by Dave Lager

Chapter 5 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1840-1860

By treaty, the federal government now “owned” the land once occupied by the Native Americans: It’s ironic, of course, that the Indians had no concept of “ownership,” to them the land was the land, there to be used by all, but also to be respected as part of something bigger. While the new “owners” had a broad understanding of what they’d acquired – roughly the eastern quarter of what would become Iowa – that was still a long way from having individual chunks of it ready for settlers to move onto and start working.

By the later part of the 1830s, “grants” of land began to be made to individuals by the government; sometimes they were bought, but just as often they were given as rewards for helping with some war effort. The grants were large chunks of undeveloped land, usually defined by prominent natural landmarks, like creeks or rocky bluffs.

However, legally speaking those that had gotten the grants still didn’t “own” the land, rather, what they had received was in effect an exclusive option to develop it – this would later prove to be a crucial factor in Neshnala’s Saga.

Enter the surveyors, who needed to carefully map out the borders of the grants and then plat them into useable / saleable chunks; city lots or farmsteads. Once a plat of a grant was accepted by the government, only then was the land formally deeded to the grant holder, who could then sell off the pieces and give title to the new owners – this would turn out to be a decades-long endeavor.

However, even before the surveyors could get started on any city lots and farmsteads, the railroads had to be taken care of. They had long ago negotiated “first dibs” with the government for rights-of-way through newly opened-up settlement territory, so those corridors – usually next to the river, because the land was flat and much easier to build on – had to be surveyed and legally described.

Next there were the existing cross-country “roads,” really, pretty much dirt tracks, that had to be taken into account. By the late 1830s there were four major roads centered on Lee’s Landing whose rights-of-way had to be surveyed and defined before adjacent land could be opened-up:

– One led south and west along the river to Makuakeeta, the next town downstream – in Lee’s Landing it was called Front Street, outside of town it became the Makuakeeta Road.
– Another paralleled the river going upstream toward Jaynesport, which was at the head of the river rapids that ended at Lee’s Landing – its entire length was known as Indian Trail Road, because for as long as anyone could remember it had been used by the Indians to portage around the rapids.
– Lee’s Landing’s Main Street went pretty much straight north, outside of town eventually turning into the Dubuque Road, because it ended in that community some eighty-miles distant.
– Old Post Road started in downtown Lee’s Landing, angled north and west until turning pretty much due west to end up in Iowa City, the state’s first capital, fifty-miles away. It was called Old Post Road because as a stage coach trail it carried the mail.

After the railroad and road rights-of-way were “on the books,” the surveyor’s attention then focused on providing both some sort of logical development plan, as well as legal status, to the future growth of the small settlements – nascent towns like Lee’s Landing − that either already had, or were popping up around the landscape.

Only then could they finally start gridding out the open land itself into one-mile squares – or six-hundred-and-forty-acre sections − which were then subdivided into roughly fifty-acre individual farmsteads, as this was thought to be about as much as an individual farmer could work with a horse-drawn plow; ideally, there was supposed to be a road right-of-way along each section line as well.

However, what made this latter process so daunting and time-consuming – as in decades long − was the actual lay of the land – hills and valleys, creeks and wooded groves, rock outcroppings − meant there had to be innumerable adjustments to both the size and orientation of the farmsteads, and to where roads could, in fact, realistically go through. So that, instead of trying to do the whole county at once, the practice was to first plat sections of land that would be easiest to get to, that is, those immediately alongside existing roadways, then, when those were mostly sold, move on to plat-out an adjacent tier of sections.

In other words, through the 1840s, 50s and beyond, there were big chunks of the new county – like the Neshnala Grove – that, because they were distant from any road and not easily accessible, totally escaped any surveyor’s attention.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 4 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1800-1840

As was to be reenacted over-and-over again as the American frontier marched steadily westward, during the first decades of the 1800s encounters between Native Americans and whites in the Mississippi Valley were increasingly fraught with resentment and conflict – the Native Americans resented the white man’s frequent intrusion on their hunting grounds, the whites resented that the Native Americans were in the way of their expansionist ambitions. There were fights; white cabins were burned; Indian encampments were raided; people on both sides were killed.

