Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Local Men Help Build a Road to Alaska

Although I had heard of the AlCan or Alaska Highway long ago, I had no idea that Iowans had played any part in building this vital road until I heard from Wayne Olson, whose dad, Omar Olson (1903-1969), joined other Poweshiek County men who went north to work on the highway in the early 1940s. Once I started looking into the connections, however, the whole endeavor caught my imagination: how did Iowans come to take part in this massive project, and how did they adjust to working in the far North? Today's post follows the experiences and contributions of Iowans in building the Alaska Highway in the middle of World War II.

Map Detailing the Course of the Alcan (Alaska) Highway


Since at least the 1920s there had been talk about forging a road through the forests and tundra of western Canada and Alaska, but only World War II brought urgency and agreement to the idea. After the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the idea of an invasion of Alaska grew terribly credible, persuading the American and Canadian governments to embark on building a road into Alaska. The Canadians granted the right-of-way and the Americans agreed to construct and finance building of the highway; six months after the war, they agreed, Canada would assume control and maintenance of the road. Consequently, in 1942 some 10,000 men from the Army Corps of Engineers along with seven US Army regiments (three of which were African American in the still segregated US Army) cleared a rough path from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Fairbanks, Alaska (R. E. Royall, The Alaska Highway: Second Year [Washington, DC, 1944, p. 1). Ramrodding through dense forest and bridging numerous rivers, the highway builders declared the 1500-mile road "complete" (if still quite rough) by October 25, 1942.

Even in 1942 a large number of civilians (about 7500 altogether) joined the adventure, but during 1943 the Public Roads Administration (precursor of today's Federal Highway Administration) organized more than fifty American and Canadian road-building and bridge-building construction companies—who employed more than 14,000 civilian employees—to improve, widen, and stabilize the road (ibid., p. 70), which was officially declared "open" in November 1943.

Photograph of the 1942 Iowa Construction Chiefs;
Montezuma's V. L. Lundeen is third from right, second row
("Iowa's AEF—Alaskan Expeditionary Force," Central Constructor, 20, no. 2 [July 1942]:8)

Thanks largely to the efforts of Iowa Senator Clyde L. Herring (1879-1945), Iowa construction firms gained a share of this monumental project. C. F.  Lytle Co. of Sioux City and Green Construction Company of Des Moines combined to win a management contract which permitted them to recruit seventeen Iowa construction firms, each of which had the task of working on one section of the 300+ miles at the Alaska end of the road. Among the Iowa sub-contractors were William Horrabin Construction of Iowa City, Duesenberg, Inc. of Clear Lake, and Van Buskirk Construction of Hawarden. Most important of the Iowa sub-contractors for Grinnell was V. L. Lundeen Construction of Montezuma, which dispatched crews from Poweshiek County in both 1942 and 1943 ("Iowa's AEF—Alaskan Expeditionary Force," Central Constructor 20, no. 2 [July 1942]:6).

Payments to Sub-Contractors of Lytle & Green Construction Group (The Alaska Highway: An Interim Report from the Committee on Roads, House of Representatives [Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1946], p. 45)

Contractors sought workers all over Iowa. Contracts prescribed that volunteers must be between the ages of 25 and 55, but some teenagers found their way north anyway. In order to avoid draining potential military recruits, the project sought men who were physically fit but held 3-A classification in the selective service registration, and all volunteers had to have a letter of release from their local draft board (Grinnell Herald Register, June 29, 1942). The overwhelming majority of volunteers were male, but small numbers of women also took part in the adventure, taking "stenographic and clerical jobs in camps along the rugged Alaskan Highway" (Muscatine Journal, June 29, 1943).

Over the two years of work in Alaska Vern Lundeen (1900-1958) employed about 130 local men, twenty of whom came from Grinnell (a few more in 1942 than in 1943); two Grinnell men, Roy Heiniker and Harold Gerard (1903-1983), went north both years, but most of the Grinnell volunteers went only once. Lundeen, who resided in Montezuma, recruited the largest number of workers from his hometown: nine Montezuma men joined the expedition in 1942 and eighteen in 1943 (four men, including Lundeen, worked in Alaska both years). Oskaloosa had the next largest contingent, but more than thirty other towns—mostly in Poweshiek County—sent at least one worker north. In addition, Lundeen hired a half-dozen specialists—"scoop" operators and big machine mechanics—from outside Iowa.

Newspaper Photograph of the 1942 Poweshiek County Men Prepared to Depart Grinnell
(Grinnell Herald-Register, June 29, 1942; special thanks to Monique Shore for taking his photograph from the archived copies of the newspaper)

Both years the local men began their adventure at the Grinnell Depot, where they boarded special trains that took them first to Minneapolis, and then onward into Edmonton, Alberta Province. Ernest Badger (1909-1970), for example, told readers of the Grinnell Herald-Register that his train left Grinnell June 26, 1942, reaching Calgary on the 28th. It took five days to get the men on the next leg of the journey to Edmonton where they spent another eight days, "just loafing and sightseeing" (Grinnell Herald-Register, August 24, 1942). Finally, on July 12th they flew on to Alaska, landing near Fairbanks, since the Lundeen men had as their assignment a section of the road in Alaska close to the Canada border.
Some of the 1943 Alaska Highway Volunteers at Grinnell Depot, Awaiting Their Train North (June 1943):
Omar Olson in hat at far right; John Queen, then from Oskaloosa but later partner with Olson in Grinnell furniture store, Queen & Olson, is fifth from right, partly visible; photo courtesy of Wayne Olson)

The long flights—ten or eleven hours in airplanes most of whose interiors had been cleared out for hauling freight—proved sickening for some men, especially for those who had never before been in an airplane. The men also had the novelty and excitement of seeing the Canadian Rockies and the Alaska Range, pristine mountainous landscapes to contrast with Iowa's plains back home. Owen Lawson (1923-1989), for example, a nineteen-year-old Jefferson man, in July wrote his parents about the stunning sights he had encountered: 

We went through the mountains, and it was a very beautiful sight. All the mountains are snow-capped and I saw an ice glacier across the river ... Coming to camp, we saw a great big brown bear, and, man, was he a big one—for he was way over six feet...That trip...through the mountains was the coldest I ever had on the 5th of July (Jefferson Herald, July 16, 1942).

Bern Brunsting (1922-2001), a Sioux Center volunteer, was similarly enthusiastic:

The trip was very thrilling. The only real way to see the mountains is from the air. The spectacular sight can only be told in travel folders; I'll not attempt it. The fifty-foot spruce trees look like a well-kept lawn. They don't look much larger than blades of grass from 15,000 feet. It seems funny to look at the clouds from the top. Try it some time and see how beautiful they are...[Our trip] took us about 10 hours, ten of the most thrilling and interesting hours I've ever spent in my life (Sioux Center News, July 16, 1942).

Even though it was July, Alaska's 1942 summer weather surprised the Iowa men with four frosts (Grinnell Herald-Register, August 24, 1942). Overall, however the Alaska weather proved satisfactory to most. Peter Conroy, who worked in Alaska for Clear Lake's Duesenberg Company and regularly posted reports home to the Mason City Globe-Gazette, told readers in early August that "the weather here now is just like the weather in Iowa in late fall—shorter days, cold nights and frequent rains." Despite the mosquitoes and the occasional chill, some men on hot days would work without shirts (August 15, 1942). Ernie Badger, the Grinnell man, was more reserved, telling readers that he liked the country "when the weather is good" (Grinnell Herald-Register, August 24, 1942).

