Archive for the ‘Half Truths & Outright Lies About My Hometown’ Category

This is the fourth installment in a seven part series entitled My Hometown, the chronicles of the Mississippi River town of Muscatine, Iowa.

To read the earlier episodes, click the following links:

Part I – The Man and His Clam

Part II – They Found What in a Ketchup Bottle?

Part III – Check Out Those Melons 

BACKROP

Harry Huttig was a turn of the 20thcentury lumber man in the town of Muscatine.   While other residents were diving for river clams, filling bottles with Heinz Ketchup or making watermelon pyramid stacks on the back of horse drawn carts, Harry was building the town’s infrastructure.  A respected gentleman, Harry had what many thought was obnoxious dumb luck.   His first turn as lucky dog was when he had the good fortune of shagging the beautiful – insert prolifically wealthy here – Kathryn Musser, she of the Muscatine Mussers.  They would marry in 1891. 

But Harry had financial game of his own.  His lumber yard mysteriously burnt to the ground twice, once in 1886, and again in 1900, each time with over $100,000 in damages.  Harry might have been heard to say to an associate during the infernos: “Awe shucks, there hasn’t been a fire that big since Sherman torched Atlanta.  Better dial up the operator and get my State Farm Good Hands Neighbor on the phone.”   

Harry would use the insurance money and the monetary settlement from the railroad company culprits that were blamed for the fires to parlay a new business venture. He formed a partnership with other local high rollers in the construction of the first toll bridge, a half mile long high bridge spanning to the Illinois side of the Mississippi.   This would mark the first time that sleepy, boring, farming communities on the Illinois side of the river would be linked with sleepy, boring, farming communities on the Iowa side of the river.  

The Harry & Kate Huttig Mausoleum - Not Your Average Tombstone

The Harry & Kate Huttig Mausoleum - Not Your Average Tombstone

Harry accumulated so much wealth through his land holdings, construction business, and toll bridge collections that he was the envy of many in Southeast Iowa, but his most noted real estate parcel today is deep within the Greenwood Cemetery.   Sitting like a fortress overlooking the Mississippi and the town’s southern edge, and nestled tightly in the tree lined bluff you will find the near regal burial setting of Harry and Kathryn Musser Huttig.  The Huttigs lay entombed within a mausoleum of white granite and blue plated glass.

When Huttig died in 1935 he would have never anticipated how his life’s accomplishments would soon be forgotten, but his influence in death would carry on in local folklore.   

…And that is because of the Legend of the Blue Angel.  

Observers to the Huttig mausoleum can stand on the third step and peer inside and see two encased coffins.   But what is more remarkable is the figure kneeling atop the vaults standing guard with head looking humbly downward.  It is a figure known simply as the Blue Angel. 

Not actually blue, the Blue Angel gets her color from the reflection of sunlight on blue glass.   Sunlight, and of course moonlight… which is the lighting choice for curfew defying  school kids who peep in on her at night, often on a dare.   It is not a coincidence that the Blue Angel has many more guests during the Halloween tomfoolery season.   It is her legend that draws people to the stoop of the Huttig mausoleum.      

Since Huttig’s death in 1935 the Blue Angel has knelt on her left knee.  She meticulously balances her left hand tucked against right knee.   This gives her the strenth to hold in her right hand a flower facing down towards the Huttigs.

While there are many variations to the story, all of them conjuring chilly, goose bump outbreaks, the one common tale is to be careful when you peak into look at the Blue Angel because should she happen to drop the flower in her right hand at the moment you are looking than misfortune, bad luck, and even death will be your fate.   Most onlookers are careful only to stare in on her for a few seconds, perhaps not believing the tale, but also not taking an unnecessary chance.   

A well known example of the curse occured in the mid 1970s.  It is believed that a group of local high school football players, or Muskies as they are called, took a gander the night before their season’s opening two-a-day practices.   To their shock, a couple of the players noticed the Blue Angel dropping her flower at that precise moment.  Terrified they reported to practice the next day fearing the worst.   But, instead of a calamitous spate of injuries and near death collisions on the grid iron, the Blue Angel instead doomed the Muskies to a losing streak of five full years, the longest record for futility in the nation at the time.

And so the curse of the Blue Angel lived on…of course, this was true right up until a few years ago when someone in the dark of night broke into the mausoleum and severed her right hand with a perfect cut right above the wrist.   Their motive unknown, perhaps they were hoping to save future onlookers from her curse.    And the story of this break-in has never been told before… until now.  

My Hometown Part IV – Donnie Clamwood aka “Clammers” – A Miller’s Hill Wipeout

In the summer of 2006, Muscatine was busy playing host and finish line for the record fifth time to RAGBRAI, a week long cycling party that meanders across Iowa from the Missouri River to the Mississippi.   Among the thousands who have rode in RAGBRAI over the years, there have been cycling legends like Lance Armstrong, various no-named/never-in-your-life will they be President politicians wanting to make names for themselves before the Iowa Caucus, guys like Bruce Babbitt and Dick Gephardt.    And usually there are at least a half dozen or more college sophomores wearing just a diaper outfit for seven straight days.   When grilled, usually the diaper wearers will admit they attend Iowa State. 

One person who has never been on RAGBRAI but who feels right at home when it swings through town is local legend Donnie Clamwood.   That’s because Donnie rides his bike every day of the year.   Whether it is his current BMX style ride or his previous garage sale bargain ten speed and banana seat bikes, Donnie always has two wheels and will travel.

