saturday, noodling around

I don’t know what you did last weekend, but I drove 75 miles to the small former coal town of Humeston, Iowa. Why? Because there’s a tiny cafe. Almost every small town has some sort of tiny cafe or diner. But this one–the Grassroots Cafe–serves a grape salad that’s so good you want to lie on the floor and kick your feet in the air. And the bread pudding would make angels weep that it exists for mortals on the earthly plane.

The Grassroots Cafe

Humeston is a really small town. Population: 465 in 2020. It was the home of the Humeston and Shenandoah Railroad, which in 1881 ran 113 miles from Humeston to (guess where) Shenandoah, Iowa. In its glory days, the H&S RR ran 14 classic 4-4-0 steam locomotives, hauling mostly coal, grain, livestock and occasionally passengers to the slightly larger town of Shenandoah, where the railroad joined up with the Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska Railway system. (You may be wondering, “Greg, old sock, what is a 4-4-0 locomotive?” I wondered the same thing and I googled it. You can do the same thing. Don’t be lazy. And stop calling me ‘old sock’.)

This is Humeston.

By the late 1920s, the H&S RR was beginning to fade. The advent of the automobile (and, more importantly, the truck), combined with improved roads, the gradual decline of local coal, and the beginnings of the Great Depression, strangled the small railroad business. The railroad died slowly and in sections, but by the mid-1940s, during the Second World War, it was essentially gone. As the railroad died, so did the town’s population.

Humeston, near the cinder bike path.

Although the railroad is gone, the track left behind became Iowa’s first rails-to-trails bike path. Thirteen and a half miles, from Humeston to Chariton. Unfortunately, it’s also Iowa’s worst-maintained bike path. About half of it is gravel and cinder; the other half is…well, just grass. Sometimes overgrown grass. It’s doubly sad because it’s one of the few bike trails with covered bridges.

Humeston

On arrival in Humeston, I gave in to an impulse. Sometimes you just have to give in to your impulses. You know how it is. You’re on the road, you see a train, you pretty much have to say, “Train” out loud, even though anybody with you can see the damned train. Same with horses and cows (and, I don’t know, maybe sheep? Yeah, probably sheep). Even if you resist saying it aloud, there’s a part of you that’s thinking and wanting to say “Cow” when you see a cow. It just happens.

The photographic equivalent of saying “train” or “cow” is shooting your reflection in a window.

First photo in Humeston

Obviously, I gave in to that impulse. My first thought was that Humeston should be photographed in black-and-white (why yes, I DO have an app I use just for b&w photography–doesn’t everybody?). But the day became so sunny and bright (though still brutally cold) that I quickly abandoned that idea and shifted to my standard photo app.

Selfie with Humeston bench.

And my first photo was, yes, a reflection selfie. There’s no point to it; you just have to do it sometimes. Usually, you do it once and that’s enough; you won’t have to do it again for weeks or months. The impulse has been fulfilled and you can get on with your life. But there are occasions when the itch just doesn’t feel properly scratched until you’ve done it a few times.

Yes, three (3!) reflection selfies in Humeston.

So I wandered around on the streets of Humeston briefly (briefly because 1) it was savagely cold and 2) there isn’t enough of Humeston to wander around at length). It feels like a small town, to be sure, but it doesn’t feel like a small town in decline. Sure, some of the shops are empty, and some are a wee bit worse for wear, but everybody I met was cheerful and there was a sort of bright enthusiasm to the limited commerce. The aisles of the general store (yes, there’s a general store) were so exuberant that they were almost hallucinatory.

Tripping in Humeston.

As much as I love to visit small towns, I always find myself wondering what it would be like to grow up in one–and deciding it would be awful on so many levels that you’d need an abacus to count them. I have absolutely nothing to base that on, and the people I know who grew up in small towns generally have nice things to say about the experience. But damn.

On the way home from Humeston, we passed through the town of Lucas, Iowa, where we saw this charming little brick building. Of course, we decided to stop and look.