Undated Photograph of V. L. Lundeen (center, white shirt) and Crew With Alaska Women
(Duesenberg, Alaska Highway Expeditionary Force, p. 143)

Vern Lundeen, writing from Calgary in 1942, described the Canadians as "very friendly and congenial" (Montezuma Republican, July 13, 1942), a sentiment many Poweshiek County men repeated. In Alaska, however, the Iowans encountered indigenous people, with whom they unconsciously shared their germs (with devastating effect) and whom they saw with varying perspectives. Vern Lundeen thought that the women he met looked "grand," "just as nature meant them to [look]. They look so pure but I guess the reason is the high tax on cosmetics and all unnecessary items" (Mount Pleasant News, August 21, 1942). Bern Brunsting had a different take, telling his family that he had "seen some of those Eskimos and they're not so hot" (Sioux Center News, July 16, 1942). Apparently the indigenous peoples responded warmly to the Americans, but overall the results of the encounter were not so positive. In 1992, when Alaskans were organizing a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the highway, a representative of the Yukon Indian Council (probably should be Council of Yukon First Nations) noted that, "'because of the things the highway brought'—disease, alcohol, a cash economy and other things that permanently changed the Natives' nomadic lifestyle—'we felt we couldn't celebrate it'" (Cedar Rapids Gazette, October 25, 1992).

Each construction company had a main camp on its assigned section of the road, and erected smaller camps along the way, as workers made progress on the road. In some places, tents served as sleeping quarters until more permanent barracks arrived. Some of the barracks sent north came from dis-assembled Civilian Conservation Corps buildings, but quonset huts or other structures served elsewhere.

Cedar Rapids Gazette, June 24, 1942.

Ernie Badger said that his group had begun life in Alaska in a log cabin, but had soon transferred to new barracks fitted out with bunk beds grouped in twos. Badger told Grinnell readers that he and fellow-Grinnellian Oliver Patrick (1503 Elm St.) occupied the lower bunks while Willis Potts (d. 1984) and Warren Grooms (1912-1955), also from Grinnell, slept above them (Grinnell Herald-Register, August 24, 1942). 

Photograph of some of the Poweshiek County men playing cards; Vern Lundeen is 2nd from left
(Engineering News-Record, vol. 130 [January 21, 1943]:91)

The work day in Alaska was a long one. In 1942 

most of the contractors worked two 11-hour shifts a day, seven days a week...Work, work and more work was the only program—day and night, seven days a week...Entertainment was simply non-existent. There was no recreational program provided for soldiers or civilians (Harold W. Richardson, "Alcan—America's Glory Road: Part II—Supply, Equipment and Camps," Engineering News-Record, vol. 129[December 31, 1942]:42/914). 

The pay was not bad, especially if compared to Depression-era pay checks. Truck-drivers earned between $1.20 and $1.55 an hour; tractor drivers and grader operators earned a bit more—$1.60/hour—and power shovel operators received $2/hour. Most unskilled labor received just under $1/hour, although everyone earned time-and-a-half for overtime. The Public Roads Administration had established these rates for all contractors on the project (The Alaska Highway: An Interim Report from the Committee on Roads, House of Representatives [Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1946], p. 180). 

The Employment Contract for Omar Olson with Lundeen Construction Co.
(Courtesy of Wayne Olson)

Supervisors received monthly salaries, independent of the number of hours worked. Omar Olson, for example, who signed a contract as Camp Superintendent in April 1943, received $400 per month. Charles Lear, who was hired as head cook, received $295/month (Lundeen Collection, Poweshiek County Historical and Genealogical Society Montezuma, IA). From each month's totals, the contractors subtracted taxes as well as a charge for room and board—between $1.50 and $2 per day (Harold W. Richardson, "Alcan—America's Glory Road. Part II: Supply, Equipment and Camps," Engineering News-Record, vol. 129 [December 31, 1942]:42/914). The resulting paychecks were not especially fat, but without many places where the men might spend the money, they managed to save or send home substantial amounts.

Undated Photograph of Bulldozer Flattening Spruce Forest to Forge Primitive Road
(J. David Rogers, "Construction of the Alcan Highway in 1942," https///

Much of the Canadian section of the road required flattening dense forest and devising bridges to ford the numerous rivers and creeks. In Alaska where most of the Iowa men worked, the chief complication for building the road was muskeg. A kind of peat that decomposed over time, muskeg provided a thick layer of insulation that kept the permafrost beneath it frozen. However, as temperatures rose in the warm season, and especially once contractors tried to move the organic material to fashion a roadway, the earth beneath the vegetation melted and disintegrated, gradually swallowing heavy machinery. Contractors often resorted to creating corduroy roads over the muskeg, helping preserve the insulation and distribute the weight of vehicles. 

Photograph of Bulldozer Captured by Muskeg
(Rogers, "Construction of Alcan Highway)

Like most of the contractors, Lundeen provided his own equipment, for which the government paid rent. But getting all that machinery to the work site (a job coordinated by Doak Construction of Des Moines) proved difficult; most of the caterpillar tractors, scrapers, and other items traveled part of the way by rail, then by sea, and then again by rail. Some of the machinery was trucked north, an exhausting if less complex delivery ("Iowans Again to Work on Alaska Road," Des Moines Register, March 28, 1943). Delays inevitably attached to the shipments, whether over land or sea, slowing construction progress. For example, only in mid-August 1942 did the Duesenberg group from Clear Lake collect the team's machinery at the Valdez docks (Mason City Globe-Gazette, August 25, 1942). 

Undated Photograph of Lundeen Men Loading Cat and Scraper for Shipment to Alaska
(Alaska Highway Expeditionary Force, p. 36).

While waiting for the arrival of the rest of the Lundeen heavy machinery in 1942, Ernie Badger was driving a "Ford gravel truck" (Grinnell Herald Register, August 24, 1942). Robert McLaughlin (1901-1993), a Newton resident who signed up with the Lundeen crew in 1943 (and who passed his last years at Grinnell's Mayflower Community), was also a gravel truck driver, helping create a hard surface for the improved road. As he recounted to Herbert C. Lanks on a night-time run to and from a gravel pit, McLaughlin had been a watchmaker back home, but, his doctor having ordered him to work out-of-doors, he had decided to join the Alcan Highway effort. So, there in Alaska's summer darkness an Iowa jeweler drove a five-ton truck back and forth along the emerging roadway (Highway to Alaska [New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1944], p. 163).

Some of the construction machinery on-site
(Engineering News-Record, January 14, 1943, p. 63/131)

Under the difficult conditions of work, often with low temperatures and rough terrain, the machinery frequently broke down, slowing the highway's advance (Richardson, "Part II," 35-40/908-912; idem, "Alcan—America's Glory Road: Part III: Construction Tactics," Engineering News-Record 130[January 14, 1943]:136/68). Ray C. Haman, whose father was part of the Duesenberg gang, traveled north along the highway in 1943, and in a self-published diary of his journey tells readers how often he was needed to help repair machinery (Adventure on the Alcan [Alaska Highway] [1945]). The rarity of spare parts led to cannibalizing disabled machines.

As hard as the work was and as exciting as the adventure might have been, there were, of course, costs. Experts have concluded that, in addition to the millions of dollars expended on the highway, some 30 men died during construction, including twelve soldiers who drowned when a ferry capsized in May 1942 at Charlie Lake near Ft. St. John.  According to the Lytle and Green 1942 project manager, civilian road-builders posted a better safety record.

Iowa contractors established a magnificent record. One man contracted pneumonia...three men suffered broken legs on bridge construction and one a broken arm...There were a few back injuries and hernias, none serious... (O. W. Crowley, "Iowans Work on the Alcan Highway," Central Constructor 20, no. 7 [December 1942]:12-13).