An Unconfirmed Sighting of Kenny Crabtree - A Confirmed Sighting of a Pittsburgh Steelers Air Freshener (A S. Whitacre Photo)

A Rare Photo of Donnie Clamwood (Or some other guy on a bike. Who can tell with that Pittsburgh Steelers Air Freshener blocking the Clamwood Head?)

Photographic evidence of Donnie Clamwood – also known as Clammers –  on bike being hard to come by, the Small Ball Report recently put out a bounty and came back with only one Sasquatch caliber photograph from a contributors’ cell phone.   Zapruder he was not, our contributors Pittsburgh Steelers air freshener mystically covers his head just as Clamwood pedals past down the wrong side of the street.  By the way, to Donnie the middle or wrong side of the road is also known as the right side of the road.

Donnie’s status as town legend is part and parcel attributed to his bike, his unknown age, his deep voice, and his uncanny knack of showing up at town events and doing unexpected things.   He is a fixture in the Fourth of July Parade, normally riding by himself at the end just after the guy who always drives his riding mower.  (Look kids, there is is guy on his lawn mower!!!) 

You might also catch him taking a ticket at a carnival ride or stirring lemonade barehanded without a spoon at the County Fair concession stand.   Donnie is hard to miss, and it is safe to say that every town has a Donnie Clamwood.  

With RAGBRAI coming to town in 2006, Donnie had plans to check it all out.

Boys of Summer

Tommy Duggendorf was 14 and full of rebellion in the summer of 2006.  His parents, Tom Sr. and Katy Sue had been slightly distracted by the arrival of their sixth child, Timmy, just a few weeks before.  During the last weeks before Timmy’s arrival, Katy Sue had been confined to bed rest.  

Doctors had said that Timmy was sure to be an active, outgoing kid based on the way he was thrashing about in the womb.  They decided to take extra precaution and get Katy Sue off her 220 pound frame and into bed rest.  Tom Sr. and Katy Sue hadn’t even gazed into Timmy’s eyes or clutched his tiny hands, and they knew he would be a natural in the sport of Mutton Busting one day on the county fair circuit.

Meanwhile during this time older brother Tommy’s schoolwork had tanked.   He became at times distant, confrontational and defiant, and to his parents it seemed, he had begun to run with the wrong crowd.  They had reluctantly let Tommy out of the house to spend the night with his friend Wally Matthews the night before the RAGBRAI finish in Muscatine. 

Tommy and Wally had taken off on bikes to explore the Greenwood Cemetery.  Wally had promised to show Tommy the Blue Angel as he had only been told about it.   He had never seen it.   There was a couple hours of daylight left, so they wanted to get there quickly to check it out.     

As they entered the cemetery through the 100 year old Greenwood Chapel’s arched driveway they could see the tree line deep within the cemetery that formed the upper edge of the river bluff.   It was in one of those back cut out of trees, the farthest to the west, that the Huttig mausoleum sits with her nightly slumber party guests, the bodies of Harry and Kate, and oh yes, the Blue Angel.   The boys parked their bikes nearby and walked up to the white granite mausoleum.  They slowly eclipsed the three steps to the blue plated glass door.  It was there they noticed a Master Lock padlock keeping onlookers from entering. 

They peaked in…   

“See, look at the flower in her hand,” said Wally.  “How in the world is a statue made of rock supposed to drop a flower.   What a ridiculous tale.”    

Tommy spent just a few moments checking her out, relieved to not see her drop the flower.    Tommy thought too himself that the legend probably wasn’t true, but what a sinister looking statue and image that the Blue Angel cut, especially with a little bit of darkness beginning to set in.   He was glad when Wally agreed to move along. 

After spending the next ninety minutes pedaling through the various pathways and playing various “Name Games” with the tombstones of their dead hosts,  they decided to ride their bikes back to the treeline to a section of graves just to the east of the Blue Angel.   They had decided of course, to find the famous Greenwood Cemetery steps, all 208 of them descending through thick wood to Hershey Avenue below.  The steps had been around for years, but were falling into such disrepair that the City closed them to the public. A Green sign with white letters saying “Closed – No Trespassing” stood to the left of the top step.

“Come on, let’s check it out,” Wally said. “But be sure to step over the poison ivy.” 

The boys dropped their wheels in the grass next to the top step and slowly descend down toward Hershey Avenue. Wally was a talkative kid, not really as bad an influence on Tommy as the Duggendorfs might have thought, but he was full of information… and he talked all the time…he could not shut up. 

“Be sure to count your steps, and remember when you get to the 100th step you are supposed to turn around and look back up to the top.  If you see the Blue Angel standing at the top of the steps, you’re screwed, man”  

“That’s ridiculous,” Tommy argued. “There ain’t no Blue Angel curse about the steps.  Is there?”  

“A yeah, sure there is,” Wally countered.  “My Dad told me that the original story of the Blue Angel curse was about the steps not her dropping the flower.”

Tommy didn’t completely buy into the Blue Angel stories, but with the remaining sunlight quickly being snuffed out by tree cover, he did find himself tensing up with the thoughts and images of the lady he had just seen behind the blue plated glass.  

“27” Wally said as he took the lead downward. 

“29, 31” he continued as he was now calling out steps every time his right foot hit a stair tread.

“Hey Duggendorf, you freaked out yet?” Wally paused, and then he chirped, “51, 53, 55, 57,”

Tommy remained silent unsure how it could have been light out just a few minutes ago, and now, just past 8:30 PM it was pitch dark.

“71, 73, 75,” Wally would not relent, that bastard.

