Friday, January 1, 2021

Arbor Lake: Has It Always Been With Us?

One of the reasons I began this blog was my concern that too often we mistakenly identify the present with the past; that is, we forget that the past was different, and assume that it was much like today. On a basic level, most of us understand quite readily that change is always happening: we ourselves change over time, as my growing wrinkles and sagging skin confirm. But we also recognize that what is today an auto parts store was, not so long ago, a grocery store; likewise, what was once an automobile dealership is today a snappy grocery. But sometimes we slip into thinking that the world we live in always looked pretty much the way it looks today. However, as the song says, "it ain't necessarily so!"

A fascinating, local example that effectively documents change over time is Grinnell's Arbor Lake, which today stands on the southwest quadrant of town, adjacent to Hazelwood Cemetery. For someone like me, who only arrived in Grinnell in 1979, it is easy to imagine that there was always a lake there, even in J. B. Grinnell's time. However, as some of you will know, J. B. Grinnell (1821-1891) left this world without ever having seen Arbor Lake, which only came into existence in 1903. Now a little over a century old, Arbor Lake has undergone considerable change over time as various efforts to beautify, re-purpose, and re-construct it have washed over the lake. Indeed, as a 1970 aerial photo of the lake confirms, at one point the lake even went totally dry, making necessary a complete reconstruction at considerable effort and expense.

1970 Aerial View of Dry Lakebed of Arbor Lake, Grinnell, Iowa
Iowa Department of Natural Resources (

Today's post examines the on-again, off-again history of Arbor Lake, reminding us that the past often differs from the present.


 Southwest Grinnell from 1896 Grinnell Plat Map

As the 1896 plat map of Grinnell shows, at that time there was no lake in Grinnell. According to Leonard Parker's History of Poweshiek County, what we now know as Arbor Lake began life as an extension of local manufacturing sometime soon after 1900 when the Spaulding Manufacturing Company and Paul Meyer purchased from the J. B. Grinnell estate and other locals a low-lying tract of land in the southwest corner of the city. The purchasers' aim was to provide Grinnell businesses—especially Spaulding Manufacturing—with soft water in place of the city's hard well water.

By damming a creek of modest size, a considerable body of water was formed which has since been furnished through pipes for the boilers of all the manufacturing plants of the city, for the railroad engines, Hotel Monroe and for several other establishments (L. F. Parker, History of Poweshiek County, 2 vols. [Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1911], 1:371).

Details are scant, but the lake, which came to cover more than thirteen acres, seems to have been created in 1902, and was certainly in operation by 1903. From the beginning the lake served the entertainment and exercise interests of Grinnell as well as the city's manufacturers. According to a newspaper account, Arbor Lake had its formal opening July 31, 1903 when some 2000 visitors gathered to see torches line a half-mile of lake shore. The Outing Club, a local outdoors association, had erected quarters sufficient to allow some 25 boats to "parade" across the lake. A citizen band performed and fireworks lit up the sky (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, August 1, 1903). The Grinnell College newspaper noted that autumn that students interested in some fun could "find a nice line of boats [for rent] at Arbor Lake," and one could also buy there "coffee, sandwiches, [and] drinks in season" (Scarlet and Black, September 19, 1903).

That winter the frozen lake—what the newspaper called "the most popular place in Grinnell"—attracted ice skaters (as many as three hundred at a time, the newspaper claimed) who found skating conditions under moon-lit skies perfect (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, December 2, 1903). Locals added a toboggan slide to increase the winter attractions (Scarlet and Black, October14, 1903). 

The lake also attracted anglers, because early on organizers had arranged for large numbers of fish to be stocked there. For instance, in summer 1904 the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries deposited 20,000 black bass in the lake (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, August 6, 1904). Over the years additional fish were added, including a railroad carload of fish in 1916 (ibid., September 16, 1916). Although success seems to have ebbed and flowed over the years as the lake's volume rose and fell, occasionally fishermen reported some fine catches, as, for example, when John Hastings caught a 30-inch long pickerel in 1907 (Scarlet and Black, May 22, 1907). 

Cornelia Clarke Photo (1919?) of ice skaters on Arbor Lake

But of course a body of water like this also posed certain dangers. Already in 1904 the lake claimed the lives of two prominent Grinnell bankers who drowned there after a boating incident (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, July 21, 1904). George Jacobs, a seventeen-year-old experienced swimmer, drowned in the lake in 1911, the victim of a cramp (ibid., June 5, 1911). But even in winter the lake could be dangerous. During the very first winter the lake was open Mrs. J. B. Bryan fell, opening a significant gash in her head (ibid., January 9, 1904). More tragic was the fate of Grinnell College first-year student, Myron Thompson, who in his evening skating one January in 1914 failed to notice the thin ice beneath  him, and disappeared into the freezing water; it took hours to recover his body (Scarlet and Black, January 17, 1914; Grinnell Review, vol. 9, no. 5 [February 1914]:74). 

1906 postcard of the eastern shore of Arbor Lake, showing boathouse, club house, and minimal plantings

Nevertheless, from the very beginning Arbor Lake excited Grinnell, and enthusiastic citizens joined hands to make the lake and its environs an appealing recreation site. Much of the early landscaping and decorating of Arbor Lake was the work of volunteers. But the going was tough in the early days. For one thing, almost immediately after having been formed, the lake witnessed an explosion of algae that experts identified as Cladophora fracta. The algae's growth was so spirited that boating became difficult, obliging the Outing Club to undertake expensive dredging that was not fully effective (Bruce Fink, "Some Notes on Certain Iowa Algae," Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Sciences 12[1904]:23). As a consequence, Arbor Lake soon lost its allure, the newspaper reporting in 1904 that the area had been nearly deserted. "The boat house," the paper continued, "is closed except for two evenings of the week and on Sundays, but even at these times the patronage is small" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, August 9, 1904). Apparently the dam constructed to form the lake also leaked, so that a reporter observed that

the water has so drained off that the shores and bottom of the lake near the shore present somewhat the appearance of the mud flats of bays and inlets on the seacoast when the tide is out (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, October 31, 1904).

The Outing Club did not despair, however. At its spring 1905 meeting, the club's 100 members laid out ambitious plans to continue work on Arbor Lake. Among other things, the club intended to apply the so-called "copper cure" to the algae. Members also pledged to plant new trees around the lake, including some weeping willows in the low-lying sections at the lake's south end (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, April 15, 1905; Selden Whitcomb recalls having seen these willows in his 1912 entry in Autumn Notes in Iowa [Cedar Rapids, 1914], p. 151). 

Soon thereafter the club announced that Saturday May 6th and Monday May 8th would be designated "Flower Days" at which time the public was invited to join the club in beautifying the area around the lake, "setting out plants, ornamental shrubs and trees" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, May 4, 1905). Even during these difficult days, the winter-time frozen lake attracted skaters, the newspaper noting in 1905 that "The usual Thanksgiving skating attracted large crowds to Arbor Lake" (ibid., December 2, 1905). July 4th celebrations also routinely occurred around the lake where fireworks, set off over the lake, were less likely to cause trouble and viewers could line the shore for unimpeded views (ibid., July 5, 1906).

1909 color postcard of Arbor Lake (looking east)

In subsequent years the Outing Club continued to improve facilities at the lake. For instance, the building that had begun as a modest club house experienced further upgrades, so much so that in 1908 the organization inaugurated evening dances on the improved floors and porches. The earlier boat house was also enlarged so as "to accommodate the increasing crowds" drawn to the lake (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, July 14, 1908).