Milton Duesenberg offered other examples of injuries workers sustained:

Although most men remained healthy...there were cases of extreme homesickness, nervous breakdowns, food poisoning, and accidents. One sawmill hand lost his life when a tree fell on him, and a bridgeman had to be transported to the Fairbanks hospital for treatment of a broken collar bone and several ribs...Cleo Edgar of the Sears crew lost the sight in his left eye while repairing a broken cable...and a mechanic was knocked cold when he miscued while driving a tack pin and it...hit him in the head (Alaska Expeditionary Force, pp. 157, 159).

One of the injured was a Grinnell man, John Collum (1896-1978), who was part of the 1943 Lundeen work force; when the truck he was driving went over a fifty-foot embankment he suffered serious back injury (Newton Daily News, August 2, 1943).

By mid-October 1942 a rough, "pioneer" highway had been cleared all along the 1500+ miles with timber bridges fording most of the several hundred rivers and streams. A year later, the entire road had been widened, some of the worst obstacles improved, and most bridges made permanent. With the end of construction in sight, some of the volunteers headed home in September, but most Iowans departed Alaska in mid-October. Unlike the trip north, the route home for most of the Iowa men required a voyage of several days from Valdez to Seattle, bringing sea sickness to some. From Seattle, most took trains back to the midwest where they later appeared before the local Rotary, Kiwanis, and other organizations to share stories of their Alaska adventure (Mason City Globe-Gazette, October 30, 1942). A few men chose to drive home over the road to which they and thousands of others had given so much. For example, two Newton men, Forrest Warner and Robert McLaughlin, drove south from Fairbanks all the way to Edmonton (Newton Daily News, November 19, 1943), then took more conventional transport the rest of the way.

Mason City Globe-Gazette, November 13, 1942

Back home in Iowa, relatives of the Alaska Highway workers could learn details of their husbands, fathers, children and neighbors through the letters that most men sent regularly. However, since the authors of these letters knew that their missives were censored, the recipients could never be sure how close to reality the letters hewed. Fortunately, there were other routes by which to learn what life was like for the Iowa men in Alaska. As my report here shows, local newspapers often published letters from those working on the highway, thereby spreading news, however censored, of life up North. Then, in late January 1943 the Des Moines radio station WHO broadcast a report by H. W. Richardson, western editor of Engineering News-Record, who reported on the "Twelve Hundred Iowa Fighters in Construction" (Central Constructor, 20, no. 9[February 1943]:5). Perhaps there were similar broadcasts in other Iowa cities.

Ames Daily Tribune, August 14, 1943

Hollywood also tried to tap into public interest in the Alcan adventure, releasing in summer 1943 a feature film called "Alaska Highway," starring Richard Arlen (1899-1976) and Jean Parker (1915-2005). According to news reports, "the picture is full of thrills and breathtaking moments," depicting "a landslide, a forest fire, toppling death-dealing trees and all sorts of unexpected dilemmas" (Ames Daily Tribune, August 14, 1943). Iowans might also find in their newspapers advertisements that encouraged them to visit Alaska over the newly-built highway once the war was over.
Conoco Newspaper Advertisement, Burlington Hawk-Eye Gazette, July 9, 1943


Most analysts agree that forging a road through the wilds of British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska in the 1940s was well worth the cost and effort. If originally defined as fulfilling a narrowly-military goal, helping defend Alaska against the anticipated attack of the Japanese, the Alaska Highway in peacetime helped integrate Alaska into the Lower 48 and brought the American and Canadian economies closer, although the impact upon indigenous peoples was much less happy. 

But what about the men who went north to build this road? What did it do for them? Breaking through the forest and permafrost of the North, the Iowans could imitate the nineteenth-century pioneers who first made their way into the plains that became Iowa. Many of the project veterans regarded their Alaska experience as life-changing. Walter Mason, looking back on his experiences fifty years earlier, told a reporter in 1992 that "the road's part of me and I'm a part of it...I've had a number of experiences, but none more profound than that" (Cedar Rapids Gazette, October 25, 1992). Iowa City resident Bob Russell told an interviewer, "It was a wonderful experience. I loved it," despite—or perhaps exactly because of—the hardships (Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 6, 1987). 

Not all the volunteers were so enthusiastic, but the fact that many obituaries of Alaska Highway veterans mention their brief adventure in Alaska is telling. For example, when Clifford Benton, Jr. (1924-2008) died in Tiburon, California in 2008his obituary—full of accomplishments in real estate and insurance, outstanding volunteer contributions to suicide prevention, and years of singing with men's choruses in California—began the recollection of achievement by remembering that "his first job at the age of 17 was building the Alaska Highway...." Similarly, when former Grinnellian Warren Baker (1912-1984) died in Abilene, Texas in 1984, forty years after his Alaska experience, his obituary recalled that "During World War II he worked on the Alcan Highway Project." Likewise, the obituary of Omar Olson (1903-1969), who farmed, worked as a traveling salesman, and co-owned a successful Grinnell furniture store during a career of more than forty years, recalled that he "worked on the Alcan Highway with the Lundeen Construction Co." 

Eighty years after the first Iowans traveled north to work on the Alaska Highway, living memories of that war-time experience have melted away. Other happenings, including, of course, the enormously significant moments of war in Europe and Asia, have outshone the collective memory of the highway project. But for the many Iowa men who tamed the wilds between Alberta and Fairbanks, the Alaska Highway was an important milestone. As the eighteen-year-old Harlan volunteer, Gordon Phipps, put it: "I'll be a man when I get out of this country" ("Caught Salmon in his Pants," Central Constructor, vol. 20, no. 3 [August 1942]:8).


If you are interested in learning more about the construction of the Alaska Highway, you might find the Alaska documentary interesting and helpful:  The 67-minute Hollywood feature film, Alaska Highway, is also available for free on the internet: There are also numerous official and unofficial materials available on the world wide web.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

1936: When it was Cold, It was Very, Very Cold. And When it Was Hot, It Was Boiling!

If you were living in central Iowa in mid-July 2022, you might have heard commentators remark upon how hot it was in Iowa and wonder whether July 2022 was the hottest July in Iowa history. On July 21st, for example, Matt Kelly told RadioIowa listeners that, hot as it was, July 2022 was not the hottest. Kelly told listeners that that honor—if that's the right word—goes to July 1936 when Iowans had to contend with extraordinarily hot temperatures and precious little rainfall. Several other commentators made the same point.

1936 Photo of snowbound train engine

What made the extreme heat of 1936 July ironic was that 1936 also brought to Iowa one of the worst winters on record. Ice-cold temperatures that year followed an early January blizzard and together they helped exhaust local coal supplies. The deep freeze, which lasted through much of February, killed off livestock, restricted travel, and closed down public schools until such time as the railroads could bring in more coal. In the words of a US Department of Agriculture publication, " the short space of about six months, Iowa has experienced the most prolonged severe cold and the most prolonged severe heat in 117 years" (Climatological Data: Iowa Section, vol. 47, no. 7 [July 1936]:61).

Today's post examines Grinnell's experience with the extreme weather of 1936, which gave folk one of the coldest winters followed by what was probably the area's hottest summer.


Headline from January 2, 1936 Grinnell Register

Cold weather in Grinnell arrived with the 1936 New Year's celebrations. A heavy snow began on New Year's Eve, and, although temperatures moderated the next day, a stiff wind from the northwest caused considerable drifting, temporarily blocking highways as well as the north-south Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad line. More importantly, the snow cover—about 10 inches by the time the storm passed—proved an excellent collaborator for the still colder weather approaching Grinnell.

National Weather Service Temperature Data for Grinnell, January 1936

National Weather Service records indicate that after this first snow passed, Grinnell experienced only moderately cold weather. On January 4th the low bottomed out at +5 degrees and fell three more degrees on the 5th. Over the next two weeks, overnight lows varied, but daytime temperatures remained moderate for the most part. Indeed, on the 12th and 14th Grinnell saw high temperatures of 40 degrees. Townsfolk began to look for a January thaw.

