Written by btwood2 on 15 Jan, 2005
Bob was still hung up in the grotto, but after 2 hours of grotto-ing, I was ready to see some more of the town, which was located just down the street. Leaving Bob to the St. Peter and Paul Church, off I strolled to…Read More
Bob was still hung up in the grotto, but after 2 hours of grotto-ing, I was ready to see some more of the town, which was located just down the street. Leaving Bob to the St. Peter and Paul Church, off I strolled to the quiet little downtown section only a few blocks away. I’d heard there was a museum and a sod house, and I figured they wouldn’t be too difficult to find in a town the size of West Bend (the population hovers around 1,000).
Just before getting downtown, there’s a big grain elevator right by the railroad tracks. We’d been seeing grain elevators by the railroad tracks in just about every little prairie town in northern Nebraska and the eastern part of South Dakota. West Bend was the first town established in Palo Alto County, Iowa, in 1856. Having grown up in the Bay Area of California, I thought it was curious that a county in Iowa should bear the name, Palo Alto, the Bay Area city that is home to Stanford University. It was even more curious because it means "tall stick, pole, or piece of wood," which is not in great abundance on the prairie. Wishful thinking, perhaps?
Railroads were of vital importance to these little prairie towns, and often there was intense competition for them. In the case of West Bend, their town was first named "Ives" after a railroad president. Shortly thereafter, citizens requested to change it to West Bend after the sharp bend in the Des Moines River on which the town was located. But when the railroad did eventually come through in 1881, 4 miles northeast of town, they up and moved their entire town away from the river and right by the railroad tracks. Probably a smart move.
Continuing to walk down Broadway, the main street of town, I stumbled on a lovely little garden in a space between two store buildings partially shielded by a tall wooden fence. The iron bench in front of the fence next to a painted wooden scarecrow and bale of hay and surrounded by wooden barrels full of blooming daisies, geraniums, and deep blue petunias looked like a great place to take a breather. But the garden itself behind the fence was packed full of such a profusion of blooms in gloriously wild disarray that it literally pulled me inside. I spent several minutes breathing in the peace and stillness of that lovingly created garden with a yellow birdhouse on a pole in its midst. Somehow it moved me more than all those precious gems and marble statues up the street.
Moving a few blocks to the west, I found the historical museum, an old white-wood frame building that obviously used to be a church (101 1st Ave SW). It’s apparently open by appointment; call 515/887-2371. It houses a local collection of early agricultural implements and antique home furnishings and clothing. Crossing Broadway again, over to the east side of town this time, it didn’t take long to find the trio of reconstructed buildings on the corner of 3rd Street SE and 1st Avenue SE. There was the little sod house, with vines, weeds, and grasses around it, practically hiding it from view. Behind it was Palo Alto County’s first one-room school house, restored and moved to West Bend in 1976. And right next door was the little tiny original post office of West Bend, restored and moved to the site in 1998.
In the late 1890s, after the coming of the railroad, West Bend flourished, with two banks and two newspapers. West Bend children went to Garfield Center School (built 1875) in the township just east of West Bend. These days, West Bend shares a school district with the nearby town of Mallard. It appears that West Bend is holding its own, even though it’s in the type of demographic area (small prairie farming town) where human population continues to decline.
I took some extra time investigating the soddies. These snug little shelter-homes have always intrigued me, especially the ones that are built into the sides of hills, those called "dugouts." The West Bend soddy wasn’t one; it stands on flat ground. It’s unlikely that the prairie would have been settled by Euro-Americans at all if not for the soddy. In Europe, peat bog bricks had been used for centuries in treeless areas to build homes, and the prairie was most definitely low on trees for logging in the mid-1800s. Back then, sod-busting walking plows would be pulled by teams of mule, oxen, or horses, and the resulting long row of root-tough sod was cut down into smaller "bricks" by humans, making the walls and roofs very thick and well-insulating. Soddies were cool in summer, snug and warm in winter. Most had dirt floors and few windows; sometimes walls were covered with muslin or whitewash to keep bugs and vermin out or maybe for appearances, too. Chips (bison or cow dung) were used for heating fuel. Lucky settlers built their homes near springs or streams, but many were forced to dig wells for water, and even those near natural sources had to haul it for use. Under the Homestead Act of 1862, it took a $10 filing fee and the acts of building a home and living in it for 5 years to become a property owner. During the 1860s to 1870s, over 100 sod structures existed in Palo Alto County and neighboring Kossuth County. Besides houses, churches, school, stables, and taverns were made of sod. With the coming of the railroad, the "luxury" wood frame came to the prairies.
Finishing up my walk in West Bend, I came across some more quirky and creative yards and homes: among them, in someone’s front yard, a white-painted bicycle that served as a planter, a big intensely cobalt blue wood-frame home, and an in-need-of-paint house decorated all around with carousel ponies. And even a saloon – the Painted Pony – which was quiet, maybe even closed, during the time of day many of us call happy hour.
