the event was the "Woman's Liberty Bell," a replica of the Liberty Bell which circulated through Pennsylvania in an effort to get women's suffrage enacted. Its clapper chained to the bell, the Woman's Liberty Bell would not ring, partisan literature proclaimed, until the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women the vote was enacted.
Circular of the Woman's Liberty Bell (
In Grinnell it was not women's suffrage but pacifism that seized on the Liberty Bell's journey. In late June, the Grinnell Herald announced that a "Peace Pageant," originally planned as part of the July 4th celebrations, would now be hitched to the Liberty Bell visit to Grinnell. An article about the pageant in the Ottumwa newspaper attributed to Mrs. H. S. Conard (Laetitia Moon Conard) responsibility for overall direction of the peace pageant. But the Grinnell Herald did not mention Conard, even though the newspaper identified some fifteen women (mostly) as organizers and directors of the pageant. Among those identified by name in the Grinnell paper were Wilma Rayburn, a local attorney; Fannie Buchanan, widely known for her songs and musical pageants; and Mrs. Joel Stewart, whose husband was a generous supporter of Grinnell.
Ottumwa Tri-Weekly Courier, July 3, 1915, p. 8
Plans called for organizers to lead a march directly from the railroad, once the Liberty Bell train departed Grinnell. "From the station everyone is requested to go direct to Ward Field [at the College] for the Liberty and Peace Pageant, which will commence immediately after the Liberty Bell leaves," the newspaper reported. As it turned out, the previous day's rain had made Ward Field a muddy mess, and organizers therefore transferred proceedings to the Colonial Theater, to which destination the parade moved as soon as the train was out of sight.

Costumed heralds led the way, followed by "James Ashing [dressed] as Uncle Sam, and Dorothy Fry and Julia Cratty as pennant bearers." The Grinnell band, the local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic and its auxiliary, the Woman's Relief Corps, were next, after which a series of "symbolic groups" took their places in the march. "Children of the Nations," carrying flags of peace and national flags, were next, after which came "Peace...represented by Mrs. Homer Rivers with attendants: Joy [Miss Kate Rogers], Plenty [Miss Lillie Gove], Industry [Miss Nellie Fraser], [and] Health [Miss Helen Stewart]." The Boy Scouts, outfitted to represent William Penn (played by Roger Preston) and other Quakers, marched in the company of an "Indian Chief" (Carl Somers) and "other Indians" (Frank Almy; Donald Almy; Kenneth Ferguson; and Milton Donnelly).  Mrs. F. J. Kiesel was cast as "Liberty," surrounded by costumed representatives of America, Japan, Russia, Norway, France, Germany, Ireland and Holland. Gladys Cessna was set to the role of Columbia (a common name applied to the United States at the time), accompanied by 48 girls, each representing a state, the shield of which she carried. 

Once gathered at the theatre, the crowd witnessed the pageant program, which began with the band playing "Stars and Stripes Forever." Columbia was then crowned "Gem of the Ocean" while the children representing the 48 states sang. Each nation's representative then did reverence to Liberty, while Mrs. Kiesel sang a solo ("The Glad Land Song," according to the newspaper, but I could not find any record of such a song). The Boy Scouts then presented a series of tableaux devoted to "Signing of the Peace Treaty," featuring William Penn and Indians. The Camp Fire Girls also got into the act, singing a "Floral March," after which Mrs. Rivers sang "America the Beautiful," then still a new and relatively unknown song. A choir composed of high school students and members of the college Glee Club sang the newly-composed "Hear, Hear, Ye Nations," after which a final "March of the nations" was enacted while the audience sang "America," which was then the de facto national anthem (until the adoption of the Star Spangled Banner in 1931).
Lyrics to "Hear, hear, O ye nations," words by Frederick L. Hosmer (1913) (
Peace pageants appeared elsewhere in the US in these years, but the available records provide no clue to the origins of the Grinnell event. Clearly the pageant aimed to keep the United States out of World War I, by this date already a bloody quagmire. And perhaps the Grinnell demonstration contributed to the reluctance with which Americans viewed the war.

