Tag Archives: Iowa

Winter Solstice….Farm Memories

Winter Solstice Arrives…December 21, 2016

Seeking added light on the Winter Solstice, I took a brief walk on the Highline Canal Trail in my area of Denver, Colorado. As a child living on the farm, we were fairly in sync with the seasons. Winter’s arrival was significant. The labors that Dad undertook for the season were intense. Coal was delivered and furnace wood cut from fallen timber. These were pushed through a small hatch in the farmhouse foundation. Dad had piles of coal and wood stacked in the basement of our home ready to fuel the furnace.

For the cattle and horses, hay and straw were used to feed and provide warm bedding, respectively. An oil furnace in the dog kennel a.k.a. former chicken house was fired up to warm the Scottish terriers that Mom raised.

Standing at a distance from the farmhouse as dusk approached, it was heart-warming to see the smoke curl upwards from the brick chimney. The twinkle of lamplight coming from the windows indicated a cozy place to curl up with my parents and four siblings. An occasional bark from one of our canine friends or the moo from a cow, reminded us of our place as stewards of our four-legged charges.

May you seek light and provide hospitality during these longer days of the season we call Winter.

Why visit cemeteries?

Winslow Cemetery

Winslow Cemetery, Rural Poweshiek County, Iowa

Why visit cemeteries, let alone FIVE of them, in just two days?

As a genealogist and family historian, I find visiting cemeteries fascinating. They are a quiet place, yet I can just sense the rich stories as I stroll the lanes. Because the cemeteries that I visited recently are the final resting place of numerous family members and neighbors or friends from my hometown, their names are familiar and the memories come alive.

Upon my recent visit to Iowa, I went to the Winslow Cemetery, which is the first time I’ve been there. It is situated high on a hill, well-kept, and encompasses views of the Iowa River valley. Greeting me were views of farms and country roads, the carved bed of the Pumpkin Vine Railroad now a remnant in the hillside across the way, and combines working hard to complete the harvest of corn. Red-wing blackbirds rose and swirled in large flocks, their calls and flapping wings breaking the silence of the cemetery setting.

I snapped photos of the gravestones of great-aunts and great-uncles. I thought of the Plumb-McLennan family reunions with them. Delicious deviled eggs, lemonade, Jello-salads were part of the lunch. Big smiles, sparkling eyes, and soft voices shared family stories. Wrinkled hands and warm hearts were there to greet the youngest generation.

Over the coming weeks, I will add the photos of the gravestones onto the Find-a-Grave website so that those seeking family history will be given concrete information. Seeing names and dates of one’s ancestors helps to add more pieces to the family history puzzle. I use the photos and the information on the gravestones as sources to substantiate the genealogy records of those family members.

So yes….I visit cemeteries!


A Testimonial from a Hometown Friend

“When I read Diane’s historical articles, I feel the passion of the story. Diane writes as though she had lived the life of whom she was writing. I am always drawn in and want to read more. History is not just facts and figures, but an understanding of the people that built our country. The pioneers that had the faith to start anew and make the life for themselves and their family better. Diane can relate first hand with her own heritage. She brings to life stories that need and must be told.”

~ Mitch M., Iowa

Three Pioneer Families: Patterson, Plumb, McLennan

Since the copies of my book have been delivered to special family members and the Belle Plaine Historical Museum, I wanted to share my first book with my readers. It was a labor of love that resulted from hundreds of hours between 2010-2013. First I scanned over 1,500 images and documents from my Grandmother Geneva’s scrapbooks. Then I was asked by a friend from my hometown community of Belle Plaine, Iowa to create an update for the community’s 2012 Sesquicentennial. It hit me earlier this year that I wanted to make sure that the effort that I placed in the DVD was not lost to family members who had not purchased the DVD. Thus, the perfect impetus presented itself for bringing it to print form. Alas, what better timing than when I was just discovering the world of print-on-demand publishing. I opted to use Lulu.com.

Three Pioneer Families: Patterson, Plumb, McLennan

Three Pioneer Families: Patterson, Plumb, McLennan

The cover photo features a view from my brother and sister-in-law’s driveway. They now reside in the farmhouse where my grandparent’s McLennan lived during the mid-1950s until the early-1960s. The farmland was in the McLennan family for about 70 years, until it was recently sold. Nevertheless, the photo represents fairly “virgin” Iowa farmland. We do not recollect a plow being used in this pastureland.  What we do recall though, are the collective memories of mushroom hunting, counting cattle to assure they were “all there,” hickory nut and walnut gathering, apple picking, taking city cousins on a tour by wagon of the farm, using machetes to rid the pasture of persistent Canadian thistles, sledding parties, and warming cold toes around bonfires with friends. The significance of the photo is that in some respects it depicts what the land may have looked like in the 1850s when the pioneers from the East began to settle in the area.