Some have suggested that this artificial grotto in the backwaters of Iowa be named the eighth Wonder of the World. I agree it’s a wonder, but I’ve seen far lovelier natural and manmade creations. The Grotto of the Redemption is a testimony…Read More
Some have suggested that this artificial grotto in the backwaters of Iowa be named the eighth Wonder of the World. I agree it’s a wonder, but I’ve seen far lovelier natural and manmade creations.
The Grotto of the Redemption is a testimony to one man’s vision and devotion to God and the Virgin Mary. It came about in this way: In 1897, a 25-year-old seminarian named Paul Dobberstein became critically ill with pneumonia. He’d emigrated from Germany only 5 years earlier, and his studies were almost completed. Fearful of death, he prayed to the Virgin Mary. If she would intercede for his life, he promised to build a shrine to her. He pulled through, and the following year, was assigned to West Bend as pastor. Stockpiling rocks and precious stones in the next 14 years, he began construction of the grotto in 1912 and continued to work on it until his death at age 81 in 1954.
Our first view of the grotto as we arrived was from across a large pond in which white trumpeter swans were swimming. Wedged between restaurant and gift shop, dwarfed by the larger Saint Peter and Paul Catholic Church behind it, stands this opulent and visually overwhelming, yet somehow cramped, structure. Every square inch of the arches, towers, and interior spaces is encrusted with minerals and stones, most of them precious, from turquoise and quartz crystals to stalactites and stalagmites, to petrified wood and geodes, and to seashells and fossils. Inside and out stand Italian Carrara marble statues depicting Biblical figures. The estimated geological value of the grotto is estimated to be over $4,308,000. My initial impression was that of a giant crystal sugarplum candy mansion made of precious stones and gems that somehow got out of control, with the builder unable to refrain from adding piece after piece of delectables from one room to the next, the building continuing on even now. Though Fr. Dobberstein’s intention was to evoke a spiritual experience in the visitors to the grotto, for me, all the glitter detracts from the Bible stories being told. I was also saddened to learn that countless stalagmites and stalactites used in Grotto construction were removed from Carlsbad Caverns and various Black Hills caves by railroad cars before this was prohibited. Fr. Dobberstein made yearly trips to collect more treasures for the grotto.
Tours are run on the hour, $5 donation per person suggested. We arrived just in time to take the last tour of the day through the nine grottos depicting Biblical scenes, beginning with "Paradise Lost" and ending with the "Resurrection." The guide completes the tour in the Rock Display Studio, where we were shown examples of the rocks used and a small model of the next planned grotto, "To Teach All Nations". After the tour, I skipped the gift shop but went across the street to the Grotto Welcome Center, where there was a display of many old photographs and newspaper articles. Here I learned that Fr. Dobberstein used to keep bears caged on grotto grounds as an additional attraction until one little girl got badly mauled by a bear after getting too close. This 1919 case was settled out of court.
St. Peter and Paul’s Church: Bob walked in on women’s choir practice here. The ladies had beautiful voices and let Bob stay and take photos of the Fr. Dobberstein-built Christmas Chapel, containing an amethyst from the Andes weighing over 300 pounds. I walked out back and found a good-sized campground (80 sites) with electric hookups for visitors to the grotto, with a nightly fee of $10 for tents and $15 for RVs.
Keep on building: After Fr. Dobberstein died, Matthew Szerencse, a stonemason who’d been with him from the beginning, and Louis Greving, Fr. Dobberstein’s apprentice of 8 years, continued building the Stations of the Cross and the gift shop. Maintenance and construction continues to this day, managed by Deacon Gerald Streit since 1994. Grotto of the Redemption claims to be the largest artificial grotto in the world and has inspired the building of additional artificial grottos in the Midwest.
During our weeks at Lake Okoboji, I spent many enjoyable hours walking lakeside. We were fortunate that summer 2004 was one of the best summers, climate-wise, that anyone could recall. Though it felt humid to me, we were assured by Iowans that "this…Read More
During our weeks at Lake Okoboji, I spent many enjoyable hours walking lakeside. We were fortunate that summer 2004 was one of the best summers, climate-wise, that anyone could recall. Though it felt humid to me, we were assured by Iowans that "this is nothing" and that it wasn’t all that hot, mostly ranging in the 70s and 80s during the day, with that freshness of air from the nearby lakes. We also drove to visit other lakes in the area. There’s a great variety of homes and resorts along the lakes. My favorites were the cute little cabins, lovingly kept up with whimsical painting, decorations, and lots of personality. Near Cutty’s, there’s a public path along the lake that cuts through backyards and allows entry to private piers. This path ends all too soon, requiring walking (or biking) further inland until there’s another access point.