Certainly, both before and after the event, the Grinnell Herald provided plenty of coverage to the pageant, devoting more column inches to it than to the Liberty Bell visit itself. Indeed, as I investigated the appearance of the Liberty Bell in Grinnell, I was struck by how little evidence of its visit survives. Unlike many other stops along the journey, the local newspaper published no photograph of the bell or the citizens gathered around it. Of the oral histories touching this period and now available, not one mentions the Liberty Bell; of the dozen scrapbooks devoted to these years that I examined, none includes a photograph or news story about the Bell. And apparently no Liberty Bell mementoes survive in local archives.
Liberty Special Arrives at Ft. Wayne, IN, July 6, 1915
Allen County-Ft. Wayne Historical Society (
After Grinnell, the Liberty Bell Special continued its somewhat circuitous journey westward. Des Moines established a blocks-long queue for visitors, who numbered 75,000, according to the Des Moines Register. The train then moved west, continuing to attract crowds, and only once apparently encountered any sign of opposition when some youths in Walla Walla, Washington were reported to have thrown stones. Finally, the Bell arrived in San Francisco, where it attracted throngs, eager to see and touch this well-known symbol of American independence.
Denison Review, August 11, 1915
As the Panama Exposition drew to a close in late November, the Liberty Bell Special train embarked on the long trip home. Pursuing a different route, the train passed through New Mexico and Arizona (new to the Union in 1912), then across Texas. At El Paso, 25,000 people gathered to catch a glimpse of the relic. The bell moved across the plains, then began the trip north, reaching its Philadelphia home November 25. Having logged thousands of miles, the Liberty Bell had shown its face to millions, the last time the famous bell would travel beneath those spacious skies and through those amber waves of grain.
The return route of the Liberty Bell, December, 1915 (
PS. As I mentioned, Grinnell seems not to have any evidence of the 1915 visit of the Liberty Bell, so if readers of this blog have (or know of the existence of) any photographs of the event or any copies of the specially-prepared handout or any other memento of the visit, I hope that they will contribute that news, and perhaps make those materials available for scanning by the Poweshiek History Preservation Project. It's a moment in local history that deserves to be remembered and, if possible, better documented.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Eaten Any Rabbit Lately? Rabbit Hunts and Rabbit Suppers in Early Grinnell

In early March I was browsing that day's edition of the New York Times when I ran across an article about rabbit, and how rarely Americans, compared to the French, eat rabbit. The recipes outlined by the author sounded tempting, but my mind focused upon something else: the frequency with which I had found announcements about "rabbit suppers" in newspapers of the early twentieth century. Many fraternal organizations—for example, the Knights of Pythias, the Odd Fellows, Eagles—and many churches and other organizations throughout the Midwest sponsored rabbit suppers, often at holidays or special organization anniversaries. In other words, despite current disinterest in putting rabbit on the menu, apparently there was a time when rabbit was often served at dinner—in early Grinnell no less than elsewhere in mid-America. What was up with that? I decided to look into it, and what I found is the subject of today's story—a kind of anti-Easter bunny story.
Unattributed photograph of a rabbit hunt in Hoxie, Kansas (undated but thought to be from 1905-1915)
(Photo from Kansas Historical Society:
Most suburban Americans today hold fairly tolerant views of rabbits—unless, like Beatrix Potter's Mr. McGregor, they are trying to protect their gardens from rabbits' own dining preferences. However, out on the plains of the Midwest where small towns like Grinnell had grown up in the last half of the nineteenth century, rabbits were less loved; indeed, rabbit populations—protected by and feeding on the prairie's bounty—were huge, making them an inviting target for sport. To many early Iowans, rabbits seemed to be everywhere, and, following the same attitudes that led them to hunt down wolves and other wild animals, settlers on the plains organized rabbit hunts whose sometimes tremendous yields decorated many early twentieth-century photographs (like the Hoxie, Kansas photograph above).