Whether because all the effort exceeded the club's finances or because the club had fallen apart, the newspaper noted that in 1910 there were efforts underway to transfer responsibility for the park to the city's park commissioners. The company that owned the lake would have to lease the grounds to the city, but optimists foresaw the lake's grounds as "an ideal place for picnic parties and public gatherings of various kinds." Other volunteers also stepped up to contribute to the beautification. Officials of the local post of the Grand Army of the Republic—veterans of the Civil War—planted "many trees," shrubs and flowering plants, and even made sure that the grass was mowed. There was also talk of naming the park land east of the lake in honor of the G.A.R. (ibid., January 18, 1910). This idea received new energy when in 1913 a G.A.R. member offered $250 toward developing the park east of Arbor Lake on "condition that the city should get title to the property to be kept forever as a park and to be named 'Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Park'" (ibid., May 14, 1913). 

The hot weather and drought of summer, 1910 brought another steep decline in the lake's volume, making it "lower than it has been before for years" (ibid., July 28, 1910). That autumn the Ladies Cemetery Association, which was in charge of nearby Hazelwood Cemetery, proposed to sell off a strip of land along the cemetery's far eastern border, adjacent to Arbor Lake. The result, newspapers reported, would give landowners south of the lake access to Washington Avenue. The city council approved the proposal, thereby widening a bit the western edge of Arbor Lake's shore (ibid., October 6, 1910).

Nora Belle Brown (1888-1971) on Arbor Lake ca. 1910
Cynthia Levy, Into a World Unknown: A Granddaughter Traces the Lives of Her Ancestors
(Grinnell, Iowa, 2010; n. p.)
In 1913 the quality of the lake's water provoked investigation. Grinnell's "City Health Physician," Dr. C. E. Harris, along with college chemistry professor, W. S. Hendrixson, conducted an examination of the lake's water. The pair agreed that the water was not suitable for drinking, but that, so long as the lake level was reasonable, Arbor Lake was okay for swimming, although "all swimmers should keep [the water] out of their mouths and should not extend their swim beyond about twenty minutes" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, June 28, 1913). Evidently swimmers followed these suggestions, because we read that that summer a Grinnell College student, Vere Loper, organized "scientific lessons in swimming and in methods of restoring people apparently drowned." Loper told the newspaper that Arbor Lake was "the best for swimming in this vicinity" (ibid., July 17, 1913). All the same, when in 1915 someone observed people drinking water at Grinnell's Rock Island stock yards adjacent to the railroad, the newspaper hastened to observe that the water there came from Arbor Lake, not from the city's deep wells. "There are few people that would think themselves safe in drinking the lake water," the paper concluded (ibid., April 21, 1915).
Professor Walter Scott Hendrixson (1859-1925)

Meanwhile, the city of Grinnell was debating whether or not to take over ownership of Arbor Lake and its adjacent parkland. Newspaper reports indicated that the lake offered some "fine park possibilities," but said nothing about the idea of naming it after the G.A.R., as had been proposed earlier (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, November 5, 1913).  Later that winter the lake's owner, the Grinnell Soft Water company, convened its annual meeting without announcing any change of ownership of Arbor Lake. Quite the contrary, officials apparently invited the services of a "landscape artist" to propose some plans for beautifying the shores, "but no plan has yet been formally adopted," the newspaper reported (ibid., February 24, 1914). In November 1916 the Outing Club announced new ideas for beautifying Arbor Lake. "Wild rice and other food for game fowls [sic] will be planted, and this will make Arbor lake a breeding place for ducks as well as a spawning place for game fish," the paper said (Scarlet and Black, November 22, 1916). The following spring the Outing Club got to work reviving the lake and its adjacent park land. At their March meeting club members agreed to burn off weeds growing around the lake, to install a seine across the lake outlet to prevent fish from escaping, and to lay out spawning beds of water lilies and similar plants (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, March 15, 1917).

Whether all these plans came to fruition remains unclear, but other significant and long-lasting change did come to the Arbor Lake in 1916. In March Poweshiek County announced the intention of building a bridge "on Washington Avenue, across the upper arm of Arbor Lake, thus making good the finest approach to Hazelwood cemetery that the city affords" (ibid., March 30, 1916). By mid-summer the old wooden bridge had disappeared, and in its place there stood a "fine new concrete bridge." A sewer pipe ran directly beneath the bridge, the construction of which required contractors to temporarily lower the lake level (ibid., July 19, 1916). When the lake rose again after construction was complete, state officials delivered more than 40,000 fish, inflating hopes that soon Arbor Lake would again become an angler's paradise (ibid., September 16, 1916; Ottumwa Courier, October 10, 1916). And beginning no later than 1918, the bridge hosted Memorial day remembrances of naval dead (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, May 27, 1918).
Postcard dated 1909 of the Grinnell Armory

With World War One as background, Grinnell grew increasingly aware of the possibility of American participation in the war. Surprisingly, Arbor Lake played a part in local preparation. Troop D was put on full duty at the downtown armory where soldiers conducted drills each morning. Afternoons, however, the men  spent at Arbor Lake where they engaged in rifle range practice (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, May 29, 1917). Nothing indicates the precise location of the practice range, but it stands to reason that the shooting would have aimed toward the rise away from the lake, using the earthen berm to absorb the bullets; if this surmise is correct, lead bullets might still be found in the rise above the lake.
A postcard dated October 24, 1921 shows Arbor Lake and its Automobile Drive
(courtesy of K. C. Cornish)

Concerns about the quality of the lake's water occasionally resurfaced in public discussions. For example, in 1918 the Grinnell City Council, worrying about the limited supply of well water, contemplated adding lake water to the city water mains if an emergency required it. But Grinnell College professor W. S. Hendrixson strongly opposed the scheme, pointing out that the city mains might be adversely affected for the future by even a brief addition of lake water (ibid., March 6, 1918). The following year newspapers reported that the town's Commercial Club took an interest in Arbor Lake, and in June 1919 the club sought the opinion of experts on the water's healthfulness (ibid., June 27, 1919). Having received an encouraging report, the Commercial Club announced its intention of reviving Arbor Lake as a resort (ibid., July 9, 1919), thereby luring to town potential customers of the city's commerce. A. C. Dickerson, who operated a plumbing business in town, donated "400 feet of rope for a safety line for swimmers and [called] for empty kegs to be donated as buoys" (ibid, July 18, 1919). That autumn the club completed "grading of the driveway on the east side of Arbor Lake and thru [sic] the G. A. R. park" [the first time when this zone was identified in this way-dk]. The club hoped to enlist volunteers to contribute cinders to cover the drives and level them," as has been done for the former mud drives in the cemetery" (ibid., October 13, 1919). Later reports indicate that the Club intended the drives for automobiles rather than pedestrians, envisioning a time when "the lake will be encircled by a good auto course" (ibid, April 12, 1920). Additional proposals envisioned "two permanent bath houses, the sanding of the bathing beach, the stretching of the life line for the safety of bathers," and more grading of the drives along the lake shore (ibid., April 29, 1920).
Scarlet and Black, May 5, 1920

Perhaps Arbor Lake never received more attention from the town than it did May 7, 1920. Under the label "Community Day," organizers summoned "the whole town" to work on Merrill Park, a new park in north Grinnell, and on Arbor Lake on Grinnell's south side. According to the Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, "banker, preacher and merchant peeled his coat and labored hard" all day. Beginning at 7 AM automobile drivers shuttled volunteers to the two parks where work went on into the evening. At Arbor Lake volunteers put up a bandstand on the eastern shore and "sand was brought in by the car load and spread over the mud beach made bare by the drainage of the water the night before." Teams of horses lowered the high bank so as to widen the driveway and fill in lower spots along the lake. In addition, "A heavy post was set on which to have a light out in the lake for evening sports" and "a roomy pen ...[for children] was enclosed with woven wire so that they may play in the water in safety to their heart's content" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, May 8, 1920). The Social Service League, which organized the event, pronounced the day a great success, and predicted that "Community Day would be made an annual event" (Scarlet and Black, May 8, 1920).