Eventually, in the early 1830s a treaty was negotiated – except the large contingent of Illinois Militia and their loaded muskets looking-on made the “negotiation” decidedly one-sided – in which the Sauk and Fox ceded to the U.S. government all their territories bordering the Mississippi River in what would later become Iowa.

By now, of course, the white men had corrupted both what the Native Americans had thought of as a descriptive phrase for a profound personal experience, “neesh-na-ha-a-la,” into a proper noun, Neshnala, and its meaning into “The Tree of Knowledge.”

During the treaty “negotiation” there was a request articulated by some of the Sauk chiefs to retain the sacred tree as Indian land, but the disdain the whites had for what they considered to be ignorant and godless savages − “Hell, every rock or tree seems to be sacred to those people!” – meant the request was simply ignored.

Even though the treaty supposedly opened-up a vast new territory to farmers and town-builders, it by no means triggered an immediate flood of land-plowing, tree-cutting settlers; that complex and time-consuming process would take another twenty years to begin to have any meaningful impact.

After just a few years, even the few whites who had heard about the Indian’s “sacred place” had forgotten about it, which, along with that their attention was focused elsewhere, meant the Neshnala Grove fell into a kind of benign obscurity for nearly another fifty years, and that the great tree’s two-hundredth birthday would slip by, unnoticed. Here’s why…

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 3 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1750-1800

Like anyone who has ever undergone a profound spiritual awakening, the Sauk Holy Man loved to talk about his transformation with anybody that would listen. Over campfires at night he would go on and on, speaking of the tree’s great power and the peace and joy it had brought to him.

Being a Holy Man meant he was known as the tribe’s “thinker,” the one who thought about the “why” questions that were difficult to answer, like what is our place here? Which meant, in turn, that the down-to-earth members of the tribe who were more focused on mundane day-to-day survival activities than those sorts of “big questions,” while they always treated him with deference and respect, also tended to shrug at his strange ideas and go on about their business.

So that when the Holy Man led pilgrimages of other tribe members up the difficult trail to the meadow to experience the tree for themselves, only a few actually went. And only a relatively few of those, perhaps because they, too, were “ready,” attested to having some form of spiritual experience – a “neesh-na-ha-a-la.”

Those few then told others, not only within the tribe, but with neighboring tribes, so that after just a couple of decades, tribes as far flung as the Cheyenne way to the north, the Lakota Sioux on the Great Plains in the west, and the Potawatomi near the great lake to the east had heard of the sacred tree in the Sauk’s territory.

From time-to-time a Holy Man, or a medicine man, or a chief from one of these neighboring tribes would make a pilgrimage to experience “neesh-na-ha-a-la” for themselves; even if they were from a tribe where there had been bad blood in the past, they were always welcomed.

Through the 1780s and 90s, what had earlier been more or less rare contacts with white men in what was still pretty much a wilderness − a once or twice a year visit for trading purposes, perhaps an occasional encounter while on a hunt – turned into a steady, if small trickle, and word of the sacred tree began to seep outside of the Native American communities; however, being both ethnocentric and arrogant, the whites tended to be dismissive of any suggestion the Indians could in any way be truly religious or spiritual.

“Hell, every rock or tree seems to be sacred to those people,” they’d sniff. It was a mindset that would prevail among the whites for well over a century and greatly affect the tree’s future fortunes.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 2 – Neshnala’s Saga: About 1750

Because the tree was what future foresters would call a “lone wolf,” in that it sat all by itself out on the meadow, away from other trees, over the decades it took on the perfect proportions of its species, the white oak, growing in height slowly but steadily, while at the same time sending out long branches so that it was as broad as it was tall.