So long as the prairie offered cover, rabbits remained plentiful, explaining at least in part how rabbit hunts became part of Grinnell's social life. As early as 1890 Grinnell College President George Gates went rabbit-hunting with friends, and succeeded in taking down eighteen rabbits.
The Unit, vol. 1 (1890):99
College students also found time to catch and cook rabbit. An article in the December, 1922 Scarlet & Black reported that several students had caught fifteen rabbits that they served at a dinner for the men of Dibble Hall. But collegians might also encounter rabbit on the menu while traveling, as happened in 1924 when the College Glee Club visited Huron, South Dakota. According to an S&B report, the local alumni invited the singers to join in a "real Dakota rabbit hunt," whose yield was then made the central dish of a banquet in the Glee Club's honor.
Scarlet & Black, December 17, 1924
For reasons I don't understand, rabbit seems to have been especially important to the Knights of Pythias, not only in Grinnell but all across the country. One of many announcements of a rabbit supper came in a January, 1919 issue of the Grinnell Herald. According to this report, several Knights had bagged 57 rabbits who were served up to some 250 guests. Unlike most writings about rabbit suppers, this one detailed the preparation to which the bunnies were put. "The main article on the menu," the newspaper said, "was broiled or roasted rabbit altho[ugh] veal loaf was served to those who couldn't eat rabbit meat without being reminded of the fuzz on the outside. The rare rabbit steaks were served hot and juicy, cooked to a turn with plenty of rabbit gravy for the thoroughly mashed potatoes."
Grinnell Herald January 21, 1919
The Pythian Knights made their rabbit feed in Grinnell an annual event, for the most part without stimulating any commentary. But news of the January, 1925 rabbit supper provoked some wonder from editors at the Davenport Democrat and Leader:
We are wondering what kind of taste Grinnell folks have that they will deliberately and without compulsion eat rabbits?...Rabbits were not made to eat. They were made for the fur to be used by hat makers.
Grinnell Register January 8, 1925
Complaints like this were few, however, and were not enough to alter practice. A 1930 announcement for yet another Knights of Pythias dinner declared that hunters had killed three times as many rabbits as had fed the 1919 banquet. Perhaps each diner received a bigger plate, since the newspaper said that about the same number of guests—250—had joined in the gastronomical fun.
Grinnell Herald, January 17, 1930
The Pythians elsewhere—in Columbus and Fort Wayne, Indiana, as well as in Marion, Mansfield, and Wauseon, Ohio, as a Google search confirms—regularly held rabbit suppers which were often opened to the community. In many places it was the Eagles who served rabbit, and in other places it was the Odd Fellows; in Gilbert, Iowa it was the local gun club; in Webster City, even the Boy Scouts got into the act.
Webster City Freeman February 2, 1920
Churches also hosted rabbit suppers. For example, in January 1923 the United Brethren church in Greene, Iowa organized a rabbit banquet. In Des Moines in 1909, Rev. J. W. Abel of Wesley Methodist organized what became an annual rabbit hunt for parishioners. The Iowa Humane society protested that "the plan would foster inhumane tendencies in church members," but Abel carried on. African American churches also sponsored rabbit hunts. Davenport's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church sponsored a rabbit hunt as early as 1901, and an October, 14, 1920 issue of the Iowa Bystander confirmed that churchmen were still hunting rabbits.