Now in what felt like total darkness, Tommy all but reached out to touch Wally in hopes of keeping track of him as they stepped further down the stairs.  And, for the first time he also sensed the temperature change.   It had eclipsed 85 degrees earlier at mid day before cooling off.  Now, it had in fact plummeted. He looked at his exposed arms and noticed goose bumps setting in.   He wasn’t really sure if they were the goose bumps you get when you are cold or the goose bumps that you get when you are scared out of your mind.  

“93, 95, 97,” Wally was just about done, the last few steps required navigating a trickle of running water that passed at a drips pace over the steps.  

“99 & 100,” and in slow motion Wally stopped and signaled for Tommy to join him on the 100th step from the top.

“OK, let’s turn around at the same time and look back up to the top,” said Wally.

The boys pivoted slowly and looked back up behind them to the top, 100 steps above them.   …And just as they did, an image from the top that they could barely make out darted from their view…They were being watched!

Someone was up there.  Certainly, not the Blue Angel or was it?

“What the hell!” Tommy whispered as his heartbeat raced.   “Who the hell was that?”

***********

Donnie Clamwood was watching the last 50 or so steps of Tommy and Wally’s descent down the cemetery steps.  He had spotted two bikes near the No Trespassing sign and decided to check it out.  Sensing that he had alarmed the boys he decided quickly to avoid direct contact, and in a panic of his own, grabbed his BMX and quickly pedaled off.

***********

A Slow Climb to the Top

Tommy and Wally stood frozen on the 100th step like Everest climbers stuck in the death zone.  They were unable to climb higher, unable to retreat and climb down.   The image that had just darted for cover was not entirely clear.   It seemed to be a person or was it?  It probably wasn’t the Blue Angel, or maybe it was? 

“No way was that the Blue Angel…ahhh shit, what the hell Wally…what the hell was that?”   Tommy belted at a quickened, nervous pace.

For his part, Wally, who was once cool like Fonzie and cucumbers was now really unsure of himself.  “Shit!  Was someone watching us?  What do we do now?”

Their initial reflexes of panic eventually faded.  They now knew that nothing good could come from waiting any longer-  halfway up, halfway down – on the cemetery steps.  They needed to make their move.    So they began to climb up.   

This time Wally remained quiet, he did not tick off the 100 steps in reverse up to the top.  It was all they could both do to remain calm, composed and in control.   As they got closer to the top they sensed that the light that was once the tail end of a days sunlight had been replaced by a mostly full moon.    

Steps away from the top they both noticed the peculiar step pattern which they were oblivious to on the decent.   The steps consisted of three normal two-story house like tread and risers followed by a 36 inch flat section, and then it repeated all the way to the top.   

As they crested the top step they could make out the spoke reflectors on their bikes as they glimmered in the moonlight.   Looking around, they couldn’t see anyone staring at them, but they took no chances and hurriedly went for their bikes.   They just wanted to get out of there.     

“Let’s get our bikes and get out …..”   and as Tommy was in mid-sentence reaching for his bike, be stubbed his left foot on a rock just off the top step in the grassy lawn.

“Where did this come from?” he asked Wally.

“What is it?” replied his friend.

“I dunno,” said Tommy.  “Why would there be a big rock right out in the grass?”

The Blue Angel.   This girl will scare you - With or Without A Right Arm

The Blue Angel. This girl will scare you - With or Without A Right Arm

And then Tommy figured out what the object was and the scream he mustered could probably have been heard from Kent Stein’s Diamond #1 on the south end to the empty Muscatine Mall to the north end of town. 

It was at that moment that Tommy reached down and picked up in his hand what both boys easily recognized as the perfectly sawed off statuesque hand of the Blue Angel.  A single flower firm in her grip.

Later Tommy would be almost relieved when he replayed the events in his mind.   He was satisfied that his scream was no more sissified than Wally’s reaction.  That’s because when Tommy had peered back at his friend, Wally was in fact wetting himself.   His khaki gray shorts were now a khaki dark gray shorts.  

Not much more than 90 minutes before Tommy had looked for the first time in his life at the Blue Angel.  His concentration was so instensely focused on the right hand and the flower, willing it not to drop.

“Let’s go Wally.   Let’s get to your house!  Now!” he said, tucking the right hand and  flower of the Blue Angel under his armpit.   “Pedal, you prick!”

And pedal they did.  They pedaled without conversation, quickly out to Lucas, and then west to Wally’s house on Dolliver Street.   Tommy Duggendorf didn’t even fully comprehend that he was pedaling the entire mile and a half with the the severed hand of the Blue Angel wedged in his left armpit.

**********

Earlier that night within minutes of the boys leaving the Blue Angel for their 90 minute Tombstone Name Game, Donnie Clamwood had used the cemetary as a shortcut from the top of Miller’s Hill over to Lucas, skipping the half mile of Fletcher Avenue in the process.   As he was riding past the entrance to the Huttig mauseleum he noticed a city cemetary truck parked at the gate.    

City cemetary worker Clyde Johnson was getting out of his truck.   He had in his hand a Dewalt Angle Grinder.   Tommy pedaled up with his typical curiosity.

“What are you doing with that thing?”   Tommy belted out before Clyde knew who it was.   

He casually responded, “I’m cutting off the Blue Angel’s Right Arm.  What else would I be doing with this angle grinder?”

“Why?  What the F—-?”   Donnie countered.    

“Yeah, believe it or not the Kathryn Musser Foundation asked the cemetery to cut off the Blue Angel’s hand once and for all.   They were tired of  all the silly bull shit curse talk about the flower dropping, yada, yada,”   Clyde continued.   “And the Mausoleum has been vandalized at least 5 times in the past few years.   Kids breaking in messing with the statue, turning it backwards, laying her on her side.   They figured they should take care of it once and for all.”   

