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Denison, Iowa

Denison, Iowa

by Dale Maharidge, Michael Williamson (Photographer)

Denison, Iowa, is as close to the heart of Middle America as it gets. The hometown of Donna Reed, Denison has adopted "It's a wonderful life" as its slogan and painted the phrase on the water tower that hovers over everything in town. And in many respects, life is pretty good here: it's a quiet town, a great place to raise children; the crime rate is low, the


Denison, Iowa, is as close to the heart of Middle America as it gets. The hometown of Donna Reed, Denison has adopted "It's a wonderful life" as its slogan and painted the phrase on the water tower that hovers over everything in town. And in many respects, life is pretty good here: it's a quiet town, a great place to raise children; the crime rate is low, the schools strong. It's home to the county's only Wal-Mart and a factory that does a booming business in antiterrorism barriers. For outsiders looking in, there is something familiar and comforting about Denison — it conforms to the picture of the wholesome, corn-fed heartland which we as a nation cherish and which we think we know so well.

But something new and unfamiliar is happening in Denison, and traditional viewpoints and partisan labels don't quite capture it. The change goes beyond the post-9/11 loss of innocence; the sense of unease and, in some cases, of rebirth began well before 2001. Relations between the growing Latino population and the established Anglo citizenry are not always smooth. The industries that still predominate have become a mixed blessing for many people — in the 1980s the meat-processing plant, for instance, froze wages, and they have remained basically static to this day.

For many years, Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson have made it their business to document interior America. In 1990 they won the Pulitzer Prize for their book And Their Children After Them, a conscious homage to the 1941 classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans. To gather their observations and insights on Denison, Maharidge and Williamson lived there for a year, spending time amongthe 8,000 people who live, love, work, run for office, go to school, and sometimes struggle to get by there. From the Lutheran woman who singlehandedly teaches English to Latino immigrants seeking grueling work in meatpacking plants to the leaders who struggle to rescue the community from economic ruin to the Latino businessman whose career is saved by two white men risking the wrath of small-town politics, the author and photographer trace the intersections of lives, the successes and failures, the real stories beneath Denison's mom-and-apple-pie surface.

Through Maharidge's gorgeous, plainspoken prose and Williamson's stunning photography, we are privy to a sweeping perspective layered with a microscopic depth of observation, and a searingly honest portrait tempered by heartfelt compassion. Denison, Iowa is a big, beautiful book about a small town at a critical time in our history — and it's the crowning work of a brilliant, quarter-century partnership.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Over the past 15 years, the all-white, largely German-Lutheran population of Denison, Iowa, has given way to a sizable Latino population, which has been drawn to the small town by the jobs most of the local white youths have turned down: working in the town's packing plants, where as many as 9,400 hogs are butchered each day. It is this demographic shift--with its attendant political battles, business woes and ordinary triumphs and defeats--that the Pulitzer Prize-winning duo of Maharidge and Williamson (And Their Children After Them, etc.) document in their latest photo-and-reportage book. The volume's cast of characters is diverse and illustrative: there's the young idealist trying to save the town's history; the forward-looking mayor pushing an ambitious plan for the town's future; and the Latino business owner toiling for his piece of the American dream. Sympathetically and eloquently, Maharidge conveys the stories of Denison's working poor and its white elite, its meth addicts and its merchants, all within a narrative that serves as a terrific reminder of how complex even the most ordinary of small towns really is. Photos not seen by PW. Agent, James Fitzgerald. (Sept. 12) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Free Press
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6.00(w) x 1.10(h) x 9.20(d)

Read an Excerpt


Westhope, N.D. — Between August 17 and September 2, 2002, four non-albino white buffalo calves were born on the ranch of Dwaine and Debbie Kirk. There were now some ten white buffalo in the American bison population of 350,000, according to Bob Pickering of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. Pickering estimates the odds of a single non-albino calf being born at sixteen in one million; an albino, eight in one million. The National Bison Association puts the odds higher for an albino: one in ten million.