Eventually the buffalo and elk grew to “love” the great tree because it offered them cooling shade during the hot summer months. And they, in turn, returned the favor, though inadvertently, by bunching under the tree and with their hooves preventing any competing trees from gaining a foothold.

By the middle decades of the 1700s both Native Americans and white men had begun to infrequently appear in the area, mostly limiting their visits to the great river a couple of miles to the south. The white men were the rough Voyageurs that paddled up and down the river, either to do their own hunting for furs or to trade with local tribes. The Native Americans were the Sauk and Fox, who were building new villages in the vicinity because they had been driven from their territory further to the north by wars with other tribes.

It was somewhere around 1750 that a Sauk Indian was in all likelihood the first human being to actually look upon the great tree, which, even at a relatively “young” seventy-years-old was already awesome in its height and breadth.

Being a Holy Man and by nature a loner – the two were usually associated − he had been in search of contemplative solitude rather than game or berries, when, following a faint but nonetheless discernible game trail up a natural draw in the bluff, he stumbled across the meadow and its stately denizen.

Perhaps because he was already psychologically primed for a spiritual experience… Maybe because he was just tired and susceptible to visions… Possibly because he was old and already suffering from what later men of medicine would call dementia… Or perchance because the great tree indeed did have a powerful mystical presence that deeply touched him…

…the Sauk Holy Man had no doubt that his life was wholly transfigured as he slowly and reverently approached the tree and placed his hands on its immense trunk, a gesture he had only intended to be a show of respect for its humbling age. Later he would tell of being suddenly imbued with a profound sense of wholeness and completeness, as if he had become connected with not only the tree’s own great life force, but with the beating heartbeat of all living things. It was as if he had transcended from his everyday world to another level of understanding, as if the tree knew him, and as if he knew the tree…

Which he would describe to others with the words “neesh-na-ha-a-la,” or “the tree that knows me.”

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 1 – Neshnala’s Saga: Around 1680

The Mississippi River meanders for hundreds of miles down through the upper-Midwest, bouncing off rocky shores here, lazily spreading out over wide shallows there, cutting new channels where it can, sometimes taking unexpected hard turns to avoid obstinate obstructions.

For millennia a great variety of critters – huge mastodons in the distant past, shaggy buffalo in more recent eras − foraged on the grasses and shrubs along the floor of the great valley the river had cut after the last glacier, over time often finding natural clefts in the bordering bluff to discover a new and enticing meadow above.

One such meadow − one of literally thousands along the river’s corridor − was three-quarters of a mile back from a particularly spectacular two-mile long limestone palisade – also one of many − in an area where the river had made one of those unusual turns and for the relatively short distance of a couple dozen miles actually flowed from east to west.

The meadow was more or less amoeba-shaped, not quite a hundred acres in size, and was surrounded by thick woods, mostly oaks and hickory, with a smattering of maple, birch, ash and pine. Along its western edge a shallow, rocky creek flowed down from the north to eventually tumble over the edge of the palisade in a series of spectacularly stepped falls before finally reaching the Mississippi.

While there were some signs – animal-shaped burial mounds found along the edges of the river bluff at various locations far to the north and south − that men had visited, or more likely simply passed through the area as far back as when Greek culture was flourishing in the Mediterranean, there was no evidence that over the ages any human foot had ever trod this particular meadow.

So, for century upon century, bison, elk and smaller critters regularly visited the meadow to feed; and for century upon century the thousands of squirrels that inhabited the nearby woods would in the fall wander out onto the meadow and bury thousands of acorns.

The white oak produces acorns annually, but every fourth to sixth year yields a bumper crop − the year Europeans would call 1680 was just such a year.

Most of those acorns would eventually be dug up and eaten as winter food; many would be overlooked and decompose in place; and only a relatively few would find just the right favorable conditions − slightly acidic soil, plentiful rainfall, but with good drainage − to send a root below ground and a tentative shoot above ground in the spring. Most of those, in turn, would rarely reach more than a few inches in height, ending up either trampled by buffalo and elk hooves or being nibbled away by the deer.