Donnie spent the next twenty minutes watching Clyde as he produced a key for the Master Lock, entered the small white building, stood on the vaults, and in about 90 seconds time slivered the Blue Angel’s right arm with his Dewalt and the precision of a battlefield surgeon.  

And then when it was over Donnie asked, “What are you going to do with the hand?”

“Here, she’s all yours.   Maybe you can use it as a back scratcher,” Clyde joked, and with that, he gave the right hand and flower of the Blue Angel over to Donnie Clamwood, local town legend on two wheels.   

***********

The following morning Tommy Duggendorf awoke at Wally’s house.   He had slept on the floor next to Wally’s bed.  They were up most of the night reliving and retelling the episode from the Cemetery Steps.  

Tommy reached underneath the bed and there it was in his possession, the right hand and flower of the legendary Blue Angel.  

***********

Donnie Clamwood had left the cemetery right after running into the boys.   He quickly got on his BMX and pedaled off.   His exit point from the cemetery would be the winding, dark, tree covered Miller’s Hill.    He knew that he had startled the two boys, and so that in turn, made him panic, so he had sped off at a pretty good clip to get to the top of Miller’s.    Miller’s Hill is a steep, six degree decline with an initial blind right hand turn near the top.   Then it is pretty much a straight down speed adrenaline rush.    Most of the time, Donnie would use the flatter Houser Avenue to get down to Hershey Avenue below the bluff.   Not this time, he was in a hurry.   

It had to have been right after Donnie navigated that first right turn that he finally realized that in his darting away he had dropped the severed hand of the Blue Angel.   It ticked him off to the point that he lost his concentration for just a split second of time.   It also didn’t help that the City used Miller’s Hill as a dumping area for all the extra blacktop that they would order and not find a spot for during the spring and summer hot patch season.   Often times the city street crew would do less than their full due diligence in getting the hot patch completely rolled out, flat and smooth.     Donnie wouldn’t know it until it was too late, but he found one of the questionable patch spots at the very moment that he had realized that he had dropped the Blue Angel’s right hand.  

The wipeout was epic.  

 

For more half-truths and outright lies visit The Small Ball Report at www.smallballreport.com.

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The following is the third installment in a seven part series entitled My Hometown, the chronicles of the Mississippi River town of Muscatine, Iowa.   A town of humble souls originally called Casey’s Woodpile in the mid 1800s.   …And then sometime after that they burnt the woodpile to keep warm and changed the name to Muscatine.

Not exactly like an Episode of Lost, you won’t necessarily need to start from the beginning to understand what is going on, and as you will find this set of stories may suffer from a chronological disorder anyway.  But if you prefer, you can start with My Hometown Part I – The Man and His Clam.  For that,  

Click here

Now that you have read about the frolicking German clam hunter who ushered in the Great American Clam Rush, you can continue in the series by perusing My Hometown Part II – They Found What in a Ketchup Bottle? For that,

Click here

I was surprised as well when I first learned about Wilber Surfurlong’s amazing use of his time as the Heinz Ketchup night watchmen.    

BACKDROP:

The childhood home of the proprietor of The Small Ball Report’s sits one block from the Muscatine Slough, a gentle, calm, and watery bog teeming with blue gills, crappies, and bullheads.   Among it’s other creatures, the Slough was also at one time home to the most frightening flock of water fowl you could ever imagine, a chicken-duck crossbreed that small kids with bags of Wonder bread crumbs would run from. 

If two of these birds had showed up at the platform to Noah’s Ark, the gray bearded cruise director would have probably said “ARK’S FULL” and sent them on their way.    …Or maybe, Noah is the one to blame, as he may have given the Ark Key Card to a male duck that couldn’t make it 40 days and nights without getting a piece of Strange, and the only strange feathery tail available was the slutty chicken in the next paddock.   I could not confirm or deny that account the last time I read the book of Genesis. 

Only this chicken ducks mom could love it.  Not sure if mom was the chicken or the duck.  Picture borrowed from http://www.kadavy.net/blog/

Only this chicken ducks mom could love it. Not sure if mom was the chicken or the duck. Picture borrowed from http://www.kadavy.net/blog/

It was at the Slough’s banks in 1982 that I first encountered the chicken duck.   I was fishing by myself and had no more than set my hook, when I saw a few of these scary fouls give chase towards me.    I dropped my pole in fear and ran away, but after only a few short steps, I tripped on an oddly shaped mound and fell to the ground.   Writhing in pain, I felt a sharp oblong object, protruding from the morning dew.

The sting of my fall apparently caused me to forget about the attacking chicken-ducks.   EDITOR’S NOTE:  Later research of Musser Public Library town newspaper microfiche revealed that there was no documented chicken-duck attacks on boys fishing in the 1980s so perhaps inserting the word SISSY in one of the previous sentences would have also been applicable.    

What I did discover, however, was that the sharp object that I had unearthed from the ground was in fact an Indian arrowhead.  Excited by this find, I took the arrowhead to the front porch of my Sloughtown neighbor, who happened to be my Grandpa.  It was there that he told me about one of the more amazing stories in the history of my Hometown. 

Check Out Those Melons

In the year 1815 among the first white settlers of the upper Mississippi River was a man named Colonel George Davenport. An Englishman by birth, the discharged US Army veteran was asked to lead a group of men in keelboats up the river from St. Louis to establish a supply post for the 8th Infantry.   Not to skip ahead, but Davenport ultimately succeeded at this task and the town he settled on the Mississippi would be named in his honor. 

