Southwest Iowa · West Central Iowa

I had no idea a coal miners reunion was on my bucket list. Check that one off!

The antique keeping up with the modern. Just outside of Massena, IA in Cass County.
The antique keeping up with the modern. Just outside of Massena, IA in Cass County.
Adams County and Cass County (Our 1st and 2nd counties!)

It was time to get back to Adams County, IA and show the wife and kids where the Goodvin family started its empire. Like always, we started our trek from our home in Iowa City and took our time on the 3 hour ride to Lake Icaria where we would be meeting my aunt, uncle and cousins. It had been 13 years since my last visit. Much too long. As you can imagine, not a whole lot has changed in the area. But enough to make the obvious changes smack you in the corneas! Iowa is leading the wind energy charge and you can see why when you’re driving through western part of the state on I-80. But its when you take your exit, leading you into rural towns, that starts you on your turbine experience. As you weave through the Cass County roads, and rollercoaster up and down the hills you are struck by the amazing Iowa farm landscape and what seems to be hundreds of wind turbines. For me it was similar to my first trips through the Joshua Tree or Saguaro national parks when the familiar terrain abruptly changes and you see why those areas are so special and preserved. Iowa is one of the few states that does NOT have a national park. However, many of our nations parks are preserved due to the unique environment they’re located in. With southwestern Iowa possessing the perfect natural wind patterns for these new modern energy machines, I see no reason why a movement shouldn’t be started to create Wind Turbine National Park. Headquartered in the towns of Anita and Massena, Iowa. Forever preserving the precious land that produced “A wind of change for our country”. Thats not the nuttiest idea someone from Iowa has had. Cass county, with its Old Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame was amazing, and being within feet of the huge monuments swirling away, was great but not the mission. Adams County was getting closer.

This years hat for the annual Carbon Coal Miners Reunion
This years hat for the annual Carbon Coal Miners Reunion
The first night was spent at Lake Icaria. We caught up with the family, roasted traditional s’mores, chugged some beers, my aunt’s homemade wine was flowing and then slumber under the stars on a crappy air mattress near the campfire. My wife slept in the tent with my daughters, my son slept in the camper with my aunt and uncle and I awoke in the middle of the night covered with chilling dew in the center of deflating mattress that was slowly digesting me. Imagine jumping into a pool with the cover still on. Yea, like that. My wife heard my struggles and laughed about my grunts and hissing curses whiles trying to free myself from the mattress that once resembled the inflatable landing pad stuntman use for action movies. I got a few hours of solid sleep and that was good enough for me.

From the coal mining artifacts in the Carbon Community Hall. Carbon, IA in Adams, County
From the coal mining artifacts in the Carbon Community Hall. Carbon, IA in Adams, County
The morning started with coffee, huge pancakes from the camper stove top and biscuits with gravy from the Dutch oven over the campfires hot coals. Suddenly I felt like I slept just fine! There were supplies to get in town but most importantly, it was time to show my wife and kids the Corning, IA landmarks they were hearing so much about. First stop……Johnny Carson’s birthplace. A small home on a corner lot in one of Corning’s hilly neighborhoods. Growing up, I would periodically sled past the house not thinking much of its dilapidation. But the new owner has completely remodeled the home and restored the property to make it resemble the time period of how it may have looked when the “King of Late Night” was born there. My kids…… well it was just an old house. But they love history and humored their old man. The weather was beautiful on that early saturday morning and it was time to go to jail…..

Authentic 1930's wool baseball jersey worn by the Carbon, IA Coal miners team.
Authentic 1930’s wool baseball jersey worn by the Carbon, IA Coal miners team.
Not just any jail. But the “Old Jailhouse” which is now the Adams County House of History. I am obviously very bias, but this is truly one of the best museums in all of Iowa. It houses an amazing concentration of the areas history and much of it includes my family. After WWII my Grandfather, Papa Hoot, was the Adams county sheriff for many years. And in those days the sheriff took up residence in the very jailhouse that housed the criminals. Yes, my father, aunt and uncle grew up in jail. The main caregiver and cook for the jailhouse was my Grandmother, Edna. But Grandma wasn’t a free laborer. No, no, no….She may have been the sheriff’s wife but she was also an employee of the county. Getting paid a whole $.35/day for her service. Which was always put towards the vacation fund. A family of five could take a Black Hills getaway for less than $130.00 in the 1940’s-50’s. My bar bill on my 21st birthday was higher than that!

Being greeted by a bear holding up a whale. Anita, IA in Cass County.
Being greeted by a bear holding up a whale. Anita, IA in Cass County.
The rest of the afternoon was spent winding our way threw Corning showing off the houses where late family members once lived. One of the houses belonged to my great grandmother known as “Puppy Grandma”. One of my cousins gave her this nickname due to the stuffed chihuahua she had in her living room. Her darling pet that passed on many years before any of the cousins were born but still was a fixture in our family. Literally a fixture in our family. I don’t recall the old yapper being moved in the auction. We also gathered snacks, supplies and hot dogs to be cooked at the camp for lunch. And the hell with waiting an hour after eating….we swim now! It was faces first into the cool Lake Icaria water on the warm Iowa saturday. We splashed around for the better part of the afternoon and then relaxed before heading to my aunt uncles for dinner.

