Esther's Town

Esther's Town

by Deemer Lee

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Esther's Town could be "Any Town, U.S.A.," for the equals of its cast of characters can be found in any small town. And here, as usual, was the town newspaper editor, the observing eye of all the foibles and peccadillos that form any town's history. Remembering all the years with love and humor, editor Deemer Lee chronicled the forty-four years he gathered and wrote


Esther's Town could be "Any Town, U.S.A.," for the equals of its cast of characters can be found in any small town. And here, as usual, was the town newspaper editor, the observing eye of all the foibles and peccadillos that form any town's history. Remembering all the years with love and humor, editor Deemer Lee chronicled the forty-four years he gathered and wrote news—forty-one of them as editor and publisher of his town's newspaper.

He dug into old records, recalled old times, and talked with old-timers. He illuminated the transition of a town, from Estherville’s pioneer settlement to the busy, active town it is today.

The excitement and fun begin with a story of bootleggers, Chautauqua meetings, and an accomplished arsonist—who achieves in less than two months the impressive score of burning seven barns and one feed store, with an unsuccessful attempt on the Methodist church. Scandinavians move in, build crude shelters for the first winter, and add their special characteristics to the town. The Irish arrive and stamp their mark on the whole territory. The circus comes to town and entrances everyone with its ancient pageantry. The railroads come through and add a rowdy element to the population. The Depression begins and farms see 11-cent corn, 108-degree heat, and a twister.

All these events, plus adventures with a massive meteorite and haunting river tragedies, create the drama and flow of small-town life, story by story, in a fascinating revelation of Americana. 

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University of Iowa Press
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Bur Oak Book
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Esther's Town

By Deemer Lee

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 1980 Iowa State University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60938-176-9


An Era of Bootlegging, Culture under Canvas, and Arson

Back when the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway was operating between receiverships, passengers who paused at the depot for a change of crews saw a half-block-long signboard painted in man-high lettering:


It was an impressive and challenging advertisement, but one that did not emphasize the most notable characteristic of Estherville.

The town was making some growth, but not at the speed of light or at a rate readily noticed by the naked eye. A brisk trade in bootleg alcohol negotiated between the interested parties at two Lincoln Street pool halls and a parade of male visitors up and down an open wooden stairway that led to Mabel's parlor of pleasure above Frank Carpenter's Democrat office were considerably more evident than any increase of the town's population.

The Democrat office was superbly located because it was close to the newspaper's prime news sources. In fact, the noisy traffic up Mabel's stairway was a disturbing annoyance when the editor tried to concentrate on turning a neat phrase. In the roaring twenties the meanest toughs, the bloodiest fistfights, and the liveliest trade in booze and commercialized love saw action in the Democrat block—until the aldermen relocated crime and sin a block away. There it was less visible and more remote from trade in fashionable dresses, men's clothing, groceries, meats, drugs, and other reputable commerce.

At about the same time, city legislators, upon instigation of the Chamber of Commerce, changed the names of east-west streets. Lincoln Street metamorphosed into Central Avenue and more respectability, while the WATCH ESTHERVILLE GROW sign was torn down or fell down. By then attrition of patronage had deprived Chicago-bound passenger trains Nos. 19 and 20 of revenues adequate for support of dining car service. Edwin A. Boss, later to become a hotel baron in Des Moines, was the first Rock Island dining steward. William Moore, whose family was one of only two Negro families in Estherville, presided as dining car steward on the run out of Estherville. The word "black" in those days was useful in describing nighttime, dark closets, woods, and chalk boards—not people.

As more passengers deserted the trains, the railroad also removed Pullman cars. And finally the only live bodies riding past the depot were a few pigs and Hereford steers on their way to slaughter. And shortly these creatures, too, would abandon the C. R. I.&P. in favor of block-long leviathans thundering down the highways. When that time came, Estherville had gained a few more souls but had shed some of the lively color that Frank Carpenter reported with tact and sympathy for readers of the Democrat during the first two decades of the new century.

