John Bloom: The Regionalist and Me

   The mural was old. The colors were still vibrant through, the lines still clear and sharp. It was simple – a farmer in his field, harvesting corn while his dog runs nearby. It was painted in a stylized design that is deceptively primitive. If you’re only glancing at it, it seems to lack any real depth. But when you take just a few moments to really gaze at it, the whole scene comes to life. You can almost hear the excited barking of the dog and feel the hot Iowa sun beating down on you from above.

     The mural in question is inside the city hall building in DeWitt, Iowa. When it was originally painted, the building served as the town post office, and it’s here that I first laid eyes on it. Back then, the building, which was built in the late 1930’s, was much different.

     Erected in an era before plastics, the place was consisted of large glass windows, dark-stained wood, and intricate metal ornamentation. I always remember it being dark in there, despite all the light the windows let in. The mural was high up on the west wall of the lobby, and it always gave me something to look at while my grandparents or parents conducted their business at the post office window.

Old Post Office DeWitt

     Looking at it made me feel connected to the agricultural roots of the town and surrounding county. It felt warm and comfortable, like your favorite chair. I loved that painting. I had no idea who had done it, and back then, I didn’t really care. I just liked the way it made me feel.

Rural Life on Canvas

     Many years later, I saw a painting in another building in DeWitt. This was an actual painting, not a mural, but it was done in the same, simplistic style. This one depicted a scene of church services coming to an end at the local Catholic Church, St. Joseph’s.

     For those who may not have had the pleasure of attending Sunday Mass, allow me to elaborate for a moment. When a Catholic Mass is over, the congregation quickly scatters to the four winds. There are a few who stay and chat here and there, but mostly everyone leaves. I’ve seen services at St. Joe’s go from having nearly two-hundred people in the sanctuary to having maybe ten to twenty in less than five minutes. When Mass is over, it’s over.

     That painting portrayed that. There was the crush of people leaving in an orderly fashion to go about the rest of their day, and the obligatory social butterflies who had stopped outside the doors to chat and gossip. Amongst all the activity, two young boys thread their way around the two old women like motorcycles around a road cone.

Church Morning

     You could see the Impressionist influence in the artist’s hand, with the characters only having the barest semblance of faces. But, like the mural, there was a real life to it. You could feel the energy of the moving crowd, and almost hear the different conversations being had on the way out of the church. It was a scene that I had witnessed countless times at the very same place. Soon after, I learned that the artist had, too.

     The two young boys in the picture were the artist himself, and his brother, racing to whatever boyhood entertainments they had waiting for them elsewhere. His name was John Bloom.

The Artist

John Bloom

     John Bloom was born in DeWitt, Iowa, in about 1906. He grew up in a rural atmosphere amongst rolling cornfields, rugged livestock, and hard-working farm families. It made an impression on his artistic young mind that would stand him in good stead later in his life.

     When he came of age, he began to take classes at St. Ambrose University, a Catholic-affiliated institution in nearby Davenport, Iowa. In 1926, still a very young man, Bloom began studying at the ultra-prestigious and respected Art Institute of Chicago. By 1930, he had graduated and was ready to step into the wider world.

     Bloom used inspiration from his surroundings, including places he had visited growing up and experiences that he had. One such painting, called Bloom’s Burial, shows a gray, almost dismal graveyard scene depicting a coffin about to be interred in the ground. Two nuns console each other in the background while a priest is by the coffin, conducting the service. Bloom based the painting on his own grandmother’s funeral.

     Bloom’s Burial was featured in the art show during the 1932 Iowa Art Salon, even winning a prize. More importantly, the painting drew the attention of one of Iowa’s most iconic artists, Grant Wood.

An American Icon

grant wood

     Grant Wood was another Iowa-born artist who had come to nationwide fame in 1930 for his painting American Gothic, which would very quickly become an iconic piece of American artistic lore. Inspired first by the impressionist painters and later the ultra-realism of the European masters, Wood used his art to capture the spirit of the rural Midwest that he had grown up in.

His star very much on the rise within the American art community, Wood continued to produce paintings in the style of American Gothic. In 1932, he helped to found the Stone City Colony and Art School in Stone City, Iowa, near Anamosa. About this time, Wood saw John Bloom’s painting, Bloom’s Burial, and invited the younger man to move to Stone City for the summer and attend his new school. Bloom readily accepted.