Fun & Hilarity on the Keelboat

Fun & Hilarity on the Keelboat

Davenport, Iowa is one of the Quad Cities, a grouping of four connected cities twenty-five miles up-river from Muscatine.  The Quad Cities (QCA) are so famous today that people living within a radius stretching as far away as Central Iowa, Southern Wisconsin, and the Rockford-Aurora-Joliet, Illinois corridor can on average name two of the other three cities that make up the QCA.   If it helps, a clue: toward the end of his life, Colonel Davenport was known to play Texas Hold-Em with his buddies Sergeant Major Moline (Illinois), Lance Corporal Bettendorf (Iowa), and Captain Rock Island (Illinois).  

The QCA, as the nation’s 86th largest television market, has served as a launch pad for news media darling Paula Sands whose Paula Sands Finds-Another-Dog-a-Home-On-TV-Just-Like-She-Did-Yesterday Live show has been a long running hit.  Her daily inspired, insightful interviews with Humane Society workers about which mutt will land in the home of an elderly Geneseo widow is a cutting edge staple.

But enough about her, this story is about Davenport’s keelboat trip up the river in 1815.   Keelboats were an engineering marvel for their time.  They were about 10 feet wide, 60 feet in length, and were propelled by a dozen oarsmen with 12 foot long sticks, poor dental hygiene and heightened levels of body odor.   In the shallow hulls of the keelboats were crates of food, munitions and supplies, and various furry animal pelts and coon hats that were a hit with Davenport’s Indian patrons.          

That summer, among the fifty or so men traveling with Davenport, were two other recent discharges of Andrew Jackson’s Battle of New Orleans army, Charles Surfurlong and Benjamin “Shaggy” Van Slice.  They were both fortunate to be in the rear keelboat farthest from Davenport’s famous “Watch out for that F%(&%#  Log” tirades.

One could imagine a keelboat trip being a splendid time if you had about three Coors Light Party Balls, ice, and you were floating down the river throwing a Frisbee at your Whamo catching Lab.  But up river, not only was the travel slow and arduous – at best they could travel 10 miles a day – it was also froth with danger.   And, Colonel Davenport’s men had some very close calls from some flying Indian arrows from the river bluffs.

It was five days since the last arrow onslaught near what is now Burlington, Iowa, but the men had finally started to settle and feel safe as they prepared their nightly meal on that September night in 1815.   Earlier that day, Charles and Shaggy and the other men in the rear keelboat were thrilled to enter what was now a very slow moving channel of water, a diversion from the broader, bigger Mississippi.  

It just so happened that the channel that Davenport and his men were now navigating through was in fact the Muscatine Slough.   In that day, the Slough was not a stand-alone body of water, but rather a channel of alternate water flow from the main portion of the mighty Mississippi.   And in the middle, between the Mississippi and the Slough, was a sandy piece of land known now as the Muscatine Island.   It was a mile up from the start of the Slough channel that Davenport and his men made camp, and the Islands of the Mississippi were always their preferred camp spots because of the protection from the harmful natives.  

Early in the morning at first light, Charles and Shaggy, feeling the safety of the island felt compelled to explore beyond the sandy dune levies.   They hiked on foot up the sandy beach, through the initial outcroppings of brush, grass, and trees and looked out into the distance and saw pockets of vegetation, more dunes and watery sand pits.  

They walked a few hundred yards further through a marsh of trees, stumps and other plant life, and as the vegetation got thicker, eerily in a world with few previous footsteps, they found what appeared to be a walking trail.   Only a few more steps up this trail they both were startled to hear a foreign sound, the voice of apparent laughter of a Native American.    They immediately ducked fearing this was an approach to an Indian village and that they would most likely be vastly outnumbered, with each carrying only a hunter’s knife.

To one side of the trail, Shaggy dived into the marsh, to the other side Charles. 

Shaggy was first to speak, “Charlie man was that what I think it was?”

“Shaggy, it’s Indians let’s run, let’s get out of here” Charles responded.

“Hold on, let’s wait it out,” Shaggy replied.

“Not for anything else,” Shaggy Van Slice continued.  “But, we need to get over that dune and report back to Davenport on who is living on this Island.”

Reluctantly Charles Surfurlong rose and started to creep low to the ground.   “Get behind me and let’s go slow up to the top of that dune,” he said.

Shaggy Van Slice and Charles Surfurlong, veterans of many Indian skirmishes were two toughened men and they unsheathed their daggers to be ready for what might come next.    At that moment, they were able to hear more clearly the voices on the other side of the dune and although it was foreign in its dialect, it was also soft, feminine, and inviting, almost melodic.    They couldn’t yet catch a glimpse of the Indians, but it was apparent that instead of just casual talking and laughter, what they could hear were at least two female Indians in song.   And as they got closer the soft dance of a running stream was now in harmony with their choruses.

As they finally crested the dune, they bent over under a shrub and prepared themselves to see a large camp of war crazed Indians.  What they instead found were two beautiful, angelic native women indeed in song as they appeared to be dancing and bathing together in the slow moving stream.        

“Let’s try to get closer,” Shaggy was heard to have said as it appeared that there were no other Indians around.

They didn’t yet have a clear angle and picture of what the Indian women were doing, as there was still much plant life between them.   It was also unknown as to what state of dress these women were in, but from what could be seen, they were both endowed with a dark and succulent skin, glowing and glamouring, much different than the girls that they had seen in the saloons of Memphis, Louisville or Baton Rouge.     