After the big volunteer effort, carpenters got to work on a two-story "pleasure house" with a bath house at each end of the main floor. A concession room was cut through the building's center, making available "delicacies of various sorts." The building's second floor was intended for spectators and picnickers driven indoors by rain. Plans called for porches on three sides of the structure, including one facing the lake (Scarlet and Black, May 26, 1920). With this sort of investment officials decided to name a permanent caretaker, selecting Harry Case, who was to "look after the general neatness of the grounds and keep his weather eye out for any mischief that thoughtless ones might plan." In return, Case would have the right to the concession stand and its income (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, June 9, 1920). A college professor, L. D. Hartson, was appointed to serve as life guard and first aid instructor every day from 4 PM to 8:30 PM (ibid., July 6, 1920). Workers also installed a 75-foot life line and moored a boat intended exclusively for the life guard (ibid, July, 12, 1920). Later in the summer the Red Cross offered free swimming lessons and sponsored prizes for swimming proficiency within age groups (ibid., August 2, 1920).

As the summer wore on, additional improvements appeared at the lake. Before June was gone a slide for children had arrived, and there was talk of putting in a merry-go-round to entertain kids. Davis School pupils somehow arranged to acquire a "Giant Stride," which was placed on the hill east of the bath house (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, July 26, 1920). Evening entertainment gained new impetus when workmen installed "a string of lights...along the semi-circular drive on the east shore of  the lake" (ibid., June 26, 1920). All this innovation culminated in a grand re-opening of Arbor Lake park July 7. With the promise of a concert from the city band, people were invited to "bring their meal...and remain to listen to the speaking, watch the games, the races and the swimming and bathing" (ibid., July 1, 1920). When rain interfered, authorities rescheduled the reopening for the 14th (ibid., July 8, 1920). Thanks to some local entrepreneurs, Arbor Lake soon offered visitors a ride in an eighteen-foot long  motor boat that might accommodate six or more passengers at a time (ibid., July 29, 1920).

Header to Advertisement in Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, October 25, 1920)

All this work combined to make Arbor Lake very attractive. As Grinnell boosters pointed out in a full-page advertisement in the Marshalltown newspaper, Arbor Lake "has a fine sanded beach, an up-to-date bath house, spring boards, slides, electric lights and other equipment that make it an ideal bathing, picnicking and fishing resort with plenty of small boats." "We know of no other town in Iowa that is so fortunate as to have such a beautiful and attractive lake," the advertisement crowed (ibid., October 25, 1920).

At this point the lake's owners, the Grinnell Soft Water Company, assumed a more active role in the management of Arbor Lake. At first, the company signaled only an interest in having the lake generate more revenue. To that end, in May 1922 the company appointed Hugh Bennett, then manager of the town's Colonial Theater, to act as manager of Arbor Lake. Bennett told the Scarlet and Black that he envisioned using the lake to help "put Grinnell on the map," and to that end he planned to advertise the lake widely, and put on special events during the summer, all with the goal of attracting "thousands" to Grinnell (May 27, 1922). But the next spring the Soft Water Company changed course, abruptly announcing that it intended to close Arbor Lake "as a pleasure resort and camping ground" (Scarlet and Black, April 11, 1923). Officials of the Commercial Club and lake enthusiasts were caught by surprise, and hurried to try to stave off the closing. Meetings between the concerned parties promptly led to an agreement that would keep the lake open for the next three years, "provided Grinnell people are sufficiently interested to subscribe the funds necessary to keep the favorite summer resort in operation." In other words, the Soft Water Company wanted revenue from the lake, and also wanted to be relieved of the costs of maintenance (ibid., April 21, 1923). A committee of local worthies set out to raise $1500, judged enough to cover rental and upkeep for a year; the first year's payment was due by May 15 (ibid., May 5, 1923). To judge by reportage, the lake's proponents did not make the May 15 deadline, as a May 19 story in the Scarlet and Black noted that "much remains to be done." "The lease cannot be signed," the paper continued, "until there is definite assurance on the part of Grinnell people that the funds will be available." Failing to meet the funding target threatened to see the lake "revert to its old state of disuse and public neglect..." (ibid., May 19, 1923).

Apparently the lake and park survived this challenge, although news about Arbor Lake grows scarce after the 1920s. As before, the lake and surrounding parkland attracted visitors, including numerous picnickers. Even in the lake's earliest days many college classes and clubs convened celebratory picnics at Arbor Lake, but the high point of Arbor Lake picnics occurred in 1926 when the Farmers' Union convened its members at Arbor Lake Park. An old photograph, evidently long folded over, reveals hundreds gathered in the park land above the lake.

Farmers' Union Picnic at Arbor Lake, August 27, 1926
Within a half-dozen years, however, the threat to close Arbor Lake came to life. A 1931 article in the Scarlet and Black reported that when the lake's owners failed to sell, they installed a fence around the lake and closed it to public access (April 11, 1931). When the fence came down and why remain a mystery; perhaps once the pandemic eases we may learn from the Grinnell newspapers how Arbor Lake was spared.

Clearly the fence did not stand for long; testimony confirms that the lake remained a popular recreation site in the 1930s, by which time many of the trees and bushes planted in earlier decades had blossomed into a lovely, shady backdrop for picnics. Lucille "Sid" Potts (1910-2007), who grew up in Grinnell, told interviewers that in the 1930s "Arbor Lake was tremendous. We would have lots of picnics down there...the beach was was the place to go" ( 

Photograph of 1934 Picnic of the Tarleton Family at Arbor Lake

Despite Potts' enthusiastic recollections, inattention continued to undermine the health and beauty of the site as the Depression dominated local concerns. Newspaper accounts from spring 1940 indicate that fundraising had begun "to rehabilitate the lake and surrounding grounds." Succeeding to the work of the Outing and Commercial Clubs at the lake were the Grinnell Jaycees, who in 1940 arranged a one-dollar-a-year lease of the lake from Grinnell Soft Water company (Marshalltown Times-Republican, May 27, 1940). To update the park, volunteers installed new benches, picnic tables and a bath house, as well as a new parking lot. The grand reopening took place on July 4, 1940, guests enjoying band music, a tap-dancing contest, swimming events, and a bathing beauty contest (ibid., July 2, 1940). 

Throughout the 1940s both townies and college students frequented the park. College student Curtis Harnack (1927-2013) recalled that in spring 1945 many students enjoyed "blanket parties at Arbor Lake" (Curtis Harnack, The Attic: A Memoir [Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1993], p. 137). Audrey "Bunny" Howard Swanson, who graduated from Grinnell College in 1943, told alumni interviewers in 2012 that in warm weather she and her college friends might "borrow a couple of bikes and the fellows would pedal us out to Arbor Lake" ( The lake was such an attraction that when some Mexicans arrived in town in July 1944 to help harvest seed corn, the first of them went directly to Arbor Lake to cool off with a swim. Unfortunately, one of the visitors drowned, and is now buried in Hazelwood's potter's field.

Postcard of Arbor Lake ca. 1940-50

By this time Arbor Lake had become more than a playground or leisure resort. As the Scarlet and Black noted, beginning in 1931, the city took water from the lake and ran it through Iowa Southern Utility's boilers where it was purified and super-heated, then pumped to the college and funneled into the college's hot water pipes. Students complained that the hot water that originated from the lake regularly generated a terrible smell (March 22, 1941). According to student reports, the lake's boiled water induced "physical and mental nausea" among the collegians who turned on the hot water tap (ibid., April 16, 1943). How this experiment ended the record does not make clear.

