Nearing Jefferson City, Missouri, we read a highway sign saying Visit the State Capitol. We decided it's not a misprint: the Missouri State Capitol Missouri state capitol building is wonderfully ornate and impressive. Its dome can be seen from many viewpoints all about the city and neighboring areas, as it stands guard over the Missouri River. The Governor's mansion isn't shabby either; its Victorian elegance is a delicate contrast to the massive granite pillars of the state house.
Not far away from Jeff City is the farm where a newly-met second cousin and her husband breed sheep. First spotting the sheep we said Oh, they have just been sheared. Then we learned that Katahdin sheep have hair, not fleece, and their value is in meat, not wool. There are several advantages to specializing in this breed: there's no need for periodic shearing; these sheep are resistant to many of the diseases and ailments which plague the more common woolly breeds; and the meat makes the product more attractive financially. If any of our readers are interested in more information about this little-known sheep breed, let us know and we'll put you in touch with our relatives. We can vouch that homemade lamb sausage is terrific!
Leaving Missouri, we drove north through Iowa, where most of the nation's hogs are raised. You seldom see the swine these days; they're in shiny feeder barns enjoying Iowa corn. Once or twice we saw an old-fashioned farm with the pigs outside. Another change in the farms as we moved north is the presence of more farm buildings, to keep the livestock warm in winter. Missouri governor's mansion
Some of the ancestors who turned up in Kansas had come from the little town of Chapin, Iowa, so that was our next stop. These people were named Rowe, and we found dozens and dozens of Rowes in Iowa -- it made our heads ache! We dutifully recorded all the names and dates, because it may help us find more ancestors back in England. We found the deed for the farm Elsa's great-great-grandfather had bought in 1870, and where her grandmother was born in 1874, and we discovered lots of great-great aunts and uncles. Even though they're all dead, we're really enjoying getting to know these people - all solid citizens and good Methodists. One great-great aunt was hard to find because we only knew the name of her second husband, and she was his second wife!
Mason City, Iowa, a not-exactly-thriving town of 29,000, nevertheless has a couple claims to fame. One that was new to us was its philanthropist newspaper owner, Mr. McNider, whom Iowans hoped to run for president. His wife was on the board of trustees of the amazing public library, a lovely curving brick building with two large wings. Children's activities fill one wing, reference and Internet and classroom areas are busy in the middle and opposite wing, and the history area has its own staff to manage the collection: archival materials are kept in a cold room for preservation. Katahdin sheep
The second claim to fame is that this is Marian The Librarian's library! Meredith Wilson's The Music Man is based on Mason City, and is presented all summer long every summer. The opening line of the song Seventy Six Trombones is carved into the stone of the civic auditorium.
If Meredith Willson is the hometown hero, his sister, Dixie Willson, has her own local following. Dixie wrote continually -- free-lancing for popular magazines from Photoplay to Cosmopolitan, producing short stories and children's books. She worked as a circus elephant rider, went to flight attendant school so she could write about a stewardess' life, and did a stint as a script doctor in Hollywood.
On a table in the library's history room was a product she had created: a box containing script and costumes and posters for a play. We had a similar box in childhood, for the play Circus Cinderella, which we had loved and carefully guarded, never producing the play because it could only be done once. That, the historian explained, was probably why this line of plaything was a total flop.
We're pleased to find these towns all have volunteers who help us with local history, keeping the cemetery indexes up to date, compiling card files of Marian the Librarian works here newspaper clippings, and always curious about which families we might be related to. "Have you talked to so and so? She's a Rowe."
And the research services in small towns are informal, too. The ladies at the courthouses let us leave our computer and papers on the table in the back room and comb through the files on our own, while the librarians will run a tab for the photocopies, happily help with the always unreliable microfilm readers, and recommend good places to eat. This is getting more important as the U.S. is becoming overrun with chain restaurants.
These days most motels offer a continental breakfast, which we enjoy. We always seem to meet interesting people at breakfast. One fellow guest has been traveling to Iowa from Minnesota every summer for 42 years. He and his wife visit relatives for several days after which there's a big family picnic. It's the only vacation they take, so he hopes the younger relatives will keep up the tradition.