Carpenter's printshop was as immaculate as his person and his bachelor kitchen. But the drum cylinder press of his shop was not quite new enough for handy printing of his weekly paper nor quite old enough to qualify yet as a museum antique. But, by the time it was retired by Frank's successor in the late twenties for a two-revolution press, it had recorded through the Democrat's pages fifty years of joy, anguish, hope, and sorrow. Frank had penciled his last galley correction and won mortal peace.

My first newspaper assignment, in 1924, was to cover for the Democrat the town's annual week of culture and enlightenment under a Redpath Vauter chautauqua tent. Chautauqua programs had been going on since almost the beginning of the century. This forerunner of the astrodome was a tent pitched in a vacant yard, which bred nine trillion mosquitoes a year, each of which matured to the full vigor of life for the express purpose of perforating the hides of season-ticket holders of chautauqua programs.

Chautauqua week was carefully timed not only to mature the mosquito crop but to assure the summer's most scorching weather of about 169 degrees Fahrenheit and the certainty of at least one barn-burner of a thunder and lightning storm that ripped holes in the tent and scared hell out of the assembly. But these bombardments, which served to remind God's creatures of their vulnerability, always fell short of maiming or massacring prisoners of the tent. Because of the sober, spiritually refreshing, and educationally beneficial nature of chautauqua programs, divine intervention may have spared mass annihilation during storms of monsoon dimensions that rent holes in the canvas, swayed the poles, uprooted stakes, and charitably scattered lantern-slide pictures of uncomely naked African savages. Drenched and trapped, the local ticket holders sat there thirsting for culture while hungry mosquitoes feasted on their flesh.

I never quite understood why Frank Carpenter was willing to pay me the extravagant weekly wage of $15 to write him on-the-spot chautauqua coverage of such thin-soup fare as Filipino music that was louder than it was melodious, concerts of caterwauling sopranos, assorted lectures, travel narrations, and other tripe. But due to the regularity with which various acts of God put the chautauqua tent in jeopardy, despite the sublimity of its purposes, Frank obviously thought staff coverage was a sound investment in case the affair lost its providential priorities and developed into a full-scale catastrophe.

On no other basis than that of news preparedness could an exorbitant fee of $15 to write a week of chautauqua chitchat be justified. In fairness, it must be admitted that Vauter inserted a gem here and there on the program. For example, there was the time that the perspiring William Jennings Bryan orated "The Cross of Gold." This was the loss leader of one year's tent seminar. On one other year the thick-maned Bohumir Kryl thrashed the air with his baton as he waved the orchestra through Verdi's "Anvil Chorus." His virtuoso production included spectacular showers of sparks from an electric anvil that provided enjoyment for both those who thirsted for musical entertainment and those allergic to it. A performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado was another oasis in the Redpath desert.

Toward the end of each chautauqua week, when the mosquitoes had gorged themselves to satiety, and preferably on some evening when the climate relapsed to something under 115 degrees Fahrenheit, and when the tent was not heaving and threatening to blow away or fall down—that was the time to do something about the next year's campaign. This painful but necessary procedure to assure culture and enlightenment for the following year began with a statement by the Redpath manager. He tantalizingly hinted at the bright prospects for an even more palatable menu of mental improvement for the coming season.

Such a program promised for the town next year would meet community needs to prevent stagnation, lassitude, intemperance, ignorance, indifference, narrow-mindedness, cussedness, moral depravity, and other symptoms of a decaying society. An effective and attractive statement of program prospects always prompted L. L. Bingham to find his feet and offer to head the subscription list of guarantors. Mr. Bingham, a tall, gaunt figure who wore facial shrubbery with great dignity, was a man of unimpeached community standing, dependably generous in support of all causes he endorsed. He also taught the First Presbyterian Church's Sunday school class—the Friendly Fellows Club—of male youths who had attained an impressionable age. With the support of Mr. Bingham and Mayor B. B. Anderson, the chautauqua advance guaranty was invariably subscribed, sooner or later, right on down to the very last year—when the tent wore out and the prospects for a week of intellectualism thinned. The inhabitants had become preoccupied with riding in their automobiles or listening to "Amos and Andy," "Fibber McGee and Molly," and other classics on the radio. They forgot about improving their minds and their morals.