But more serious cold was on the horizon. Overnight on January 18th the thermometer reading fell to zero; the next night it registered -15, and on the 20th overnight temperatures dropped to -22. On the 22nd, when a blizzard hit town, the low dropped to -25; the next night was slightly better (-23), and better yet on the 24th (-13). Then on the night of the 25th temperatures fell again to -22; the last several days of the month all saw overnight lows in the minus-teens. With about fifteen inches of snow on the ground, even daytime temperatures remained cold (Grinnell Herald, January 21, 1936). Several times in late January thermometers saw daytime highs of ten degrees. Most days, however, thermometers never broke zero: -10 on the 23rd; -4 on the 24th and 26th, and -1 on the 27th. On January 27th the Grinnell Register reported that "the mercury has stayed below the zero mark continuously since Monday of last week, with the exception of Saturday afternoon from 3:00 to 4:00 o'clock, when it registered 3 above" (January 27, 1936). 

An Unidentified Grinnell Home, Winter 1936

Grant Gale (1903-1998), who at the time lived on north Summer Street, kept track of the cold in his daily ledger. Problems for the Gales began on January 13 when the "furnace blew up," although what Gale did about the disaster he did not say. Five days later, the second blizzard of the month hit town, bringing along ice-cold temperatures. Gale noted that at noon on January 18th the thermometer read -14; in the morning of the following day it was -15, and -22 on the 20th. January 22nd brought a "terrible blizzard," "heavy snow," and a low temperature of -27. Gale reported below-zero readings for each of the last days of January. In a later interview, he recalled that

we had this terrible northwest wind that swept across the football field. We lived over this way. It was twenty-five below zero and I remember staying home that day...I just shoveled coal in one door and ashes out the other...I think the warmest it got that day was twenty-five below zero. And this wind just swept across the campus (Grant O. Gale Interview).

Even in January, not everyone had coal. Rose Stoops (1895-2001), who in 1936 was living on a farm near Deep River, wrote that, because snow had blocked roads to the coal mine at What Cheer, they ran out of coal already in January. Consequently, "our fuel was anything we could burn, old fence posts, an old maple tree that a neighbor had helped Harry cut down...We survived the winter, but my canned goods froze in the cellar." Grant Gale learned that some farmers resorted to burning corn; "we didn't have anything else to burn," they told him.

All across the area householders discovered frozen pipes, generating lots of work for those plumbers who could get through the snow. Freezing temperatures also stilled automobiles, flooding local garages with requests for help (Grinnell Register, January 23, 1936). The Herald reported that the "bitter northwest wind...swept down straight from the north pole, causing countless frozen cars and fingers and piling up [snow in] the newly opened roads..." (January 24, 1936). 

Photograph of Unidentified Grinnell-Area Farm, Winter 1936

The extreme cold slowed the work of plowing roads, especially in the country. "There are still many Poweshiek county families who find it almost an impossibility to get to town to do their trading," the Register reported on the 27th. Dick Sears (1914-1992), who lived on the Penrose Avenue extension, about seven miles north of town, in a 1992 interview remembered that 

in 1936 the roads was [sic] closed for everything but teams [of horses-dk] for a month. There was one full month that there never was a car went by here. We used teams—bobsleds—to get to where the road was open. Usually you had a bunch of neighbors who'd go in on the bobsled to get groceries in town and come out along the way. And the mail was the same way. The mail couldn't get through, so maybe once a week or every two or three days or something somebody would get through so they'd bring all the mail for his neighbors along the way (Richard [Dick] Sears Interview).

Truckers found themselves marooned in town if they weren't so unfortunate as to be stranded out on the road somewhere.

February 1936 Photograph of Ernie Renaud, William Belcher,and Forest Belcher atop a snowdrift as an automobile passes through cleared roadway (Grinnell Weather Events, Snowstorms, Drake Community Library Archive, Pamphlets, 5.4)

Crews kept the main roads mostly clear, but country roads were repeatedly "choked by drifts." "The Cold Wave Is Still On," the Herald announced on the 31st, pointing out that the "thermometer went to 19 below last night" (Grinnell Herald, January 31, 1936). As National Weather Service data confirm, January 1936 in Grinnell was about ten degrees colder than normal.

Page 5 of Grant Gale's 1936 Ledger (Grant O. Gale Personal Papers, 1850-1995, Grinnell College Special Collections and Archives, US-IaGG MS/MS 01.115, Box 5, Item 5)

February brought no relief. Gale's ledger reported a temperature of -16 February 1st, -3 on February 2nd, followed on the 3rd by the "worst blizzard in 20 years." Gale observed below-zero temperatures every day until February 8th, which saw what Gale called the "worst blizzard since 1900." After the storm passed, the ledger shows that temperatures plunged precipitously, bottoming out at -18. On the 9th Gale reported that he and his family were "snowbound," the thermometer dipping to -18 on the 9th and 10th, and -17 on the 10th and 11th. A brief moderation in temperature soon gave way to more frigid weather. Gale recorded a low of -15 on Valentine's Day, -10 on the 15th, -13 on the 16th, and -12 on the 17th. The bitter cold finally broke on the 20th, but not before recording a -20 on the 18th and -15 on the 19th (Grant O. Gale Personal Papers, 1850-1995, Grinnell College Special Collections, US-IaGG MS/MS 01.115, Box 5, Item 5).

Grinnell Register, February 10, 1936

As a consequence of the extended cold wave and the snow blocking roads and railroads, coal supplies were exhausted. In early February school officials, explaining that the downtown junior and senior high schools consumed between four and five tons of coal a day, announced that they could not risk running out of coal entirely, which would lead to freezing the building's pipes. With snow preventing delivery of more coal, the superintendent thought it best to cancel classes until a sufficient supply was in hand. The grade schools had not yet burned all their coal, so Parker, Cooper, and Davis remained open for a time, but then they, too, closed (Grinnell Herald, February 4, 1936; ibid., February 17, 1936). The high school and junior high reopened briefly, once some coal reached town, but classes were canceled for almost two weeks (Grinnell Register, February 6, 1936; Grinnell Herald, February 17, 1936). 

As if to illustrate the problem, the Herald reported that on February 3rd a freight train was stuck in Grinnell-area snow drifts said to be a quarter of a mile long and ten feet high. A Rock Island freight sank in snow east of town, requiring several hours to extract the engine and caboose; a passenger train reached Grinnell three hours late, then stalled at the High Street crossing for a half hour when the engine froze (February 4, 1936). Snow drifts were everywhere and often so deep as to render light snow plows useless (Grinnell Herald, February 11, 1936; Grinnell Register, February 10, 1936). 

A Photo of an Unspecified Train Being Shoveled Out of Snow Drifts, Winter 1936

By February 10, concerns about a coal shortage resurfaced, as 26-mile-per-hour winds blew accumulated snow back across roads and railroads only recently cleared of drifts. The planned resumption of classes at the high school did not occur after all, and numerous other items on the calendar were canceled. Some parts of downtown—like the Beyer block on Fourth Avenue, for example—were without heat; Roy Bates (1880-1971) moved his Floral Shop elsewhere until more coal arrived; Joseph Large (1874-1948) installed two stoves to keep his pharmacy operating, and the jewelry store of Frank Bartling (1880-1958) and Richard Nuckolls (1882-1943) had a gasoline heater in operation. The cold and the shortage of coal canceled numerous public events. Athletic contests and club meetings all succumbed to the weather, and a playwright who expected to reach Grinnell in time to oversee rehearsals of his play had to request a postponement (Scarlet and Black, February 19, 1936). 