Grinnell College Students Picnic at Arbor Lake, 1953

In post-war Grinnell Arbor Lake continued to attract picnickers and exercise enthusiasts. But evidently the lake also suffered from inattention again, because a 1960 aerial photograph reveals that by that time the lake had lost much of its former volume, revealing mud flats along all shores of the lake. According to a newspaper account, Arbor Lake became so badly polluted in 1949 that officials prohibited swimming. The following year a railroad tank car spilled ammonia into streams feeding the lake, killing off most of the lake's aquatic life. By 1969 the situation had grown so acute that it seemed best to drain the lake dry (clipping from the Grinnell Herald-Register May 1974). 

1960 Aerial Photograph of Arbor Lake
By 1970 the lake itself had disappeared, weeds and bog prospering where fifty years earlier swimming, boating, and ice skating had prevailed. But there was hope. In 1969 the Poweshiek County Board of Conservation took out a ten-year lease on the land surrounding the lake, and the City of Grinnell, which had become owner of the lake in 1964, "contracted to remove the accumulated debris and silt from the lake bed and initiate a continuing program of algae control" (Grinnell Herald-Register May 1974). Over the next few years, county and city sparred over the extent to which each was honoring its commitments, but gradually the lake and its surrounding park land revived (Grinnell Herald-Register, October 16, 1975; ibid., March 1977), thanks to contributions from both the county and the city. 
Marshy bog of Arbor Lake, 1974
(Scarlet and Black, September 13, 1974)
As had always been true of the area around the lake, volunteer organizations played a prominent role in cleaning up park land. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, church groups, and volunteers from local businesses all played parts in cleaning up the park. The silted lake bed itself and its eroded tributary streams presented a more difficult problem. Despite having drained the lake, officials found it impossible to get heavy equipment onto the boggy lake bed for several years. Only in 1977 did workers complete the job of returning the lake to its original size and depth, having trucked out some 63,000 cubic yards of silt. The lake's tributaries had also been refashioned in ways intended to slow down siltation of the lake.
Newspaper Clipping of Arbor Lake Clean-up, May 2001
(Grinnell Herald-Register, May 10, 2001; courtesy of K. C. Cornish)

Since that time the quality of Arbor Lake and its adjoining park land has quietly deteriorated. The Arbor Lake Watershed Visioning Plan of June 2000 recognized that the lake, badly silted before 1970, required yet another comprehensive dredging, but not before addressing other issues in the lake's watershed. Some of these matters—including local agricultural practices and the associated nutrient runoff—remain difficult to solve. Nevertheless, volunteers have made great progress in cleaning up the lake and parkland. Particularly notable has been the work of the Karla and K.C. Cornish family, who in 1998 initiated an Arbor Lake clean-up day that became an annual event in Grinnell. Beginning with just three helpers, Arbor Lake Cleanup day continued for more than a decade, enlisting hundreds of volunteers to help clear the lake of tires, picnic benches and other detritus, and also to trim and control the trees that lined the lake shore. Unwanted brush, fallen branches, and abandoned trash also were hauled away. 
Grinnell Herald-Register, May 4, 2006
(clipping courtesy of K. C. Cornish)

This overview of Arbor Lake's history proves that there is no straight line from the past to the present. Early photographs of boats and buildings on the lake shore are hard to reconcile with the bare, somewhat wild appearance of Arbor Lake today. Likewise, images of hundreds of people picnicking or swimming in the lake contrast with quiet, relatively unpeopled life at today's Arbor Lake. Over the past century spells of prosperity and popularity alternated with hard times that demanded new expenditures and new efforts at revival. In this way, Arbor Lake reminds us that the past is often much more complicated and varied than it might seem from our present perspective.

PS. I am grateful to Karla and K. C. Cornish for sharing with me their files on Arbor Lake; I appreciate all that they and local volunteers have done to revive the lake and park. Many thanks, too, to Tom Latimer, who in a former life was director of Grinnell's Parks and Recreation department, and who loaned me a copy of his paper on the history of Grinnell's parks. Finally, in this era of covid lockdown when I have been unable to access the microfilmed back issues of the Grinnell Herald, Grinnell Register, and Grinnell Herald-Register, I am also indebted to the Library of Congress's "Chronicling America" database of scanned newspapers. I could not have written this post without access to back issues of the Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, which for many years included a section that reported on Grinnell news.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Dreaming About Nature...and Race: "Friendly Town" Comes to Grinnell

As I write these words twenty-first-century America is deeply engaged in yet another intense conversation about race. On the heels of numerous deadly interactions with police, African Americans and increasing numbers of white Americans have attacked the "systemic racism" of contemporary America, and proposed a fundamental reordering of American social and political institutions.
Friendly Town guest Charlie Epting and host family member Brian Smith just after Charlie arrived in Grinnell, July 1966
(photo courtesy of Marcy Smith Keyser)
Similarly radical proposals were always visible, but in the 1960s liberal advocates of racial justice saw the issue differently. Embracing liberal politics and religion, 1960s reformers imagined ways by which to reconcile social and racial differences between white and black Americans without dismantling the system. Dan Rohr, for instance, an Iowa State University student who spent his 1965 spring break living in what the Mason City Globe-Gazette called "an all-Negro slum" of Chicago, told the newspaper that "if more [white] people took an interest in the Negro in the North, it would increase our understanding [of one another]" (March 20, 1965). In Chicago Rohr learned about the "Friendly Town" program of the Chicago Missionary Society (later renamed Community Renewal Society) that placed inner-city children with suburban and rural host families for two weeks every summer. Rohr told his 1965 Mason City interviewer that this program taught host families that "under the skin, all little boys and girls are pretty much alike" (ibid.).
Daniel Rohr, 1963 St. Ansgar High School Yearbook
Grinnell first participated in the "Friendly Town" program in 1965. With the help of local churches (especially the United Church of Christ-Congregational and St. John's Lutheran, which ran its own program), Grinnell families applied to host young, inner-city visitors for two weeks in July. This meant that at least briefly each summer very white Grinnell gained a small population of mostly black and brown kids who ate, slept, and socialized with their white host families. Today's post looks at Grinnell's experience with "Friendly Town," and how that history affected the understanding of race in central Iowa.
Book jacket of Tobin Miller Shearer's Two Weeks Every Summer (Cornell University Press, 2017)
As Tobin Miller Shearer points out in the introduction to Two Weeks Every Summer, since the late nineteenth century Fresh Air programs in the United States have sent hundreds of thousands of city children into the country for a week or two every summer. A driving force behind these projects was the idea that rural nature was an essential "good" denied to urban children. As one Iowa newspaper observed while introducing Friendly Town, "Iowa's fields, towns and streams will replace sweltering summer streets and sidewalks this July as a vacation place.... [Visiting children] are getting the opportunity for a two-week escape from their usual surroundings" (Mason City Globe-Gazette, May 1, 1965).

