Chapter 18 – Neshnala’s Saga: 2003 (part two)

The main entrance road continued for another half-mile through thick forests, past another road leading to a second campground on her right. Then, as it neared the towering limestone palisades, it swung left and continued for another three-quarters of a mile to end in a large parking lot next to a small man-made lake at the base of the falls.

At not quite eight in the morning, there were only a couple of other cars in the lot.

Ro climbed out of the car, taking her keys but locking the fanny pack inside. She went around to the front of the car, near a picnic bench, and began what she thought of as her own version of a Tai Chi routine, which was, in fact, a series of muscle stretches to get ready for a run. With its slow repetitions and holds of various exercises, it took her a little under three minutes to complete.

Now ready to run, she returned to the car, retrieved the fanny pack with its bottle of Gatorade and clicked it on.

What was known as the Neshnala Loop Trail was a six-foot wide crushed gravel path beginning at the north side of the parking lot, but almost immediately turned into a series of switchbacks as it climbed up the face of the palisades next to the tumbling falls. At the top of the falls the trail became a loop of a little over two-miles following Rock Creek to the north, then swinging to the east through a large meadow where Neshnala stood. Then it curled back south and then west along the edge of the bluff, offering several spectacular overlooks of the Mississippi River and the Illinois shore beyond.

Most visitors found the climb up the switchbacks strenuous, with some even quitting, breathless, less than halfway up. For Ro, it was like the appetizer before a superb meal. She loved the feel of her calves and Achilles tendons stretching and working as she climbed upward, pumping her arms, throwing one foot ahead, rolling forward smoothly, only to bring the other foot forward, to roll forward yet again….

She was aware of her surroundings; there were still some shallow puddles in the gravel from a thunderstorm that had passed through just after midnight and the westerly wind was brisk, playing along the face of the palisades. But the low-70s sun was warm on her face and neck as she climbed back and forth up the bluff face.

At the same time, though, as she always did when she ran, she was slowly withdrawing into herself, focusing on her body. Not specific parts, like certain aching muscles, or lungs gasping for air, or sweat trickling down her side, or sharp rocks poking her through her shoes; but rather on her whole body, on the totality of her experience.

She knew the feeling well. It was what she always sought, was perhaps addicted to, and nearly always achieved when she went for a run, her runner’s Zen. It was easy to use words like “trance-like” or “rapturous” or “runner’s high” to try to explain the feeling, but they were like trying to describe the Grand Canyon to someone who had never seen it, inadequate at best.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 17 – Neshnala’s Saga: 2003 (part one)

(This is the beginning of several posts excerpted from a chapter in “Ro’s Handle,” the first Ro Delahanty novel. I’ve included it here because it brings the Neshnala Saga into our contemporary timeline: In a sense, this is where the tree’s story has been headed all along. In this post Ro is in her apartment getting ready for a run in Five Falls State Park, which will, as it always does, include a visit to Neshnala. She has just become a Fort Armstrong County Deputy Sheriff, and recently met Frank Reyner, the park ranger, although at this particular point they are not yet boyfriend-girlfriend.)

Going back to the bedroom, Ro made her bed, then pulled off her T-shirt and cut-off sweats and tossed them on the bed. Opening a dresser drawer, she got a pair of white cotton briefs and slipped them on, then pulled a dark blue sports bra over her head and down over her breasts. Standing in front of the mirror, she fitted her thumbs up under the bra just below each armpit and pulled the side of each breast back, in effect flattening herself under the bra for a more comfortable fit.

“Don’t want any bouncy boobs, do we?” she told Peter Panda, a three-foot teddy bear watching from his usual perch atop her dresser.

Over the panties she stepped into a pair of loose fitting dark blue running shorts and over the bra pulled on a dark blue T-shirt. For her feet were white cotton footies and Merrell Ascend Glove trail running shoes. Heftier than regular running shoes, they were built for the uneven and often obstacle-strewn woodland trails she favored. The finishing touch was her “official” running hat, a battered Chicago Cubs cap, not because she was a Cubs fan, she wasn’t any team’s fan, but because it was a valued gift from Tuck, her brother. A big St. Louis Cardinals fan, he had gotten the hat as a joke in a Christmas white elephant gift exchange in high school and had given it to his sister.