The Iowa Great Lakes are part of the vast region of Prairie Potholes, formed by glaciers and extending into western Minnesota, encompassing the eastern half of both Dakotas, and covering even more land in southern Canada. Historically, massive bison herds roamed here in its typically sweltering summers and freezing winters. These natural grasslands and wetlands were formed and managed by periodic droughts and prairie fires. Euro-American settlement of this fertile area proved to be disastrous for the ecosystem. Wetlands, sloughs, and "potholes" were drained, prairies were tilled and planted with crops, bison and wolves (their natural predators) were virtually exterminated, and cattle were brought in. Invasive plant species were intentionally and unintentionally introduced, and prairie fires were suppressed. Soil erosion and droughts of the 1930s denuded the land, and more trees were planted, attempting to halt erosion, but they only fragmented the landscape further. This region used to support up to 50% of continental waterfowl populations, in addition to being an important stop for migrating birds. Since the 1950s, there have been efforts by wildlife agencies to preserve and re-establish wetlands for birds. But they are small islands in the sea of crops, especially in Iowa, where 90% of the land has been altered from its pre-settlement state. Even though quite developed, with many private residences bordering the shoreline, there are several parks and paths that allow visitors to enjoy the edges of this deep blue lake. Sometimes compared to Canada’s Lake Louise and Switzerland’s Lake Geneva for its clarity and blue color, this glacial, spring-fed lake is touted for its great fishing, containing 47 different species of fish. The lack of restrictions on boat-motor size and watercrafts that use the lake as a playground makes fishing challenging on weekends, holidays, and most of the summer. Nevertheless, decent-sized yellow perch, bluegill, and walleye are caught here, and West Okoboji Lake reportedly holds many "biggest-caught" fish records for the state. Of the three state parks that line its 20 miles of shoreline, we visited Pike’s Point on the east side and Gull Point on the southwest. Little Pike’s Point has roped-off swimming and picnic areas. Besides beach access and picnic areas, larger Gull Point has a beautiful lodge built in the 1930s by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and used for parties, weddings, and other events. The shaded campground has 112 campsites, half with electric hookups.
Spirit Lake: No question or disagreement about name here; it was translated literally from the Dakota Minnewahkan and the French Lac D’esprit. This turbulent largest natural lake in Iowa is home to the Ischexi, a malevolent water spirit with a waterspout for a tail. Ioway, as well as Dakota, avoided this lake and never canoed on it. Now, there are many houses built around it. It was quiet the afternoon we visited. There’s a park on the south side and a large campground, Marble Beach, on the west side. We found fishermen cleaning their catch at the fish-cleaning station as the sun went down. There are numerous beaches on the north and east shores.
East Okoboji Lake is long and skinny, separated from Spirit Lake only by a narrow strip of land. From there, it runs south for 16 miles, connecting with West Okoboji Lake at Smith’s Bay, where we enjoyed a meal at The Wharf restaurant, also reviewed in this journal.
Abigail Gardner was 13 years old in the severe winter of 1856-57, living with her parents, siblings, and extended family in a small cabin south of West Lake Okoboji. They’d only arrived the previous July, just in time to build their cabin, but too…Read More
Abigail Gardner was 13 years old in the severe winter of 1856-57, living with her parents, siblings, and extended family in a small cabin south of West Lake Okoboji. They’d only arrived the previous July, just in time to build their cabin, but too late for crop planting. Along the lakes lived a handful of other settler families. According to Abigail (or Abbie, as she was called), on the morning of March 8th, 1857, a band of Wahpekute Dakota came to the Gardner cabin requesting food. After preparing a meal for the group of 14 Dakota men and their families, the settlers and Indians sat and socialized for several hours. At some point, though, the more or less amicable mood changed, according to Abbie, with the Indians becoming more "rude and demanding" before leaving for where they’d set up camp near other settler cabins. Gunshots were heard, and shortly thereafter, some Dakotas returned to the Gardner cabin demanding flour. As Abbie sat with her young cousins and little brother, she witnessed the shooting of her father. When her mother and older sister tried to intervene, they were beaten to death. Subsequently, 30 other settlers were killed, their livestock slaughtered, and four of the women, including Abbie, were taken prisoner.
As they traveled with the Wahpekute, Abbie and the other three captive women were expected to do their share of work, including chopping wood, putting up lodging, and carrying packs. They were left with another band of Wahpekute further north in Minnesota. One captive woman died when she became ill and fell in an icy river. Another was killed because she refused to do as she was told. The third captive woman was purchased by reservation Dakotas in May and brought to U.S. authorities in St. Paul. Soon after, when the band traveled through Wahpeton territory, Abbie was rescued by a Wahpeton named Hotonwashte—"Beautiful Voice"—and returned to her own people, going to live with a sister in Hampton, Iowa. Only a few months later, Abbie married Cassville Sharp and went on to have two children.