One white oak acorn, though, would get buried out on the meadow, would be “forgotten” by the squirrels, would start growing the next spring, and would by many fortuitous chances escape the hooves and foragers and continue decade after decade to grow.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Neshnala’s Saga: Prolog

Every writer hopes to create a “character” that takes over his or her writing, that in effect writes itself; that’s what has happened to me with Neshnala.

Neshnala isn’t a human character, it’s a tree; to be exact, a three-hundred-year-old great white oak tree located in Five Falls State Park that is first introduced in “Ro’s Handle.” While it is a relatively minor character in that novel, it does play a role to help demonstrate Ro’s special connection with trees and her respect for tradition – there is also an element of “setting-up” involved, as Neshnala will be a recurring character and will take on a more significant role in some future Ro Delahanty novels I have in mind.

So, as part of my ongoing goal in this blog to provide more background on Ro novel characters than can actually fit in the books, I thought I’d do a series of posts on Neshnala − my initial assumption was it might involve a half-dozen or so.

I began drafting the first post by posing what I thought was a simple question: How can a tree survive to be three centuries old? What unique and unexpected circumstances can forestall it from falling victim to threats, both natural and human, for that long?

And what I found in answering that question proved to be a whole lot more fascinating, to say nothing of complicated, than I thought, and those presumed half-dozen posts have now ballooned into twenty-seven chapters, and, at not quite seventeen-thousand words, would now qualify as a novella…

In other words, the Neshnala Saga literally ran away with me, much to my delight.

(For those not familiar with literary conventions, anything under ten-thousand words is considered a short story; anything between fifteen and twenty-five-thousand words is a novella; and anything over thirty-thousand words is a novel. And yes, I suppose there is some possibility the Neshnala Saga may someday be published.)

So, I’ll begin posting the much-richer-and-more-colorful-than-expected chapters of the Neshnala Saga this coming Wednesday, and will add a new one every few days for roughly the next couple of months.

I hope you find it as much fun to read as I had writing it…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

First professional review of “Ro’s Handle”

Werner Lind, the moderator of the Action Heroine Fans discussion group on Goodreads, has done a professional review of “Ro’s Handle,” my first Ro Delahanty novel. Here’s the link:

While it was, you might say, “a mixed review,” I do believe it was fair and balanced.

I’m pleased with the parts of the book he was enthusiastic about, and I understand (as the expression goes) “where he was coming from” with regard to those parts he was not comfortable with.

But I’m encouraged that he did end the review by saying he’s looking forward to the next Ro novel.

How the Meadows on Shadowbrook Golf Course got its name (part two)

During the first decade of the 1900s Charles Sturdevant, working in partnership with Jacob Daring III, Livy’s brother and head of the Daring farm implement company, developed a practical gasoline powered tractor that enjoyed widespread popularity – the tractor line even acquired the unofficial nickname of “The Sturdy.”

In the teens, under a separate partnership arrangement, Sturdevant and Daring formed Sturdevant Engine Co., which soon became a major supplier of engines for motorcycles, boats and all kinds of trucks built by others.

At this same time, Livy’s brother asked her to take over the charitable activities of the then newly incorporated Jacob Daring Wagoneer; she became the first executive director of the Jacob Daring Foundation, a position she held for more than thirty years.

In 1932, when Charles Sturdevant died from tuberculosis, Livy inherited his stock in Sturdevant Engine and, along with her own wealth as one of the descendants of Jacob Daring, ended up among the richest women in America. Over the next several decades Livy Sturdevant became a kind of “rock star” in the Illowa region as a generous patron of community activities, especially in the arts.

In her later years she was a short, round woman with a shock of white hair she wore in a kind of halo around her head. With an ebullient personality, she was frequently featured in the newspapers or on TV, and regularly made appearances at schools and other community events.

