Days 109-110/ June 15th-16th – Hamburg, IA to Glenwood, IA: The breakfast club

The Victorian Inn was not only the best place to stay in Tabor – it was the only place.  It was a white, peeling, clapboard mansion, and the elderly lady who owned it met us on the back porch to let us in and give us our room key.

“Towels are in a cupboard in the bathroom.  I don’t do breakfast,” she said, with evident pride, before hobbling down the steps and vanishing up the street without ever so much as telling us her name.

We glanced at each other in disappointment.  After forty-eight hours in Iowa, we were at last going to have to pay for a meal.

Corn-fields and grain silo in western Iowa

'People think this state is just corn,' say many Iowans

We had left Hamburg at dawn, following the sodium glow of lamp-posts down Main Street and past the rows of dark, whirring silos at the popcorn factory.  Just beyond the little medical centre that marked the edge of town, a deer and its foal trotted across the road and into a farmhouse yard, where they stared us down from behind a tree before darting back into the bean-fields when we got too close. 

We weren’t sure whether we’d find anywhere to eat in Sidney, ten miles up the road.  Google had suggested, as was its wont, that our best option was an animal feed store.  The town’s welcome sign read like the winning entry in a contest to sum it up in fifteen words or less: ‘Sidney: Historic Capital of Fremont County – Food Gas Churches Shops Museum City Park & Pool’.  Fortunately, Penn Drug (‘Your Prescription Store Since 1853’), unlike the Victorian Inn, did do breakfast.  It was an old-fashioned small-town drugstore, with a chequered floor, a small pharmacy and a marble-topped soda fountain with red leather stools.  Holding court behind the counter was Holly, a recent Sidney High grad, wearing a red T-shirt reading ‘Sidney Track & Field: State 2009’.

“I’m going back east for college in August,” she told us, “to the University of Iowa.”

As well as a superabundance of corn, Iowa is blessed with a generous sprinkling of pleasant college towns – Ames, Iowa City, Des Moines – and a long tradition of liberalism and tolerance.  It permitted mixed-race marriage as early as 1851, desegregated schools just after the Civil War, and was one of the first states to allow same-sex marriage.  The patrons of Penn Drug were also extremely tolerant of two sweaty hikers disrupting their usual breakfast routine; we fell into a long conversation about our walk with Holly and Angie, the proprietor, and soon all pretence of serving other customers was abandoned in favour of poring over a Nebraska road atlas open on the counter.

“Whaddo I gotta do to get some coffee round here?” said Greg, a salesman in a ‘Law & Order’ cap sitting two stools down, “walk across America myself?”

Penn Drug in Sidney, Iowa

Getting advice from Holly and Angie in Penn Drug in Sidney

We set out again towards Tabor, our stomachs filled with an excellent – and free – breakfast, a fellow diner having discreetly picked up our tab before we could protest.  The empty highway ran through hills cut into shallow terraces of corn, like a patch of southern China set down in the Midwest, and past Hunter School, a tiny white schoolhouse from the turn of the century.  Ruth, who we’d met yesterday in Hamburg, had attended one just like it in Nebraska.

“I went through eighth grade in a one-room schoolhouse.  Almost everybody in the school was related to me.  I started out with three in my class, but then ended up with just my cousin and I.  Let me tell you, we learned a lot.”

Corn terraces near Tabor, Iowa

The mysterious corn-terraces of south-western Iowa

Just down the road was its modern successor, the Fremont-Mills Junior-Senior High School, sitting at the edge of Tabor itself.  Tabor had played an important role in the anti-slavery movement before the Civil War.  It had been the main departure point for anti-slavery settlers heading for Kansas (both sides in the slavery debate tried to fill Kansas with settlers sympathetic to their cause, in an attempt to influence the the territory’s decision for or against abolition) and was the headquarters of John Brown (of ‘mouldering in the grave’ fame) who led violent attacks on local farms to liberate slaves.  For us, the town also had one further point of interest.

“There’s a gennulmun from New Zealand living in Tabor,” a man in the bar in Hamburg had told us yesterday when Sally mentioned where she was from.

We resolved to seek out this exotic specimen, and managed to set up a very agreeable dinner at Big T’s Steakhouse in Tabor with Ross, the aforementioned Kiwi, and his wife Lyn.  Ross had come over to study, stayed to farm, and now worked in insurance.  He turned out to be from the Waikato region of New Zealand, like Sally, and so over dinner we compared notes on small farm-towns we knew in the Midwest and their counterparts ten thousand miles away.

Ross and Lyn Silcox with Sally

Two Kiwis and an American in Tabor, Iowa

After the charms of Sidney and Tabor, Glenwood seemed a sterile place, an Omaha dormitory town dominated by its main employer, a large mental institution. It had once been called, with brutal 19th-century directness, the Iowa Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, and was now known, with coy 21st-century obfuscation, as the Glenwood Resource Center.  During the 1950s, it achieved a measure of national infamy when it emerged that hundreds of its patients had been forcibly sterilised in state-sponsored eugenics programmes over a twenty-year period, and that it was in the habit of locking troublesome patients up, naked, in constantly-lit solitary confinement cells.

There were remarkable facsimiles of these cells available for nightly rent at the Western Inn near the edge of town.

“That’ll be $56.71 with tax,” said the receptionist. “And I wanda let you know, we don’t do breakfast.”

Sally and dogs near Glenwood, Iowa

The Pied Piper of Glenwood leads a black Lab and a lame dachshund to freedom

One Response to “Days 109-110/ June 15th-16th – Hamburg, IA to Glenwood, IA: The breakfast club”

  1. Stephanie Williams Says:

    Kinda disappointed in your view of Glenwood Iowa. I grew up in Glenwood and it isn’t sterile or dominated by the state school, as us that grew up there, call it. There are families there that grew up beside each other for generations. We all know each others name and their kids’ names! Glenwood is a beautiful little town. Shame on you for putting down the town I grew up in…….when I bet every single person waved at you and gave a smile. And if a free meal is what makes you say if a town is good or not, then you don’t know about small town life. A lot of small town families can’t afford to give out free meals, and that is exactly the kind of people that own these hotels and businesses in that area. Sterile…….I don’t think you spent any time there! I’m done, this makes me mad. I guess you don’t like it when a town cares for mental people. I grew up down the hill from the school, my dad is an administrator there and my Aunt’s have worked in the residences with the patients that live there. They wouldn’t have a place to live if that school didn’t exist! We are PROUD of the state school! You, are judgmental and I personally think you don’t deserve to step foot in a great town like mine. So, in conclusion, if our town is so bad to you, then don’t bother coming back!

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