Chicago's version of the Fresh Air program, dubbed Friendly Town, was launched in 1960, sending children to host families either in suburban Chicago or to families in more distant locations, such as North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Montana. The Iowa Friendly Town project, begun in 1965 largely through the efforts of Dan Rohr, saw about 250 Chicago youngsters visit Iowa that summer; the second year brought to Iowa some 500 Chicago children, who were joined by another hundred from Des Moines (Mason City Globe-Gazette, July 21, 1966). In 1969 some 300 children took part, all from Iowa (Des Moines Register, August 3, 1969). Restricting participation to Iowa children, organizers said, would allow better connections between host families and guests, now geographically close enough to encourage mutual visits after the Friendly Town experience (Des Moines Tribune, April 24, 1968).
Letterhead on paper identifying 1965 Iowa Friendly Town hosts and guests
(Congregational Library and Archives, Chicago Theological Seminary collection of Community Renewal Society records, 1881-1978, Series IV [Vertical Files], Box B15/II.44; many thanks to William McCarthy for scans of this material)
Iowa's Friendly Town program had its headquarters in Ames, and local Lutherans staffed the first office there. Initially organizers required host-family applicants to express interest through their local churches. Indeed, at first applications had to include the signature of the applicant's pastor or priest, although I have yet to find evidence that this requirement was ever observed in Grinnell. Families with children were preferred as hosts so as to give guests some playmates of approximately their own age. The inner-city visitors were young—usually between 6 and 11 years of age (although later some 'tweens took part). Hosts were told they could specify "age and sex, but not race, of the guest child" (Chicago Tribune, June 4, 1967; Mason City Globe-Gazette, May 19, 1967). In soliciting hosts for the 1966 visits to Iowa, officials predicted that "seven of 10 [visiting guests] will be Negro, another 15 per cent will be Spanish-speaking" (Des Moines Register, May 1, 1966). With few exceptions, therefore, white rural and suburban hosts provided "vacations" to black and brown urban guests.
May 7, 1965 Letter from Harry Reynolds of UCC Social Action Committee
(Congregational Library and Archives, Chicago Theological Seminary collection of Community Renewal Society records, 1881-1978, Series IV [Vertical Files], Box B15/II.44; many thanks to William McCarthy for scans of this material)
In Grinnell, the UCC Church's Social Action Committee coordinated the visits; Harry Reynolds (1903-1977) headed the initial effort, but later Ted Mueller, Mrs. C. Edwin Gilmour, Mrs. Tom Mattausch, Mrs. John Steger, and others took over administering the Grinnell visits. All the arrangements in Chicago—selecting the children; arranging for medical exams (!) in Chicago; coordinating transportation—passed through the Chicago Missionary Society. When the emphasis shifted to Iowa children, Des Moines volunteers organized the visits.
Ted Mueller (right) helping organize the arrival of Friendly Town visitors to Grinnell, 1967
(photo courtesy of Berneil Mueller)
Iowa's Friendly Town hosts, when interviewed by journalists, often explained their participation by articulating goals of racial justice. For example, a Dubuque host family told the Des Moines Register: "We are living in a white ghetto here. We need this project. Our children must have contact with other races" (July 16, 1967). The Mason City Globe-Gazette heard something similar from a central Iowa host: "Friendly Town...provides just the right kind of opportunity for those families who can and would like to help overcome the barriers of class, race and income..." (June 13, 1970). Newspaper reports did not often seek comment from parents of the guest children, but one newspaper did cite the "mother of a ghetto child," who seemed to validate the racial ambitions of white hosts. Speaking just days after the murder of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., she said, "During these days of strife and hatred, all Negroes need to know at least one white person they can never hate" (Des Moines Tribune, April 24, 1968).
To begin, Grinnell barely dipped its toe into the Friendly Town experience: in 1965, Grinnell's first year of participation, just three Grinnell families hosted three Chicago children, all from the same African American family. But in 1966 thirty-two Grinnell families hosted a total of thirty-four Chicago guests. Subsequently numbers of hosts and visiting children fell off: in 1967, when organizers admitted that they were having trouble recruiting hosts, twenty-one Grinnell families entertained twenty-three children; in 1968 twenty-two families volunteered, but with only sixteen children available, several families shared children, each hosting a child for one week. I could not find the names or numbers of hosts and guests for the next several years, as the newspaper seems to have lost interest in the project, perhaps a reflection of diminished interest among the hosts as well. If local records survive, we may learn more once the pandemic relents.
St. John's Lutheran Church (undated photo)
St. John's Lutheran Church began its own Summer Rural Program in 1968, bringing eight Chicago children to town to spend two weeks with nine host families. The visitors all came to Grinnell via Chicago's Community Lutheran Church, then situated at 1701 W. Monroe Street. St. John's helped support Community Lutheran, and provided tuition for two young African American men to attend Chicago's Luther North High School.
For the first couple of years of Iowa's Friendly Town, the Chicago visitors traveled by train, with the hosts paying $10 to help offset the expense. Once the Iowa program shifted its orientation to Iowa cities, Grinnell hosts paid only $5, and they met their guests by driving to the homes of the children they would host—mostly in Des Moines. In this way, organizers figured, inner-city parents would have a stake in the program, and rural hosts would gain insight into the families and homes from which their summer visitors came.
Chicago Friendly Town Visitors Disembark from the Train at the Grinnell Depot, July 15, 1967
(Grinnell Herald Register, July 17, 1967)
I had hoped to hear how Grinnell's visitors looked back on their experiences here, but I have succeeded in identifying only a handful of the many children who came to Grinnell via Friendly Town and the Lutheran Summer Rural Program.
Jerry Anderson, Gerald Sykes, Chris Anderson, and Reginald Sykes (Grinnell Herald-Register, July 21, 1966)
During Grinnell's first year hosting children, JoAnn and Bill Weeks welcomed Steve Sneed, then 12 years old. Steve's brother, Charlie, 9 years of age, stayed with the C. Edwin Gilmour family, and their youngest brother, William, 8 years old, was a guest at the Grinnell Dunham farm. In 1966 two brothers, Gerald and Reginald Sykes of Chicago, were guests in the Richard Anderson home. That same year Bob and Bette Smith welcomed into their home Brenda Simpson, one of the few Friendly Town guests who was neither African American nor Latina. Eugene and Darlene Smith in successive years hosted Charlie Epting and David Klein, both from Chicago.
Kim and LuGene Mueller with Virginia Torres (1967) (Photo courtesy of Berneil Mueller)
Jim and Nancy Kissane, in 1966 only recently settled into a new home and still adjusting to the arrival of a baby daughter, hosted Joseph "Ike" Perkins, an African American from Chicago; that same year the Morris and Michèle Parslow family entertained Mary Lee, also African American from Chicago.
Ike Perkins riding a horse at the Maynard Raffety farm (Alan and John Kissane in front) (1966 photo courtesy Jim Kissane)
In 1967 Ted and Berneil Mueller and their three daughters hosted Chicagoan Virginia Torres, a Hispanic girl who spoke little English; that year the Parslows were hosts for Michael, a Chicago African American. Three years later the Mueller family received Toni Keyes, an African American from Des Moines.
LuGene Mueller, Toni Keyes, Melanne and Kim Mueller (photo courtesy of Berneil Mueller)
In 1968 Tommy and Dennis Haas and their children welcomed to Grinnell a young Des Moines boy—Mark Langford.
Mark Langford, 1976 Des Moines Technical High School Yearbook
Among the hosts at St. John's Lutheran in 1968 were Don and Opal Rikansrud, who provided a two-week-long home to Chicago's David Maggitt.
David Maggitt, 1969 Luther North High School Yearbook
Maggitt's friend and schoolmate was Harry Ratliff, who spent a week each with the Oda and Wayne Callison family and with the Dorothy and Paul Pedersen family.
Harry Ratliff, 1969 Luther North High School Yearbook
By and large, children who participated in Iowa's Friendly Town found the experience fun. "I had a wonderful time," said Dorothy Evans, who spent her 1967 Friendly Town visit with Mr. and Mrs. Grant Clark near Swea City, Iowa. Interviewed in Chicago after getting off the train from Iowa, Dorothy said, "We rode horses and played with the cows" (Chicago Tribune, July 30, 1967). Pamela Burch gave the experience a similarly warm review: Having stayed with Mr. and Mrs. John Lane on a farm near Ames, Pamela told the newspaper that her hosts "had four children, and we had a lot of fun because they were very friendly" (ibid.). Donny and Danny Alvarez, who, on returning from Iowa were not able to recall the names of their hosts, nevertheless also came away with good impressions. "When we left to go on the trip," Donny said, "it was the first time we had ever been on a train. At the farm, we played with the horses, pigs, and cows, and even got to feed a calf with a baby bottle" (ibid.).
Gerald Sykes rides a horse on the Andy Tone farm (Grinnell Herald-Register, July 25, 1966)
In Grinnell, too, the kids seem to have had fun. According to the newspaper, in 1966 all the visitors received a free pass to the Municipal swimming pool, and many children enrolled in swimming lessons at either the Municipal or Grinnell Country Club pool. The local miniature golf business of  Bernard Hotchkin gave each child a free game, and many town hosts took their visitors out to neighboring farms to see the animals and drive tractors or combines. Some families took their guests further afield, as the Muellers did when they packed up their VW camper to visit Backbone State  Park and Nordic Fest in Decorah. Others, like Joan and Don Milburn, who had at their doorstep an open field on East Street, saw their out-of-town visitors fit into baseball games and other pick-up fun with Grinnell neighborhood kids.
Brian Smith and Charlie Epting showing the results of fishing at Grinnell Country Club pond
(1966 photo courtesy of Marcy Smith Keyser)
In a recent email, David Maggitt told me that, looking back on his 1968 visit, he viewed the "experience in Grinnell as positive and rewarding... I had the chance to learn how to drive a tractor, attend town baseball games, and observe hill climbs being done by dirt bike fans" (personal communication, July 9, 2020). Reginald and Gerald Sykes, who stayed with the Andersons in 1966, told the Grinnell Herald-Register that Grinnell was "all right" (July 21, 1966). Charlie Epting, who spent two weeks with the Gene and Darlene Smith family in 1966, reported to his mother and friends that he had enjoyed his time in Grinnell, and hoped to return.
Eugene and Darlene Smith, Martha, Marcy, Mindy, and Brian Smith with Charlie Epting
(photo courtesy of Marcy Smith Keyser)
Offhand comments from children do not, perhaps, adequately summarize the complexity of these brief encounters. Finest Hatcher, Jr., however, who went from Chicago to North Dakota in the 1970s, was interviewed at length in 2012. Asked to reflect on his Friendly Town experience of forty years earlier, Hatcher admitted to having had plenty of fun. But he also pointed out how important the visit was to understanding race:
it was just about having fun and just being around different people. This area [in Chicago where I lived] is just all black and I haven't been around white people or any other color. The schools I went to were all black; no Hispanics, no nothing. But [the white North Dakota hosts] treated me nice and once we got to know each other the color just left; there was no color; everything was OK (
Perhaps most Grinnell hosts felt the same, hoping that their two-week experiment of domestic integration had brought their guests some fun, but had also improved race relations, even if only by a small amount. Kim Mueller, now a Chief United States District Judge in Sacramento but in the 1960s a child in the Ted and Berneil Mueller family, wrote me to say that she thought that Friendly Town had had a big impact on her, helping open her eyes to racial difference in a town that was overwhelmingly white (personal communication, August 27, 2020). It seems likely that other Grinnell kids also broadened their understanding of race, and appreciated the experience.
1987 photograph of the Ben Franklin store on Main Street (Digital Grinnell)
As might be expected, however, this feeling was not unanimous. When one Grinnell guest was discovered to have shoplifted from the local Ben Franklin store, the encounter convinced the hosts not to volunteer for Friendly Town again. Even worse, a child of another host family reported the suspicion that their Friendly Town guest had later taken part in the robbery and murder of a relative in Chicago. Other hosts did not deal with situations this dire, but nevertheless reported disappointment. For instance, one told me that her family had had a great experience one year, but the following year's guest had proven to be manipulative, brazenly giving them lists of things he'd like them to give him on his birthday or at Christmas. In other words, Grinnell's Friendly Town hosts did not enjoy universally favorable experiences, even if most did.