I do recall two special ecumenical occasions, during a period when I was yet too young to be worth a salary of $15 a week, that provided members of the community unusual opportunities for spiritual refurbishment. One of these missionary efforts, in 1915, was conducted in a 2,000-seat tabernacle that the upstanding citizens erected in two days on Main Street, across from the old courthouse. What I remember about the revival meeting there was the baptism of my friend Jim White, who carelessly overlooked that he had already been washed of original sin during infancy. So when Jim responded to the emotional call for "finding the light" and marched up front for baptism, it was entirely superfluous. Later, someone revealed to Susan White the news of her son's redundant salvation that perhaps jeopardized the original proceedings in Grace Episcopal Church. She was less than pleased and rebuked him warmly. But as always, she forgave him. It is questionable that double immunity ever did Jim any harm, although proof in these matters is never easy to establish.

I remember more distinctly than the meeting highlighted by Jim's renouncement of sin the proceedings of another summer revival, conducted in a wooden tabernacle. It was also located on Main Street, but east of the old courthouse square. The home of Hugh Greig, a wealthy grain buyer, was on the north side of that street, not far from where the tabernacle platform was erected. One evening our family attended the revival session and sat near the rear of the building, as was father's preference. When the sermon had been preached and enthusiasm for Christianity was at high fever, the divine invited members of the audience to step forward and be saved. At that point a voice boomed into the building through a knothole on the north side of the tabernacle. "Go on up in front, Nels," yelled Greig, who then stepped back, tripped over the pail of water he had just pumped a few feet away and sprawled pratt down in the water bucket. Mischief often finds quick reward. Father stood pat on his early Lutheran baptism and kept his seat. He saw no need to supplement or duplicate his baptism by joining the processional up front to the sawdust, notwithstanding Hugh Greig's personal invitation.

Without tents, Estherville would have been a disadvantaged community. Canvas supplied the kind of civic wants that in much later years would be satisfied only in brick and mortar. Under canvas Esthervilleans listened to music, lectures, travelogues—even fervent evangelistic preaching—and they experienced the entertainment of Broadway stage plays. Regularly each summer the Aulger Brothers brought a troop of stock company players to town for such lively amusement as the 1926 program that included "Cat and the Canary," "The Goose Hangs High," "Meet the Wife," "Lazy Bones," and "The Love Nest" at 25¢ or 50¢; ladies were admitted free of charge. The price included a full band concert overture at 7:15 p.m. by the versatile cast. The Aulgers brought their own canvas theater, along with collapsible seats and a plank stage. Who needed to risk being fleeced by New York city slickers to see Broadway drama? The Aulger Brothers willingly brought Broadway to the prairie.

There was Lyceum, too, to improve and amuse the mind. These programs of the twenties were held at the theater or in a church. In 1925 Judge Ben Lindsay spoke, the Cathedral Choir sang, and actors performed "Two Fellows and a Girl." Opportunities to soak up culture went on year round, but in summer, when tents could be pitched, the tempo of entertainment quickened.

When Barnum & Bailey, Ringling, Barnes, Sells Floto, and lesser circuses came to town, the much smaller tents used for road shows, roller skating rinks, and religious revival meetings were dwarfed by the massive circus canvas tops. These portable hippodromes were raised by roustabout circus workers, elephant power, and by willing, ecstatic youngsters eager to carry water for the elephants. They pounded stakes and ran errands. Their rewards were tickets to see what would go on in the big tent. However, admission to the menagerie tent and sideshows to see the snake charmer, the fat lady, the dwarfs, freaks, and other curiosities required cash—unless one could belly under the edge of the tent. This was a maneuver at which future Estherville lawyers, plumbers, storekeepers, farmers, and bankers developed promising skill.