Taking a dark leather fanny pack from its hook in the closet, she added her wallet and ID, keys, cell phone, and a granola bar to the front section, and her Glock 19 – her off-duty sidearm − and an extra magazine, retrieved from the gun safe in her study, to their elastic holding straps in the back section. A half-liter water bottle filled with orange flavored Gatorade would go in an elastic holder next to the pouch.

The drive from her apartment to Five Falls State Park and the adjoining Fort Armstrong County Great River Forest Preserve took only a few minutes. Between them they covered over two thousand acres in the southwest corner of the county; but the biggest attractions were in the state park.

A limestone outcropping had created a series of spectacular palisades facing the Mississippi River. Rock Creek had over the centuries cut a gap through the rocks, creating a series of waterfalls, some dropping nearly twenty feet, before emptying into the Mississippi. It was how the park had gotten its name.

On top of the bluff toward the back of the park was Neshnala. It was accessible by a road off County Line Road, which bordered the state park on the west, and was a popular field trip for school children, families and Sunday drivers. Ro as a student, and Ro with her family, and Ro as an adult runner had probably visited Neshnala several hundred times over the years.

The main entrances to the state park and the forest preserve were below the bluff, off State Route 20, popularly known as the Makuakeeta Road, because that was the next town it reached. Neither park had a day use fee, so Ro simply waved to the attendant as she rolled by the registration and information booth several hundred feet from the state park’s entrance.

As she passed a crossroad leading to one of the campgrounds on the left and to the ranger’s station some hundred yards to the right, she glanced in that direction, thinking she might see the park ranger’s green Dodge pickup. It wasn’t there, or at least not where she could see it.

She felt a twinge of anticipation. “Maybe he’s out and around in the park and I’ll bump into him,” she thought. But then second-guessed herself: “Hey, what do you care? You came here for a run, like you’ve done lots of times.”

Except, try as she might to dismiss the idea, she knew she did care, at least a little.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 16 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1990 (part two)

Like “Kentucky” Coates before her when he’d crossed the creek and saw Neshnala for the first time, Ro was stopped dead in her tracks by the tree’s awesome size. And, again, like Coates, her breath left her in an audible sigh and her mouth dropped open in amazement.

One of her classmates even had to gently, but firmly push her aside.

“Hey, get out of the way, Ro,” the girl had said, more concerned about chasing down a boy who’d made some snarky remark about the size of her butt than the reason they’d come to the park in the first place.

Perhaps like the Sauk Holy Man some two centuries ago, or Coates a century ago, although she didn’t know it, Ro was – unlike her classmates − “ready” to be moved by tree’s overpowering presence. Even as a small child she had already begun to display her special feeling for the woods – what she would later come to think of as her “tree thing” − that would be such a vital force in her life; she loved playing with her brother and cousin in the narrow grove of trees that separated her house from the golf course behind them, and had a particular affinity for a stately old shagbark hickory in the grove.

Ro glanced around, half expecting to see some ‒ most? ‒ of her classmates similarly awestruck. Instead, what she saw was a bunch of kids suddenly freed from their usual classroom behavior restraints, running around, shouting, laughing, tussling; clearly, they weren’t that impressed by an “old tree.”

But she was…

As Miss Landin tried to corral her rambunctious seven and eight-year-olds and start them walking toward the tree to meet Mr. Cummins, the park ranger, Ro couldn’t contain her excitement and headed for the tree ahead of the others, striding along a gravel path ‒ it was part of what the park called the Neshnala Loop Trail and would, eight years from now, when she could drive on her own, become one or her favorite places to go for a long run.

So, she was the first to reach the fence… Fence?

At first, she was confused by the six-foot high chain-link barrier that surrounded the tree, some forty feet out from its base. Although she hadn’t specifically thought about it, she’d assumed she and her classmates would be able to get up close to and even touch the great tree, just like she loved touching the old shagbark hickory.