What about the guests? Recently Toni Keyes wrote Berneil Mueller to say that Friendly Town visits had given her and her siblings (who visited in other Iowa communities) "a fresh outlook on people who looked different than us...We learned...that all people are basically the same..." (personal communication from Berneil Mueller, August 27, 2020). Charlie Epting, who had seen the world with the US Army after growing up in Chicago, remembered Grinnell very happily when recently I found him by telephone in Florida; he expressed his appreciation for the friendship that he and his mother had had with members of the Smith family. Perhaps many other Friendly Town visitors to Grinnell took away similar experiences, but my inability to find them or to coax replies out of those I did find makes it hard to know what the visitors absorbed from their experience in Grinnell.

Unfortunately, no one seems to have asked the kids about problems with their hosts, but it would not be surprising if some local hosts, most of whom had had little contact with persons of African American or Latino descent, had unthinkingly deployed in the presence of their guests some then-common, impolite epithets to describe African Americans or Hispanics. The kids themselves might have been even less careful, giving expression to racial stereotypes in the heat of play. Indeed, one Grinnell host family member recalled that a neighborhood boy had shouted the n-word at their Friendly Town African American guest, indicating that at least occasionally reminders of racial difference were mixed with the fun and farm animals.
Grinnell's experience with Friendly Town took place at a critical time for American race relations. If 1964 saw enactment of the U.S. Civil Rights Act and 1965 witnessed passage of the Voting Rights Act, these same years produced widespread unrest in American urban, black communities. While civil rights activists participated in sit-ins, freedom rides, and marches across the U.S. South, racial tension within northern American cities exploded several times, most notably in the 1965 race riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, and again in 1967 in Detroit and Newark. The following year brought the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had long argued for a peaceful resolution of racial and economic inequities. Meanwhile, third-party candidate George Wallace pursued the presidency on a blatantly segregationist platform.

As a result of these and many other moments of racial strife, more radical agendas gained greater followings among the country's African Americans. The Nation of Islam, for instance, which had been founded decades before to advance racial separation, occupied an increasingly prominent place in the nation's consciousness, as hopes for peaceful integration waned. The Black Panthers, often depicted in the press fully armed, advanced a militant struggle against white American racial and economic dominance.
Undated image of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, armed with Colt .45 and a shotgun at Oakland Black Panthers HQ
This charged climate and the ambient political and social forces provided a difficult background for the 1960s Friendly Town project, which championed a liberal program of inter-racial cooperation and understanding. It is no surprise, therefore, that African Americans themselves criticized the Friendly Town project. Some of these objections emerged in a 1968 report that proposed freeing Chicago's Community Renewal Society of its connection to the project. Among the complaints lodged by African Americans, the report noted, was the charge that
Friendly Town does not lead to structural change. Black children are tolerated in white communities for two weeks, but the communities [themselves] remain unchanged...Nor does Friendly Town address itself to the institutional racism that produced and sustains black poverty ( 
Sandra Bates (1968 Cyclone)
The same year that Friendly Town was absorbing these criticisms, Sandra Bates, a Grinnell College African American who hailed from Virginia and would soon graduate and enter medical school, addressed a group at Grinnell's Mayflower Community. Her subject was "The Progress of the Negro," an apt theme for Grinnell and its 1960s ambitions for Friendly Town. Perhaps surprising her audience, Bates argued that in fact there had been no progress for America's black citizens. "Nearly 350 years after Jamestown," Bates said,
Negro Americans are still strangers in their own house. More than 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation they are still exceptions to the melting pot theory... [M]ost white Americans are determined that [Negroes] shall not even get in the pot. To put it bluntly, the full privileges of citizens of the United States do not apply to Negroes—and they never have (Grinnell Herald Register, May 20, 1968).
Within a few weeks of Bates's address, another group of inner-city kids arrived in Iowa to enjoy a brief "vacation" in Grinnell. No doubt most had fun, did things they had never done, and spent more time with white Americans than they ever had before. But for all its liberal ambition and good intentions, did Friendly Town prove, as Dan Rohr had hoped it would, that "under the skin all little boys and girls are pretty much alike?" Did the Friendly Town visits change Grinnell or help demolish institutional racism?