There’s more to Abbie’s story, but what about the other side of the story? That belongs to the Dakota warrior, Inkpaduta, much maligned and labeled as "renegade and outlaw" by whites, yet highly respected by many of his own people, the Wahpekute Dakota, and famous in Sioux history. Inkpaduta was born in 1815, son of Wamdesapa, leader of about 550 Wahpekute people. Nomadic hunters, they followed the bison in South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa. In Iowa, treaties had been imposed upon the Ioway and other tribes by 1842, forcing them out of Iowa to Kansas and other states. It was not until 1851 that the Dakotas and the U.S. entered into a treaty establishing a reservation for them along the Minnesota River. They were promised cash, food, self-governance, and a two-year time allowance to get themselves within Rez borders. Inkpaduta and his band, though, wanted to continue their hunting-and-gathering lifestyle along the river valleys and prairies and never were party to any treaties. They resented but tolerated the white intrusion onto their lands.
By 1854, the land was becoming increasingly crowded. Unsavory profiteers such as whiskey traders set up shop, slowly destroying social structure in Indian villages. It was one of these, Henry Lott, reportedly also a horse thief, who murdered Inkpaduta’s brother, Sintominiduta, his wife, and five of his seven children for no apparent reason. To add insult to injury, Sintominiduta’s severed head was hung out on display, and Lott remained free, indicted but unpunished, leaving for California.
The winter of 1856-57 was especially cold and harsh. Dakotas who’d moved to the Rez were finding the promised government meat shipped to them rancid and flour coming to them in hard-as-cement blocks, inedible and unusable. Inkpaduta and his band outside of the Rez hunted elk to feed their families, but destruction of game by sporting whites had already begun. Already-alarmed white settlers became fearful and angry when one of Inkpaduta’s hunters shot a settler’s dog after it bit him. The settlers retaliated by surrounding Inkpaduta’s encampment, confiscating all their weapons, and insisting they leave the area. They left hungry, cold, and without any weapons for hunting. They moved up the Little Sioux River, killing settlers’ livestock for food. Although the Gardner family wasn’t directly involved in this prelude to the tragic events that followed, they and their neighbors became its victims.
The rest of Abbie’s life: After Abbie’s children were grown, she separated from her husband. Several years later, in 1891, she returned to Lake Okoboji and purchased back her old family cabin, which had been purchased and sold several times in the interim. Abbie lived there and opened it as a tourist attraction, charging 25 cents per adult and 10 cents per child. She set up paintings, displays, and Native American artifacts, and wrote a book, The Spirit Lake Massacre, recounting her version of those events, her captivity, and rescue. In 1895, a tall stone monument was built and dedicated on her property, commemorating the settlers who were killed. It’s said that in her later years, Abbie forgave Inkpaduta and his band and developed admiration for Native American cultures. She died in 1921. Her son, Albert Sharp, sold the cabin to the state, and in 1974, it was returned to its original 1856 appearance, with many pioneer artifacts of Abbie’s inside.
The rest of Inkpaduta’s life: Inkpaduta and his band continued hunting bison and other game as they could, engaging in fights and skirmishes with the army and repeatedly eluding capture. Although he did not take part in the Sioux Uprising of 1862, he fought at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. The following year, Inkpaduta and his band moved north to Canada, where he died in 1881.
Besides the cabin and monument, the grounds also include a visitors center and small family cemetery that holds the remains of Abigail Gardner and her two sons. Next to the simple granite markers is a stone-and-cement edifice, under which the six members of the Gardner family killed in 1857 lie. A teepee frame stands to one side of the visitors center, among picnic tables. Inside the one-room cabin, a small, black, wood-burning stove stands in the center while beds, tables, chairs, and many implements large and small of pioneer times stand against and hang upon the walls. Plan to spend some time in the visitors center, which contains lots of interesting items, including Abbie’s paintings, old photographs and newspaper articles, more pioneer tools, and Indian artifacts, such as an arrowhead collection.
We may never know… What happened on that fateful cold day in March 1857 was a tragedy for the pioneer families who lived around Lake Okoboji. That young Abigail Gardner pulled herself together in such a way as to subsequently lead a productive life as a wife, mother, and businesswoman who started one of Iowa’s first tourist attractions, exemplifies her strength and resilience. That she eventually came to gain an appreciation of Indian culture, in spite of her past, shows she was quite a remarkable woman. Despite his feats as a warrior-leader, Inkpaduta’s life remains more hidden and shrouded in mystery.
Monument Drive, Pillsbury’s Point Arnolds Park Phone: 712/332-7248 Hours: noon to 4pm weekdays, 9am to 4pm weekends from Memorial Day through September. Very highly recommended.