     Artists at the colony took classes and cultivated their individual artistic expressions. John took a job as a groundskeeper while living there in order to pay his tuition. During his stay there, he met a young sculptor named Isabel Scherer. They became almost instant friends and stayed in close contact for several years.

The Depression Years

     As an artist, Bloom continued to shine. All throughout the 1930’s, Bloom won several awards for painting and drawing throughout the state of Iowa, including a first place finish for a painting he submitted to the Iowa State Fair. He assisted his old friend Grant Wood in painting a series of several murals at Iowa State University, and in 1937 painted the mural in the DeWitt post office.

     In 1938, John and Isabel married. They moved into the Masonic Home in Davenport, Iowa, turning a large portion of their living space into artistic studios for themselves. Eventually, they would have three children. With a growing family, John went out and turned his career toward commercial art, all the while continuing to pursue his personal artistic interests and refine his already formidable skills at home.

Shooting Stars

Over the next several years, Isabel’s fame began to soar. Amongst other things, including hosting a local children’s television program, Isabel was able to turn her private sculpturing into an extremely lucrative business. Through it all, John looked on with pride and cheered her on.

     During the 1980’s, a local business owner encouraged Bloom to put some of his private work on display. In 1984, an exhibit of his work was held in Davenport, Iowa. People once again took notice of the old artist, and there was an instant demand for his work. For the next several years, Bloom painted murals in Davenport and Iowa City, won art competitions, and held exhibitions of his work.

Old John Bloom

     John passed away in late May 2002, at the age of 96. His beloved Isabel, his wife of over sixty years, had died the previous year. The couple left behind an extensive body of artistic work in various mediums.

Dark Days

     Earlier this year, my own wife fell gravely ill with a life-threatening bacterial infection. Our family doctor diagnosed her in the morning, and we were sent directly to the University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City, Iowa, about an hour away from us. She was fine that entire time, just feeling a little under the weather. By the time the doctors were looking at her, her condition had worsened and she was taken in for emergency surgery. We later found out that she had very nearly died.

     As it was, they removed a large portion of infected tissue from her hip, which necessitated her to stay at the hospital for almost two weeks. I had taken emergency vacation from my work, and spent the majority of my time in Iowa City, visiting her.

    Within the first few days, she was moved to the eighth floor of the hospital, to the burn and wound recovery unit. While she was recovering well, some complications arose. These were dealt with swiftly and professionally by the doctors and nurses, but it was still an extremely stressful time.

     One day, while I was walking around the floor, I noticed some familiar looking artwork hanging in the hall. University of Iowa Hospitals put a lot of artwork throughout its meandering corridors, including drawings, paintings, and even sculpture. Many times I would just give things a quick, scanning glance and continue along my way. But these were different.

     As I approached, I kept wondering why they seemed so familiar to me.

     They were farm scenes, of life in rural Clinton County where I had lived for twenty years. While I studied them, I found my mind and spirit filled with a profound sense of a place in an idealized rural America where life was simple. There was no sickness or death there. The livestock was healthy, the crops were growing well, and the weather was always fair.

IMG_8122

     And when I read the information plate beside them I found, to my pleasant surprise, that they were done by none other than John Bloom. Alone and far from home, I had found an old friend.

     When John Bloom completed those various pieces, I doubt very much that he was thinking of bringing comfort to a big Scotch-Irish guy on the ragged edge. But he probably did contemplate conveying those images of his life in rural America to the public. Bloom wanted to share the feel of the farm field and the sadness of a burial.

     And I’m glad he did. He took me back to a place where I could drop my worries and cares and re-center myself. Just like the farmers in his paintings, he reached out a neighborly hand and helped me out. So John, wherever you are, thanks for helping this local out when he was a little down.

 

Cautionary Tales of the Midwest’s Roadways

               Writing is my passion. I enjoy sharing the stories that I collect along my way with whoever cares to listen, and more than a few that don’t sometimes!

                However, like many people out there, I work a day job. Like musicians and writers before, I haven’t yet broken into that mystical land where I can make a living through my chosen craft. And so, the daily grind continues.