Scarlet and Black, February 15, 1936

Unlike many householders and the city's public schools, Grinnell College had sufficient supplies of coal (Scarlet and Black, February 15, 1936), and college officials offered to open the men's gymnasium to anyone needing refuge from the cold. The secure warmth of campus, however, did not spare the college president from experiencing the bitter weather. One ill-fated train captured President John Nollen and his wife, who were en route home from a visit to Nebraska when they were stranded for 25 hours near Colfax because of an immense snowdrift. Trains on the Rock Island east-west route were often delayed, newspapers reported, but at least they continued to run. By contrast, trains on the north-south route "have been completely abandoned," newspapers said (Grinnell Register, February 10, 1936; Scarlet and Black, February 12, 1936).

Grinnell Herald, February 11, 1936

The snow and cold proved dangerous to humans and their animals. During a weekend snow, Dave Haines and Ted Youngman, trying to push their automobile from a snow drift just west of town, were victims of another car, whose driver "was unable to see in the blinding storm" and struck the men (Grinnell Herald, February 11, 1936); both Haines and Youngman ended up in the hospital. When fire broke out at a hog house on the T. J. Moore (1891- 1990) farm southwest of town 26 hogs burned to death; the city's firemen "were unable to make the run on account of the raging blizzard and drifts" (Grinnell Register, February 10, 1936). All across Iowa whole farmsteads were leveled by fires made unreachable by the snow (for several cases in Boone County, see H. Roger Grant and L. Edward Purcell, "A Year of Struggle: Excerpts from a Farmer's Diary, 1936," The Palimpsest, vol. 57, no. 1 [January 1976]:15-16).

Grinnell Herald, February 7, 1936

Iowa had had many cold winters, but local newspapers began to describe 1936 as one of the worst. In early February the Herald called January the "most severe in many years" (February 7, 1936). A few days later the newspaper described the weekend blizzard as "One of the Worst Storms Even in Memory of Old Timers" (ibid., February 11, 1936). The Grinnell Register, inquiring of some of the town's oldest residents, told readers that 92-year-old B. A. Stowe "couldn't remember when he had experienced colder weather." Judge T. J. Noll (1843-1943), then 93 years old, thought that he had lived through colder weather, but the worst cold he could recall had taken place in 1862! (January 23, 1936).


As cold as it had been that winter, summer 1936 turned out to be among the hottest ever in Iowa. According to one account, seven of the hottest ten days in Iowa history came in the summer of 1936, killing hundreds of Iowans. Residents of Des Moines managed to survive fifteen days in a row in which the high temperature reached triple digits.

Extract from the Des Moines Register, July 20, 2019

Summer 1936 was also torrid in Grinnell, but June's weather did not betray the oven that was on its way to Grinnell: only five days in June saw the high temperature reach into the 90s. July, however, was something else. The first few days of the month were hot, if not exceptionally hot. But beginning with the Fourth of July, when the thermometer shot up to 105, Grinnell's citizens endured fourteen days in a row when the daily high reached 100 or above. The first week was torture, but the accumulating heat grew unendurable as the hot spell stretched into the second week: on July 11th the local weather station recorded a high of 104; the next day it reached 105 and peaked at a record-setting 108 on the 13th. The next two days saw only the slightest improvement before the thermometer gradually fell. Only on July 18 did the daily high temperature "cool" to 97 degrees. On the 25th another brief spurt of fire warmed up the town, with the record-setting high temperature of 108 degrees appearing again on July 26th.

National Weather Service Temperature Data for Grinnell, July 1936

Grant Gale (1903-1998) who continued to enter daily temperatures in his private ledger, reported on July 6th the "beginning of hot spell." July 9th was, he thought, "hot," and July 12th "very hot." The next day Gale entered the high temperature—106—and on the 14th recorded a high of 107. Unhappily for the later historian, the Gale family then set off for vacation in Michigan, interrupting this local report on Grinnell's fiery summer (Gale Personal Papers, Box 5, Item 5).

Because of the July 4th holiday, local newspapers also did not comment upon the heat until July 6th. As the Grinnell Herald-Register put it, "old man weather turned on the heat Saturday, July 4, and has forgotten to turn it off so far." Although the hot spell was still only a few days old, the newspaper observed that "the paving on Highway No. 6 west of Grinnell...buckled badly near the Robinson Filling Station" (July 6, 1936). The next issue of the newspaper confirmed that "Yes! It Still is Pretty Hot," listing the high temperatures July 4-9 (ibid., July 9, 1936). When the newspaper hit the streets again on the 13th, it carried word confirming "Tenth Day of Over 100 Degrees," noting that "little relief is in sight." According to the Herald-Register, a thermometer left in the sun on the 12th registered an incredible 136 degrees, "evidence of the type of heat we are undergoing...when in the sun" (ibid., July 13, 1936). The theme recurred in the next issue of the Herald-Register, which observed that "The Heat Wave Is Still in Evidence." A brief article began by listing the daily high temperatures from July 4th through noon on the 16th. The only day on that list that escaped triple digits was the noontime reading on the 16th, by which time the temperature was "only" 97, but on its way past 100 again that afternoon (ibid., July 16, 1936).

Grinnell Herald-Register, July 16, 1936

In boiling weather like this, people in the Grinnell area suffered. Many remarked that sleep indoors was impossible, as the extreme heat had built up within their houses. One effort to moderate the consequences of the heat wave was the installation of a water spray at Davis school. Someone had the idea of inverting a lawn sprinkler over the paved surface west of the school. Twice a day officials turned on the water, providing a cooling spray in which the kids could play: 10-10:30 each morning and again from 4-5 each afternoon. According to local reports, "over 600 children visited the school Tuesday afternoon when the sprinkler was turned on for the first time, and large crowds were on hand again when the cooler was used Wednesday" and Thursday (ibid.). Not everyone made it to the sprinkler, however, and the news began to report on the impact the heat was having on people. By the middle of July more than 200 Iowans had died from the heat. I could not confirm any Grinnell deaths attributable to the weather, but clearly stifling temperatures were having their impact. On July 16th, for instance, neighbors found 91-year-old John Goodfellow (1845-1940), who lived alone at 833 High Street, "overcome by the heat." They helped get him to the hospital (ibid., July 20, 1936). No doubt others—especially the aged and those who lived alone—encountered similar crises because of the heat wave.

Grinnell Herald-Register, July 20, 1936

Because farming was crucial to the Grinnell economy, locals paid rapt attention to the impact of the heat upon crops. J. L. McIlrath (1871-1955), who contributed a column on "Farm News" to the Herald-Register, worried about the corn. "Another whole week has passed," McIlrath wrote in mid-July, 

since we were sure we must have rain at once if growing crops are to survive...The hope of rain has been held out to us from day to day by the weather bureau [and] has kept us in suspense...The grain is so dry and  brittle that much of it is hulling in the threshing process, something seldom ever known before...

McIlrath went on to bemoan the harmful invasion of grasshoppers. "Great swarms of the insects fly ahead of vehicles that pass through the field," he reported to readers (ibid., July 20, 1936).

Dick Sears (1914-1992), one of twenty persons interviewed in 1992 for the project Voices from the Past, remembered that "Grasshoppers just about took for everything green...Alfalfa was one of the things that they liked real well, and they went right in, helped themselves" (Richard Sears Interview). Isadore Berman (1924-2021) also recalled "flocks of grasshoppers" in 1936. "They devoured everything in sight...," he said; "they ate everything that was edible or inedible. Just a tremendous crop of grasshoppers" (Isadore Berman Interview). Marian Dunham (1919-2008) reported a less destructive encounter with grasshoppers in 1936: she thought that "there were some [grasshoppers], chewed up the place a few times," but she did not recall the insects destroying an entire crop. Nevertheless, she remembered that when she went to the farm pump to get a drink, "the pump would cough up a little bit of water and a few corpses of different bugs and that was terribly frustrating" (Marian Dunham Interview). 

