With Permission of Iowa History Journal
In 1919, Iowa and the world was recovering from World War I. Iowa troops were coming home. The Good Roads movement was pulling Iowa out of the mud. Most of Iowa’s roads were dirt or gravel at best and Iowa had a relatively new Highway Commission. Roads and highways were named, not numbered. You could travel the Lincoln highway (US 30) or the National Parks Pike (US 18).
The parks movement in Iowa had its beginning at the turn of the century. Automobiles were becoming more affordable and people were looking to go places. As stated by Rebecca Conard in her book, Places of Quiet Beauty (1997), “By 1920, automobile travel and parks were inextricably linked in the public’s imagination, and Iowa, like many other states, was in the midst of a highway frenzy.”
Edgar R. Harlan, head of the Historical Department and secretary to the State Board of Conservation posted a notice of a meeting of the Iowa Conservation Association to be held in McGregor on July 27-29, 1919. Members of the board and Historical Department staff would travel from Des Moines by automobile to tour proposed state park areas in central and northeast Iowa. The meeting in McGregor had two functions. First, delegations from Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois wanted to develop a uniform method of making maps and guides to park areas for the new wave of motorist travel. Second, the meeting was to begin organizing a campaign by these states to have Congress establish an Upper Mississippi River National Park.
Sadie Rae Scott, a stenographer with the Historical Department, traveled to record the proceedings of the McGregor meeting. She made a personal record of the trip in a series of letters to her mother and a few photographs of her great adventure through the eyes of a 28 year-old single working woman. These letters are preserved in the Edgar Harlan papers at the Cowles Library Special Collections at Drake University.
The travelers from Des Moines included Sadie Rae; Edgar Harlan, his wife Mary and daughter Adelaide age 14; Helen Warton, assistant to State Archivist, C.C. Stiles; Mr. D.C. Mott, assistant secretary; and Herb Rees, a recently discharged Army sergeant, who would drive the Oakland touring car.
Along the way they met Earnest Harlan, a car dealer from Tama and his wife, Blanche, who drove their seven-passenger Cadillac 8. They also met up with Conservation Board members, Louis Pammel, a celebrated botanist from Iowa State College and Joseph Kelso, a banker from Bellevue, Iowa.
They began their travels on Thursday, July 24 and returned to Des Moines on Monday, August 4. Tama was their first destination by way of Ames. Adelaide was younger than Sadie Rae but she notes they became great traveling companions and roomed together on overnights. They arrived at the Central Hotel in Tama. Sadie Rae wrote,
“The ladies at once began lecturing us about our conduct toward the bell-hop, in other words not to flirt….when we reached the hotel and the bell-hop appeared to our astonishment and chagrin was almost more than we could conceal. He was ninety-two years old!”
“It seems that in this town old men are trying to do their “bit” by filling the positions of young men.” Many young men who served in “Great War” had not been discharged yet.
Day two was a 115-mile drive from Tama with a stop at the Montrose Hotel in Cedar Rapids for lunch and on to Maquoketa where they met Joseph Kelso at the Decker Hotel, “Maquoketa’s best.” Kelso escorted the group to “Morehead Cave” about ten miles from town. This site would later become Maquoketa Caves State Park. She wrote,
“The scenery was beautiful. We traveled on the ridges, as it appeared to me, and we could see for miles off over the hills and valleys. In some places there appeared to be small streams bordered with trees with a background of hill partly wooded and partly covered with grass, and still other under cultivation; all blending together against a sunset until really I had all I could do to keep down that big lump in my throat.”
“But the Cave! I just cannot describe it. Words fail me… It was just dusk outside by this time and pitch dark in the cave of course. We had to have some kind of a light to penetrate the blackness so carried a lantern in lieu of torches. Even then we could scarcely see and had the spookiest feeling as I stumbled over the damp stones…..
“I forgot to say that inside the cave the bats were flying around and brushing against us while on all sides we could hear weird sounds presumably made by the night insects, the water gurgling over the stones, etc. Altogether it was a grand sight and one I shall never forget.”
The next day the group left Maquoketa destined to Dubuque by way of Andrew, Bellevue, and St. Donatus. At Andrew they stopped at the cemetery to view the monument/obelisk marking the grave of Iowa’s first governor, Ansel Briggs. Sadie Rae wrote, “After leaving Andrew we traveled rapidly, yes rapidly, part of the time at forty-five miles an hour until we reached Bellevue, the home of Mr. Kelso. And there I had my first glimpse of the Mississippi.”
She continued, “The scenery on both sides of the river is beautiful, but I really believe I liked the Iowa side best; not because it is Iowa but it is more hilly and consequently more picturesque.”
She described the 30 mile trip from Bellevue to Dubuque. “The roads were good, the scenery beautiful, ….Mr. Harlan’s knowledge of the nature and history was enhanced by the many interesting things he told us on the drive.”
