A summer to remember

Editor’s note: This is the first in a multi-part series by Webster City native Paul Juhl who researched and wrote the following historical account from the summer of 1938 in Webster City. Juhl, grew up near what is now Brushy Creek State Park and is a graduate of Webster City High School. Juhl has written several publications about various topics in Iowa history and currently resides in Iowa City.

Three events usually marked the true beginning of summer in Webster City. The first event that indicated the summer’s arrival would be the high school and junior college graduation exercises held in 1938 on Friday, May 27. With graduation at Lincoln High School fast approaching, the 136 graduating seniors were eager to buy some new clothes for the event. Both Louis Frank and Lehnhard’s clothing stores for the boys and Eichman’s, Spurgeon’s and Penney’s for the girls featured the latest in styles. Young men’s hats were priced at $1.49 and girls could find a new clearance coat for only $8.90 if they “went through the racks.” Shoes to match their outfits were easily available at A. B. Halverson’s Shoe Store with some reduced prices on pumps.

Burras Beard, Superintendent of the Webster City Schools, took great pride in announcing in the weeks preceding graduation that a young man by the name of Lester Welch would be the valedictorian of the class of 1938. His total scores of 95.2 placed him at the head of his class. Both Welch and the salutatorian, Dorothy Isebrands, would be speaking at the graduation. Lois Doolittle would represent students graduating from the local junior college.

Both the Baccalaureate and the graduation ceremony were to be held in the Central Auditorium which jutted to the south of Washington Central Junior High. Rev. Share from the Methodist Episcopal Church would address the large crowd at Baccalaureate with his talk entitled, “Youth Goes Adventuring.” Rev. Piper from the English Lutheran Church and Rev. Father Frein from St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church would provide religious prayers at the graduation.

The second event marking Webster City’s summer season was the Memorial Day parade and services at Graceland Cemetery. The veterans would march, as they had in both service to country and also in previous parades, down the streets to the cemetery. On the appointed date, May 30, 1938, spectators would note that this was the first time since the bloody Civil War that no veteran of that conflict would be present. The last Webster City resident, who had taken part in the war as a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, was E. N. Lee and he had died just a few weeks before Memorial Day. After 59 years of having a GAR member march, the 1:30 p.m. parade would feature only aged Spanish American War veterans and a large contingent of World War veterans, now looking a bit middle-aged and wearing their rather tight-fitting uniforms.

The third event that signified summer had returned to Webster City was the Sunday, June 12th opening of the swimming pool. Roy Whaley had been hired as the head lifeguard and season tickets were on sale for $5.00. The Legionnaires, who sponsored the bond issue that had made the pool possible, were selling the season tickets. Sales had been slow so the price was dropped to $3.00 for adults and $2.25 for children.

But hanging over all of the community festivities in 1938 were ominous reports of the growing threats from German Nazi leader, Adolph Hitler, and his demands in regard to Czechoslovakia and also the aggressive Japanese actions in China. It had been the main topic of conversation at Merrill’s Caf for some period of time. Many were hoping that President Franklin Roosevelt could somehow keep America out of the conflict.

There was also to be some very special activity in Webster City in the summer of 1938. On June 2, MacKinlay Kantor, a local boy who had gone on to receive national recognition as a novelist and short story writer, announced that he was spending the entire summer in Webster City with his wife and two children, Carol Layne and Timmy. “Mack Kantor” had sold his first novel, Diversity, when he was just 24 and his successes were well known to most of the town’s residents. Kantor was eager for his children to become acquainted with the city in which he had been raised and he hoped for an ideal summer experience. The year before, in 1937, Kantor had built a home near Sarasota, Florida called Siesta Key. Even prior to this announcement, Webster City residents had been talking about MacKinlay Kantor because of his recent article in The Saturday Evening Post, entitled “Valedictory.” This particular story had been of special interest to area residents.

The Kantor family moved temporarily into the G. S. Lane home at 1428 Des Moines Street (corner of Des Moines and Cedar Streets) in early June. As a young boy in the community, Kantor had been intrigued by the Indian mounds that were found in and near the city. He had now decided to provide money for skilled archeologists to dig into these mounds and try to determine their origins and purposes. He also announced, on the June 2 date, that Dr. Charles F. Keyes of Cornell College in Mount Vernon, one of the leaders in the field of Iowa archaeology, would be coming to Webster City within the next couple of weeks to begin the work. The actual project, however, would be under the supervision of a young woman named Mildred Mott. Mott was, at that time, working for the University of Chicago and a specialist in Indian investigations. She had been one of the first women in the nation to pursue a career in the field of archaeology.