As they got to a vantage point that would give them a full view of the women’s activities, Charles and Shaggy were startled by the beautiful canvass that unfolded before them.  It did appear that these two women were in a state of undress.   With her back to the peeping Davenports, one of the women cupped a handful of water and both Charles and Shaggy were captivated to see every trickle dance off the naked back of this mysterious goddess.

“Look at that…this is, this is, this is …amazing.  Maybe the keelboat can go on without us,” Charles whispered.

Not great boots for walking in sand

Not great boots for walking in sand

The other Indian lady, more beautiful than the next appeared to bend down and then she raised up, and it was at that point that Shaggy could stand it no longer and was heard to yell out.

“Check Out Those Melons!” He screamed.   

“Oh my, what a beautiful set of melons!” Charles yelled out soon after.   

It was at that moment that Charles and Shaggy had seen for themselves a pair of the most voluptuous, tantalizing and tasty looking…Watermelons.    

Remarkably, the men of that time although clearly entranced by mysterious naked women bathing, they also were equally captivated by fresh fruit.   …And on that morning they had stumbled upon the most fertile and revered piece of fresh fruit farmland in the territories of the young nation.  

Muscatine, Iowa and more specifically the Muscatine Island with its sandy, inviting soil would become the Watermelon capital of the world.      Delicious green Melons with its succulent pink fruit and the light brown with orange fruit Cantaloupe Melon would be planted for the next 200 years after the keelboat men’s discovery.  Not a coincidence, the Cantaloupe is also known in some circles as the Musk-Melon in honor of my hometown.  

And while the men on Davenport’s keelboat didn’t make a love connection that morning in 1815, they did pave the way for eventual relations with the residents of that island, the Mascouten Indians.   And it was for the Mascoutens that the town would eventually be named.   …Or something like that. 

Check back later for My Hometown Part IV – Donny Clamwood aka Clammers – A Miller’s Hill Wipeout.

For more half truthes and outright lies, visit www.smallballreport.com

The following is part of a special commemorative series called My Hometown. Although not required reading, you may want to read, Part I – The Man and His Clam, first. For that, Click this link:

My Hometown Part I – The Man and His Clam

Thank you, by clicking that link you just gave me another web page hit which will be important to my sponsors, when I find some.

Our story picks up during the waning days of the Great American Clam Rush. By the mid 1920s Runway models in far off places like New York, Paris & Waterloo/Cedar Falls would soon be modeling clothes made with the new trendy plastic button, rendering the made from a clam Muscatine Pearl Button obsolete.

As an aside, despite the lack of footnotes at the bottom of this report what you are about to read is a true story. I was known to skip my college journalism course, JO-181 How to Properly Attribute a Source. …Quite often, as it turned out.

BACKDROP
The 1920s had come to the Mississippi River town of Muscatine, Iowa. Industry was yet to meet the full brunt of its Depressional 1930s smackdown. Former Iowan Herbert Hoover was still just a lowly cabinet member in the Harding and Coolidge administrations. Only later would his Presidential body of work ruin for all time, the presidential aspirations of Iowans like Ray, Harkin and Vilsack. Perhaps also, those three losers suffered an allusion of grandeur that they felt they had actual name recognition with someone whose porch was not being pelted by Des Moines Register paperboys on slow moving banana seat bikes.

Prohibition was at play and had shut down my hometown’s two favorite watering holes, Casey’s Wooden Nickel Pile Saloon and the original Pete’s Original Tap. Not so secretly, there was one Speakeasy on Iowa Avenue between Second and Third Streets across from the future Stanley building. Today, locals know this place as Bootleggers, ironically not because of its Prohibition past, but more so because they ran out of names to call it after 18 previous owners and naming stints that included DC Arnolds, Mac’s on the Avenue, Ken Crabtree’s Sud Factory, Sgt Hammer’s Confiscated Spirits and my personal favorite Dr. Craig Paul’s Plus 21 Pub & Saturday Night Dance Emporium. 

The original Bootleggers of the 1920s offered more of the banjo and fiddle sound, and not so much of the jazz based flapper music that was commonplace in other spirited American locales. In fact the first known female to dance-step the Charleston in Muscatine did it to woo males into letting her cut in a 1930s soup line. …It worked by the way.

They Found What in a Ketchup Bottle?
In the mid 1920s JT Van Heck lived alone with his mother, the widow Mairebelle Van Heck. One morning he groggily proclaimed, “I will not set one more damned boot on that god forsaken Clamming Rig. Demaris can kiss my Ahrse!” Like most mornings in the summer of 1925, the widow Van Heck had just awakened her sleeping giant. Her baby boy, JT was all of 25, normally a gentle person by nature, on this morning he was particularly prickly, and angry at the world.

“I didn’t survive the Argonne taking machine-gun fire from the damn Huns to put up with this clam crap forever,” JT continued to complain to his mother.

JT was a veteran of the Great War, a Doughboy. After a troop raising assembly led by his high school principal, William Rettko, he signed up at the age of 17 in the year 1917. Before the year was out the second generation German immigrant would be fighting in the American First Army for General Pershing in France. A strange twist taking up arms against your parent’s homeland. Even more strange, a Hun himself, he had taken to name-calling other Huns. Perhaps that was an odd thing for the youngster to say to the Widow? Or maybe, it was an acceptable practice back in that day, just like today’s rap artists have the creative license to use the N word at will.