However, rabbit suppers did not require a church or any other sort of organization. For example, an Iowa City newspaper told of Mr. W. R. Griffith who ran the local yellow cab company, and in December, 1925 put on a rabbit feed for all his employees and their families. Sometimes rabbit suppers became special features of hotel restaurants, as happened in Green Castle, Indiana in 1924.
Daily Banner (Green Castle, IN),  January 5, 1924
In other places a rabbit supper was joined to holiday feasting, as happened in Alliance, Ohio where the Eagles arranged an annual rabbit supper for Thanksgiving.
Alliance Review & Leader November 24, 1920
Newspaper reports do not often describe the rabbit hunts themselves, but at least sometimes they were organized much like wolf hunts, systematically corralling all rabbits within a shrinking circle. The Webster City Freeman told of such a hunt organized among the men of the local machine-gun regiment. Major Lund dispatched his men
over about a mile of territory and [they] then gradually work[ed] in toward a given center, driving the rabbits in. No firearms were used, the men catching them with their hands or using clubs. Thousands of rabbits were scared up, and as they dashed past the men managed to grab about one out of every twenty-five....Out of the wild mess that looked considerably like a cattle stampede, the soldiers managed to stop about 150 (Webster City Freeman, November 5, 1917).
Among civilian organizations, however, the more common practice was to use guns, and also to create two teams that competed against one another: the side that killed more rabbits got to enjoy the dinner being served them by the losing side. This was how it played out in Hardy, up near Humboldt:
Sides had been chosen...and there were about 100 men on each side. The hunt lasted all day and ranged over many miles of country near Hardy...More than 700 rabbits were killed, about 800 pigeons, thirty jack rabbits and numerous crows. Hanson's side won the day, Earl Saxton was high man with 150 rabbits and a bagful of pigeons (Humboldt Republican, February 14, 1930).
Rabbit hunting became so common in the area that in March, 1931 a little three-year-old boy from Malcom caught the fever. When his parents noticed that the boy was missing, neighbors and friends scoured nearby fields, only discovering the boy in a cornfield after dark. Reunited with his mother, little Jack Eichhorn told her that he had been "hunting rabbits wif Buddy," his dog.
Grinnell Herald, March 24, 1931
At some point—perhaps the early 1930s—either because the supply of rabbits had fallen off or because people were looking for an easier supper, some industrious farmers began to raise domesticated rabbits. A notice in the November 11, 1930 Grinnell Herald, for instance, reported that several Grinnell-area residents were organizing a local chapter of the American Rabbit and Cavy Breeding Association. According to the newspaper, at least one food market in Grinnell—Thompson  Food Store, 918 Main Street—regularly had rabbit for sale, and "many Grinnell people think it is as good as chicken." Moreover, the newspaper asserted conclusively, "In New York City rabbit meat is eaten extensively." By December the paper could claim that "over 400 domesticated rabbits of several breeds" were being raised in Grinnell.
Grinnell Herald December 5, 1930
Despite the development of domesticated rabbit production, Grinnellians still hunted rabbit. In the depths of the Depression, rabbit helped supplement diets that might otherwise have been light on meat. Indeed, when being interviewed about the 1930s and 1940s, Everett Armstrong maintained that out in the country no one with a gun went hungry.
There was a lot of hunting in those days, too. You know, people were hunting for food. You could go out and shoot rabbits at night...we used to eat rabbit all the time because we got tired of beef and pork. Rabbit was kind of a treat for us and we'd go out and we'd—My dad, if he was out on the road somewhere, he always carried a gun with him, and he'd shoot rabbits and bring them home at night and we'd clean them and we'd hang them up on the clothesline and let them freeze. And when you wanted something different than beef and pork, you'd go get a rabbit.
Rabbits are still hunted in Iowa today, and each year the DNR publishes the dates for the rabbit-hunting season. Nevertheless, the huge rabbit hunts of yesteryear—like the 1919 hunt around Killduff which yielded 450 rabbits—will not be seen around Grinnell any time soon, nor are the rabbit suppers that were a regular feature of community life in early Grinnell likely to fill the town's twenty-first-century social calendar.
Kellogg Enterprise December 19, 1919
And for that, Peter Rabbit and friends are no doubt very happy.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

When German POWs Canned Corn in Grinnell...

A few weeks ago I posted a story about how, during World War II, several hundred Mexicans as well as Wisconsin native Americans came to Grinnell to help harvest seed corn. The demands of warfare had drained much of the working-age population out of town, obliging the seed companies to seek temporary help.

Another page in that story concerns German prisoners of war who, like the Mexicans and Menominee native Americans, came to Grinnell to bolster the work force in war-time Iowa. However, unlike the others, the POWs did not reside in Grinnell, even temporarily; early suggestions of building a tent camp near the college campus were not received well, so planners decided to house the men at the former Sac and Fox Sanitarium in Toledo, and bus them into Grinnell each day in late summer. Some prisoners worked in the fields to complete the harvest, but most worked at the canning factory, which came to life late each summer, canning large quantities of sweet corn and other vegetables. This is the story of how Germans, far from home and the war in which they had fought, played their part in Grinnell's wartime history.

Images courtesy of Grinnell Historical Museum

The Grinnell Canning Company factory arose in 1912 on the land just west of the Minneapolis-St. Louis Railway line and east of Park Street (later known as 230 Park), just south of Harrison Ave. Rumors about the coming of the new business appeared in newspapers in late 1911, but by early 1912 the Herald reported that George R. Kelley (1880-1954) of Vinton, Iowa, had visited Grinnell in behalf of his business, Iowa Canning Company, whose several factories were reported to have produced 12 million cans of corn in 1911.