                One of the perks of my job is that I have a commute. This allows me to get out and see some of the region in which I live, and to appreciate what’s out there in the wider world. But the drive has also given me a greater awareness of the need for safety on the roadways. When you’re going down the highway at seventy miles an hour, you have to have your head in the game!

                A normal day behind the wheel can quickly turn into your last.

                So, for those of you who have to drive to work, I would like to share with you two cautionary tales about the importance of driving safety.

Routine Maneuver Turns Deadly

                In 1957, a father of five by the name of Charles Nicely made a living distributing gasoline. In other words, he drove a fuel truck.

IMG_8603 (2)

                That May, Charles was driving his fuel truck on U.S. 30 just east of the town of Wheatland. As he went on his way, he decided to pass a 1954 Chevy sedan. As Charles did so, he accidentally made contact with the smaller vehicle, causing his truck to lose control.

                Before he knew it, Charles’ truck was first tipping over, and then rolling down the highway. As it did so, the fuel truck somehow ignited, causing the vehicle to explode. Charles, still conscious inside the truck cab, quickly realized he was trapped inside the now burning fuel truck.

                When police arrived on scene, they heard Charles’ awful screams.

                “Shoot me! Shoot me!”

                The police tried in vain to rescue the poor man, but the flames were so hot that they couldn’t get close enough the cab to be of any use. With anguish in their hearts, the brave men who wanted nothing more than to save the driver instead had to stand there in the middle of the road, listening to the dying screams of Charles Nicely.

                What had started as a routine driving maneuver had, without warning, become the last move for a man who was just doing his job.

Car vs. Train

                Winter in the Midwest is harsh. Bitterly cold temperatures, gusting winds, and slick, icy roads force drivers to be extra cautious during the winter months.

                On the evening of January 12, 1926, Singleton Gardiner, superintendent of the Prudential Insurance Company in Davenport, was returning from a business trip. His wife, Eva, and the assistant superintendent of Prudential Insurance, Charles Frey, rode with him, as well as his maid, Sophia Inkman. A few years prior, Eva had suffered a nervous breakdown, rendering an invalid. This may explain why Inkman was with them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

               The roads were snowy, and the inside of the car windows had frosted over. As they approached the Poppy Gardens train crossing east of Rock Island, Illinois, Gardiner suddenly lost control of the vehicle. The car began to slide as a passenger train from Burlington, Iowa, began to make its way through the crossing.

                The scene inside the car must have been terrifying. Gardiner trying desperately to stop, all the while his passengers began to panic, their terrified eyes fixed on the train.  

                 The train engineer, O.C. Gordon, saw the car and pulled the whistle to warn them, holding it down with as much strength as he could muster as they started through the intersection. But Gardiner couldn’t stop, and the hapless driver and his passengers were propelled directly into the side of the speeding locomotive. The sedan impacted with a crash, becoming temporarily entangled with the train. The powerful locomotive didn’t bat a proverbial eye at the extra weight and began to drag the car along the tracks with it.

Fireball

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

                Without warning, the car broke free and was tossed airborne. Train passengers and crew watched helplessly as the car’s gas tank exploded in midair. The twisted, burning machine landed nearly 30 feet away. Gordon immediately pulled the brake, and the train came screeching to a stop just a short distance down the track. Men ran from the train back toward the wreck.

                It was a gruesome sight that awaited them. Singleton Gardiner himself had died instantly, succumbing to the fire. His wife was in shock, suffering from severe burns to her hands. Inkman and Frey were much worse off. The side of Inkman’s face was crushed and her left eye was missing. Frey was badly burned over most of his body and he had deep wounds on his scalp. As their rescuers approached, one of the injured cried out for help.

                Acting quickly, members of the train crew loaded Frey, Inkman, and Eva Gardiner into the baggage car of the train. As the train started back into the city, the porters went through the cars asking for doctors. Unfortunately for them, there weren’t any. The closest that they could find was Dr. J.A. Krichel, a veterinarian who tended to the wounded as best as he could.

Not Out of the Woods Yet

              Meanwhile, other crew personnel ran to a nearby farm where they called the police station in Moline. The police were told what had happened, and ambulances were sent for. They were waiting for Frey and the others when the train arrived, and the injured people were quickly loaded and taken directly to the city hospital.

