Iowa Heroes and Hamlets

Tuesday, September 04, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Highways and Byways, Day 21:  Waterloo, IA to Iowa City, IA

In Waterloo (pop. 68,653) this morning, we made a stop at one of several places named for the city's most famous sons, the five Sullivan brothers.  In January, 1942, less than a month after they lost a good friend in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the five brothers all enlisted in the U.S. Navy with the stipulation that they serve together.  Ignoring its loosely enforced policy of separating siblings, the Navy assigned all the Sullivans to the cruiser USS Juneau.  In the midst of the Guadalcanal Campaign, the ship was hit by torpedo fire in November of that year and sank.  All but ten of the ship's crew of 700 perished, including all five of the Sullivan brothers.

The Five Sullivan Brothers:  (L to R)  Joe, Frank, Al, Matt and George
Waterloo honors the memory of these fallen sons with the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center, the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum, and a memorial at the site of their childhood home in what is now Sullivan Memorial Park.  The Navy named a destroyer after these courageous brothers.  "We stick together!" was the motto of USS The Sullivans.  All the brothers are buried together in Arlington Cemetery. 

Our next stop was to be an odd but interesting site in the small town of Gladbrook (pop. 941).  For Patrick Acton, creating scale models of famous structures from matchsticks has been a lifelong passion.  We came across his reputation and a small museum housing some of his work when researching places to visit in Iowa.  Alas, however, we were not destined to see these amazing creations on this trip as the museum is only open in the afternoons, which did not fit in our schedule.  Maybe we can catch some of them next time we're near a Ripley's Believe It Or Not location.

If we couldn't see the marvels in miniature, we'd have to settle for a curiosity of another size.  There weren't any letterboxes to search for, so we tapped into the Roadside America app again and discovered that we were within reasonable range of Iowa's Largest Frying Pan in Brandon (pop. 307).  Well, why not?  It's not exactly Claes Oldenburg, but it was less than two miles from the interstate, so away we went.


Built of recycled scrap metal in 2004 by local citizens to promote the town's semi-annual Cowboy Breakfast, a fundraising project for the local community center, the pan has become a symbol of the town. When they decided to build the pan, it didn't occur to the citizens to determine whether there were other similar pans elsewhere.  Later when they discovered that a pan in the state of Washington was a measly three inches larger, the Brandon pan was dubbed "Iowa's Largest Frying Pan."  To date, no one has disputed this claim.

At the public library in the town of Hiawatha (pop. 7,113) a bit further south, we found a very clever letterbox on the library shelf.  We suspected an 'inside job' because the 'box' was not only shelved among the other books, it had a bar code and was listed in the library's catalog.

Very clever and well-executed library letterbox
Other branch libraries in this system had similar boxes, though we had time for only this one.  (We apologize to anyone finds these photos to be spoilers.)

In the afternoon, we finally made it to West Branch (pop. 2,310) and the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site.  Given Hoover's place in U.S. history and the perpetually dismal ratings of his presidency, we expected a modest preservation or recreation of his birthplace.  What we found instead was 187 acres of "commemorative landscape" including 31 meticulously maintained historic structures, a half mile of boardwalks and a quarter mile of white picket fences to keep painted and in good repair.

Historic street at Hoover National Historic Site
Best remembered for his disastrous response to the 1929 stock market crash, Hoover was almost universally loathed by the millions of Americans who suffered while he rejected the notion of government intervention in favor of "self-reliance."  Seeing this splendidly perfect little town preserved in honor of a reviled president who had lived there only 11 years conjured images of the shanty towns built by the homeless during his term in office and derisively called Hoovervilles.  Why were we spending so much money ($1.4 million in 2011) to preserve this expansive site?

Grave site of Hoover and his wife
We left without an answer.  Interestingly, when we watched the video that the National Park Service offered about Hoover, it ended abruptly with his being sent to Oregon to live with an uncle after he was orphaned at age 11.  There was no mention of his presidency, whatsoever.  With the site's surprising attendance of 134,249 in 2011 (greater than the FDR home NHS), we can only surmise that many thousands of Iowa schoolchildren are making field trip pilgrimages to the birthplace of Iowa's only native White House inhabitant.  A plethora of comments about school field trips on the site's web pages bears this out.

The cottage where Hoover was born (which he himself made provisions to preserve)
Though he may not be the subject of any campaign to add another Presidential face to Mount Rushmore, Herbert Hoover is well remembered in his home state.  And perhaps that's just as it should be.  (No doubt there are many who would question the expenditure of federal funds in remembrance of Georgia's only president.)

More Photos from Today
Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum, Waterloo
A replica of part of the USS Juneau's hull and a Mustang bomber escort in the Veterans Museum
Hoover grave looking upon his birthplace in the distance
Kitchen in Hoover birthplace
A replica of the Hoover outhouse
Classroom in the Quaker schoolhouse that Hoover attended