In order to describe Iowa, you have to start with the land.
Its freshly overturned sod is as black as a starless night, and a handful of dirt is richer than any potting soil you can buy. Too cliché to say that Iowans are the salt of the earth, but they’re certainly warm, friendly and down to earth.
Sure, there are those who live in the city. Des Moines, the state capital, now touts a population in excess of 200,000, with a metro area over 500,000. For a state of just over 3 million people, it is their metropolis. Yet it is in the country where you feel that the real Iowans dwell.
The small towns have shrunk over the years, wrung out by corporate farming and Wal-Mart Super Stores. Those who remain are proud even as they teeter on the brink. Each seems to be in competition with the other when it comes to civic pride. Most boast the name of their hamlet by emblazoning it on the local water tower.
Our travels took us to the Bauer Picnic, an annual event held in south-central Iowa. (Lacona, population 349, is the closest official jurisdiction, for those keeping score at home.) At one time, Bauer was an actual town, albeit small, comprising a school, a church and a local grocery store. Now only the church remains and is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Built in 1876, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church is one of the last religious structures in the often-called German Town area that has not been burned down or extensively vandalized.
The structure is a tall, red-brick building, complete with bell tower and stained glass windows. A single stair separates the outside from the inside. Two freshly painted white doors open into another era: you’re immediately treated to the sight of old wooden pews stoically facing the altar, where worship has been led for almost 150 years. Multicolored rays of light stream through the tall narrow windows. A large crucifix dominates the back wall.
It's the smell that confirms the age of the sanctuary. A musty wooden odor permeates throughout the edifice. The smell is not unclean, just one that is attached to buildings that are well-worn and seldom aired out.
Behind the church lies the cemetery. Grave markers and headstones date back to the early 1800s and pre-statehood. Nearly 50% of those interned here are named Bauer; at least 95% appear to be related in some manner. The grounds are neatly manicured and the grass a dark emerald green.
Adjacent to the church, a white wooden utility building has been constructed. Newer by a hundred years, it is in sharp contrast to the rest of the area. It provides for parties, receptions, and in our case, the picnic.
We arrived around two in the afternoon and the event was already in full swing. Young and old abounded, all conspicuously white. Although there were a lot of John Deere and DeKalb caps, the majority of the headgear worn supported the University of Iowa Hawkeyes. Adding to my disappointment and the destruction of stereotypes was the fact that I could not find one set of bib overalls.
Picture any summer barbeque and you have the Bauer Picnic: Hot dogs and brats on the grill, cold sodas iced down in large steel troughs. Younger children were entertained by simple games of ring toss and face painting. The teens grew bored quickly and slinked away into the cemetery away from the crowd, or more likely, the adults. The older attendees seemed the happiest, reminiscing about times gone by, quick to tell you a story or give you a history of the area.
We stayed for awhile but left just before dusk arrived. As I looked back, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps the sun was also setting on this rural lifestyle, and it would not be long before it too would be enveloped in the darkness we like to call progress.