The house, silos, barns and sheds are gone but there's still a home at the old Goodvin farm. Its nailed to a cedar tree and is made from an antique Chestnut Coffee can. Near Carbon, IA in Adams County.
The house, silos, barns and sheds are gone but there’s still a home at the old Goodvin farm. Its nailed to a cedar tree and is made from an antique Chestnut Coffee can. Near Carbon, IA in Adams County.
Both my wife and I nearly fell asleep at the campsite when we rallied ourselves and peeled away from the folding chairs. It was 4pm and it was time to prep for dinner. By prep I mean picking up a gallon of vanilla ice cream from the Casey’s convenience store on the way. My extended family had the rest taken care of. We were the third family to show up to Corning this summer. A very uncommon frequency these days. When I was a child, many of us visited at least once a year if not multiple times a year. My Adams County family was loving this summer and their hospitality wasn’t slowing down. We walked the trails of their property when we arrived. Visiting the pond that was home to thousands of frogs. Locals beg them to come out and catch the frogs for their legs. My aunt is a strict vegan and never grants their wishes. Not even the begging of her nephew…ME! And this guy loves fried frog legs! Back at the house I assist with shucking fresh sweet corn (See my last blog: Cornbelt, USA is in Season), my uncle slaps seasoned pork chops on the grill and my cousin grills tofu for him and my aunt. A somewhat eclectic lifestyle for these parts to this day the vegans. About 15 of us dig in and we pickup right where we left off. This is when my uncle fills me in on an annual event I never heard of. Suddenly our next day in Adams County is getting a little more interesting….

On the summit of this narrow dirt road was once the proud farm of the Goodvin family. All that remains are the trees that my grandmother planted many years ago.
On the summit of this narrow dirt road was once the proud farm of the Goodvin family. All that remains are the trees that my grandmother planted many years ago. Near Carbon, IA in Adams County.
The 15th annual Carbon, IA Coal Miners Reunion! Where has this been my whole life….or at least the last 15 years? Forshame, uncle Larry! Why have you been keeping this from me? Because I’ve been slacking with my visits. Thats probably why. I couldn’t wait to attend the following day. But there were still some things we had to do on that Sunday morning. The next day we policed the campsite and gathered everything that was salvageable from the early morning thunderstorm that hit our campsite. Thank God for the camper! It was 10am before we had breakfast down and the campsite presentable. It was now time to show my family the land where the once proud Goodvin farm stood. I knew the day was going to be emotional. I knew what wasn’t there anymore but I still needed to fulfil the historic mission of this trip and explain to my kids about what was once the greatest amusement park of my life.

During the time that my Grandfather was Adams County sheriff my aunt, uncle, father and grandparents resided at the very building they housed the criminals. Most of the inmates loved my Grandmother's cooking and would often be let out of their cells to play poker with Grandpa during evening
During the time that my Grandfather was Adams County sheriff my aunt, uncle, father and grandparents resided at the very building they housed the criminals. Most of the inmates loved my Grandmother’s cooking and would often be let out of their cells to play poker with Grandpa during evening “Rec Time”. Three hots and a cot everyday at old jailhouse. Corning, IA in Adams, County.
After my grandfather resigned from his sheriff duties, he moved the family into the farmhouse on his family’s land. I believe the house was already over 100 years old when they moved in and took it over in the mid 1950’s. It would take many more paragraphs to explain the importance of this farm, to me and many others in my family, and many more to go into the details of why its no longer in our possession. Papa Hoot passed on and Edna died a few years earlier. My family thought it would be better to sell the land and hence the house, barns and sheds. Another one of my uncles continued to live in the old house for a while but eventually succomed to his own drama and could no longer afford the upkeep. He would be the last Goodvin to own any part of the farm. A few years later. My brother and I made our annual trip to Corning. We both wanted to drive by the farm to just “check” on it. Even at a young age I thought that one day I could at least buy back the house and live in it. But as we hit the summit of the hill we noticed nothingness. The top of the hill once had a familiar landscape of a typical Iowa century farm. Now it was home to a shocking expanded pasture. Without any heads-up, the current owner bulldozed the barns that we made small apartments out of its lofts as children. Gone were the fences that we stood on and watched the livestock fight over our scraps we poured in the troughs. The troughs were gone too. The storm cellar that the family dove in to, before I was born, when a tornado touched down in a nearby pasture and backyard, was filled in. Gone was the house. Our holiday meeting place. Our protection from harsh Iowa winters. The home my Grandmother floated through everyday making us pancakes, telling us stories, playing the harpsichord and writing poetry. Gone. The odor of the cabinets…gone. The sink where we all washed up before entering the house….gone. The kitchen that always smelled of coffee and bacon…gone. The marks on the moulding measuring all the grandchildrens height written in pencil….gone. Everything was demolished so the current owner could have more space for pasture and produce more hay for his cattle. All within his right. I don’t fault him at all.

