My mother, Ida, was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Her grandfather, Levi Prouty, had moved west from Spencer, MA, in the mid 1800's. Her father, Shirley Brooks, became a physician, but abandoned his practice when he contracted tuberculosis. His disease remained quiescent while he took up the life of a gentleman farmer. Like most American farmers of the present day, he had several other occupations, including studio photographer, and conservative reformer (he wrote a book entitled "Our Tax Evils and Their Remedy" - an anti-income tax tract). Her mother, Grace McKenzie, was from a family which ventured to Council Bluffs as part of the "Reorganized Mormons" trek to establish new lives in the latter 1800's.
Council Bluffs was one of several jumping off points for those seeking their future and fortune in the West. Lewis and Clark stopped there in May, 1804, to hold their first "parley" with natives: representatives of the Missouri and Otoe tribes. The Council met below the bluffs marking the edge of the Missouri River flood plain, across from what is now the Omaha airport. In 1846-7, the Mormons wintered there, leaving for Salt Lake valley the next spring. In 1859, Abraham Lincoln met with Grenville Dodge at Council Bluffs, and agreed that it would a perfect location for the eastern terminus of a transcontinental railroad, then being planned by public and private interests. After his inauguration two years later, Lincoln asked Dodge (a general in the Union Army) to head up the building of the Union Pacific, which would meet its sister coming from the west, at Promontory Point, just northwest of Salt Lake City, 8 years later.
Council Bluffs has not grown much since then. The farm my mother grew up on, which was definitely in the country, was inside the city limits. Today, when we visited the site, it still seemed rural, although ground is being cleared at its edge for a set of duplexes, and Iowa Western Community College abuts its other side.
The farmhouse, which sat away from McKenzie Lane, is gone now, torn down in the mid fifties when my mother and her sister, Gretchen, sold the property following the death of Grace.
"This is a beautiful place", Will said to Cody. "Why didn't your family keep this land? It would have great to have it as a Family Compound."
"Ida wanted the money, not the land," I answered. She wanted some money all for herself, not from her husband. [She was working hard to earn her Ph.D. in Psychology at the time.] She used it to take my sister and I with her to Europe, the summer the Berlin Wall was built."
The old farm now serves as the staging point for the condo/duplex development. Most of the land is smoothed over, fallow planted with clover. The knoll, on which the house stood, is growing thick with trees, including the one, now 81 years old, planted for my Ida by her grandmother the year she was born. Behind that hill is a little lot where small earth moving equipment sits.
I think my first memory ever is of this farm. I would have been three, coming to visit just before my grandmother died. I see a two-story wood-sided house, grey with weather, filigree at the edges of the porticos. Behind the house is a barn, and some out-buildings, where old tractors stood barren. Out beyond that, corn fields, impossibly high, topped with tassels like Shriners' hats. Below the house runs a dirt road, rutted, with ditches on either side to catch the spring and summer rains. In winter, they would fill up with snow, waiting to snare the wheel of a car should it stray from the straight and narrow. Just that happened one night to a car in which my mother rode after a high school dance. The car flipped, tossing my mother, breaking a vertebra. She had to be in traction for a while, and ever since was careful with herself, which frustrated my father, who was so athletic.
Down the road, I remember a turkey farm. I was quite shcoked and intrigued that, rather than always being immobile, greasy, and grey, turkey was quite alive, active, noisy and smelly before we ate it at Thanksgiving. They filled the yard, and their houses, gobbling and shaking their wattles. They lived in food and filth, and made me glad I lived in a neighborhood, and not on a farm.
Another stop was Abraham Lincoln High School. The current incarnartion was built in 1967, but my mother graduated from an earlier building in 1933. In 1985, the school started a Hall of Fame for its graduates. Among the first year inductees: Nathan Pusey, '24, later President of Harvard. Two years later, my mother was selected for the Hall.
We gathered below her picture, and Will snapped all of us smiling with her. Among all the photos, hers was the only one taken outside, in the sun. All the others were clearly studio jobs; my mother's was professionally taken, but she was posed in her finery under the clear blue skies of Aspen, with cottenwoods waving in the background.
Our final stop was the Walnut Hill cemetary, less than a mile from both the farm and the high school. It's one of four situated together at the edge of town. Among them are buried over 31,000 people; the population of Council Bluffs is now about 55,000. We found McKenzie plot, where my grandparents and aunt are buried, along with my grandmothers' relatives, and where part of Harry and Ida will reside. We also found the Prouty plot, up the hill, where Levi and some of his clan lie, including Ida Prouty Lovejoy, for whom my mother was named.
We posed the three "McKenzies" in my nuclear family at the McKenzie gravestone. Cody, Ann, and I all share that middle name.
In the evening, we had a going away dinner for Will at the local Red Lobster. I called my mother, and reported our success at finding the artifacts of her past. She seemed reassured, and told me of the work she's doing, writing her "reminisences" (not memoirs). It would have been great to have her there, but seeing her in June, before our trip, worked just as well, and, of course, was much easier on her.
Tomorrow, we discover if we're ready to complete the second half of our venture. On our schedule: a native american pig roast and possibly a sweat in Vermillion, SD; touring the Black Hills; seeing my father's haunts in Miles City; traversing the "badlands" of eastern Montana; climbing the Rockies; rolling down Lolo Pass; ploughing thru the Palouse and the Hanford reservation in eastern WA; and climbing Chinook Pass, down into Puget Sound, over the Narrows/ Bridge, and home at last. Hope we make it!
Total Miles: 1797
**Next Day's Journal**