               On the way, the speeding ambulance carrying the severely injured Charles Frey was struck by another car near Fifth Avenue and Sixteenth Street. Little the worse for wear, the ambulance continued on its way.

                At the hospital, Frey described the incident, including being caught in the explosion. He related that they had seen the train coming, but Gardiner hadn’t been able to stop the car. While his fellow passengers Inkman and Mrs. Gardiner survived the traumatic incident, Frey himself would pass away a short time later.

                If you’ve lived in the Midwest for any length of time, then you will probably have driven through ice and snow at one time or another. And if you drive, you’ve almost certainly passed another car at some point. Both are fairly routine situations that thousands of motorists experience across the nation.

                But next time you’re behind the wheel, pause for a moment and think of Charles Nicely and Singleton Gardiner. They were just taking fairly routine drives, too. They had every confidence in their abilities and their driving prowess, just like many of you. And before they knew what was happening, their lives came to a sudden and tragic end.

                So take your time. Enjoy the drive. Pay attention to the road conditions and to what the other drivers are doing. Make sure that this drive isn’t your last.

Sources:

Charles Nicely Crash Victim.” The DeWitt Observer, May 9, 1957.

Daily Times, Tuesday, January 12, 1926.

The Davenport Democrat and Leader. Tuesday, January 12, 1926.

Brassard Sr., John  and Brassard Jr., John.  Scott County Cemeteries” Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, 2011.

Central Community Historical Museum. DeWitt, Iowa.

 

               

 

               

Murder in a Small Town

              The town of Malone was originally a train depot founded in the mid-1860’s. It soon developed a general store, stockyards, and a post office. Like many rural areas, it was quiet and peaceful. Who would have thought that an event would take place there would forever mar that peaceful landscape?

                Edward Crampton was born in nearby Elvira, Iowa, in 1893, one of seven children. In 1911, he married Lillian Henry. They had two children. Unfortunately, Lillian would pass away a few years later.

                 Crampton remarried, this time to Dona Thomas, and had two more children. He worked at the Clinton Corn Syrup Refining Company in Clinton, Iowa, where he was known for being a hard worker.  

                But Edward Crampton was not necessarily good to his wife. He did not treat her well, and it can be assumed that he at least physically abused her for a lengthy period. He didn’t care for his brother-in-law, Robert Vale, either. In 1928, the two had an argument that ended with Crampton striking Vale, leaving a large gash on Vale’s face.

                 After a brutal beating in 1929, Dona finally had enough of Crampton’s abuse and fled to her sister Susie’s home. Dona mustered her courage and filed a petition for divorce from Crampton.

                Crampton himself became surly and unfriendly with everyone around the small community, with the exception of Thomas Mulholland, an older man who ran the local general store. By many accounts, Mulholland was Crampton’s only friend there.

                On the morning of August 7, 1929, Crampton drove to his brother’s house in Low Moor to borrow a shotgun. Edward said that he was going to shoot a dog. He then went and purchased several shotgun shells and drove back to Malone.

                He went home, readied himself, and walked out into the street with his gun. Dona, who had been doing housework, saw her husband and ran out of her in-laws home, pleading with him to put the shotgun down and stop what he was doing. Crampton ignored her and kept walking toward the general store.

                As he approached, Robert Vale came out of the front door of the building. Crampton quickly put the shotgun to his shoulder and fired. The shot missed, so he quickly racked another round into the chamber and fired again. This time, the buckshot found its mark and Vale dropped to the ground.

                Looking over, Crampton saw his friend, Thomas Mullholland, sitting just inside the screen door. Racking the pump-action shotgun again, he took aim and fired again, hitting the old man square in the face. Even with such a grievous wound, Mullholland rose slowly to his feet. Crampton coldly fired once more, ending his life. No one knew why he killed his only friend.

                Through the entire event, Crampton never said a word, carrying out his foul deeds coldly and seemingly without hesitation or remorse. Silently, he walked back to his home. Once inside, he put the shotgun on a table, pointing it at himself. With the help of a stick, Crampton pulled trigger one last time, ending his life. He was only thirty-six years old.