Later, when Mr. Cummins explained the fence was there to protect the tree from vandals who would harm it, like carving their initials in its bark, she understood, but was still disappointed.

It was Mr. Cummins who explained to the now gathered class that the tree’s name, Neshnala, meant “Tree of Knowledge” and that the Native Americans who had lived in the area several hundred years ago believed the tree was sacred. Of course, this produced snide giggles and contemptuous snorts, which added even more to her disenchantment with her classmates − didn’t they get it?

For Ro Delahanty, Neshnala was not merely an old tree! It was, all at once, Stately and Wise and Humbling and Beautiful; although as an eight-year-old those words weren’t yet in her conscious vocabulary, she nonetheless knew the feeling…

Not really thinking about what she was doing or why – only instinctively knowing it was something important for her to do – she bowed her head to Neshnala to show her respect. It was a gesture she would re-enact hundreds of time over the years toward the many old trees she would encounter on her hikes with her father and, later, on her own runs, like…

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 15 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1990 (part one)

The spot where Ro stepped down from her school bus was near a picnic shelter next to a happily gurgling creek; of course, half the boys in her second-grade class immediately raced over to start poking sticks into its shallow, gravelly bed. What no one was even remotely aware of was the irony that they were only steps away from where “Kentucky” Coates had waded cross the very same creek a little over a hundred years ago.

It was Friday, May 18, just a few days past Ro’s eighth birthday, and they were on the last of the many field trips Miss Landin had arranged for them during the year. Just completing her third year as a teacher, she had already become every first-graders “hoped for” teacher in second grade. She was not pretty, cute or even pleasant looking, as her features were all in the wrong proportions – eyes too close together, face too sharp, mousy brown hair in a wash-it-and-go, easy to care for, though not very flattering shag cut − but what she may have lacked in looks she more than made-up for in her infectious personality. The kids loved her because she was pretty much a second-grader herself, just in an adult’s body.

She believed in hands-on learning, so she and her twenty-three second-graders had taken at least once-a-month field trips; of course, they’d “done” all the local historical museums and art galleries, but she had also arranged some really “fun” experiences, like a visit a working potter who’d let everyone play with the gooey clay, and spending an afternoon at a recording studio to see how much work it took for a local folk singer and her small band to make a CD.

The agenda for today was to learn about “Iowa’s Oldest Tree” in Five Falls State Park, then take a short hike to the park’s namesake falls and check the spectacular views of the Mississippi from the top of the palisades – this all to be conducted by Bill Cummins, the park ranger − and finally enjoy a box lunch picnic in the shelter.

Fortunately, Miss Landin had picked an ideal spring day for their adventure: upper-60s, clear skies, the wall of trees on the other side of the creek even sheltering them from some gusty westerly breezes. As was her wont, she had even tried to whip up some excitement about the trip by putting together a lecture, complete with overheads, explaining that there were three claimants to the title of the oldest tree in Iowa: Old Hawkeye, a giant maple located in a public park in Dubuque; The Froehlich Ash, located on private property in western Iowa; and Neshnala, a white oak in their very own Five Falls State Park.

What Miss Landin didn’t know, indeed, what no one really knew, even including the Iowa State Forester, was that the great white oak, at three-hundred-and-ten years old was, in fact, the senior of the three by more than half-a-century: Old Hawkeye was not quite two-hundred-and-fifty years old and the Froelich Ash was a relative youngster at a-hundred-and-ninety years old, although that was long-lived for an ash.

She had even copied and blown-up for her overheads photos of the three trees from a state brochure she’d found in the Lee’s Landing Library to try to give her kids some sense of their sheer size. But it hadn’t been nearly enough…

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 14 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1920s

With the goal of getting rid of the money-losing Falls operation, Iver Hubbard commissioned a detailed inventory of the potential commercial value of the timber in the Neshnala Grove – his question, of course, was: Could the land be sold for any kind of decent profit?