They arrived in Dubuque at dark. She wrote, “ We were all very hungry when we drew up to the Hotel Julian; a beautiful hotel both on the outside and in, with rich furnishings and much more elaborate than any we have in Des Moines unless it is the Hotel Fort Des Moines which I have not yet seen.” The Hotel Fort Des Moines had just opened earlier in 1919.
Mr. Kelso arranged for the twelve travelers to dine in a chop suey restaurant and they got back to the Hotel Julian at 2:30 a.m.
Later that morning they left for McGregor about 60 miles away. “We expected to reach McGregor at least in time for lunch, but we had not reckoned on the roads we would be compelled to travel. If such a thing could be possible I would say they were worse for the rocks and hills than those we traveled the day before.”
“We passed through the little town of Guttenberg and stopped to eat lunch. It was nearly four o’clock and we were still fifteen miles or more from McGregor.” She continues, “At last after losing our way as many as five times, or more, we came to McGregor and drove direct to the Zimmerman Hotel where we had rooms reserved.”
On Monday, July 28 Sadie Rae took notes at the meeting of the Iowa State Conservation Association at a pavilion up on the Heights at McGregor. Some of the party traveled to Pikes Peak. She wrote, “others described it to me so I have a faint idea of what I missed. Perhaps someday I can return and see the beauties of McGregor and vicinity when it has become a National Park.”
In the afternoon all gathered at the “Heights” for speeches including one by Governor Harding. Sadie Rae wrote her mother, “You must not tell this but I recognized some of Mr. Harlan’s thoughts and expressions in this speech. Adelaide quite cleverly remarked, that was a good speech of the Governor’s; I wonder who wrote it.”
On Tuesday, July 29 there were more meetings of the Association and Harlan spoke on the Indian Mounds in the area. Mrs. Harlan and others were invited to visit the home of Althea Sherman, Iowa’s noted “bird woman” and conservation pioneer. At her home in National, Iowa, Sherman built a tower for Chimney Swifts to nest so she could observe them.
Sadie Rae accompanied Edgar Harlan, Prof Pammel, and pioneer archaeologist Ellison Orr to visit historical and archaeological sites on the Yellow River, near Postville. In that trip they covered about ninety miles.
On July 30 they headed to Lansing, Iowa for their next adventure. Mr. E.E. Harlan rented a house boat to go up river to an island near De Soto, Wisconsin, where they anchored, fished, swam, and camped until Sunday, August 3.
One day, in need of provisions, Edgar Harlan and Sadie Rae rowed to De Soto to visit the general store. Sadie Rae was barefoot in a sun dress and Mr. Harlan strolled down the main street in his swim suit and barefoot. The salesman at the general store was stunned by their attire. She wrote,
“He was not accustomed to seeing bare footed girls and men parading the streets in their bathing suits….We surely were a mirth provoking pair…That was too much for Mr. Harlan, and the two of us put our bundles down on the walk, and laughed as we were too weak to hold them.”
Sunday arrived and they began their return trip to Des Moines and Tama. Before they left, Edgar Harlan received a telegram from Senator Frederic Larrabee inviting them to Sunday dinner at his home in Clermont. The invitation was accepted but it was raining and they had to put chains on the wheels of the automobiles. It took nearly five hours to travel 60 miles over muddy roads. The home was built by the senator’s father, William, the 12th Governor of Iowa and was called Montauk. Sadie Rae described it,
“We were invited into the house, and taken upstairs to lay aside our wraps, and when I saw the inside of their home, I felt as though I had gone back a hundred years… Not that things appear out of date, but only that they were arranged in such good taste, and seemed to have a look of being used and appreciated.”
She continued her description of the grounds,
“..here the grounds themselves, that is the lawn, covers acres I believe and they have a wonderful pine grove which must be fifty acres in extent; then there is the orchard, the garden, the vineyard, the flower garden, the lawn, and the cultivated ground. On the lawn are statues of the great men of Gov. Larabee’s day, friend of his, as well as wonderful big trees of an age I would not dare to guess.”
They left Montauk and traveled about 60 miles to Waterloo where some boarded trains and others continued by car to Marshalltown for an overnight at Evan’s Hotel. The next day they arrived in Des Moines. Sadie Rae wrapped up her final letter with this,
“And now this ends “the trip”. The things which I have forgotten to relate can be told to you in person, but of this I am sure and will probably tell over and over: Not if we were to search for a year could we find a more congenial crowd. Not one, as far as I am concerned, should be left out.”
Sadie Rae Scott did not make another trip. She contracted tuberculosis and died on June 12, 1920; less than a year after her great adventure.
Iowa’s first state park, Backbone, was dedicated in 1920. Among the places they visited, Maquoketa Caves became a state park in 1921 and Pike’s Peak was added in 1936. Although the National Park Service declined designating an Upper Mississippi River National Park, Effigy Mounds was dedicated as a National Monument by Harry Truman in 1949. Governor William Larrabee’s home, Montauk, became a state historic site in 1976. You can see it today much the same as Sadie Rae described it in 1919.
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