In an article in the Webster City Freeman, a reporter indicated Mott would bring part of her equipment with her and would purchase the rest once she got to Webster City. She had hired two young men, both students in archeology to assist her for these summer weeks. One of them, John MacGregor, 19, was currently a student at Cornell College. His father, John MacGregor, was the Dean of Cornell College. The family lived across the street from Dr. Keyes and the younger MacGregor took his German classes from Dr. Keyes. Clifford Benton, the other assistant, was from Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and also a student at Cornell College. The two assistants would actually be camping at the site of the digs where they shared a wooden-floored tent. It was thought this might dissuade “marauders.” They received $15.00 per week and their living expenses. The boys called Mildred Mott, “Mitzie”, and they enjoyed her as both a teacher and friend. Mott had red hair, small stature and a very vigorous nature. She was only a few years older than the boys but they never seemed to resent her authority. She stayed in a rented house in town for the summer. Neither of the boys had any previous archaeological experience so it was necessary for Mildred to first teach them both method and theory from scratch. As Mott met the local residents, they were very impressed with her knowledge and strong work ethic. It also wasn’t long before they realized that Mott loved home-made pies and she and the assistants received many.

Mildred Mott had been born in Marengo, in 1912. Her father, Frank Luther Mott, was, for 20 years, a professor and director of the School of Journalism at the University of Iowa, and, following that, beginning in 1942, Mott was the dean of the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. In 1939, he won the Pulitzer Prize in American History. Professor Mott was also a close friend of the famous Iowa artist, Grant Wood, and was used as a model for “The Booster” in Grant Wood’s illustration for Sinclair Lewis’ novel Main Street in 1937.

Dr. Keyes and MacKinlay Kantor had actually been in Webster City at the end of May. Their job, at that time, had been to inspect some of the sites thought to be Indian mounds. One of the suspected sites, called “hogsback”, was in the southeast part of town and was quickly ruled out as a possible dig site. Another, on the former Edwards farm, east of the town, required some digging before it was also ruled out. But several other sites were located and Dr. Keyes assured Kantor that they might produce some remains and artifacts. Kantor wanted to work closely with the State Archaeology Department and was happy with the advice. He also encouraged local residents to drop by the sites while the excavations were going on. He genuinely hoped that the project would, “be both educational and historical.” Dr. Keyes was a busy man that summer, supervising other points in the state where excavations were also taking place.

But before the digging was to begin, Kantor had another task. The June 9 edition of the Webster City Freeman told of the Boy Scouts leaving for their week camping event at Dolliver Park in Webster County. Murray McMurray the troop leader and fifty-six young boys were ready to learn new skills and have various competitions. Four local men, Carl Gore, John McMurray, Don Swanson and Roger Cleveland, would help with the camp this year. One of the cars that took the scouts to the park was driven by Kantor who had been a scout himself. His son, Timmy Kantor, rode with him and wanted to watch the scouts set up camp. After an active afternoon, they returned, along with the other parents who had driven, to Webster City in the early evening. They were all back, however, at this same encampment, on visitor day, and this year an event was scheduled to celebrate Murray McMurray’s twenty-fifth year of being a scout leader. McMurray had started the first Scout troop in Webster City in February of 1913 with twelve members in his original troop.