Back cover of my book.

Back cover of my book.

While only a few dozen photos are featured in this book, they are photos that best highlight my pioneer ancestry from these three branches. My book goes back to 1854 with the Patterson’s arrival in Benton County from Ohio. The Plumbs arrived in 1867 from Indiana, but orginally from Canada. Lastly, great-great grandmother, Catherine McKay McLennan, and her son, Lachlan McLennan, arrived in 1869 from the Highlands of Scotland. Generation by generation, the book features the changes in the family and the times, until I bring in the latest generation through photos.

What was it like to be a pioneer during the times of westward expansion? For me, I am much like my mother, as I love to read accounts of brave souls encountering the elements, river crossings, and forging for food. I am mindful of the commitment that it took to make such a drastic change in one’s life. In some ways it is reminiscent of what Steve and I did when we left the Midwest in 2010 to engage in a simplified lifestyle. However, I also acknowledge that movement to the west and across the wide spans of land also meant that infringement occurred on Native Americans. So, I stop to consider what impact we bore on our Native friends during this part of our country’s history.

Now it is time to journey onward through my family archives! Will it be the Vale’s, McClester’s, Carmitchel’s, or Stratton’s? These are branches of my Mom’s heritage, so I look forward to another adventure in saved photos and the genealogy pages of family Bibles!





The Lincoln Highway Turns 100

Did you know that the Lincoln Highway turns 100 during 2013? This great highway shares a deep legacy with me. Of course, many people likely have similar sentiments, since it is the former work-horse highway that stretched from coast to coast across 12 states. It was the super-highway of its era, perhaps matching in fascination to the railroads of the time.

In 1913, it began in New York City’s Time Square at Broadway and 42nd Street. It continued through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California, where it ended at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. The length was roughly 3,400 miles!

Route 30 across Iowa now is a seemingly straight shot across the land of verdant crops. However, when the Lincoln Highway was first laid out through Benton County, Iowa and due to the steep hills and ridges to the west of what is the U.S. 30 and State Highway 131 crossroads, the planners decided to take the route south (State Highway 131) about 4 1/2 miles and then west on what is now 13th Street through my hometown of Belle Plaine. Our family farm rested on the east side of Lincoln Highway and was located just over 2 miles south of Route 30.

Growing up along the Lincoln Highway was special. My Grandpa Horace was always especially fond of the old route as well as the railroad that went through town. When anyone referred to the Lincoln Highway, we knew exactly which route they were referencing. As Belle Plaine was also a railroad hub for the Chicago Northwestern and a popular stop, we also found our farm a straight route north and an easy walk for hobos needing a hot meal. There were marks made on telephone posts along Lincoln Highway, giving clues to these men that our farmhouse was a good stop. Mom would shoo us kids to the 2nd floor of the house while she fixed a quick, yet hot meal for many a grateful train-hitching fellow. Grandma Geneva, who formerly lived in the home, alerted Mom to the custom of providing meals.

When I think of the Lincoln Highway, I also pause to ask, “How many people experienced cattle drives on Lincoln Highway?” My Dad would have 60 head or so of cattle at the West Farm (the farm of my grandparents’ McLennan). After the cattle had grazed the pasture down, Dad would recruit Mom, the five of us kids, Grandpa Horace, and often a few of our fun-loving friends. We would drive the cattle by walking behind them, coaxing and scolding them, along the gravel road from the West Farm to our farm along busy 131. The cattle drive was about three miles long and took a couple of hours. What we discovered each time we did this was that cattle are innately stubborn, especially when they see a bridge to cross, where they lose their senses and become skittish. It would take Dad saying, “Come Boss” as he shook a pail of oats or corn. Once one cow took the bait and followed Dad across the bridge, the rest of these bovines followed suit. I guess we could credit it to their “herd mentality.”

Alas, the pace would change once the highway was in view. Dad would alert the Benton County sheriff ahead of time, so the sheriff could help stop or slow the traffic on the Lincoln Highway. Once we successfully drove the cattle from the gravel to the pavement, we would drive them north, just under a mile, to an open gate into the pasture by the grove of trees where deep grass awaited them.

As I check out the route of the Lincoln Highway, I also realize the many ties that I have to it. In Pennsylvania, it goes through Ligonier and Pittsburg, the area where my Grandaddy John Vale and his family of origin lived. When I went to college at Iowa State in Ames, I often walked along the Lincoln Highway en route to class. Finishing my bachelors degree at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, Illinois, I also drove Lincoln Highway to get to school from the western suburb of Batavia. My husband, son, daughter, and I lived in Batavia, Illinois for 20 years. The Lincoln Highway went right past our church where I worked as a preschool teacher also. The Highway went through North Aurora, Batavia, and Geneva, where we drove hundreds of miles over the years. On a special note, my husband, Steve, rode parts of the Lincoln Highway on his bicycle ride across the U.S. in 2005.