Members of Grinnell's host families offer contrasting views. Some visits seem to have gone off splendidly, host families maintaining contact with their visitors long after the Friendly Town visit ended. For example, the Robert Smith family traveled to Chicago to visit their former guest as well as their neighbor's Friendly Town guest who lived in Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes. Similarly, Darlene Smith exchanged correspondence with Charlie Epting's mother for years after Charlie's 1966 visit (thanks to Mindy Smith Heine for sharing with me copies of these letters). And Berneil Mueller recalls that her family became friends with Toni Keyes's Des Moines family, maintaining contact until the Keyes family moved out of state. In very white Grinnell, these on-going connections with African Americans certainly helped erode the sense of racial difference.

Other Grinnell hosts offered less encouraging recollections, reflected perhaps in the gradual demise of the program. One host told me that their family's guest spent most of his two weeks on a bicycle, away from their home and all on his own, interacting minimally with hosts. Hosts to the guest caught shop-lifting learned that their Chicago visitor had encouraged other kids to try it, thereby implicating them in the theft. The fact that the offender was white did nothing to undermine perceptions of difference. Still other Friendly Town hosts could find little to recall about this experiment in social relations; those two weeks long ago spent in the company of an inner-city child had simply disappeared from memory, and therefore could not have had much effect on local opinions on race and class.
Undated photo of some of the Robert Taylor Homes on South State Street, Chicago
Many of the former guests I tracked down proved reluctant to comment or offer any reflections on how their Grinnell Friendly Town experience might have changed their views on race; my letters and emails asking their impressions went unanswered. Of course, everyone nowadays lives busy lives, and the covid-19 pandemic has made life even more complicated. I suspect, however, that at least some of the reluctance to comment upon Friendly Town owes something to the present-day revival of racial tensions in America. If I am right, then this reluctance to speak is regrettable, and implies the failure of the liberal hopes that undergirded Friendly Town. If fifty-some years later Friendly Town participants themselves find it impossible or awkward to discuss race openly, then there seems little hope for the rest of America to engage in this conversation.

Even Dan Rohr, who, more than anyone, was responsible for bringing Friendly Town to Iowa, seems to have left it firmly in the past. When interviewed in 1966 after having seen two years of Friendly Town visits to Iowa, Rohr—who left college after his second year to help organize the program, and only completed his education some years later—thought that his Friendly Town work had been important, telling a newspaper reporter that "This [Friendly Town] and the past year in Chicago have changed my life considerably and I am sure it has been all for the good" (Mason City Globe Gazette, September 24, 1966).

Now living in California and retired from a career as a public-school teacher and an information technology specialist, Rohr seemed surprised when I found him by telephone and asked what he now thought about Friendly Town and his role in bringing it to Iowa. After a pause, he told me that these days he did not think about it at all; he had only a single folder of newspaper articles as a memento. He did not explain, but I wondered whether the enthusiasm with which he had originally embraced Friendly Town and its liberal vision of reform had succumbed to the enduring problems of racial conflict in America.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Z—a Horrible Crime, Still Unsolved

Summer 1992 my family and I had packed up for a sabbatical year in Cambridge, England. We left green, corn-laden Iowa in June to settle in a semi-detached (as the English like to call it) house in Cambridge, where we gradually accustomed ourselves to driving on the wrong side of the road, counting money in pounds and pence, and learning new idioms in English.
Stone Memorializing Tammy Zywicki on Grinnell College campus
Into this new comfort-zone in late August crashed terrible news from Iowa—Tammy Zywicki, a Grinnell College student who was driving back to Grinnell at the start of a new semester, had disappeared from her automobile, which was found on the shoulder of I-80 in central Illinois. Some days later her body was discovered near I-44 in southwest Missouri. She had been stabbed to death, wrapped in a blanket, and discarded by the roadside. As I write these lines almost 28 years later, Tammy's killer remains unknown. Today's post looks back at the dreadful events of 1992, and how the campus and town dealt with the crime and its unresolved investigation.
Tammy Zywicki, ca. 1992
In late August 1992, Tammy Zywicki—a 21-year-old senior—departed Pennsylvania by car, heading to Evanston, Illinois where she left her younger brother, Daren, at Northwestern University. Early afternoon the next day, Sunday, August 23rd, Tammy set out alone for Grinnell where she intended to spend a few days before returning to Chicago for a semester-long internship at Chicago's Art Institute.
FBI photograph of Zywicki's car (
Tammy usually telephoned home when she reached Grinnell, but she had not telephoned her parents that Sunday, so on Monday her mother reported her missing. Sunday afternoon Illinois State police had already found her 1985 Pontiac hatchback on the shoulder of interstate 80 near LaSalle, Illinois. Passing motorists had reported that the car's hood, hatchback, and side door were open, but when police arrived they found everything closed, and the automobile locked without a key. Tammy Zywicki was missing.
Grinnell Herald-Register, August 27, 1992
Classes at the college had not yet begun, but, as returning students reached campus, they quickly sprang into action. Anxious evening meetings in dorm lounges resulted in organizing three teams of students that departed Grinnell Wednesday morning with hundreds of flyers they had prepared, each bearing Zywicki's photo and description. The plan was to travel interstate 80 and its interstate connections, posting and distributing flyers along the way, hoping to stir up news of the missing woman. Another group of students organized sixteen teams to spread out across Iowa, visiting truck stops and rest areas with more flyers. Several college offices contributed paper, labels, photocopying machines, and free use of fax machines. Meanwhile, students organized a fund, initially founded on a voluntary fast among students, their board portion being transferred to the fund. Wednesday evening, prior to the official beginning of classes on Thursday, a candle-light vigil convened on campus behind the college Forum.
Drawing of Truck Reported to have been parked near Zywicki's car (Illinois State Police)
Organizing on campus continued, but the first substantive clue came on Monday, August 31, when Illinois State Police announced that a witness had reported having seen a semi trailer truck parked by Zywicki's car. Police had a drawing prepared, and distributed to the news media. The witness, a LaSalle-area truck mechanic, told authorities that he had seen the trucker talking with Zywicki, and described him as a white male, 30 to 45 years old, six feet tall, with bushy, dark hair. Police regarded the witness's report as the best lead they had so far found.

But Zywicki was already missing for more than a week; family and friends grew increasingly alarmed. Then, Tuesday morning, September 1st, a trucker discovered a body in a ditch near the on-ramp of Interstate 44 near Sarcoxie, Missouri. Wrapped in a red blanket, the body had begun to decompose, but the coroner confirmed that the dead person had been a female in late teens or early twenties, about five feet, two inches tall and around 120 pounds. An autopsy revealed that the woman had been stabbed seven times in the chest and once in the arm. First reports indicated hair and eye color that did not match Zywicki's, but the woman wore a t-shirt with the name of Zywicki's high school soccer team across the front; moreover, the dead woman's shorts were imprinted with "GCRC Division Champs," which might have referred to the Greenville, South Carolina County Recreation Commission soccer teams for which Zywicki had played. These were not the clothes in which Zywicki had last been seen, but the links to her high school fueled speculation that the dead woman was in fact Zywicki.