The report he got was that most of it could, indeed, be cut down for pulp, and that there were also some stands of hardwoods that could be logged for construction or fine furniture use, with a total value of around $2.5 million.

However, the other side of that coin was that it would cost at least $1.6 or $1.7 million to get access to the timber, to log it and to ship it to the pulp and saw mills hundreds of miles away in Wisconsin – in other words, from an economic standpoint logging the Neshnala Grove was not very cost effective, which meant, in turn, the land itself was pretty much commercially worthless.

So, Hubbard and his cousin, Darwin Lester, who also happened to be a member of the Iowa House of Representatives from Lee’s Landing, hatched a plot. Using only the part of the report that said the Neshnala Grove was worth “at least $2.5 million,” Hubbard and Lester in effect blackmailed the state with an ultimatum: The Hubbard’s were willing to wait two years to sell the “valuable” Neshnala Grove, with no assurances of protection for Iowa’s Oldest Tree, or would donate the land to the state if they would take it and make it into a park of some kind.

It actually took nearly three years to work out all the kinks – including that the state demanded that Hubbard pay for demolishing the dilapidated hotel, which they didn’t want – but in 1928, at not quite nine-hundred acres, Five Falls became Iowa’s third state park.

It was the government’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1930s that cut the switchback hiking trail up the side of the bluff and built an access road from County Line Road leading into the north half of the park and to the Neshnala Grove. Once the great tree became more easily accessible, it didn’t take long for the state to have to add a fence around its base to prevent thoughtless morons from carving their initials in its flanks.

The first campground was added below the bluff in the early-50s; the second in the mid-70s; the boat landing on the Mississippi River came in the early-80s, after the state negotiated an access right-of-way across the Grand Island Railroad tracks.

Over the decades the state would acquire, either by purchase or donation, additional parcels of adjacent land, so that by the time Ro Delahanty was camping there with her family in the late-80s, Five Falls State Park encompassed over twelve-hundred acres.

It was in the late-60s that Fort Armstrong County established its Conservation Commission; one of its first projects was to buy nearly twelve hundred-acres of timberland next to the state park, calling it the Great River Forest Preserve. Like the state park, it had picnic areas and hiking and equestrian trails, but no campground.

The more than fifteen miles of trails through the woodlands of the side-by-side preserves would become one of Ro’s favorite places to run – the visits always included a stop to pay her respects to Neshnala

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 13 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1920s

But the war effort and fast changing social and cultural attitudes – the children of the band members who had once performed polkas and Sousa marches in the park’s bandshell now preferred playing jazz in the newly opened nightclubs − meant that by 1922 Falls Park was for all intents and purposes broke − the hotel had been shuttered, the gardens had gone shabby, the picnic shelters had fallen into disrepair…

When Iver Hubbard, the great-grandson of Elias Hubbard, assumed control of Hubbard Enterprises in 1918 he inherited a diverse and mostly successful collection of businesses – a chain of general stores in eastern Iowa, a new and even more luxurious edition of the Captain’s Hotel in downtown Lees’ Landing, and their freight hauling business, all doing well; only Falls Development was not. Within just a couple of years, though, he had come to recognize that things were happening that meant the company either had to adapt or die…

Trucks were quickly becoming a more efficient way of hauling freight than horse-drawn wagons, and what used to be mostly rutted gravel roads were being paved over into modern highways and interconnected; in 1926, for example, U.S. Rt. 32 – which started in Chicago, and passed through Lee’s Landing on its way to Council Bluffs − became one the country’s first interstate highways; which meant the Hubbard freight company had to make the switch from horse-drawn wagons to trucks to stay viable.

Similarly, starting in the late teens, large and well-stocked self-service food stores, the earliest iterations of modern-day supermarkets, had begun appearing in eastern U.S. cities; which meant the Hubbard general stores needed to reinvent themselves to stay relevant.

But those two large scale transitions would require lots of capital, so Iver Hubbard made a big bet on the future by selling their most valuable property, the Captain’s Hotel, and using the cash to…

Redesign and rebrand the general stores as the FoodHub food stores… Between the late-20s and early-50s the chain expanded to more than a hundred locations in the northern Midwest; it was eventually acquired in 1959 by a competitor, Major FoodMarts, in a deal worth tens of millions of dollars.