Weeks before the circus, advance men plastered board fences and the sides of buildings with colorful posters and they deluged newspaper offices with photos and stories of what would happen in the big tent, handing out generous supplies of complimentary tickets. But the most effective attention compeller was a parade that preceded the afternoon performance. Brightly painted wagons hauled wild animals, while girls in tights rode on the elephants as the huge animals tromped down the street. Clowns cavorted and a steam calliope brought up the rear. Who could resist buying a ticket after that sample?

Whatever the circus confection known as cotton candy lacked in sanitation was made up in sheer delight of the eating. Circus peanuts and hot dogs dripping of mustard and garnished with piccalilli were also special. These delicacies of the circus tent were consumed in an atmosphere redolent of galloping ponies, plodding elephants, and giraffes. While some of the spangled, scantily attired female performers rode the ponies and others were perched high on the elephants' backs, an animal trainer entered the cage of a roaring man-eating lion or a snarling tiger. The chair that the trainer held in one hand was seemingly protective, but it was unclear whether the blank cartridges he fired were intended to tame the beast or incite it to remember its jungle role.

This exciting episode had to share attention with flying acrobats who performed amazing feats of death-defying skill on high trapezes, sometimes without the consolation of a net below. Down on the ground, and close to the spectators, clowns in roguish and grotesque costumes and wearing false faces paraded their antics and pranks in easy view of the peanut and candy eaters, bringing shrieks of laughter. In one of the rings a barefoot clown, standing atop a pony, divested himself systematically of twenty-nine vests, more or less. In another circle trained dogs went through their acts, all while a brass band, assisted by the steam calliope, made the merriment even more thrilling.

Almost as exciting as what went on under the big tent at both the afternoon and evening performances was the loading operation afterward at the Rock Island railroad yard, when three special trains carrying the animals, tent equipment, and circus people were put aboard the cars for departure to the next show town. Under the light of red flares, this remarkable feat of organization and discipline astonished the hundreds of young and old circus fans who gathered close to the railroad tracks. Most of these spectators had been too sleepy to watch the early morning unloading, but they cheerfully watched late into the night until steam locomotives, with a two-whistle blast warning, began pulling trainloads of tented adventure across the Des Moines River bridge and slowly up through the hills west of the town. In another favored community, it would next day fulfill the promises of its color-saturated billboards.

Air conditioning is a modern invention that aggravates the energy problem, runs up extravagantly expensive light bills, and plugs my sinuses. The air conditioning of my youth was simple, inexpensive, and left me unaware that I had been born with sinuses. In those days the practical air-conditioning contraption was a dried palm leaf, powered by a slight rotation of the wrist—either one. The users created their own breezes that were easily regulated by the vigor with which they waved the fans. Fashionable ladies, however, eschewed palm leaves in favor of artistically decorated folding models equipped with a colorful loop of cord and a tassel. Some came from Japan. Carried in their purses, the fans were taken out, unfolded, and waved in graceful gestures. Without fans only hardy specimens could have survived an Estherville summer, particularly while they sweltered under tents in search of amusement, culture, or regeneration of the soul.

Long before I became acquainted with Frank Carpenter and began to haunt his printshop to admire such treasures as his old-fashioned platten "snapper" presses, along with a miracle known as a typesetting machine and cases of movable foundry type, the drama of small-town happenings began to absorb me. This interest may have been first aroused by a series of impromptu urban-renewal projects undertaken by a mentally deprived young man who set about putting a match to various structures in town he considered suitable tinder. This amateur arsonist found rewarding thrills at the fires he started with his mother's kitchen matches. He also enjoyed hearing the horrendous siren that always blew to summon hose and ladder volunteers to the scene of each blaze. They usually arrived in deliberate haste in time to cool the embers.


Excerpted from Esther's Town by Deemer Lee. Copyright © 1980 Iowa State University Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Deemer Lee (1905—1979) was a journalist for the Chicago Tribune during the Roaring Twenties. He moved back to his home in Estherville, Iowa, in 1930, founding the Estherville Daily News, which he edited and published until his retirement in 1968. 

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