1938 Photograph of Corn Shocks 
(Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Sheldon Dick, Photographer)

As McIlrath pointed out, drought was even more damaging than the insects that followed it. The ground, having endured weeks of scorching temperatures without any rain, was very dry; many fields revealed networks of deep cracks. Elmer Powers, who farmed in Boone County, told his diary that as he crossed his fields he thought he could "drop my pliers down out of sight in these cracks" (Grant and Purcell, p. 24). Martin Pearce remembered a barley field which, when seen that autumn, "was just as bare as plowed ground. It never raised a weed or a spear of grass. That dry weather just cooked that whole field." Robert Dimit, recalling his dad's farm, told Frank Heath in 2013 that "there was no crops, no hay" in 1936. To feed the cattle, his father resorted to cutting down the corn that remained and tying it into shocks where it remained until it was fed to the animals (Frank Heath, "Conversations with Iowa Farmers"). 

Undated Photograph of Parched, Cracked Earth

Iowa was spared the dreadful black clouds of dust that affected the worst-hit areas of the "Dust Bowl," but that does not mean that Iowans did not feel the effects. As Ginalie Swaim observed, "The clouds of dust did not stop at state boundaries. They hit Iowa, too." She quotes one Iowan from Black Hawk County who saw dust settle "so thickly on pastures that the cattle would not eat, and cows, and calves, and steers wandered about bawling their hunger" ("Dry, Dusty 1936, The Goldfinch, vol. 7, no. 4 [April 1986]:10).

When rain finally came, it arrived with a fury that undermined its usefulness. On July 20 a midday 15-minute "deluge" washed Grinnell, leaving behind a half-inch of rain, much of which disappeared before penetrating the soil (Grinnell Herald-Register, July 20, 1936). Two days later another storm briefly drenched Grinnell, dropping 0.47 inches of rain (ibid., July 23, 1936). 

In some areas the rainstorms also brought hail, bombarding corn fields, stripping anything green left on the stalks. In any case, the momentary respite that rain and clouds afforded came abruptly to an end within a few days, when temperatures once again shot up over 100 degrees. Saturday, July 25th brought a high of 107; on Sunday the thermometer reached 108 (ibid., July 27, 1936). August opened with daily high temperatures in the 90s, before showers brought relief and some moisture for crops (ibid., August 6, 1936). Despite the brief reappearance of 100 degrees in mid-August, a heavy rain on the 22nd finally put paid to a miserably hot and dry summer (ibid., August 18, 1936; ibid, August 24, 1936).

Grinnell Herald-Register, August 10, 1936


The winter's bitter cold and summer's dessicating heat made the year 1936 memorable in Grinnell. Visions of grasshopper hordes and ten-foot snowbanks survived in memory, despite the passing years and the occasional blips in Iowa weather normalcy. Back then, few saw in weather extremes hints of climate change. Rather, most saw 1936 for what it was—an unexpectedly brutal weather year that ruined many farm livelihoods and made "normal" life in town difficult. As the years passed and memories faded, the sharp outlines of 1936 receded from view, only to be revived when new bursts of heat or cold provoked questions about what was the coldest or hottest year in Grinnell. The records indicate that 1936 is a good reply to both those questions.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

The First Jews to Find Grinnell

Four years ago I posted a story about the Daniel Berman family who were, I thought, the first Jews to live in Grinnell. It turns out, however, that I was wrong about that. Thanks to a note from a reader of that post, I learned about two more Jewish families who found Grinnell a few years before Daniel Berman did. When I carried the investigation further into the late nineteenth century, I learned about yet another Jewish family that took up residence in Grinnell as early as 1900. Today's post considers these pioneering Jewish families and their history in early Grinnell.


Few if any of the 3000 or so people living in late nineteenth-century Grinnell knew a Jew; certainly there were no Jews then living in Grinnell. Of course, the overwhelmingly Christian population of town, schooled in the Christian scriptures, knew about Jews and the Jewish world into which their Jesus had come, but all that had happened almost two thousand years earlier; Jews in the contemporary world were largely unknown. By the 1880s, however, more than forty Iowa towns had welcomed Jewish immigrants (Michael J. Bell, "'True Israelites of America': The Story of the Jews in Iowa," Annals of Iowa 53 [Spring 1994]:96). The most important of these for Grinnell was Muscatine, Iowa.

Later made one of the Midwest destinations for immigrants who passed through the hands of the Industrial Removal Office, Muscatine before 1900 had already attracted a small group of Eastern European Jews (Simon Glaser, The Jews of Iowa [Des Moines, 1904], 311-312). Most of the early arrivals hailed from Leckava, a small town in Kovno gubernia of the late Russian Empire. The 1897 Russian census reported that Leckava had a population of about 1100, some 800 of whom were Jews. Some of Leckava's Jews reached Muscatine in the 1880s, hard on the heels of the pogroms that flared up in the early 1880s in Russia's Pale of Settlement. How Muscatine attracted immigrants from Leckava is unknown. But the first arrivals soon summoned relatives and neighbors, providing the Muscatine newcomers reminders of their previous home in Europe. As one report noted, "The village of Latskivoh [the Russian name for the village-DK] in the Kovno district of Lithuania seems to have had a direct pipeline to Muscatine, Iowa...." 

Google Map showing Distance Between Klaipeda and Leckava (about 80 miles)

Among the Leckava Jews who reached Muscatine were two brothers, Marcus Louis Urdangen (1873-1918) and Barney Urdangen (1864-1934). I did not find ship's manifest from either brother's immigration, but the two men later told census-takers that they had arrived in the US around 1890. Louis, as he generally called himself, is the first to appear in Poweshiek County records. Together with Ed Greenberg (1873-1936), his brother-in-law, Louis founded a dry goods business known as Urdangen and Greenberg. No later than November 1899 the partners had opened their doors in what newspapers called "The Fair building" in central Montezuma; they soon had outposts in several other south central Iowa towns (Grinnell Herald, November 28, 1899). 

Marcus Louis Urdangen (1873-1918)
Oscar Grossheim Photograph (ca. 1901)

In May 1901 the duo appeared in Grinnell where they rented space on Main Street, planning to open a "general store" (Grinnell Herald, May 3, 1901). The Golden Eagle, as they named their new Grinnell business, offered "a complete line of Clothing, Gents' Furnishings and shoes" (ibid., May 28, 1901).

Advertisement from the Grinnell Herald, May 31, 1901

Almost from the beginning, however, the newcomers ran into trouble. When, early in their occupation of the Corrough Building at 4th and Main, they declined to assume the five-year lease of the previous tenant, despite the owner's understanding that they had so agreed, the owner took them to court. Urdangen and Greenberg lost the argument, and were obliged to find replacement space, promptly reopening their store in the 900 block of Main Street, just a few steps from their previous address. Here the Golden Eagle resumed its advertising, dangling sales and low prices before Grinnell consumers. Business must not have met expectations, however, because by mid-November the local newspaper reported that Urdangen and Greenberg,were transferring their stock to Albia, "because they cannot oversee their stores in so many towns" (ibid., November 19, 1901).
Corrough Building, 901 Main Street (ca. 1905)
(Digital Grinnell)

So far as I could learn, neither Louis Urdangen nor his partner, Ed Greenberg, ever lived in Grinnell, even when operating the Golden Eagle in town. The 1900 US census reports that Louis Urdangen was then boarding at a Montezuma hotel and Greenberg, who in 1898 had married Urdangen's sister, Grace (Gute Freide) (1878-1946), was also resident in Montezuma. 