Upon her death in 1965, Livy left the entire Meadows Estate to the City of Lee’s Landing. The Cottage was to be used as a community center; she even established an endowment to maintain it. The majority of the property, however, was to be developed by the city as a community golf course, with the old stables converted into the course clubhouse; the golf course was named The Meadows on Shadowbrook.

To help pay for the golf course, the estate’s old orchard along the south edge of the property was sold to a developer for housing, and what had been an on-property driveway leading to the gazebo was turned into a cul de sac extension of the city’s existing York Ridge Road.

As a child, Ro, her brother Patrick and their cousin Justin, along with other neighborhood kids, frequently played in the woodsy tree line that separated the houses from the golf course. A great shagbark hickory in the grove was probably the beginning of Ro’s lifelong “thing” for trees.

As a teenager, she regularly rode her bike, or later ran on the Shadowbrook Bike Path that paralleled its namesake creek.

And as a young adult, Ro and her first serious boyfriend, Sonny Colletta, once sneaked onto the golf course in the middle of the night and made love on its practice green; they barely escaped getting caught by a night watchman who patrolled the course on a golf cart several times a night by scrambling into a nearby sand trap.

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

How the Meadows on Shadowbrook Golf Course got its name (part one)

In my last post I shared how Livy Sturdevant, as one of the principal founders of the Illowa Symphony Orchestra, had an indirect, but nonetheless meaningful effect on Ro Delahanty and her father Mike’s musical lives, who for nearly a dozen years were ISO season ticket holders.

This is the story how Livy Sturdevant had an even more profound impact on their family, as in pretty much determining where they lived, and where Ro played as a child.

The Delahanty’s home is a 70s-era split-level at 3230 East York Ridge Lane; it, along with more than two dozen virtually identical homes, is on the north side of a cul de sac. Behind them is the city’s Meadows on Shadowbrook Golf Course.

The golf course was once the pastures section of the sprawling, nearly 300-acre estate of Charles and Livy Sturdevant; the Delahanty’s specific house lot was a part of the estate’s orchard.

When Olivia “Livy” Daring graduated from Wisconsin’s Ripon College in 1895, like a great many privileged young people at the time, her graduation gift was a summer grand tour of Europe with her mother as chaperone.

While crossing the Atlantic aboard the White Star Line’s “Majestic,” Livy met Charles S. Sturdevant, who was also on a grand tour, and it was love at first sight. Sturdevant even revised his own tour itinerary to be with Livy while they were in Europe. By the time they returned to the U.S. that fall they were engaged; they married early the next year.

Charles Sturdevant was from Detroit, Michigan, the son of Simon Sturdevant, founder of the Sturdevant Department Stores in Detroit, Chicago and Indianapolis. As a teenager Charles was fascinated by the early experiments in building automobiles and motorcycles; on his grand tour he even arranged visits with Gottlieb Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach and Karl Benz, early pioneers in automobile design.

After they were married, Livy and Charles bought nearly three-hundred acres of woods and open fields on top of the bluff along Shadowbrook in what was then Fort Armstrong County just outside of Lee’s Landing city limits.

Charles built what they called The Cottage for them to live in, although it was anything but. A beautiful Beaux-Arts design, it had fourteen rooms, including five bedrooms, four bathrooms, a formal living room, an informal parlor, kitchen, dining room for up to twenty-four, a solarium and a music room for as many as fifty guests. The Cottage was surrounded by an acre of formal gardens.

Most of the rest of the three-hundred acres was used as pasture for the great Percheron draft horses that Livy raised as part of preserving the Jacob Daring Wagoneer tradition – three hitched pairs of matched gray Percherons pulling an original Daring freight wagon would make frequent appearances in parades around the country. Along the south edge of the property was an orchard, with a gazebo overlooking the Mississippi River from atop the bluff.

The entire estate was called The Meadows.

To be continued…

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

How the Illowa Region got its name

The Ro Delahanty novels are located in a fictional city and county about mid-state in eastern Iowa along the Mississippi River. There are two major cities on the Iowa side, Lee’s Landing (the largest city in the area at a little over 100,000), and Gilbert (38,000), which sits just upstream (to the east) of Lee’s Landing.