                Vale was only wounded and was rushed to a Clinton hospital, where doctors thought that he would survive his wounds. But things took a turn for the worse, and his condition quickly deteriorated. Vale succumbed a few days later.

                Malone is still there, just off U.S. 30, marked by a yawning hippo. But even though it may have reduced in size, the events of that August in 1929 still stain the memory of the quiet town.

               

               

The Final Word: The Clinton County Feud Over a Courthouse – and a Bell

              Have you ever been on the losing side of an argument? Not just any argument, but one that you felt so strongly about that no matter how things turned out, you still felt that you were right? It sucks. Most of us have probably been there, but even though you don’t like it, you concede and move on with your life.

                But you always want to get the last word in. You want to have that one last parting shot to the gut that the winner remembers more than the win. And the more memorable you can make it, the better.

                So what happens when an argument isn’t just between individuals, but entire towns?  

The Early Years

               Courthouses are really an iconic structure in our society. They represent justice, and give the hope that it will be served when the time is right. But to the pioneers of Clinton County, a courthouse meant even more.  

                 In the very early days, there wasn’t much to Clinton County. Early settlement in the region was heaviest along the Mississippi River, so when the county was formed in 1840, the initial site chosen to be the center of government was Comanche. As more people migrated in, government, by both demand and necessity, had to grow more complex in order to deal with new challenges and changes. One of these was to have a place to conduct formal legal business that ran the full spectrum of the law, from criminal cases to real estate. It became, in essence, the legal centerpiece for the county.

                In the winter of 1841, the first county commissioners met decided to move the center of government, or county seat, from its location in Comanche. The town chosen would be where the courthouse would be built. Eventually they chose DeWitt, toward the middle of the county. They did this so that all of the people that would have to travel to the courthouse for their business were travelling toward a centrally located town.

Clinton County Map

                Being the county seat was a big deal for pioneer counties. Your town would have the prestige of being the county seat, which would make the name of your town known through the county. But people also had a reason to go there. Travel by horse was slow, so overnight stays would be common, especially if your legal proceedings had to take more than a day.

                Hotels could be built to accommodate travelers, and maybe give them something to eat. Stables could charge to keep your horses for however long. And so, an entire commercial enterprise can start to build out of being the county seat. Plus, you get the added bonus of them going back home and telling others about how wonderful a place you have. Word spreads and maybe, just maybe, other people start moving to your town. As the population grows again, other opportunities and business arise, and your town really becomes something.

                By Summer of 1841, the first Clinton County Courthouse was built. It was a log structure, about twenty feet wide and a little over thirty feet long, consisting of two rooms and an attic. One room served as a courtroom, and the other a room for the jury. In the very early days of Clinton County, the members of the court would sleep in the attic, cook their food outside the building, and then eat in the courtroom. Later, the courtroom was moved to the attic space. Business offices for different county officials were also placed here.

                Rough as it may have been, the log courthouse served its purpose well for about five years. As the county grew, so did legal business, and in 1846 a new, wood frame courthouse was built. This newer building would serve the county for nearly a decade.

                In 1854, a new, grander courthouse was built. Their idea was to build it to rival the courthouse in nearby Scott County. A brand new bell was paid for by five citizens of DeWitt and hung in the belfry. A year later, a jail was built directly behind this new building. Although it was to serve the county well for the next several years, trouble was starting to stir by the mid 1860’s.   

1854 Clinton County Courthouse

Opening Arguments

               By the 1860’s, the lumber industry had begun to flourish in the cities of Clinton and Lyons, and both had subsequently experienced a boom in both population and fiscal growth. With all of the new business being conducted in that area, there became an increased need for legal advice and proceedings. The problem was that they had to travel to DeWitt in order to get anything done.

                When the county seat was re-located to Dewitt in the 1840’s, the idea was to put the courthouse in the centrally-located town so that everyone in the county had about an equal distance to travel. Over twenty years later, the majority of the business of Clinton County was now taking place on the very eastern edge.

                So, in 1866, a movement was started to move the county seat to either Clinton or Lyons. For their part, the people of those cites didn’t mean to do any personal harm to DeWitt, they just thought it made better business sense to move the courthouse to where most of the business was being conducted, which just happened to be in their backyard.