One member of the Urdangen family, however, was resident in 1900 Grinnell: Barney, the older brother to both Louis and Grace. The 1900 US Census found Barney, his wife Mollie (Malke; 1863-1952), and their five oldest children living at 511 Third Avenue, just south of the railroad tracks between Spring and Pearl Streets. Barney told the census official that he had arrived in the US in 1889, had later been naturalized (although I could not find this record), and was working as a "junk buyer" in Grinnell. The three oldest children—Libbie (Racha Liba) (1886-1940), Anna (Chana) (1888?- ), and Rebecca (Riwka) (1890?- )—had all been born in Russia. Golda (1895?-1918) was their first child born in America, followed by Louis J. (1898-1968). Esther (1901?-1933), Archie (1903-1964), Grace (1904- ), Harry (1906?- ), and Charlie (1909-1965) were all born in Grinnell. (Ethel [1910-1992] and an unnamed daughter [1913-1913] were later born in Muscatine.) Historical records reveal little about the children except that newspaper accounts of school honor-rolls regularly mentioned Golda and Esther in the years before 1910 when the family returned to Muscatine (see, for example, Grinnell Herald, June 16, 1908, when both girls were identified as honor students at Parker School). Whether any of the older girls attended Grinnell schools I could not learn.

Extract from 1911 Sanborn Insurance Map for Grinnell, Iowa, showing Third Avenue

Grinnell's newspaper at first had nothing to say about Barney Urdangen, even though Barney was then resident in town and operating a scrap metal business. It was brother Louis whose commercial enterprises attracted the newspaper's occasional attention.
Undated (ca. 1930?) Photograph of Barney Urdangen

Beginning in 1902, however, Barney placed small ads in the Grinnell Herald, alerting readers to his interest in purchasing iron. Sellers could deliver their iron to the business premises "south of the Carriage Factory," referencing the Spaulding factory just north of the railroad and west of West Street. 

Grinnell Herald, April 22, 1902

Business seems to have prospered, because Urdangen began the 1903 calendar by advertising a new undertaking which he added to his scrap metal enterprise. Opening a "New and Second-hand Store" on Commercial Street, "Opp. Herald Office," Urdangen was still soliciting scrap for his yard on Third Avenue, but he also advertised "an entirely new line of goods: Men's Clothing and Furnishings, Boots and Shoes, Tinware, and most anything you want at prices that defy competition." At the same site Urdangen offered "second-hand goods," including "household goods, stoves and articles of all kinds" (Grinnell Herald, January 2, 1903). 

Extract of Page 6 of 1898 Sanborn Insurance Map of Grinnell, IA

About a month later he purchased the building on Commercial Street from which he ran his second-hand shop. The local newspaper reported that Urdangen planned to add a third story and rebuild the front, but the new owner seems never to have completed these improvements, as today's building still has just two stories (Grinnell Herald, May 15, 1903).

2015 Google Street view Photo of building that was formerly 806 Commercial,
home to Barney Urdangen's Second-Hand Store

An indication of Urdangen's success was the growing list of properties he purchased. In May 1904 he acquired title to the building across the street from his store, immediately renting it out to John Spencer, a local African American contractor (ibid., May 3, 1904; ibid., June 7, 1904). In early 1905 Urdangen bought the W. W. Stowe office building at the corner of Main and Commercial (ibid., February 24, 1905) and in May 1906 purchased the old Grinnell House at the corner of Main and Fourth, telling reporters that he intended to remodel the building to install a restaurant on the north side and use the south side for his second-hand store (ibid., May 8, 1906; ibid., June 12, 1906). This plan must have stimulated Urdangen to trade his original property on Commercial to John Hatcher of Brooklyn, giving Urdangen property in Malcom, too (ibid., January 26, 1906). Hatcher later complained about the deal, which apparently was reversed, because soon Urdangen's newspaper ads reported his business at the old address, "across from the Herald office."
Grinnell Herald, May 20, 1910

The 1910 tax assessments for street paving provide a handy summary of Urdangen's holdings. According to the list, Barney Urdangen owned two properties on the west side of Main Street and one on the east side of Main, as well as land on the north side of Commercial and the north side of Fourth Avenue. "Barney Urdangen," the newspaper observed, "has recently become quite a large holder of Grinnell downtown property." His total assessment came to $1,483.85, one of the highest totals among local landowners (ibid., May 20, 1910).

Amid these successes Barney encountered occasional difficulties. In September 1902, little Esther—who was only about 18 months old—evidently wandered from the family home adjacent to the railroad tracks and was struck by a passenger train coming into town from the west. Observers initially feared that the little girl had been killed, but subsequent examination discovered only a broken arm and several broken ribs (ibid., September 19, 1902; see also Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican which reported the girl as dead [September 18, 1902]). She recovered, although her parents must have been badly shaken by the accident.

Other troubles concerned the business. When a fire on Main Street erupted in the middle of the night in April 1903, a burglar took advantage of the distraction to enter Urdangen's Commercial Street store where he stole "about two hundred dollars' worth, watch chains, jewelry, shoes, and some clothing" (Grinnell Herald, April 17, 1903). Early the next year an unidentified man tried to steal some razors, but Barney, emerging from the basement, caught him in the act (ibid.February 23, 1904). In May Urdangen reported that his horse, a "roan mare, about five years old, branded with the letter 'H,'" had "disappeared from Grinnell." Whether the horse had merely strayed or been stolen Urdangen did not say, offering a "liberal reward for her return" (ibid., May 5, 1905). Perhaps the worst news of 1905 was the bankruptcy of his brother Louis, first reported in early May (ibid.; see also ibid., October 27, 1905). 
Advertisement in Grinnell Herald, February 15, 1907

There was also occasional competition for Barney's scrap metal and second-hand business. At least twice over the decade that Urdangen operated in Grinnell Amos Thompson (1852-1921) opened a business that competed directly with Barney. Adam Dunlap (1841-1921) also briefly ran a store for "New and Second-Hand Goods" on Main Street, around the corner from Urdangen's shop (Grinnell Herald, April 10, 1908), but neither of these enterprises seems to have provoked conflict with Urdangen.

2021 Google Street view Photo of 800 E. Eighth Ave., Muscatine, IA

In the run-up to 1910, the Urdangens prepared to abandon Grinnell and return to Muscatine, a decision which must explain the disappearance of Urdangen's Grinnell newspaper advertisements and his concentration upon real estate. The 1910 US census, conducted in late April, has the Urdangens already living at 811 Fifth Street in Muscatine. Barney no longer mentioned his junk business, but told census officials that he lived off his "own income," probably a function of his property investments in Grinnell and Muscatine. For the 1915 Iowa census he described himself as working in "real estate." No later than 1915 the Urdangen family was residing in Muscatine at 800 E. Eighth Avenue, a large building that still stands.