Retire the horses and their wagons and replace them with a fleet of gas-powered trucks. The freight-hauling business was renamed Hubbard National Trucking, and by the end of the 1930s was one of the larger U.S. interstate firms. In the late-1960s the sixth generation of Hubbards would move their headquarters from Lee’s Landing to the booming western suburbs of Chicago and its proximity to multiple modern interstate highways.

Then there was the problem of Falls Park that had to be dealt with…

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 12 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1887-1920

Meanwhile, Coates had continued to conduct his survey work across Iowa, regularly returning to Lee’s Landing by train to serve on the new development company’s board. When his contract with the state was up, Falls Development offered him a job as its manager, but the Weyerheusers outbid them with a more lucrative offer as a timber superintendent in the Northwest; Coates would never return to Lee’s Landing.

In the early 1890s there were some preliminary meetings between the Falls people and the State of Iowa to see if they might be interested in acquiring the land as some sort of state preserve, similar to what Wisconsin had done some fifteen years earlier, setting aside thousands of acres of Northwoods country as a “state park.” But, while the Iowa folks were more than happy to acknowledge and help promote Neshnala as a “state treasure,” the idea of somehow making it state property couldn’t get any political traction.

In the meantime, the development company paid for an extension of County Line Road from the Makuakeeta Road north for about a mile to the base of the bluff – it wouldn’t be until nearly thirty years later that the county would tackle the daunting task of blasting and excavating an extension of County Line Road up the bluff itself – and a plan for developing the Neshnala Grove emerged. By 1895…

They had installed a small dam across Rock Creek below the bluff, turning what had been a shallow pond into a small fishing and boating lake…

Built more than a dozen covered picnic shelters around the lake, and placed several dozen additional picnic tables in shady spots around the grounds…

Constructed a single-story, gingerbread-decorated hotel with a long, wrap-around porch and an inside dance floor that overlooked the lake…

Installed a carousel surrounded by a half-acre formal garden…

Built a bandshell that featured live music on weekends…

Developed a network of trails on top of the bluff offering spectacular views of the Mississippi River…

And installed a cable-car to carry visitors up the side of the bluff, were young men with rickshaw-like, two-passenger bicycles would carry them the three-quarters-of-a-mile to see “Iowa’s Oldest Tree” – there was also a gravel walking path for those who wanted to stroll…

Finally, the Grand Island Railroad, whose mainline ran west from Lee’s Landing to Des Moines, built a new station a mile south of the falls to drop-off passengers, where horse-drawn buggies would then meet them to ferry them to the park.

While the train ride from Lee’s Landing to the Falls station was twenty-five cents per person, the pick-up was free, as was admission to the park; so were the band concerts on weekends and use of the open picnic tables out on the grounds; you could even bring your own picnic basket if you wanted − the idea was to put as many folks on the grounds as possible…

But the fee to ride the cable car up the bluff and visit the famous tree was twenty-five cents; picnic baskets could be bought on site for from fifty cents to a dollar; a pint of beer was a dime; admission to the dance floor on Friday or Saturday night was fifty-cents; boat rentals on the small lake were a dime; renting a covered picnic shelter for the afternoon was fifty cents; a carousel ride was a nickel.

Falls Park would prosper for nearly twenty-five years, from the mid-1890s until just after the end of World War I – over the years the park would play host to countless marriage proposals and many actual marriages, to say nothing of thousands of picnickers, dancers, concert-goers and tree visitors.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 11 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1882-1887

The next order of business, Coates knew, was to find out who the owner of the Neshnala Grove was, but to do it as inconspicuously as possible, lest he alert someone of his interest in the land. So, after a couple of inquiries he engaged John Bolger, a Lee’s Landing attorney that specialized in real estate, to visit the courthouse and do a title search – he reasoned a local who often initiated these kinds of inquiries would attract less attention.