Kelley and his investors—the only local investor was W. T. Moyle who operated a grocery store in town—agreed to build a new canning facility in Grinnell. Property south of town (and south of the paving!) was soon acquired, and farmers were enlisted to plant and provide the corn from what Kelley hoped would be 1000 acres.

Grinnell Canning Factory (ca. 1912) (Digital Grinnell)
Plans called for a total of five buildings—four of them all brick—on the site. The process room would be 45 x 60 feet and stand three stories tall. The warehouse would be two stories high, but constitute a long rectangle—60 x 120 feet. The retort room and boiler room—both one-story—would be 24 x 100 and 30 x 60 feet, respectively. The first stop for corn deliveries would be the husking shed, a frame building measuring 44 x 160 and fitted with dumps to facilitate unloading farmers' wagons. So the entire complex—completely invisible today because of subsequent development—promised to be imposing.

By early May, 1912 the newspaper reported that R. G. Coutts had won the contract to build the factory, his low bid coming in at just over $21,000. Since the company estimated that machinery for the factory would cost another $20,000 and because the firm also had to purchase property on which to erect the facility, total costs were estimated at around $50,000. With a payout of some $17,000 to local farmers and labor costs that first year of around $10,000 (up to 250 laborers were thought necessary), the newspaper noted that "the presence of this factory means the expenditure of large sums of money each year in Grinnell and vicinity."

The plant opened its doors in late August, 1912, and set about its brief, hectic, season. One month later the newspaper declared that the first year's pack was complete, having produced 55,000 cases of corn—or, to put it another way, 1.3 million cans. Kelley and others announced their satisfaction, and Grinnell's canning industry could bask in a successful beginning and what looked like a potent contribution to the local economy.
Des Moines Register April 13, 1930
Over the next several decades the canning factory prospered. Of course, there were setbacks: more than once the factory was closed for the installation of new equipment; a drop in demand as the Depression settled into Iowa closed the factory for a time; severe drought also affected production in the early 1930s, and at least once the company had to face litigation about failure to pay obligations. For the most part, however, the factory followed an annual rhythm, opening in late summer for the harvest and the rush of canning (a time when the most on-site labor was needed), then closing off the pack a month or six weeks later, with only a small crew thereafter to complete labeling, storage, and shipping of the factory output. In 1935 Mid-State Canning took over operations without much effect upon local production.
Council Bluffs Nonpareil September 2, 1945
But, like the seed corn business, Iowa's canning factories—in 1900 there were only 17 canneries in Iowa but the number swelled in the first two decades of the twentieth century—had to confront the shortage of labor that World War II had brought to the American heartland. Their solution was to make use of German and Italian prisoners of war, who had been installed in a network of camps across the country, beginning in 1943.
Prisoner-of-War Camps in the United States as of June, 1944 (US Army via Wiki Commons)
By 1945 the United States housed some 425,000 prisoners of war (about three-quarters of them German) in some 175 camps. Iowa had two such camps—one at Clarinda and the other at Algona; both were designed to accommodate up to 3000 prisoners, but neither ever reached maximum capacity.
Des Moines Register August 20, 1943 (State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City)
In late summer 1943 the Des Moines Register announced a plan to locate a POW camp in Algona, but the first prisoners did not arrive there until early April, 1944. Some 500 German prisoners were brought from Nebraska to help construct camp facilities, where over the next twenty months some 10,000 prisoners spent time. Like other POW camps, Algona had its own farm, band, theater troupe, newspaper, and other forms of entertainment to help prisoners pass the time. Algona's POWs even managed to create an impressive, 20 x 40 feet nativity to mark Christmas, a memento of the camp that remains on display in Algona each December, decades after the camp closed.
A Camp Algona POW Band (
The Geneva Convention prohibited using POWs for war-related labor, but the men could volunteer for non-war-related work, and many did. Work detachments were sent to do logging in Minnesota, harvest sugar beets in the Dakotas, help localities recover from tornadoes, harvest peas in Minnesota and corn in Iowa. Each man received a credit of 80 cents per day, which was not in itself much stimulus to work, but the chance to get out of camp, to see other people and other towns proved attractive to hundreds of the POWs.