There was to be a special surprise that humid evening for the large crowd of more than 400 parents, relatives, and friends and it was especially noted that many in the group were former scouts who wanted to be present. Bradford Mason and Carlton Crosley had coordinated the program but it was Kantor who served as the master of ceremonies. On behalf on the 514 scouts who had been part of the program during those years, Kantor presented McMurray with a motion picture camera, projector, screen and film. McMurray, always humble, was quite surprised when the gifts were presented. Kantor said, “For 25 years there has been someone to whom the boys of Webster City could appeal, on whom they could believe, in whom they could trust. The world has yet to design a more difficult task than that facing the man or woman who desires to serve as guardian over and companion to adolescent young people at one and the same time. That task has never baffled Murray McMurray for one split second.” Kantor continued, saying, “Murray never missed fire. He was the dependable cartridge in the ammunition pack with which we faced the dangerous adventure called, ‘growing up’.” But the most poignant words were those Kantor used in describing an imaginary movie script that would involve all of the scouts who had learned under McMurray’s leadership. Kantor said, “They’d see the green hills of Bell’s Mill and Dolliver Park, the dark nights when guard duty seemed a mysterious and courageous enterprise, the bright snowy afternoon when we boiled water beside Brewer Creek or shot down the slope of hospital hill on our Flexible Flyers. They would walk with us again on 14 mile hikes to the Ruppel Bridge and back, and they would conscientiously pace off the sober blocks on Des Moines Street or Willson Avenue as they planned the maps they had to make. They’d pester the lives out of the townspeople to buy tickets for the annual motion picture at the Isis or Orpheum and once more they would kneel on the hard planks of the Scout Hall and apply artificial respiration to some gasping sacrifice. They’d recite the old words ‘trustworthy, loyal, and helpful friendly, courteous, kind, and more and more they would be applying them to the man who taught those words to them and indeed taught them much more than mere words. In this imaginary movie the merit badges would be worn again. The relay races would be run, the paper collectors would go laboring door to door, liberty bonds, war saving stamps, charity, Red Cross the labors of public service those labors and the gayer moments in between would walk in happy confusion on the screen once more.” McMurray responded by saying that he had never met such an enthusiastic kid as MacKinlay Kantor in his life. Whether it was a kite flying context or the water boiling test for the tenderfoot rank, Mack Kantor was right in there trying his hardest.

On June 13, Kantor announced that two sites would be excavated and these were quickly given working site names. The Willson Mound Group was a series of five circular mounds (tumuli) within the limits of Webster City on North Des Moines Street. The other, called the Humble Village Site, was located about three miles south of town on land owned by Earl Humble, and overlooked an old channel of the Boone River. The Willson Mound site had some interesting history attached. Walter Willson had given permission to dig on his land and these lots had been in the Willson family for generations. In fact, many years ago, a man named Charles Aldrich wanted to excavate the mounds but Walter Willson’s grandfather, Walter C. Willson, would not give him permission. Aldrich was a former resident of Webster City who established the Hamilton Freeman in 1857, later establishing the Iowa State Historical Society in Des Moines and was, for many years, its curator.

Mott was invited to speak at Rotary on June 15. She told the Rotarians that her purpose during the summer was the “reconstruction of unrecorded history in this section of Iowa prior to 1650.” She then spoke of the Native American tribes who had been pushed into what is now Iowa by the emigration patterns from the Eastern states. Some of these were the Sac, Fox, Sioux, Pawnee and others. She told, however, of an even earlier tribe called the Ioways who were more or less the earlier permanent residents of the state and after whom the state was named. They were first heard of around the Upper Iowa River and the Okoboji Lakes. The culture of these Ioway Indians had been different than those who came later. Such things as types of pottery, arrow and spear heads, and methods of burial differed and that is what would enable the archaeologist to tell just who was responsible for the artifacts that could be found. But perhaps most importantly, she went on to say that even before the Ioway Indians made this area their home there was an even earlier group of peoples who lived here. They were called the Woodland People and very little is known about them except that they did leave behind mounds. They may have buried their dead in platforms in trees and then later transferred some of their bones into the mounds. Mildred told the Rotary that she believed the mounds in Webster City were made by these Woodland People. Later tribes may have also used the mounds in some way, possibly even for burial so relics may be found of both the Woodland Peoples and also the Indians who followed. She said she didn’t expect to find too much but anything would give some clues to their existence. She said there were five mounds on the Willson lots and that she and her team would probably only be able to excavate one mound this summer. This was due to the meticulous method of excavation that she tried to explain. She said that mound excavation was a science in itself. After first staking out the mound in five foot squares, they then excavate square by square to a depth of eight inches for each square. In this manner a complete record can be kept as to whether any item was found and also recorded is the nature of the soil itself. All of this is recorded and then a “vertical portrait” is made of each five foot square. It was tedious work and the diggers must be very careful not to nick any item with their spades. If they should find bones, they would crumble to the touch. They would also photograph everything before they try to lift it out. It is somewhat like reading rings on tree trunks, she said. Dirt levels also show drought and wet years. After the excavation is complete, all of the dirt would be replaced and the contour would look very similar to the way the diggers have found it. She also said that visitors were welcome and that any relics would be turned over to the Iowa State Historical Society.