But what Bolger ended-up telling his client was a complete surprise: There was no owner of record, in fact, there wasn’t even a plat of the Neshnala Grove and surrounding land on file in the Fort Armstrong County Courthouse. In other words, Bolger said, it appeared that the federal government was still the official owner of the land.

However, having dealt with ownership issues in Michigan and Wisconsin, Coates knew it wasn’t quite that simple: The Neshnala Grove had at one time certainly been included in someone’s original grant; what would be their claim to the land, if any, now, forty or fifty years later?

So, he and Bolger developed a strategy in which Coates, being a certified surveyor, would go ahead and do a preliminary plat of the boundaries of the Neshnala Grove and turn it in to the county, to the state and to the federal government, along with a petition to receive ownership, arguing that any earlier grant that may have been awarded after all this time had been abandoned and was thus null and void. If nothing else, they figured, it would establish Coates as a legitimate claimant on the land.

But to give themselves even more clout, they would also need to put together a group of local community and political leaders who would agree to help develop the land, but in such a way as to protect and preserve Neshnala − they had vague notions of some sort of for-profit resort or picnic park.

Which is how the Hubbards got involved… Elias Hubbard had been one of the founders of Lee’s Landing fifty years earlier, securing a grant for what was the downtown area and the eastern part of the city. Needless to say, he grew wealthy selling off the lots, as well as developing some for himself. In 1883 his grandson, Axel Hubbard, was the head of the family empire, which included the general store his ancestor had started fifty years earlier, now grown into a chain of general stores throughout eastern Iowa; a new and luxurious iteration of the Captain’s Hotel, which had grown out of a combined tavern and bunkhouse that dated from 1838 and was originally called the Captain’s Rest; and a freight hauling company that went as far west as Des Moines and as far east as Chicago.

But the reason Hubbard was asked to take the lead on the project wasn’t just because he was rich and powerful, but because as both his grandfather and father had developed sections of eastern Lee’s Landing, they would always set aside several lots and deed them to the city for use as a neighborhood park. It turned out that Axel Hubbard was, indeed, not only interested in, but enthusiastic about helping protect Neshnala when he learned of its existence – being a true entrepreneur, like his ancestors, he knew a potential money-making opportunity when he saw one.

It took three years of legal work, numerous visits to government land offices in Chicago and Washington, several petitions and even a formal hearing before an administrative judge, but in 1887 the Falls Development Company received title to two sections of land above and below the bluff that included the Neshnala Grove, as well as the waterfalls that inspired its name.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 10 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1882

Like the Sauk Holy Man a century earlier, “Kentucky” Coates was also touched by Neshnala, although not in any way he was conscious of. What happened to him was a complete turnaround in attitude. Standing there, transfixed by the tree’s grandeur, he knew without any doubt that it simply could not ever be desecrated by a woodsman’s axe; indeed, as “Breed” Jack had said, in the sense that it had to be protected, it was sacred. A nascent plan for how to accomplish this goal quickly began to take shape in Coates mind…

Coates was supposed to visit all of Iowa’s nearly one-hundred counties over three years, which figured out that he needed to visit a county roughly every eight to ten days. His visits to the five counties along the Mississippi upstream of Fort Armstrong County had only taken about six days each, so, in effect, he had nearly a week’s elbow room in his schedule here in Fort Armstrong County.

The first order of business, then, was to get a much better lay of the land. Again, with Young as his guide, they spent the next three days exploring the still roadless back-country in the southwestern corner of the county. What they found was that the Neshnala Grove – which is how Coates thought of it − ran roughly for a mile north from the edge of the bluff and for roughly two miles east, along the edge of the bluff, encompassing something over a thousand acres.

The nearest working farms were on the river lowland below the bluff, but still several miles to the east, over near Lees’ Landing; the land directly below the Neshnala Grove bluff was still covered with trees and native prairie.

The area of the county to the north of the Neshnala Grove was crisscrossed by numerous hills and deep intervening valleys that formed the headwaters of several creeks that flowed east across the county; the nearest platted farm fields were adjacent to Old Post Road, still some six miles to the north and on the other side of the rough country.