On the opposite side of the river, in Illinois, are Stevenson (35,000 population) downstream (to the west), directly opposite downtown Lee’s Landing, and Grand Island (50,000 plus) just upstream, opposite the east end of Lee’s Landing and Gilbert.

The corporate headquarters of Jacob Daring Wagoneer, the world-wide manufacturer of farm and heavy construction equipment that is the major employer in the area – Mike Delahanty, Ro’s father, works for them − is a modernistic 15-story high rise built in the 1950s. It is this Jacob Daring connection that was indirectly instrumental in how the area came to be known as the Illowa Region.

Olivia “Livy” Adelle Daring Sturdevant (1874-1965) was Jacob Daring’s grand-daughter. From an early age Livy displayed what was to become a lifelong keen interest in the arts in general and music in particular.

A competent amateur violinist, in the 1890s and early 1900s she regularly organized small ensembles – trios, quartets, sextets – for informal concerts for friends and family. However, she was also perceptive enough to know she did not have the native talent, let alone the fire in the belly, to be a professional musician. So, she would also host recitals by visiting professional musicians.

Over the years the ensembles grew in size and by 1910 had become a small chamber orchestra. In 1911 the idea surfaced to establish a professional symphony orchestra for the area. It took two years of planning and negotiating to resolve the many problems and issues involved, like recruiting a conductor and coming up with a name.

The orchestra’s first season was to be a series of four concerts in the fall of 1913 and the spring of 1914. Early in 1912 they hired as their first conductor, Gilles Surre, an associate professor of music from Chicago’s Northwestern University’s School of Music, who had several times performed as a guest artist for one of the recitals Livy Sturdevant had sponsored.

But it was coming up with a name that became the stickiest issue.

The orchestra was going to be based out of Sturdevant Hall – yes, named for Livy Sturdevant, who was a major contributor towards its construction − on the campus of St. Cecelia’s College in Lee’s Landing, so the idea was floated of calling it the St. Cecelia’s Symphony. Another proposal was to call it the Surre Ensemble, after its first conductor, or maybe the Sturdevant Orchestra, after its principal founder. Some wanted to call it the Lee’s Landing Orchestra, while the suggestion of Eastern Iowa Symphony had its proponents. There were even suggestions for whimsical names, like Pro Musica Apollo, after the Greek god of music.

While no one said it publicly, it was made abundantly clear that any name that was clearly associated to either side of the river would be a significant discouragement for ticket sales from the opposite side. If it was to be a truly regional institution, it had to have a truly regional name.

Livy Sturdevant was, of course, a member of the orchestra’s newly formed board of directors – she, in fact, served on the board for more than forty years, until she retired in 1953, ironically having never served as its chairman, although she was asked many times.

At a board meeting early in 1913, when it was imperative that they make a decision on a name in order to start developing promotional materials for ticket sales for the coming fall, name after name failed to get more than a few votes; no one could agree.

When someone suggested a rather cumbersome “Iowa-Illinois Community Symphony Orchestra,” it was Livy Sturdevant – an instinctive marketer – who suggested the more memorable contraction “Illowa Community Orchestra.” Perhaps because she was by far the single largest financial supporter of the orchestra; or maybe because everyone was very aware of her powerful family connections; or maybe because she was already respected as a leader in the arts community; or simply because it just made sense – the name acknowledged both the localness of the orchestra’s roots, yet was not specific to either side of the river – it was readily accepted. Years later the “community” was dropped, and it became the Illowa Symphony Orchestra, or for short the ISO; Mike and Ro were season ticket holders for nearly a dozen years.

It was the first time the term “Illowa” was used that anyone knows of; over the years many other organizations and businesses began using it in their names to signify they served the entire area, and so by common use it was pretty much universally adopted as the generic designation for the region.

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

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