Across the street from my uncle's old house is the home the late Johnny Carson was born in. Corning, IA in Adams County.
Across the street from my uncle’s old house is the home the late Johnny Carson was born in. Corning, IA in Adams County.
That was 23 years ago and now I’m back. The shock didn’t go away after all this time. Even though I knew what to expect. When we arrived we saw a large brand new machine shed where the livestock lots once were. But what was still there were the trees! The trees that my Grandmother planted herself remained. The whole row still stood boldly near the ditch of the dirt road. I couldn’t resist. I hopped the fence and then helped my daughters over the gate. While my wife and son picked wildflowers from the side of the road, the three of us walked through the prairie where the house once stood. I’m quite sure I stood in the same spot the christmas tree would go every December. I thought about the stories of the Yankees manager, Billy Martin dropping by the house to ask permission to hunt pheasant on Hoot’s land. And shortly after I was born in 1978, president Jimmy Carter, with his secret service bodyguards, doing the same. I watched my daughters run up and down the field that I helped Papa Hoot mow and where we played badminton and volleyball and lit fireworks purchased in nearby Missouri. Shooting contrabanned fireworks was our version of the thug-life back then. Before we climbed over the fence and back to our car, I removed my flip flops and allowed the grass to surround my bare feet. I imagined my cousin, who lived down the road, running up hill with no protection on her feet as she saw a car full of relatives zipping by her home coming to visit. The valley in the distance looked as green as I’ve ever seen it. The the distant elm trees hiding the shafts of my family’s old coalmine. Time to go. I hop over the gate and take one last look at the property. And out of the corner of my eye I see the priceless resourcefulness of my Grandmother. A home was still there. Long before I was born, Edna made a birdhouse out of a Chestnut Coffee can and nailed it to a cedar tree. Her priceless handiwork was still in use. Stop the car! And back over the fence. I wept.

This is the lake I've spent an uncountable amount of hours at when I would visit Corning growing up. It was home to our campsite over the weekend. Adams County, IA.
This is the lake I’ve spent an uncountable amount of hours at when I would visit Corning growing up. It was home to our campsite over the weekend. Adams County, IA.
We made a beautiful bouquet of wild flowers and tree branches from the old farm. I’m glad I was able to gather them. My oldest daughter helped me place them in the urn attached to my grandparents headstone. Some tears were shed followed by comfort. We were now ready for the coal miners reunion in Carbon. Little did I know this was on my bucket list. The small town of Carbon, IA was the center of a coal mining industry that lasted to the mid 20th century. Many of my family members were proud miners including Papa Hoot and his brother Wayne who is in his 90’s now. We decided to surprise everyone and show up unannounced. Inside the small Carbon Community Hall was another gaggle of aunts, uncles cousins and friends I haven’t seen in years. Including Wayne and his wife Georgia. Among them were the living miners of Carbon, their families and the spirits of all their late friends and co-workers. It was a potluck and it didn’t disappoint. Pork roast, about a dozen different casseroles, fresh cut melons, 20 different salads chock full mayo or miracle whip, deviled eggs, baked beans, fresh garden veggies everywhere, sweet whip cream fluffs with nuts strawberries and miniature marshmallows, pies, cakes and MORE! We also ate off a pizza buffet at Breaddeux Pisa in Corning before we showed up to the reunion. I had some cousins that weren’t letting us leave town before having lunch at the finest pizza house in southwest Iowa. And it is. Judge away! Along the walls were hundreds of old newspaper clippings chronicling the history of the mine, the city of Carbon, Adams County and the articles of Papa Hoot’s pre-war boxing career. He’s still known to this day as one of the areas greatest athletes. Not only being a champion boxer but a stellar baseball player and dominating track and field events. The family was soaking it all in and we took another round of pictures with our relatives.

 

Its a long read but it was a meaningful trip. I asked my wife to drive so I could take it all in on the way home. I updated my Facebook page with all the great pictures from our trip. Adams county is the least populated county in the state of Iowa. But that shouldn’t stop you from visiting this amazing gem of the Hawkeye State. Sit down and have some coffee. Ask someone about “Hoot”. Bring up Iowa City-Regina to a person in their 40’s on up and observe their frustration with outcomes of some state championship basketball games. Buy a beer at the speedway and cover it with your hands as the dust wofts your way from the stock cars screaming past you. Catch Crappies at Lake Binder and jet ski across Icaria. Lose yourself on its countless gravel roads and ask Edna to join you for an afternoon stroll through the meadows.

Thanks for reading! -Team Goodvin

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