Prisoner labor was also alluring to the midwest farm economy as labor shortages became more common, especially during harvest. Communities like Tama began to agitate for installation of branch POW camps in their towns, both for the revenue stream these establishments represented as well as for the availability of agricultural laborers.
Cedar Rapids Gazette July 30, 1943
According to a 2009 interview with Larry Ellis, whose father, Percy (1904-1960), had managed Grinnell's canning factory in the 1940s, there was even talk about creating a temporary POW camp in Grinnell:
They were gonna take 'em [POWs] in the old riding academy up here at the college. ...if you go back to maybe where the baseball diamond was at, the riding academy sat right in there and it was a good-sized riding academy, and they wanted to house [the POWs] back there in tents. And the people of Grinnell didn't like that idea. They didn't feel secure to have them down in the residential area where if some of them would get loose, why...
Sac and Fox Sanitarium in Toledo, occupied by POWs in 1945
A compromise solution was to establish Branch Camp No. 27 in Toledo, making use of the former Sac and Fox Sanitarium there. The folks around Tama had entertained the idea of a branch camp for some time, and the decision to use the old sanitarium was greeted with enthusiasm. In late summer 1945 about 125 POWs (along with about a dozen guards) were transferred from Algona to the Toledo sanitarium. In the presence of an armed guard, these men worked in canning factories in Gilman, Toledo, and Reinbeck, and also worked in the fields to bring the harvest to the canneries.

Grinnell was one of the beneficiaries of Branch Camp No. 27 POW labor.  Every day in late summer 1945 buses brought some sixty German POWs from Toledo to work two shifts in Grinnell. Some worked in the fields to bring in the corn, and others worked in the canning factory. At the end of the day, the prisoners were bussed back up to Toledo.
Des Moines Register August 30, 1945
The Grinnell Herald-Register claimed that Manager Ellis thought the prisoners "good help and [they] gave no trouble." The visiting Germans must have provided some sight, however. According to the newspaper, they traveled under armed guard, and wore overalls "with P. W. stenciled on the back in big letters." Factory manager Ellis told the Herald-Register that some of the men spoke English quite well, and, aware of what their comrades on the Russian front had experienced, they were "glad to be in this country instead of in the hands of the Russians."
POW overalls with "PW" stenciled on them
Unattributed photograph in Mariah Goode, "The Harvest of 1945: German POW Camps Filled Door County Labor Shortage," Door County Pulse July 1, 2005 (
Nevertheless, evidence of contact between the German POWs and Grinnell civilians is slight. Larry Ellis maintained that the POWs worked at the very back of the canning factory,
by the cooling canal, that was a[n] open area. It was screened in, had a roof on it, came down, oh there was a screened area maybe four or five feet high from your waist up to about a foot from the top of the building. It was all screened in so you had plenty of air moving through there. They'd stay right there and that's where they guarded them at. 
Apparently in this area the POWs would box the canned corn, working in isolation from most other laborers in the factory. Given this separation and the fact that the entire POW contingent went back to Toledo each night, few were the Grinnellians who met one of these Germans, now far from their homes.
Grinnell Herald-Register September 20, 1945
The only one of the POWs at work in Grinnell whose name made it into the public record was a man whom the newspaper called Wilhelm Liesenbach. Unlike the Germans at work inside the canning factory, Liesenbach was part of the contingent put to work out in the fields. According to a brief report in the Herald-Register, the POWs had finished their day's labor, and had already boarded a truck for the drive back to the factory when Liesenbach's hat blew off. Jumping off the moving truck, Liesenbach landed on his head. The resulting fracture took him to St. Francis hospital, although how long he stayed there the paper did not say. Indeed, I could find no other record of Liesenbach at all, making me wonder if perhaps the name—better known as a place in central Germany—might have been misreported. But I could find no other evidence of contact between the POWs and townsfolk.

