The Ground Beneath the Family Tree:
This is the Pioneer Trail Museum in Macedonia, Iowa, a town which was
once a hub along the historic Mormon Trail. Kent's grandfather
was born in Macedonia.
SECOND OF THREE INSTALLMENTS
Previously: Kent and his brother set out on a trip from
their home territory in Washingotn state to track the
history of their fmaily in the midwest.
By KENT HOLSATHER
Our first stop in Wisconsin was the village of Fairchild. It was this town that our great, great, grandfather, John Henry Smith, had lived in from 1859 to 1914. Spurred by a new railroad and its promised wealth, the town had grown from a few cabins to a town of over 2,000 people by the late 1870s. Later, its business district would be dominated by The Big Store, one of the largest retail establishments in the state of Wisconsin in 1895.
Over the years, the lumber mills began to close as the endless Pine forests were cut down. As modern roads were developed, the railroad began to play less of a part in the vitality of the community.
When John left Fairchild for the Puget Sound region, it was noted in the local paper that the old trapper had left because there were no wild places left in Wisconsin and he would not settle to bide his remaining time in such a tame and tranquil place.
When we pulled into the village, it had become a shadow of its former self. Scarcely 550 people still called the place home and the business district consisted of only a couple of buildings. The Big Store was still there but it was it was pretty much closed up except for a small section that was being occupied by a small business.
We spent about an hour with two ladies that ran the small library in town and left them with a copy of some of Johns writings. Before leaving town, we took some pictures of the old church that John had attended and noted that, aside from a decapitated steeple, it had changed very little in the last 100 years. After a few more street photos were taken, we took to the road but instead of heading for Puget Sound like John, we were headed for Arkansas.
The battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas was pretty much a stalemate between the North and the South but the fighting was some of the fiercest in the Civil War. The Army of the Frontier, of which our grandfather was a member, battled the First Corps of the Trans-Mississippi Army on December 7, 1862, for control of the northwestern Arkansas and Missouri region. In five hours of fighting, more than 2,500 were either killed or wounded out of a combined force of about 20,000 combatants. The battlefield was now part of an 840 acre state park that was established in 1908 about eight miles west of Fayetteville, Arkansas.
It was about 104 degrees when my brother and I got out of the car and quick-stepped to the air conditioned confines of the park museum. At the front desk, we were met by a park ranger who signed us up for a walking tour of the grounds that included significant locations where the fighting was the fiercest.
We were joined by another group of folks as we set about learning the movements of the troops that faced each other 150 years ago.
Our first stop was a hill that overlooked a valley that stretched out about half a mile. It was here that the guide explained how the Union troops charged up the hill to capture the Rebel cannons only to be repulsed by withering fire from three sides that literally decimated the troops.
To know that John Smith survived this battle with only a couple of wounds made us feel rather lucky that our lineage survived long enough to revisit the scene in a rented Toyota a century and a half later.
After the walking tour, we took in the museum itself which covered the battle in more detail with objects, maps, and photos. Before we left, we gave the museum several letters that John Smith had written about the battle which made the director smile with appreciation.
It was now on to Macedonia, Iowa, and the birthplace of our grandfather. His name was Henry Wilson and he had a mother, Lena, who was a mail order bride. She was one of John Henry Smiths daughters, and Henrys father, Tom Wilson, was a cross-eyed dirt farmer. They made a perfect couple.
In 1899, when our grandfather was born, the prairie east of Council Bluffs was grassland. There was little irrigation at the time and prairie fires were a constant summer threat. Today the area is carpeted with corn and soy for as far as the eye can see and a whole lot greener than our grandfather would have been accustomed to.
We pulled into Macedonia, the small town with a big heart, around noon. We were met by a lady who was sweeping the sidewalk. You must be the people that Rubys waiting for; shes waiting for you in the restaurant. We had contacted Ruby Bentley of the Macedonia Historical Society the day before we arrived and she had offered to give us a tour of the area. We met her in the Back 40 bar/restaurant after she suggested that it would be easier to find her there than it would have been to find her farm.
Ruby was on a mission to save the history of Macedonia and she was more than happy to give us a tour. Most of the towns buildings were more than 100 years old. Macedonia was built along the old Mormon Trail in 1846, but was moved a mile to its present site in the 1880s.
Kent and his brother visited this historic bird museum in Macedonia, Iowa.
We toured the Stempel Bird Museum, located in the old city hall. The collection was donated by the family of pioneer Dr. Guido Stempel in 1967 and contained more than 300 mounted birds, an impressive site indeed. We were taken through several buildings, including a fledgling museum that she was helping to put together.
After about an hour, we climbed into our car with Ruby for a ride around the local countryside and a chance to find some of the places where our grandfathers relatives lived, prayed, and were eventually buried.
Through the course of the day, we toured a beautiful old church nestled out in the prairie, several graveyards where many of our relatives were buried, and a fine museum of old farm equipment that had been donated by the family of one of our relatives. It was actually surreal walking into one of the museum buildings and seeing large photos of our ancestors hanging on the wall, the same photos that we have in our own family collection. Our DNA was spread all around the Macedonia area and it made us feel less like strangers and more like people who could have lived there and prospered.
As the day wore on, we returned to town and bid Ruby farewell. We needed to put some miles on if we were to reach Lennox, South Dakota, the next day and look into the mystery of where our Grandmother's farm was before her family moved to Lynden in 1914.
©2012 by Kent Holsather. This column first posted Aug. 20, 2012.
(Concluded in Part Three in this edition.)
You can comment on this column online. Please address your email message to either "The Editors" or Kent Holsather at : Syndpack @aol.com
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