Returning to Muscatine, the Urdangens, who for the previous ten years had lived in Grinnell without a synagogue or other Jews with whom to observe the rituals of Jewish worship, were able to rejoin Muscatine's lively Jewish community. The B'nai Moses Synagogue, first erected in 1893 to serve some thirty Jewish families, now empty and abandoned, remains to confirm the existence of a local Jewish community which provided a warm welcome for the Urdangens' return to Muscatine. Barney spent his last several years in Muscatine where he died in June 1934. Embraced by the local Jewish community, Barney Urdangen took his farewell from the synagogue to which he had contributed. He was laid to rest in Muscatine's Jewish cemetery (Muscatine Journal, June 14, 1934).
Undated Photograph of Abandoned B'nai Moses Synagogue, Muscatine, Iowa

The departure from Grinnell of Barney Urdangen opened the door for the arrival of another immigrant Jewish family. Just as Barney was closing out his scrap metal business in 1908, Ozer Winer (1877-1955) and his family arrived in Grinnell. The documentary record that explains how Winer found Grinnell remains thin. His first name usually referenced in US documents by the initial H, Ozer told 1910 US census officials that he had immigrated in 1896; his 31-year-old wife, Rizza (Rachel Shpall), told officials that she had reached the United States in 1898, but I could find no record of either arrival. Besides that, the 1910 census reports that the Winers had been married nine years, meaning that they had married around 1901. Their oldest child, Lena, said to be four years old in 1910, was born in Russia, which means that the Winers must have married in Russia and were still resident in Russia in 1905 or 1906. The 1910 census also reports that Max, the family's second-oldest child, was then one year old and had been born in Iowa, meaning that the Winers must have been living in Iowa no later than 1909 or late 1908. 
Undated Photograph of Ozer Winer

Winer's name first appears in the Grinnell newspapers in November 1909, when Ozer advertised his junk business at 711 Spring Street, just a block or two away from the site of Barney Urdangen's scrap metal business. Similar ads appear in early 1910, but with a different address: 716 Spring Street, across the street. Sometime that spring Winer purchased a half-lot at 716 West Street, which is where the 1910 US Census officials found him and his family.
Advertisement from Grinnell Herald, November 19, 1909

Apparently other Winer relatives lived in or near Grinnell at the time. For example, Rachel Ozer's sister, Lena Shpall (1881-1965) in 1909 married a Marshalltown man by the name of Samuel Bernstein (1888-1967). According to an Iowa State Affidavit of Delayed Birth Registration, Lena gave birth in Grinnell the following August to a son, Harry Simeon Bernstein. Unfortunately, only these shards of evidence survive to confirm that the Bernsteins resided in Grinnell. No directory or census puts them in Grinnell and the Grinnell newspaper makes no reference to them whatsoever.
Iowa State Department of Health Affidavit for Delayed Birth Registration
December 18, 1941

Local records then fall silent on the Winers, too, who left Iowa no later than 1913 when their third child, Sarah, was born in Colorado. The 1920 US Census found the Winers in Saquache, Colorado where "Henry" was operating a general store. In this document the Winer parents report more credible dates for their immigration, telling census officials that Ozer had reached the United States in 1906 and "Rose," his wife, in 1907; they both reported having become naturalized citizens in 1917. A fourth child, Rebecca, had been born in Colorado in 1918. By this time, however, Grinnell remained but a distant memory for the Winers, who later moved to Louisiana, and then finally to Tel Aviv, Israel where Ozer died in 1955 and Rizza in 1957. The Bernsteins also moved to Colorado at about the same time as the Winers; the 1920 US Census found them living in Denver where Samuel bought hides and wool. Moreover, the census identified their son Aron (elsewhere in the records known as Harry) as having been born in Iowa in 1911, but their next son, Morris, was born in Colorado in 1913. Unlike the Winers, however, Samuel and Lena remained in Colorado where they both died and were buried in Lakewood's Golden Hill Cemetery
Advertisement for Greenbaum's Crown Junk Yard
(Grinnell Herald, October 21, 1910)

Overlapping with the Winers in Grinnell was another Jewish family. First identified in Grinnell sources in the spring of 1910 was the family of Sigmund Greenbaum (1884-1970). Sam Green (as he later called himself after legally changing his name) had been born in 1884 in Russian Poland, and had immigrated to the US in 1906 via Stockholm. In New York City he met Gussie Mintz, who had been born in 1882 in Odessa, then also part of the Russian Empire. The couple married in New York in August 1908, and their first child, Emanuel (Manny) arrived a year later. By April 1910, when US census-takers were in Grinnell, the Greenbaums were living at 720 West Street, just one door away from the Winers on the east side of the street. Like their fellow-immigrant neighbors, the Greenbaums operated a junk business, using space at the north end of the block, closest to the railroad tracks and beneath the shadow of a grain elevator.
An Enlargement of a Section of a 1916 Billy Robinson Photograph of Grinnell, Looking South and Showing Grain Elevator in Center; Greenbaum Junk Business Was Located Just to the West and South of the Grain Elevator

But soon the Greenbaums also deserted Grinnell, probably sometime late in 1910. The latest advertisement for Greenbaum's Crown Junk yard appeared in the October 21, 1910 issue of the Grinnell Herald, and in mid-February Mr. and Mrs. P. D. Barton, from whom Greenbaum had purchased the property on West Street, brought suit against him to cancel the arrangement "because of default in payments provided for in said contract..." (Grinnell Register, February 16, 1911). Greenbaums apparently returned to New York, where their second child, Bertha, was born in 1912, but by 1915 they were living in Los Angeles where Sam died in early January 1970.
Consequently, when Daniel Berman reached Grinnell in 1912, he followed in the wake of several Jewish immigrants who had preceded him to Grinnell. The Urdangens, Winers, and Greenbaums lived and worked in Grinnell for the first decade of the twentieth century, but the record preserves little evidence of how Grinnell's gentile population regarded them. Still, if years later the Bermans heard people call them "kikes," it requires little imagination to suppose that earlier Grinnell residents had behaved similarly.

Even if there was not much overt hatred, family life for Grinnell's first Jewish immigrant families must have been difficult. Instead of the predominantly Jewish, Yiddish-speaking populations of their European home towns where the oldest among them had been born, they found in Grinnell no other Jews with whom to worship or socialize. There was no synagogue, no rabbi for important family events. Only once does the Grinnell newspaper provide some insight into this dilemma, reporting that Barney Urdangen had invited some of Grinnell's gentile movers and shakers to attend the circumcision of his son (unnamed, but probably Archie, who was born in 1903); in addition to the Cedar Rapids rabbi who performed the rite, Urdangen had Rev. E. M. Vittum of the Congregational Church, local physician P. E. Somers, and local banker G. H. Hamlin in attendance. What these men made of the occasion the record does not reveal, but the event certainly signals Urdangen's attempt to reach across the religious and cultural divide that separated him and his family from the rest of the town (Grinnell Herald, October 17, 1905). The news reports no similar event later, although at least two other Urdangen sons (Harry and Charlie) were born while the family was living in Grinnell. Likewise the birth of Max Winer in 1909 left no evidence of making his circumcision public, so perhaps the experiment of reaching out to the gentiles did not go well. 

The scant trace in the news of these first Jewish families in Grinnell is not surprising. If, as seems likely, gentile Grinnell looked on them with suspicion, the Urdangens, Winers, and Greenbaums may well have kept to themselves, as Isadore Berman reported some years later that his family had done:
We went about our own business and ignored the element that would make remarks. And as far as being active in other social functions, we didn't participate in many community functions...and so what we didn't know we didn't miss.
When Barney Urdangen died in 1934 in Muscatine, his obituary overlooked his place of birth (where he had spent more than 25 years) and minimized the decade he had spent in Grinnell. "Mr. Urdangen," the Muscatine Journal said, "came to Muscatine 45 years ago and with the exception of a short period of time spent at Grinnell, had lived all his life here..." (June 14, 1934). Those ten years in Grinnell accounted for almost a quarter of Barney's life in America, but perhaps, given the absence of other Jews in Grinnell, those ten years did seem unimportant and relatively trivial. We know less about how the Winers and Greenbaums thought of their much briefer sojourn in Grinnell, but the brevity of their lives here may be evidence of their dissatisfaction with living in the midst of an overtly Christian small town. But they, along with the Urdangens, had pioneered Jewish settlement in Grinnell, paving the way for the longer Grinnell residence of the Bermans and Bucksbaums who followed them.

PS. Many thanks to Davida Wood who, on having read the original post about the Bermans and Bucksbaums, wrote to tell me about the Winers, Shpalls, and Bernsteins that I had mistakenly overlooked.