The Great Plains Indians told a legend about two warrior hunters who were observing a buffalo herd. One animal was snow white. They marveled over the creature. The white buffalo suddenly raced toward them and was transformed into a beautiful woman. One warrior grew aroused. The spirit woman told him she knew what he was thinking and asked him to step forward. He did, and they were engulfed in a cloud. When the woman stepped out as the cloud dissipated, all that remained of the warrior was a pile of bones swarming with maggots.

The other warrior fell to his knees. The spirit woman told him to return to his encampment and in four days she would visit. On the fourth day, a cloud descended at the camp. From it emerged a white buffalo calf, which materialized into the woman. She held a sacred bundle and taught the people sacred ceremonies: sweat lodge purification, healing, marriage, the Sun Dance.

Some of this legend is recorded in the 1932 book Black Elk Speaks: The Life Story of a Holy Man of the Ogalala Sioux, by John G. Neihardt. Black Elk fought against the invaders withCrazy Horse and survived the massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890. Now blind and very old, Black Elk recounted stories passed down over generations, including the White Buffalo Calf Woman story. When she arrived on the fourth day, said Black Elk, she sang this song:

With visible breath I am walking

A voice I am sending as I walk

In a sacred manner I am walking

With visible tracks I am walking

In a sacred manner I walk

"Then she gave something to the chief, and it was a pipe with a bison calf carved on one side to mean the earth that bears and feeds us, and with twelve eagle feathers hanging from the stem to mean the sky and the twelve moons, and these were tied with a grass that never breaks," Black Elk said.

In other accounts, the White Buffalo Calf Woman said that when a white buffalo was born, it would prophesy her return, and harmony would visit the world. Other accounts interpret the birth of a white buffalo as heralding a return to the old ways.

" 'Behold!' she said," according to Black Elk, speaking of the sacred pipe. " 'With this you shall multiply and be a good nation'...she sang again...and as the people watched her going suddenly it was a white bison galloping away and snorting, and soon it was gone."

Hundreds of years later, Europeans crossed the Alleghenies and came to the Midwest flatlands. By 1869 the white population of Iowa surpassed 1 million. The Sioux, who had occupied the northern and western parts of Iowa, were pushed onto a 35,000-square-mile reservation in the Dakotas, which stretched from the Missouri River west to the 104th Meridian. After 1876 the government changed the boundary to the 103rd Meridian, carving off a 50-mile strip that included the gold-rich Black Hills. Still, with more settlers arriving, the whites wanted even more acreage. So the Indians were cheated or attacked, and the great Dakota reservation was broken up by 1889.

The Sioux were defeated in battle, but hope emerged in the Drying Grass Moon on October 9, 1890, when word came to the Sioux about a Paiute messiah named Wovoka in Nevada, who had founded a new religion, a Christian-pagan fusion called the Ghost Dance.

"All Indians must dance, everywhere, keep on dancing," Wovoka commanded.

Wovoka did not invoke the white buffalo — his was more of a Christ-like vision — but his message was essentially the same as the old Sioux legend. If they danced enough, it would bring back the buffalo. Their ancestors would rise from the dead, the whites would vanish, and the Indian people would again rule the Plains. There would be harmony. The Sioux and other tribes embraced the Ghost Dance that November of 1890. They danced for hours at a time.

"This was the Moon of Falling Leaves, and across the West on almost every Indian reservation, the Ghost Dance was spreading like a prairie fire under a high wind," Dee Brown wrote in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. "Agitated Indian Bureau inspectors and Army officers from Dakota to Arizona, from Indian Territory to Nevada, were trying to fathom the meaning of it....Official word was: stop the Ghost Dancing. [It] was so prevalent on the Sioux reservations that almost all other activities came to a halt....At Pine Ridge the frightened agent telegraphed Washington: 'Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy....We need protection and we need it now.'"

This led to the roundup of Indians in December and the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek at Pine Ridge. U.S. soldiers followed fleeing women and children into the brush, executing an estimated 300 unarmed Sioux.

Wounded Knee marked the end for the Great Plains Indians.