What had JT all hot and bothered? The day before his best friend Mattias Bartenhagen, a fellow worker for the Mitchell Demaris Pearl Button Company had just landed the job they had both interviewed for at the newly expanded HJ Heinz Ketchup factory. A third friend, Wilbur Surfurlong had worked for Heinz for the past 18 months and highly recommended they both try to get jobs at the plant.

Mattias had found a posting on Monster.com and with a fancy cover letter, resume, and several practice interviews he had outflanked JT for the job. While Mattias correctly answered in his interview when asked “What is your biggest weakness?” that he was sometimes too “detail oriented”, JT had mistakenly told the shift manager that his biggest weakness was, “Sometimes when I’m on the clam rig, I will forget which way the wind is blowing, and I will accidentally piss into the wind and soil my work pants!”

So it would be Mattias that would show up early for work that day, fill out HR forms and request business cards with his new title, Food QA Inspector. A fancy way of saying that he would start his career chucking rotten tomatoes in a horse drawn cart and hand tossing the good ones into a slow moving canal of bobbing tomatoes that meandered through a factory door where the voluptuous orange fruit would be crushed, squeezed, cooked, and slow dripped into a thick paste that would settle to the bottom of a Heinz ketchup bottle, a condiment to become a symbol for a nation. That same reddish thick sauce later to be found on Ray Kroc’s Big Mac and Dave Thomas’s Wendys Single, and when it is requested in fancy Parisian restaurants, it is a rather comical way for an American tourist to say screw you to their French waiter. In the Liebrandt house, one of the younger Liebrandts is nicknamed Ketchup Girl for her liberal and mutli-faceted food group usage of the red paste.

But the real reason that both Mattias and JT wanted the gig at Heinz was because of a discovery they had made the summer before. They had been out one night after closing down things at the Speakeasy, and it was a short walk back to their neighboring houses on Sycamore. Mostly in their nighttime stroll they just lamented how the Bill Killefer coached Cubs were destined to not win a pennant again this year, the fourteenth straight year.

But as JT claimed, “Aww shucks, at least this streak won’t last forever.”

To shorten their walk, they decided to cut a corner and walk through the open lot next to their friend, Wilbur Surfurlong’s house. Heavy with trees and brush, the open lot was a favorite hide-and-go-seek spot for chore-less neighboring school kids. Which is also the same thing as saying the lot was not used for hide-and-go-seek becasue no kid in the 1920s was without a day full of chores.

It was dark and with no street lights to find their way, JT tripped over a half buried crate.

“You are a sorry, clumsy Hun bastard, I thought you had recovered from your trench foot,” Mattias hazed JT.

“At least I fought, I didn’t pull a Cheney,” JT replied.

“Who’s Cheney?” Mattias might have said.

“Never mind, what is this thing that I just tripped on?” said JT.

They pried the lid off the crate and were surprised to find two dozen HJ Heinz ketchup bottles, filled and sealed, but with what?

“Who’s out there?” Their friend Wilbur Surfurlong was heard to yell out.

“It’s just us, Mattias and I,” JT responded back. “Just getting back from the Speakeasy.”

Wilbur approached his two former clam working buddies.

“Careful with those Ketchup bottles, you mongol-hun cross breeds!” the young Surfurlong chided his friends.

Wilbur was now the after hours security manager at Heinz, tonight was his night off. His work was a dull, boring, brainless kind of gig, but as JT and Mattias would soon learn he made the most of it.

His friends knew Wilbur was known to create different flavors of ketchup training himself on the plant equipment when he was alone at night in the plant. You couldn’t attend a church potluck, family picnic, or Great River Days party without Wilbur producing one of his personal ketchup creations.

And then it happened, one night Wilbur was mixing up a ketchupy witches brew of ingredients and playing around with different cooking temperatures. His concoction included the typical ketchup ingredients like corn, sugar, yeast and water, only he forgot to add that important ketchup staple, the tomato. Instead he mixed the yeast with the sugar in a quite accidental way that what turned out was one of the more delicious of spirts Wilbur had ever imbibed, a homemade moonshine with just a hint of tomato.. He did not know that using yeast to burn sugar created moonshine, and it turned out you couldn’t get all of the tomato residue out of the cooking vats.

Not sure what to do with his discovery, his mind started to race. He began filling Heinz Ketchup bottles with his special blend. Before his night had ended, he would put the bottles in cases in the back of his 1922 Model T Ford Truck. By the next month, Wilbur Surfurlong was producing 12 cases of tomato laced moonshine everynight. Soon his own house was filled to the rafters with the illegal nectar.

What Mattias and JT had stumbled upon on that summer night of 1924 was the beginnings of the Wilbur Surfurlong Moonshine business. Private parties and Speakeasies in ten adjacent counties would soon be drinking the special blend of moonshine served out of stolen Heinz Ketchup bottles.

Sadly for Wilbur Surfurlong, the demand for his special brew would end with the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. This was not before he had amassed a larger personal fortune and before he had put in his employ his two best friends, Mattias and JT.

The Muscatine Police formed an Untouchables like division to root out illegal alcohol, but had no Elliot Ness like detective mind. They never did get close to finding the makers of the tomato tinted cocktail. They would never connect the dots back to Wilbur Surfurlong and the nighttime moonshine production at the Heinz plant.

….Stay tuned, you won’t want to miss My Hometown Part III – Check Out Those Melons!

BACKDROP
The Muscatine Journal recently voted the clubhouse at Whispering Pines Golf Course as the town’s 2008 event venue of the year. This was a lofty honor sought after and denied to all of the town’s Lodges – The Moose Lodge, The Eagles, Elks, etc. The local VFW folks likely wrote a hissy-fitted Letter to the Editor as well.