Lucas is so small it makes Humeston feel like a metropolis. Before it was a town, it was just a station on the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad line. The station was established in 1866. A decade later, the Whitebreast Coal and Mining Company sank a mine near the station. There was a rich deposit of coal, and by 1880, they’d opened a second coal mine and created a company town. If you’re not familiar with the concept of a company town, it’s basically a town in which practically everything–all the stores, the housing, the local services–are owned by a single company that’s also the sole (or at least the primary) employer. If you wanted to buy a shirt or a loaf of bread, if you wanted to have a boil lanced or a tooth extracted, you paid the money you earned from the company back to the company, before returning to the house you’ve rented from the company.

Lucas selfie with optional shop cats.

By 1890, there were 1300 people living and working for the Whitebreast Coal and Mining Company in Lucas. But here’s the thing about coal. Once you dig it up, it’s gone. A coal mine without coal is just a big fucking hole in the ground. The last productive coal mine in the Lucas area closed in 1923. By 1930, the population had dropped to about 500. In the 2020 census, the population was only 172.

Dr. Bell’s office.

There were three antique/craft stores in Lucas. None of them were open during our brief stop, nor was the John L. Lewis Mining Labor Museum (union organizer John Lewis apparently got his first job as a coal miner in Lucas). I doubt that Doc Bell is still in business, but his office is still standing. If you look, you can recognize the bones of the old company town that existed here a century ago.

That was my Saturday. A day spent not doing much of anything–just noodling around in small towns, thinking about stuff, shooting shop-window selfies. In other words, a day well spent.

15 thoughts on “saturday, noodling around

  1. I love this travelog-a-noodle. Sounds like a most pleasant day! (And I confess, I do tend to moo at cows and baaaaa at sheep and goats. I simply can’t help it.)

    Liked by 1 person

      • They make it with massive cinnamon rolls, which they also make, then pour some sort of sauce over it that makes it richer without making it sweeter. Never had anything quite like it.

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  2. “The last productive coal mine in the Lucas area closed in 1923. By 1930, the population had dropped to about 500. In the 2020 census, the population was only 172.”

    I’m not from a small town, so I frequently wonder what motivates people to stay in places like this, especially once the critical mass has been depleted an it’s just all downhill.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well 172 people is a village really and villages are very nice to live in in the UK. Ours has an even smaller population. But the population is mixed. Our villages are desirable places so we have people of all ages in them, well off middle class workers with kids through to old folk who were born here (not many of those left now, if actually any as one is being buried right this minute, the bell’s tolling) and people who have come in like us, around 25 years ago. So the life is still vibrant. We don’t have any stores or even a pub. Just a church and village hall. But it’s lovely. However once you leave school or uni. there’s no way you can afford to live here so the kids have to leave.

      This kind of small town dwindling down to nothing might not be the same kind of experience though. It must be depressing if things just close and deteriorate around you. However, the air’s clean, the views are probably nice and there will be a community feeling to it (I hope). Don’t underestimate the feeling of comfort and belonging knowing everyone brings. I grew up in a city. I will never go back unless circumstances make me and I hope they don’t. I wouldn’t even want to move to a small town.

      Liked by 1 person

      • As you say, your English villages are desirable locations. That’s just not the case with many small prairie or coal towns. It’s not just the lack of amenities, it’s also the physical environment. Flat flat land, constant wind, dust, tornadoes. the absence of a third dimension to break up the horizon. Unlike village life, there’s nothing cozy about these small isolated pockets of farm or coal-based communities. Try to imagine the Shetlands only without any ocean…just endless stretches of empty land..

        Liked by 2 people

  3. The GSV car passed through Humeston once without deviating from US65, way back in 2009. It has tracked along the southern outskirts of the city a couple of times too. Two censuses have been taken since 2009, seeing the population drop by about 80. I grew up on a (relatively) small Scottish island; at the time it seemed a lot less idyllic than it does in retrospect (something I remind myself of by spending a week or two there each summer).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have friends who grew up in small farming towns, and they pretty much say the same thing. There was an innocence that the miss…until they go back to visit, then they’re reminded of the reasons they left.