                For DeWitt, it was a matter of business as well. They didn’t want the courthouse moved because it would hurt them in both terms of prestige, as being the county seat, but also in financial terms. Everyone who came to the courthouse for their business would need different services, such as a rented room to stay in. If they no longer had a reason to come to town, then the businesses that had grown up around the courthouse would suffer, or maybe even close. This, in turn, would hurt the city itself.

Verdict

                 For the next few years, DeWitt and Clinton would argue the point back and forth, but nothing much came of it. Instead, the major fighting came between Clinton and Lyons. Both cities wanted the courthouse, and they argued aggressively back and forth for it, neither side wanting to give the other any ground or advantage.

                 Finally, in 1869, the two cities decided to join forces in order to take the county seat. A meeting was held that decided a new courthouse would be built in North Clinton, with compromises and improvements made that would benefit both cities. After all was agreed upon, steps were almost immediately taken to move the county seat.

                 After submissions and votes by the Clinton County Board of Supervisors, a majority of the electors of the county voted on the issue once and for all later that year. Things were finally coming to a close.

                 Unfortunately for DeWitt, Clinton won the day. DeWitt claimed that voters in southwestern Clinton County were told that if they voted for the move, then a new county would be formed with Wheatland as the county seat. But it didn’t matter now. The courthouse would be moved.

One Final Insult

                After the decision was made final, Clinton constructed a brand new wood-frame courthouse, complete with a belfry in which to hang the courthouse bell. The problem was that the bell was still in DeWitt, hanging in what was already the old county courthouse. So, Clinton demanded that the city of DeWitt send it to them straight away.  

                At that time, the sheriff of Clinton County was a man named Robert Hagle. He had found out that some people from Clinton were going to come to DeWitt and take the bell. Hagle quickly sent news to some of his friends about this, who just happened to be on the DeWitt side of the argument. While the idea of the bell being moved to Clinton probably upset a lot of people, some, like these friends of Sheriff Hagle, were absolutely livid. DeWitt had bought and paid for that bell, not Clinton. They had no right to it. For them, it was the final straw.

Midnight Service

                The day before the bell was to be collected, some of these friends took some tools and went to the belfry of the DeWitt courthouse early in the morning. Taking some old rags, they carefully wrapped up the bell clapper and any other moving parts of the bell. They also oiled the bolts and other parts. Satisfied that the bell wouldn’t make any sound, they came down again and went back to their homes.

                Later that same night, the men gathered again at midnight. They had a few drinks, and then crept back to the courthouse.

                As quietly as they could, they sawed a hole in the ceiling of the main courtroom about four feet by four feet, than set up a block and tackle. Then, taking their tools, they undid the bolts that held the old bell in place, and silently lowered it down from the belfry. Carefully, they carried the bell downstairs, and then out of the building and into a waiting delivery wagon.

                The men drove through the night to an old cemetery, where a body had recently been removed from its grave to be reburied at Elmwood Cemetery on the north side of DeWitt. Because of this, the dirt of the grave had already been recently disturbed, so no visitors to the graveyard would see anything out of the ordinary and ask unwanted questions.

                Taking shovels, the conspirators set about digging out the grave once again. Once their task was complete, they lowered their precious bell into the ground, and refilled the grave. It looked exactly as it had before, with no one any the wiser as to the location of the bell. The men then swore each other to secrecy, promising that they wouldn’t divulge the location of the bell until the town needed it once again.

An Unexpected Return

                Clinton never did claim the old courthouse bell from DeWitt. For several years, the bell lay in its earthen tomb, its location only known to a few. Finally, when the Lutheran Church was built on 5th Avenue and 10th Street, the old conspirators decided that the bell’s time had come once again. Gathering for a final time, they dug up the bell and left it at the church, leaving many to wonder where it had come from and where it had been all that time.

IMG_8408

                And so it was that Clinton never did claim their prize, and DeWitt ended up getting the final word in their feud. 

               Today, not a lot of people even remember the argument over the courthouse and the bell. The towns have changed drastically since those long ago days. The grand courthouse in DeWitt is gone now, and a majestic building built of red sandstone near downtown Clinton has served as the courthouse for decades now.

                But the bell is still there, chiming its cold, clear tone, echoing to anyone within earshot that as far as it’s concerned, DeWitt still had the last word in that forgotten feud.