Still, the Lawrence County, Missouri coroner said that positive identification proved impossible; decomposition indicated that death had occurred at least three days—and perhaps as many as ten days—previously. Authorities therefore requested Zywicki's dental records to see if they matched the person found in the red blanket.

Meanwhile, back on campus, students organized another candle-light vigil early Wednesday morning; more than 200 students were present at 6 AM, and more volunteers agreed to undertake new efforts to spread word about Zywicki.
Grinnell College students assemble in North Lounge of College Forum, Thursday, September 3rd
(Grinnell Herald-Register, September 7, 1992)
By midday Thursday the Missouri coroner had positively identified the victim as Tammy Zywicki. The college campus fell silent. Many had suspected that the body found in Missouri was Zywicki—the names on her clothing, her size and weight all matched. But the hope, of course, was that Tammy Zywicki was still alive. Early Thursday afternoon students jammed the College Forum to hear the Dean of Student Affairs, Tom Crady, formally relay the news of Tammy's death. College president, Pamela Ferguson, then spoke.
After days of praying and hoping that Tammy Zywicki would be found alive and well, I cannot adequately express how devastated I am to learn of her death and the circumstances of it.... Society itself must deeply mourn her and have the most intense concern over the fact that such things can happen in America (Grinnell Herald-Register, September 7, 1992).
Headline from Scarlet and Black, September 4, 1992
Nyasha Spears, a student friend of Zywicki's and one of the chief organizers of the campus effort to find Zywicki, then took the microphone. Addressing students with a determination that inspired subsequent efforts on campus, Spears said,
I want you to know, we're not done...We live in a generation that's growing up with the norm that young women especially cannot walk down a street by themselves at night. We have the job to make sure that it's not the norm that we cannot drive on a Sunday afternoon on the interstate from Chicago to Grinnell (ibid.).
That afternoon a silent service convened in the college's Herrick Chapel. According to press reports, students held and comforted one another, quietly struggling to make sense of the violent end to Tammy's life. One student carried a lighted candle down the chapel aisle and placed it on the steps before the platform. Soon others in attendance passed the candle, leaving behind a pile of yellow daisies that two college seniors had distributed earlier to mourners.
Perhaps because of Spears's challenge, the campus response to Zywicki's death centered upon improving women's safety and the safety of drivers along the nation's highways.
Des Moines Register, October 16, 1992
In late September Spears announced formation of "Fearless," a group organized around Zywicki's murder and investigation. A half-dozen task forces were already busy; one group was pursuing legislation that would require a telephone at every mile marker on the interstate highway system—this at a time when cell phones were still uncommon. Another group developed talking points that students might use over the coming break to help advocate for greater highway safety. Spears also announced plans for a Zywicki memorial, originally imagined as a set of trees by the Physical Education Complex, but later replaced by the rock memorial now standing north of Eighth Avenue (Grinnell Herald-Register, October 1, 1992).
Photograph of a Fearless t-shirt (courtesy of Amy Fort)
Zywicki's death also gave new impetus to campus efforts to address violence against women. A gathering in the College Forum included numerous accounts of personal experience of sexual assault and violence, culminating in a "Take Back the Night" march from campus through downtown.
Take Back the Night March, October 29, 1992 (Scarlet and Black, November 6, 1992)
Mr. and Mrs. Zywicki visited campus in early November. At a general reception at Grinnell House on a Sunday evening, the Zywickis met more than 100 Grinnell students. Returning to Grinnell had "been hard," they told a reporter for the Scarlet and Black. But they wanted to thank the college administration and especially the college students whose efforts "kept our spirits up." The Zywickis also announced that a $100,000 reward had been posted for information leading to the arrest and conviction of their daughter's killer, and urged media to maintain the focus upon Tammy's case (Scarlet and Black, November13, 1992).
Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 7, 1992
The larger Grinnell community also responded to Zywicki's death. Much of the activity came from the Jeanne Burkle Women's Center, 822 1/2 Commercial Street. On October 1st, for example, the Center hosted Doug Meeker, service manager for Wes Finch Chevrolet, who discussed basic automobile maintenance. "Most breakdowns can be prevented," Meeker said, urging those in attendance to regularly check tires, hoses, windshield wipers, and other relatively inexpensive items. Subsequent Burkle Center programs addressed "What Everyone Should Know About Violence Against Women" and women's self-defense (Scarlet and Black, October 9, 1992).
1991 photo of Jeanne Burkle Women's Center, 822 1/2 Commercial (Digital Grinnell)
As autumn wore down and the fields of Iowa gave up their corn and soybeans, Fearless continued its campaign in behalf of women's safety. Among other initiatives, the group published a small handbook to help drivers deal with emergencies on the highway. At public sessions aimed especially at women drivers the group distributed brightly-colored emergency notices for drivers to place in their automobile windows, urging passers-by to contact police, this in preference to dealing directly with motorists who stopped and offered to help.
Cover of Fearless handbook, A Guide to Handling Emergencies (1992; photo courtesy of Amy Fort)
In early December on Capitol Hill U.S. Representative Chuck Schumer convened hearings on safety along the nation's highways. Portia Sabin, a Grinnell College senior, who did not know Zywicki but who had been active in campus efforts to improve women's safety, testified before Schumer's committee. Sabin related the story of Zywicki's abduction and death, and encouraged legislators to adopt measures that would mandate emergency telephones at every mile of American interstate highways. She also caucused with Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, but no legislation like this ever emerged from Congress; cell phone popularity outpaced legislation, mooting the idea of installing highway telephones.
Des Moines Register, December 7, 1992
Winter bore down on Grinnell, and another semester—the final semester for the class of 1993—began. Occasionally a news story promised progress in the Zywicki investigation, but all these leads petered out.
Philadelphia Daily News, May 24, 1993
When graduation weekend for the Grinnell College class of 1993 rolled around, Hank and Joann Zywicki returned to Grinnell for the occasion. Coming to Grinnell meant missing the graduation from law school of their oldest son, Todd, but he encouraged his parents to attend this graduation for Tammy. Mrs. Zywicki brought homemade cookies and various other sweets to hand out to students as tokens of appreciation for what students had done and in solidarity with the young men and women with whom Tammy should have received her degree. At baccalaureate the day before commencement, the Zywickis heard students memorialize Tammy, whose murderer had not yet been found. Everyone hoped—perhaps even expected—that the killer would soon be brought to justice.

Twenty-eight years later that resolution has not yet arrived. Supporters have tried several times to inject new energy into the criminal investigation, and occasionally a news item—most recently, this spring when authorities arrested Clark Perry Baldwin, a cross-country trucker accused of having murdered several young women—stimulates hopes, but so far authorities have reported no progress. There was no Facebook when Tammy fell victim to her murderer, but now a Facebook group (Who Killed Tammy Zywicki?) with over 1000 members regularly circulates news about the killing and advocates action in the investigation. At the anniversaries–5th, 10th, 15th, 20th, 25th—of Tammy's murder a newspaper may publish a reminder, but for some years now the investigation seems to have come to a standstill, and hopes that Tammy's killer will ever be brought to justice hang by a thread.

As I prepared this post I made contact with a number of people who lived through the trauma that accompanied Tammy's death. Some declined to go back to that hurtful time, while others opened trunks full of memories and mementoes, hopeful that a new initiative might somehow overcome the sense that Tammy Zywicki's murderer has escaped punishment. No doubt both continue to nurse the pain that that 1992 crime brought to Grinnell.