Iowa Facts and Fiction

Wednesday, September 05, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Moses Bloom
Highways and Byways, Day 22:  Iowa City, IA to Columbia, MO

Letterboxing continues to teach us such interesting lessons and take us to fascinating spots.  Today was no exception.  Our first stop in Iowa City (pop, 68,947) this morning was at the local Jewish Cemetery.  In the clue for a letterbox planted just outside the cemetery, the letterbox planter provided some fascinating information about the history of the local Jewish community.  German Jews were the first to arrive in Iowa City in the 1850s.  They built a life in the town and started a synagogue and a cemetery.  These early Jews believed in assimilating with the greater community and followed the more liberal Reform interpretation of the religion.  In 1873, Moses Bloom was elected the first Jewish mayor of a major U.S. city.

In the 1910s, a wave of Russian Jewish immigrants arrived in Iowa City, bringing with them their stricter Orthodox version of the religion and a more separatist approach to living within the Iowa City community.  The two groups proved to be incompatible, and by 1921, most of the first wave of German Jewish families had moved from Iowa City.  As they departed, they sold the cemetery, disinterring their relatives and taking them along.  Later the Russian Jewish community bought the cemetery back, and it is still in use today.

The custom of leaving pebbles on gravestones was also discussed in the clue.  Placing small rocks on headstones is a common Jewish mourning tradition, though the origins of this ritual are uncertain.  It likely evolved from the practice of placing rocks to mark the place of a burial before the days of marble headstones, but it continues for important reasons.  Stones provide a more lasting symbol of a visit to a deceased loved one than flowers.  The stones serve as a reminder that others have visited the grave and value the memory of the person who is buried there.

The next letterbox we were searching for in Iowa City commemorated a terrible tornado that ripped through the city in 2006, demolishing buildings, flipping cars and toppling trees.  The box was created in memory of that violent night and hidden in a local neighborhood park.  After reading about the horrifying events of that April evening, we exited the car to go look for the box.  As we left the car to enter the little park, an emergency warning siren sounded.  We both looked up to find a perfectly blue sky, though a strong storm had blown through the previous evening.  Shrugging as the sound ceased, we continued toward the letterbox only to have the siren sound again.  Finally we checked our Emergency Radio app, which tapped into the local police and fire scanner and let us know there was only routine chatter and no community emergency in progress.  Later when we learned it was a routine, first Wednesday of the month test, it still seemed a little eerie that it happened at that exact moment when we were going to look for the tornado-related letterbox.

The Black Angel
It seemed fitting that our next stop, also in search of a letterbox, was at Iowa City's Oakland Cemetery, which has served as the city's primary burial ground since 1843.  The graveyard's most famous marker is the 8.5-foot tall Black Angel, or Angel of Death.  Erected in 1913 by a Slovakian immigrant as a tribute to her beloved young son, the bronze statue has oxidized over time to give it a black appearance and a mysterious aura.  Both visitors and locals are drawn to the statue, particularly on Halloween, when braver souls test the legend that only virginity can protect from certain death anyone who touches or kisses the angel.

Our new friend Byford
At that point, we were too spooked to test the myth and moved on to the town's Riverside Park on the Iowa River. There our luck took a turn for the better.  Not only did we easily locate a letterbox hidden near the local Shakespeare theater, we met a new friend.  Through an odd bit of restroom confusion, we met Byford, a local woman who was walking in the park.  A nurse retired from the University of Iowa, she spends her winters at Hilton Head and expressed her frustration with driving through the crazy Atlanta traffic on her way to the beach each year.  Easily identifying with her annoyance, we suggested an alternate route that would take her through Asheville and Columbia instead of Atlanta.  We chatted for a half hour or so before parting ways.

Having boxed out Iowa City, it was time to head south since we were due to arrive in Missouri this evening.  Along the way, we stopped for one more Iowa letterbox in the hamlet of Riverside (pop. 999).  This one honored the fictional Star Trek character of Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise.  Apparently in Star Trek lore, Captain Kirk was/will be born in the town of Riverside, Iowa on March 22, 2228. Capitalizing on this claim to fame, the town erected a plaque behind a former barbershop and holds an annual celebration of Kirk's birthday.  A starship "Riverside" is on display near the town museum.

As we traveled south, time was running out and so was Iowa but we still had a letterbox to plant before we left the state.  About three miles north of the Missouri border, we chanced upon a perfect little home for our letterbox.  It even has a nice view of a pond.

Martin Pond (letterbox hidden here)

Iowa Stats:
  • Land area:  56,271 (26th largest state)
  • Population:  3,062,309 (30th)
  • Highest point:  Hawkeye Point - 1,671 ft.
  • Statehood:  1846 (29th state)
  • Capital and largest city:  Des Moines
  • Nickname:  Hawkeye State
  • Famous natives:  Herbert Hoover, Bill Bryson, Harry Reasoner, Grant Wood, Johnny Carson, Buffalo Bill Cody, John Wayne, Andy Williams, and Donna Reed.
  • Known for strong spring weather:  50 days of thunderstorm activity per year & average of 37 tornadoes per year
  • Claims to fame:
    • only state whose east and west borders are formed entirely by rivers
    • contributed proportionately more men to Civil War military service than did any other state, north or south
    • nation's largest producer of ethanol and corn 
    • State caucuses have become the starting points for choosing the two major-party candidates for president.
    • credited with the start of the high school movement in the U.S. 
    • third highest high school graduation rate in the nation

More Photos from Today

Black Angel, Iowa City

Starship Riverside