Over a century later, on June 15, 2002, a freight train stopped in Harlingen, Texas. Seven men and four women climbed into an empty blue Union Pacific railroad grain car. Two were sisters from Honduras, traveling with their teenage cousin: Lely Elizabeth Ferrufino, age thirty-five; Rosibel Ferrufino, age twenty-nine; and Lesly Esmeralda Ferrufino, age eighteen. Among the rest were Mexican Omar Esparza Contreras, age twenty-three; Salvadoran Domingo Ardon Sibrian, age thirty-six; and Guatemalan Byron Adner Acevedo Perez, age eighteen.

A man sealed the hatch. The eleven were engulfed in darkness.

The train moved toward Kingsville, near Corpus Christi, where someone was supposed to unseal the hatch. The object was to avoid U.S. agents at the Sarita Border Patrol checkpoint. The agents wouldn't suspect a sealed car, and thus the eleven would make it to a safe house. From there they'd continue on their journey to El Norte, for which they had each paid their smugglers up to $1,000. The smugglers had slipped $550 to a rail worker to assist with the operation.

When the train stopped in Kingsville, no one opened the hatch.

The grain car went into storage in Oklahoma. Summer passed. The car was dispatched to Iowa, to a grain elevator in the town of Denison, fifty miles from the Nebraska border. In mid-October, harvest time, the cars were readied to be filled with grain. A worker walked atop the train, breaking open hatches; he smelled an odor. He peered in the car and saw eleven mummified bodies.

The first law officer on the scene was Crawford County Sheriff Tom Hogan. He noted that the bodies were evenly spaced around the circumference of the sloping pitch of the compartment, with all feet pointed into the well in the center.

It's like they're flower petals, he thought.

Hogan saw that the rubber seal around the hatch had been picked at. They'd tried to escape. And when that failed, it was clear to Hogan, the last to die had cared for the others.

From the valley floor of the Boyer River where the grain car sat, one could see a distant blue-and-white water tower peeking above the trees atop a hill to the east. Upon it was written,

DENISON: "It's a Wonderful Life"

The town's slogan comes from the 1946 Frank Capra Christmas movie classic starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Denison laid claim to the appellation because Donna was born on a farm south of town and went to high school here.

This Great Plains town formed what viewers saw in Donna on both the large and small screen. A brochure published by a Denison museum noted that at her family's farm, she spent time "helping her mother bake great fluffy loaves of bread and wonderful pies....Donna also helped feeding and watering the chickens, gathering eggs, milking cows." Donna, active in 4-H, "specialized in cooking, needle craft and sewing." She relished going to movies at the old opera house and sitting at the soda fountain in the adjoining Candy Kitchen. During the Great Depression, Denison was similar to the fictional Bedford Falls in the Capra movie — all white, with humble and churchgoing folks.

On September 1, 1938, Donna, seventeen, boarded "The Challenger" for California with $60 in her handbag. She lived with an aunt while attending Los Angeles City College. In 1940 she was crowned campus queen. Her picture appeared in the newspapers, agents called, and by February 1941, she had a lead role in a B-movie. After Wonderful Life, Donna was cast in the 1953 film From Here to Eternity, a role for which she won an Oscar. She then starred in The Donna Reed Show on television from 1958 to 1966, which presented an idealized family. For a generation of Americans "Donna Reed" was synonymous with wholesomeness.

When Donna died of pancreatic cancer in 1986, the demographics of her hometown were unchanged from her youth. But when the grain car was opened sixteen years later, Denison had become multicultural. The U.S. Census had counted 98 Latinos in all of Crawford County in 1990, but in 2000, Denison had 1,364 Latinos out of 7,339 residents. This likely was an undercount, because many Latinos are undocumented and fear cooperating. And still more came. Many whites believe that Denison is half Latino; this is likely not accurate, though to them it seems that way. A conservative estimate is that by 2004, there were 2,000 Latinos in town, though one official insists the number was 3,500.