…Attend an event at The Pines and you will surely find it to be an exceptional gathering place, but consider this, the same publication once voted Long John Silver’s as the town’s best choice for Seafood. That same year the best choice for Mexican Food was a restaurant that serves Tomato Sauce, not Salsa with its complimentary chips.

But, not do digress too much for now. It couldn’t have hurt The Pines to have the endorsement of the Journal, the town’s major afternoon news rag (notice I didn’t say morning daily – also, it is not available on Sundays) when organizers of my 20 Year High School Reunion picked Whispering Pines as the venue for a raucous night of fun, storytelling and the conjuring of old demons – real and imagined. I attended the event recently with the Mrs. Liebrandt and well over 200 or so other Class of 89 revelers and spouses.

As an amateur historian, last week’s event made me recollect much about my hometown’s history, although, I kept most of these ‘Did You Knows’ to myself as I did not want to appear like a complete wacko nut job. I then started ordering PBR by choice from the cash bar when they had a Bud Keg for free and the wacko nut job thought was pointless.

A future blog entry will go into more detail on reunion specific observations. For one, the supposed vaunted venue of the year didn’t exactly have a working, functioning restroom facility, and for another, I was surprised that electronic retail sales was the job that most turned on the girls in my class. But, to set the stage for that future entry, The Small Ball Report reader first needs to understand a brief history of my hometown: Muscatine, Iowa. My version however differs slightly from ones you may have heard before.

MY HOMETOWN PART I – THE MAN AND HIS CLAM
Where is Muscatine? To find Muscatine on a map, picture the State of Iowa as a persons head. An ugly head, like let’s say – Nick Nolte. Not that Iowa itself is ugly, but what state looks sexy and attractive on a map, we are talking about geography here. So picture Nick Nolte just being arrested for being a crazy buffoon – I know that happened once – and they take his mug shot facing to the right. Now, I couldn’t find that one on the internet, so imagine the above picture’s side profile mug shot companion. In the side profile, Muscatine would be Nick Nolte’s nostril. And the entirety of Nick Nolte’s face from forehead to chin is the Iowa portion of the Mississippi River. Or as an alternative, you can just look at the other above picture and notice my handy arrow pointing you to Muscatine.

So Muscatine sits on the greatest of American waterways, the mighty Mississippi, at the very spot that the Old Man turns back to the South after one of its few westerly jaunts.

THE BEGINNING
When Muscatine and the rest of the Iowa Territory was first settled in the early 1800s the town was originally called Bloomington. About this time as everyone knows the first episode of the Simpsons aired on Fox. Or doesn’t it just seem like Homer and Bart have been around that long? Anyway, like the Springfield of the Simpsons, Bloomington was a town name already being used in every eventual Big Ten state so the settlers got together at the local mill and voted between two choices: Muscatine and Casey’s Woodpile. Now, I’m glad they picked Muscatine because a graduate from Casey’s Woodpile High might not have gotten into my alma mater, Drake.

So Iowa joined the Union in 1846, and as a non-slave state situated on a waterway connected to the South, Muscatine became a haven for fugitive and freed slaves. At one time Muscatine had the largest population of African Americans in the entire state. Sadly, a demographic shift had to have occurred sometime over the next 100 years because by the time I got to high school most of the Brothers had moved to nearby Davenport and Burlington, and would routinely dunk over me in the late 1980s.   

THE COMING OF THE CLAM
After the Civil War, the course of Muscatine’s industrial future would be set almost by accident. An immigrant from Hamburg, Germany named J.F. Boepple was frolicking about in the shallow, muddy Mississippi River late one night in 1891. Likely he was just conjuring back to his youth when he used to swim the waters of Germany’s Elbe River looking for girls bathing in those sexy full body 1800s white underwear suits. Or maybe he liked guys, how would I know? He was the one frolicking in the river, not me. And then it happened, J.F Boepple stepped on the sharp edge of a clam shell. While other towns would have Gold and Land Rushes, Muscatine was about to welcome the Great American Clam Rush.

It turns out – the cut-out and polished underside of a clam shell makes a Pearl Button, and the Hilfigers and Kleins of the day would need the Pearl Buttons in their clothing designs to keep people’s trousers up. With this kind of demand for Pearl Buttons, guys that liked “The Clam” came from all over. At its pinnacle, nearly 40 button factories would sprout up along the river’s edge, with workers carving up clams into buttons. Now one can picture the various joke telling and innuendo that was associated with being a Clam Worker. One clam worker might have been heard to say to another: “Ah, Check out the Mollusk on this one!” Or “That’s a nice pair of Clamshells!”

But, the fun and hi-jinx at the button factory would not last forever, as a smart scientist would invent the plastic button, and a new more cost efficient button business model sprang forth. Those cushy corner office Pearl Button cutting jobs would vanish. Where did the button workers go? Well first, before they punched out their last Pearl Button they filled up their pockets, and forty years later there was not an Estate Sale in town where you couldn’t find a trunk of Pearl Buttons in the basement. But after that, they went to work making America’s Ketchup. Because about that same time the HJ Heinz Company had tired of polluting the Ohio, the Allegheny, and the Monongahela Rivers near Pittsburgh. They decided they needed to branch out and smell up my hometown and pollute my river, Muscatine’s Mississippi. So check back later for My Hometown Part II – They Found What in a Ketchup Bottle?

And later this summer on The Small Ball Report, look for My Hometown Part VII – Tales from a Ripley Double Wide.