POWs who did similar work elsewhere seem nevertheless to have made connections with locals. As Michael Luick-Thrams reports in Signs of Life: The Correspondence of German POWs at Camp Algona, Iowa 1943-46, young Evelyn Grabow of Owatonna, Minnesota exchanged notes with POWs who worked with her at the Owatonna cannery. One German left this note of appreciation in his own creative English:
Evelyn! Last time, I was very sorry to cannot have say you good bye as I wanted to do it...The feeling, to have made the acquaintance of one person very congenious, makes me happy and I have a good knowledge of human nature. From this country I get only unagreeable experiences. This [my meeting you] is a beautiful exception....
POWs who ended up working in farmers' fields also at least occasionally established personal relations that were revived in letters after the war's end. A 1946 letter from Helmut Langenbach to a Moorhead, Minnesota farmer, Henry Peterson, is one of many examples, if exceptional in its detail. Despite the sometimes contorted spelling and grammar, the letter confirms that Peterson had made strong personal connections with the POWs who worked on his farm:
Our camp have had a good cook, a good citchen and the best Army-food-ration. And then you was coming evry Saturday with bier [sic] an cigarettes. Allway [=Always] a Hollyday [holiday] for the P.W.s of Moorhead City. Evry Sunday we drove to the Staate-park for swimming or to your sport-field...When a P.W. was sick you was helpful and has given fruits to the hospital. We have had to this time nothing for a thank [you but]...Today I will thank you again for all [the POWs you helped] through my letter.
Some Iowans also established personal relations with at least some of the POWs. For example, Chad W. Timm, writing about Iowans' encounters with POWs, quotes Gerald Haas, who was only twelve when his farmer parents employed Algona POWs. "My family hired some prisoners to pull and cut weeds on our land," Haas remembered. "....My mom always cooked and fed them their noon meal and as a result they worked very well for us." Something similar happened with the Balgemans, who had Algona POWs work on their farm. "Balgeman's father became close to two of the Germans, and kept in touch with them after they returned to Germany." Indeed, for several years after the war the Balgemans sent packages of food and clothing to their former German laborers, helping reunited families get through the worst of the post-war recovery in Germany.

Something like this may have happened in Grinnell, too, but interviews with some thirty Iowans about farm life in these years did not produce a single mention of the German POWs, let alone any evidence of on-going relationships after the prisoners returned home.
Algona Upper Des Moines September 6, 1945
Once the war was declared over, some newspapers reported that POWs might wish to remain in the US, rather than return to their native countries, a development that patriotic Americans found unsurprising if not altogether welcome. All the wheels of government were turning in a different direction, however. As provisions of the peace were settled, the US government started to close the POW camps. Toledo had only been a temporary branch camp, and it was abandoned soon after the 1945 harvest ended. Camp Algona survived longer, but it, too, gradually emptied out as the Americans transferred POWs to other facilities to expedite repatriation. The Algona camp officially closed in February, 1946, its buildings and property being ceded to the city.
Des Moines Register September 21, 1945
Back in Grinnell, the cannery continued to operate, but its future grew cloudy. In 1947 the factory managed to pack only 11,260 cases, a record low, and well below the record high of 105,000 cases packed in 1931. In 1948 output rose again to 50,000 cases, about the same number of cases that the factory had packed with the help of German POWs in 1945. However, by the time that the city of Grinnell celebrated its centennial in 1954, the canning company was gone, its factory occupied by a fertilizer enterprise.

George Kelley, who had founded and then superintended the Grinnell plant for several decades, managed his last stint at the cannery in 1934, then moved to Forth Worth, Texas where he lived with his son (who was also a cannery manager). He later moved to Los Angeles where he died in 1954. Percy Ellis, who managed the canning factory in the 1940s, also moved on, in his case to Seymour, Wisconsin, where he headed yet another cannery. Ellis died there in 1960 and was buried at St. John's Catholic cemetery in Seymour.
Gravestone for Percy Ellis, St. John's Catholic Cemetery, Seymour, Wisconsin
What about the POWs who worked in Grinnell? I could find no trace of these folk, nor did I discover evidence of later correspondence or visits, as happened with some of the POWs in Algona. These men had appeared in Grinnell on a daily basis for a month or so in late summer 1945, making few personal contacts as they were ferried back and forth from Toledo. Then, when the packing season ended, they returned to Algona, and by the beginning of 1946 were on their way back to Europe. Did they remember Grinnell? Had they made even fleeting contact with Grinnellians at the cannery or out in the fields? We may never know....
PS. Karen Groves originally put me on to this story, and along with Dorrie Lalonde of the Drake Community Library, helped me dig out some of the particulars. I thank them both. I hope that this post might find some folk from around Grinnell who recall the POWs working here, and can perhaps add some examples of personal connections with the German POWs.