      I’ve lived in rural Pennsylvania and New Hampsire, and the isolation was easier to deal with because there were forests and mountains and hills and brooks. The American midwest–to me, at any rate–just feels empty. That said, it’s a great place to watch weather systems grow, shift around, and move. That’s fascinating.

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  4. I love the term “noodling around”. Somehow it is very appropriate and builds up just the right picture. I’d say “pottering around” same thing, but noodling is such a nice word.

    I hope a grape salad is better than it sounds. Must be if you drove 75 miles for it. Iowa doesn’t strike me as a grape growing area. Am I mistaken?

    The photos are great. Humeston is so flat it looks like it’s been ironed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anywhere that flat. And such huge wide road junctions with nothing on them. I think this only ever happened because America is so big. We’d fit a housing estate into that road junction with the stop sign.

    The buildings fascinate me. They look just like the wooden shanty buildings of cowboy movies but converted to brick and stone. The shapes are the same. Plank square, flat and sharp cornered. Not a moment wasted on softening the look or fancying up the shape. A box with windows and a door, not unlike a child’s drawing of a house. My only visit to the States was to NC and I didn’t see any architecture like this. These empty streets are the archetypal setting for tumble weed to bowl down.

    What a shame that the cycle path is badly maintained. It would be ideal and presumably empty most of the time. Covered bridges fascinate me. Why did they happen? What’s the covered aspect for? The road either side isn’t covered so why the bridge?

    I enjoyed your Saturday.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your question about covered bridges is really an intelligent question. The thing is, civilizations are always initially build using local materials. In lots of early European-American communities, bridges were built of wood because there wasn’t much stone handy. The wooden structural elements–planks and trusses and all–were subject to weather damage. They covered the bridges to maintain the structural integrity of the bridge, to protect it from the elements. It’s easier to rebuild or replace a wooden shelter ON a bridge than to rebuild/replace the bridge itself.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh well! I would never have guessed that. What a good idea. It makes total sense now. Thank you. Many of our really ancient bridges are made of stone so the problem never arose. I’ve always thought how strangely romantic a covered bridge sounds, but now I know it’s not romance but pragmatism and a very good idea.

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  5. I tried to reply to your reply about the village’s, but I didn’t have a “reply” option on it for some reason. I wanted to say that you paint a very bleak picture of these small places and very definitely not desirable. Flat empty landscape is really uninspiring isn’t it. And wind and dust are so tiring. I didn’t think of that. Even our coal mines and tin mines were built in nice places. So although they were dirty and full of hard work and poverty at the time, once the mines closed and given some time to move on, they are now beautiful places to live and have sprung up with new ways of making money, often tourist related simply because the place is so nice to visit.

    Living in a small country with quite a large population, devoid of vast plains and prairies, gives us a very different concept of open space I think.

    Although I made a mistake of watching half of episode one of Louise Theroux’s Forbidden America on BBC Iplayer the other night. My god! Nick Fuentes! Nasty little shit. Amongst other horrible things he claims America is full so no more immigration. America full! He needs his eyes testing.

    Not sure I can finish episode 1 let alone move on to the next. I’d like to put little shits like that into a room with President Zolenski and see who comes out walking. And it wouldn’t be the little shit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Flat empty landscape is really uninspiring isn’t it.

      Yes. Well, sort of. It works for a lot of folks. For me, it’s a wee bit creepy. When I get out to the really flat parts of the countryside, I become very aware that I’m on the surface of a planet (which sounds odd, I know, but you feel so very small). On the other hand, there’s a real pleasure and a sense of majesty to watch weather systems born and die without being affected by them at all. I’ve seen tornadoes generate miles away while standing on a road in spotty sunshine. There’s something weird and wonderful about watching the shadows of clouds sweep across the landscape.

      I’d personally hate living in that sort of flat, open countryside…but I can see how some folks would find it appealing.

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