It was the area on top of the bluff directly to the east that probably represented the most immediate potential threat to Neshnala; while actual working farms were still more than five miles away, the land between was relatively flat and could easily be surveyed into farmsteads and roads extended to access them.

Young had told Coates that as far as he knew, he and maybe a half-dozen or so trappers were the only people who knew anything about the Neshnala Grove, which Coates thought was very good news, as its anonymity gave him time to work out and execute his plan. When Coates asked Young if he knew who the owner of the land was, Young just shrugged.

Now, here’s where Coates “other side” began took control. While on one hand he was a rough and ready backwoodsman, comfortable in the outdoors, his interactions with officers during the Civil War and his dealings with lumber barons for the following decade-and-a-half had taught him how much politics plays a crucial role in any endeavor and the value of knowing who the power players were and how to move in those circles, including being able to dress the part. So, back in his room at the Captain’s Hotel in Lee’s Landing he had a freshly pressed suit and polished boots waiting in the closet.

His dealings with the lumber barons had also taught him how ruthless they could be when pursuing a profit opportunity, which the Neshnala Grove without doubt represented, so he knew the key to protecting Neshnala was to somehow get control of the land and to secure the backing of local power-brokers.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 9 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1882

The meadow was maybe a hundred acres in size, irregularly-shaped, and surrounded by dense woods that Coates quickly recognized as mainly oaks and hickory, with a smattering of maple, birch, ash and pine. They were old and tall and, yes, a certain corner of his brain immediately recognized them as clearly of some commercial value.

On the other side of the meadow was a small herd of buffalo, which surprised him, as he’d thought they’d pretty much been hunted into extinction in eastern Iowa, but which also accounted for the cropped, almost park-like grassy floor of the meadow.

But what had utterly taken his breath away was the most awesome tree he had ever seen. And he had seen lots of “awesome” trees in his travels; in fact, that had pretty much been his job, to literally hunt down great, old-growth behemoths that one man couldn’t stretch his arms around and that could be ripped into enough lumber to make a house – to him it was their commercial value that made them “awesome.”

But the immense oak he was looking at – even from nearly a hundred yards away he knew it was an oak − was easily half again taller than any tree he had ever seen; its vast shadow sheltered at least an acre all by itself; and it looked to Coates as if three men would have trouble stretching their arms around its massive trunk.

Coates literally stopped in his tracks, paralyzed by…by… He had trouble sorting out his feelings…

After a moment, Young, who had been standing next to Coates, watching him and grinning, said quietly, “My people called it Neshnala, which means something like ‘tree that knows.’ They believed it was sacred. Seven of my grand-fathers spoke of it.”

Coates blinked and turned to Young with a frown, at first not understanding what he meant, but then it dawned on him, the Native American side of Young’s family had known of the tree for seven generations back. After a quick mental calculation, he said to Young, “That’d make it at least two hundred years old?” It was a question because he was finding it hard to believe and was looking for confirmation.

Young nodded. “My people say it was already old when the Declaration was signed.” He was referencing the fact that there had been much to-do about that document’s centennial just a few years ago.

Coates shook his head. “That’d probably make you older than Old Hawkeye,” he said, as if he’d been addressing the tree itself. Then, turning back to Young, explained, “Up in Dubuque there’s a big maple the locals call Old Hawkeye and are real proud of because they think it’s at least a hundred-and-fifty-years old. Your Neshnala might well be the oldest tree in Iowa.”

Certainly, Neshnala was way beyond “awesome” in any commercial sense; it was the personification of Awesome in its mammoth size, in its grand dignity, and in its great age. This wasn’t “just another old tree,” it was The Old Tree, which is how Coates came to think of it, as if it was a title with capital letters that it had clearly earned.

What neither man had any inkling of at this point was that Coates would soon set in motion a course of action that would lead to Neshnala becoming the star attraction, along with the waterfalls they’d camped below, in one of Iowa’s earliest state parks: Five Falls State Park.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

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