Luis Navar was among these newcomers. Luis had left Mexico as a teenager in the 1980s, entering the United States by sneaking across the border. Luis did day labor in Los Angeles and was often homeless. He worked hard, married, had four children, and ended up in a cramped apartment in the MacArthur Park area of Los Angeles at the end of the 1990s. There was violence. Luis worried for his children's safety. He was drawn to make an exploratory trip, to visit Denison.

"I came, and I saw the green stuff [corn and soybeans] all over, no matter which direction you looked out of town," Luis recalled. "I said, 'This must be a good place.' I saw this as a place full of life. In L.A. the view out of our window was of a big alley wall full of graffiti."

Luis convinced his reluctant wife that it was time to move, and the family drove to Denison. It was a new beginning, their chance at a wonderful life in El Bedford Falls.

A few months after the eleven bodies were discovered inside the grain car in Denison, novelist Rob "Levi" Levandoski was walking in the woods of his family farm in northern Ohio. Levi had moved back to a trailer on the farm, on which his brother commercially raised pumpkins, after his wife left him and he needed to retreat from the world and write, and to see things. The pumpkin farm was in the town of Hinckley, at the base of the westernmost ridge of the Allegheny Plateau. It's here that the Midwest flatlands begin on the glaciated plains. From this final hill, it's virtually level west to the Rocky Mountains.

After the defeat of the indigenous Ohio peoples, there was a massive hunt in Hinckley in 1818 to kill off animals that were in the way of farmers. Great piles of elk, fox, bear, and woods buffalo were stacked and left to rot. Buzzards came to feast on the carrion, and today locals honor their return from southern migration with Buzzard Day, an annual festival on March 15, the day of the Great Hinckley Hunt.

Levi grew up watching the buzzards, a reminder of the violence of the past and with the spirits of his ancestors who had settled the land stolen from the Indians. He'd find arrowheads and upon picking them up would have the tingling sensation that he was the first to touch the points since the person who'd made them. He felt the power of transference. As his beard whitened, he increasingly had shamanlike visions of the great arc of history that really was not all that much time; the past compressed and was connected with the present.

One day when Levi was out by the creek on the farm, he discovered a snapping turtle of a kind that he'd not seen since he was a boy. They had vanished, along with the whitetail deer in the decline of all native flora and fauna in the twentieth century. Then Levi found another turtle. They were back, as if by magic, as were the deer, which were now so numerous as to constitute a problem. He had a vision.

Levi reasoned that the North American continent was being repopulated by all manner of once-native species. In New England, moose have come down from Canada, as have wolves and grizzly in the West and wolverines, seemingly, in Michigan. Around him in Ohio, black bears and beavers were reappearing, as were smaller creatures such as the turtle. It was logical, he reasoned, that the coming of Latinos to the Great Plains in doubling numbers over the previous decade was part of this process.

After all, Levi felt, many Mexicans and Central Americans who migrate are mostly indigenous, unlike the lighter-skinned Mexicans who hold positions of power in their native land. These Latinos are the largest pool (more vast than any remaining North American tribes) of native peoples proximate to the United States. Was their migration out of the South a century after the Ghost Dance predicted by the vision of Wovoka, to correct an imbalance caused by the injustice of the past? There were now 3 million Latinos in the Midwest, double the 1990 number, according to the 2000 Census. Most were in cities such as Chicago. There were concentrations in rural Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota. Iowa was still overwhelmingly white, but Latinos were the largest minority in 2002, at 89,000, comprising 3.1 percent of the state's population. They were located in a handful of small cities in addition to Des Moines and Davenport — among them Denison, Marshalltown, Perry, Postville, and Storm Lake.

"It's the repopulation," Levi announced as he stood on the bank of the creek where he'd discovered the turtles. "It's the white buffalo."

Copyright © 2005 by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson

Meet the Author

Dale Maharidge is a journalist and Pulitzer Prize- winning author of And Their Children After Them, Journey to Nowhere, The Last Great American Hobo, and Homeland. A visiting professor of journalism at Columbia University, he lives in Northern California and New York City.

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