Grinnell is a bucolic little college town nestled in a sea of cornfields in southwest Iowa. My family moved there when I was four and stayed until I was 12. Back then, its population was 7,000. It’s grown a little since then, but not much. It’s still tiny and familiar.
What an ideal place to grow up. As a kid, I felt a sense of both freedom and safety that is unheard of these days. I could easily traverse the town on foot or bike, and there were no such things as bike locks or house keys. As young as four, I pedaled my bike around the neighborhood, stopping at the gas station for help when my chain fell off. Dogs roamed freely too, and often ours chose to tag along after the mailman, more than once brought back by the sheriff in the patrol car.
I remember long summer days, playing outside with the neighborhood kids until my mother’s signature whistle called us home to dinner or bed. Lying sweaty and breathless in fresh-mown grass after a game of tag, I remember realizing that it was moments like these that would define my childhood when I grew up.
Kate and I drove through Grinnell 30 years ago, but I haven’t really visited it since I was 15. None of the people I knew in the 60s are still there, but a friend from high school in Tallahassee lives there now, teaching physics at the college. When we connected, Barbara graciously offered space to park Bessie behind her house.
A Walk Down Memory Lane
Barbara lives just two blocks from my old house on Summer Street, and after we got Bessie set up, we walked over to check it out. Barbara had met the owners recently, and they welcomed us for a tour of the place. I hadn’t set foot in it since I was 12, and it was amazing to walk through it and see what had changed, what was the same. The bedroom my sister and I had shared seemed hardly big enough for two twin beds. The Straubers had bought this house in 1973, raised their kids here, and had done much updating and restoration. The house was still happily recognizable as the home I spent my childhood in, and it was great to see it so well cared for.
The whole weekend continued to be a dive into nostalgia. As we walked or biked through town, I pointed out places I remembered. So much had changed. My elementary school, built in 1899, had been torn down. My junior high was now a government building. The old library was an arts center. The corner store in ruins. The neighborhood gas station now a restaurant. Cunningham Drugs, where I could get a sundae at the counter for 19 cents was now a gift store. But so much was still the same, and there had been many improvements. New parks and bike paths, nicely renovated homes and buildings, hanging flower baskets and planters downtown, a public pool. The town is vital and alive. Still holding fast as a pocket of liberal academia in America’s heartland.
A Midwest Fourth of July
What better time to visit my Midwest hometown than over the Fourth of July weekend. There was a downtown festival on Friday night, a kids’ bike parade Saturday morning, a real parade Saturday at 5:00, and fireworks in the park on Saturday night. We arrived Thursday evening and planned to stay till Sunday.
The downtown festival was fun in a low-key way. One of the downtown streets was blocked off, a giant inflatable slide was set up for kids, and a stage with live local bands provided dance music. There was beer and wine, but not a food cart in sight. Fortunately, one of Barbara’s students manages the one gourmet restaurant in town and even though they were closing early due to a broken pipe, he served us soup and salad in the outside “beer garden” where we could sit with Bailey.
The kids’ bike parade was not exactly what we expected. Just a handful of neighborhood kids riding around on bikes with streamers, not in any particular organized fashion, followed by a few teenagers driving tractors.
The “big parade” downtown was eagerly anticipated by the townsfolk, who lined up well in advance along the downtown curbs, kids with plastic bags ready to grab up tossed candy. At last the first vehicles arrived: all Grinnell’s patrol cars and fire engines, cruising at an excruciatingly slow speed with their sirens blaring. These were followed by a stream of shiny semi cabs that snaked for blocks. Then the tractors: every farmer in the county must have been there, showing off tractors old and new. Followed by monstrously huge farm equipment, and at last people riding their horses.
We seemed to be the only ones who found it odd that there were no real floats, no marching bands, no political statements. Just a slow and steady stream of motor vehicles. But the crowd cheered their neighbors on, kids scurried within inches of massive tires to scoop up tootsie rolls and jaw breakers, and everybody clapped politely for the whole long hour. Well, this is the Iowa; this is Small Town, U.S.A. What did I expect?
What I didn’t expect was the great fireworks show in the park on the edge of town. It was an easy walk to the park (just about anywhere in town is), and we got there just in time for an impressive display, with plenty of space on the grassy lawn to stretch out and enjoy it.
Iowa has a lot of cornfields, but it’s not all flat. The countryside is actually quite beautiful with green, rolling hills, pockets of trees and pristine farms. On Friday, July 3rd, Barbara took us out to Rock Creek Park, just ten miles out of town. I remember the park as being woods and brush alongside a lake. It now has a campground, and the picnic area is acres of mowed green lawn with cottonwood trees. It was much more beautiful than I remembered, and strangely empty for a Fourth of July weekend.
There’s a new bike path that goes all the way from Grinnell to the park, and I left Kate and Barbara at the park to ride a few miles of it. It was a beautiful day, so much cooler than we’d had in Missouri and Texas, and it felt great to pedal through a rustling sea of green. After a few miles, Kate and Barbara picked me up and we went to a goat farm owned by friends of Barbara.
The farm is owned by two professors at the college, but it looked like full-time work. There were five adult goats and two kids that had just been born the day before. Chickens, and a goose and duck that were inseparable.
We brought the kids out of the barn into the sun and watched them wobble around on new legs. It was the mother goat’s first litter and she was reluctant to nurse them, so she is milked and the babies fed supplemental bottles. Bailey thought the kids were puppies at first, and she went down on her front legs in play-with-me stance, but she caught on quickly that these little bleaters were not about to wrestle with her. Instead we just hung out and pet them, and I even tried my hand at milking a goat.
All-in-all, this was the best way I could imagine spending Fourth of July this year, and being hosted by Barbara made it that much more fun. I am so glad for this chance to revisit Grinnell after all these years.