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The Power of Place: Garland's Iowa

by Kurtis Meyer
Photographs by Jon Morris

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Gate with weeds

#1 Gate with weeds

“Idols crumble and fall, but the skies lift their unmoved arch of blue, and the earth sends forth its rhythmic pulse of green, and in the blood of youth there comes the fever of rebellious art.” [Crumbling Idols, 1894]

The Garland family lived in five places in Iowa -- two in Winneshiek County, approximately 60 miles east of where this photo was taken -- and three in Mitchell County.  This was the site of their first home in Burr Oak Township, Mitchell County, Iowa, where they moved in August 1870, and it is less than two miles from what became their primary Iowa homestead.  Garland recalls the scene, although no physical remnants exist today:   “I can see every acre of that rented farm.  I can tell you exactly how the house looked.  It was an unpainted square cottage and stood bare on the sod at the edge of Dry Run ravine. . . . [W]e cooked, ate and lived in the square room which occupied the entire front of the two story upright, and which was, I suppose, sixteen feet square.”10

This setting lodged deep in Garland’s mind only to re-surface later in his fiction.  From Jason Edwards in 1892:  “So this is the reality of the dream!  This is the ‘homestead in the Golden West, embowered in trees, beside the purling brook!’  A shanty on a barren plain, hot and lone as a desert.  My God!”11  From Money Magic in 1907:  “The ranch house stood at the foot of the mesa near a creek. . . .  It was a little house -- a shack merely, surrounded by a few out-buildings, all looking as temporary as an Indian encampment.”12

Garland homestead

#2 Garland homestead

“[A]n infinite drama has been going on in those wide spaces of the West, a drama that is as thrilling, as full of heart and hope and battle, as any that ever surrounded any man.”  [Crumbling Idols, 1894]

The homestead site is unusually level, which was a change for the Garland family.  The coulee region of Hamlin’s birth and, to a lesser extent, the topography of Winneshiek County, Iowa was much more uneven, its slopes and ridges carved by the Mississippi River.  This flat setting also found its way into Garland fiction -- for example, in “A Preacher’s Love Story” (1897):  “All about him the prairie extended, marked with farmhouses and lined with leafless hedges.  Artificial groves surrounded each homestead, relieving the desolateness of the fields.”13 

Note the remoteness of the setting and the paucity of neighbors.  The population of Burr Oak Township was approximately 600 people in 188514 (four years after the Garlands left).  According to the 2000 Census, there are now 260 residents in the township,15 or 8.2 people per square mile, slightly more than the six people or less per square mile that defines a frontier, which means the Garland site today is much closer to being frontier than it was when the Garlands lived here.

Stonework in foundation In September, 1872, the month of Hamlin’s 12th birthday, the Garlands moved to their newly constructed farmhouse, which became their most permanent Iowa home.16  This is the foundation of that house, a photograph taken from within the cellar.



#3 Stonework in foundation 

 “On a little rise of ground near the road, [they] were building our next home.  It did not in the least resemble the foundation of an everlasting family seat, but it deeply excited us all. . . . [A]s it stood on a plain, bare to the winds, my father took the precaution of lining it with brick to hold it down.” [A Son of the Middle Border, 1917]

Garland house

#4 Garland house

“There, on a low mound in the midst of the prairie, in the shadow of the house we had built, beneath the slender trees we had planted, we were bidding farewell to one cycle of emigration and entering upon another.” [A Son of the Middle Border, 1917]

This is the Garland home, in the classic “L” shape of a typical farmhouse, that today, from this angle, looks remarkably like it did 120 years ago.  Hamlin remembered it well, if not fondly. “That bleak little house is clearly defined in my mind at this moment; . . . It was not a hovel, it was a pioneer cabin persisting into a settled community.”17

This house was built by and for the Garlands and improved by them prior to leaving, as Garland explains in Boy Life on the Prairie:  “As the years passed, the homes of the prairie changed for the better. . . . Mr. Stewart put up a new kitchen with a half-story chamber above, which relieved the pressure a little.  The garret . . . was lathed and plastered also, and the rooms below were papered.  These improvements made vivid impression on Lincoln’s mind.  There was still no touch of grace, no gleam of beauty, about the house. . . . Nature was grand and splendid -- the works of man were pitiful.”18

This house is re-created in Garland’s fiction, as in this excerpt from Money Magic (1907):  “The poverty of this . . . working-man’s home was plain to see. . . . It was not a dirty home, but it was cluttered and hap-hazard. . . . There were three rooms on the ground-floor and one of these was living-room and dining-room, the other the kitchen, and a small bedroom showed through an open door.  For all its disorder it gave out a familiar odor of homeliness. . . .”19

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Last updated: 08/10/04
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