Needless to say, the Lincoln Highway deserves to be recognized as it turns a century. It was an integral force behind the transportation history of the United States. Many communities thrived because of the route passing through town, from diners to barber shops and full-service filling stations to motels, businesses welcomed many a traveler into their midst. I’d love to hear what memories you have of the Lincoln Highway. Perhaps you’d like to help the Lincoln Highway celebrate its Centennial. If so, I urge you to pay a visit to its website to see how you can participate in an area along the route near you: http://www.lincolnhighwayassoc.org/

Special Delivery

This true story is dedicated to my parents, Chuck and Betty McLennan. They were clever and creative, always embracing the child-at-heart in all of us, despite our age. Mom and Dad created an endearing custom that we enjoyed from the time I could first remember until the youngest of the five of us was probably in high school. How I miss my parents and thank them for their zest for live. Enjoy this Special Delivery story. Merry Christmas!


Snuggled together on my twin bed and sitting alongside me were my sisters, Charlene, Laurie, and Susan with Mama Betty holding our little brother, Charles, on her lap. Our evening bedtime routine often included storytime, but during the weeks before Christmas it typically involved listening to traditional Christmas stories. Saturday night baths were finished, everyone’s hair was neatly combed and pin curls or brush rollers carefully placed for us girls since we had Sunday school in the morning. Each of us had donned our flannel night gowns or pajamas that Grandma Geneva had sewn for our Christmas gifts the prior year. Hand-knitted slippers that Mama made last Valentine’s Day were keeping our toes cozy-warm.

There was a distinct chill in the air as the winter wind whistled through the pine tree windbreak to the north of the house. Located near Belle Plaine, Iowa, our two-story clapboard farmhouse was built in 1899 by our Great-Grandpa Patterson, so despite its former sturdiness, the years since had taken their toll. Therefore, a cold draft had a knack for creeping through the slightest crack in the old window putty, moving the white Priscilla curtains ever so slightly on the interior-side of the windows and sending a shiver up our spines.

Listening intently to Mama’s soft voice as she read of Dancer, Prancer, Donner, Vixen, and of course the most famous reindeer of all, Rudolph, we were quickly startled by something strange outdoors.

“Rap, rap, rap,” came the pounding from the porch door.

“Ho, ho, ho!” boomed a low bass voice.

“Jingle, jingle, jingle,” rang out the deep clang of sleigh bells.

Without skipping a beat, the five of us kids sprang to the window and Mama carefully drew up the shade. Through the Jack Frost etching on the second-story window, we could make out a tall figure dressed in red, cap blowing in the wind, and black boots leaving tell-tale footprints in the fresh fallen snow down the front sidewalk.

“M-e-r-r-y  C-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s!” shouted Santa as he waved and jumped the white picket gate at the end of the sidewalk.

Excitedly we jumped up and down, shouting, “Santa came!”

Without any coaxing we clamored single-file out of the bedroom to the top of the stairs, Mama leading the way with our toddler brother in her arms. She slowed our pace, saying, “Don’t slip on the stairs in your slippers now and hold the railing.”

Once on the main floor we zipped to the porch door where thrusting it wide open the surprise was revealed. In unison we shouted a resounding, “Yippee! Santa brought our Christmas tree!” There leaning against the worn wooden siding stood the most beautiful pine tree with a fragrant scent of Christmas. This fragrance also brought a rush of memories of our campsite in the thick pine forest of Point Beach State Park in Wisconsin where we camped just four months earlier but only during the oppressive heat of summer.

“Oh no!” announced Mama with sadness. “Daddy missed the excitement. Let’s go find him.”

We shut the porch door, walked into the warm kitchen, and heard a familiar noise.

“Clang, clang, clang…..scrape, scrape, scrape,” echoed the sounds from the basement. Daddy was stoking the furnace with corncobs, coal, and wood.

We threw upon the door to the basement and called to him, “Daddy, come quick. Santa came with a Christmas tree!”

“Just a minute, I’ll be right there,” he responded. Soon Daddy came walking up the old basement stairs from the musty confines of the furnace room and brushing coal dust from his hands. He was beaming from ear to ear and working to catch his breath. Daddy followed us to the front door where he caught his first glimpse of our Christmas tree brought magically to our home in the country.

“Wow, Santa brought a perfect tree again!” cheered Daddy.

An acknowledgement stirred in my eleven-year-old soul as the eldest child of us five. For I recognized the extra twinkle in Daddy’s blue eyes and his quick wink directed at Mama. I closed my eyes, knowing in my heart of hearts the secret of Christmas, and whispered to myself, “Thank you, Santa, for our Special Delivery!”

Circa 1955, Our Special Delivery Christmas Tree After Decorating