Earlham

I have a memory of a farmhouse in Iowa, old, yellowish paint, a front porch, set back from a road that soon stopped at a bigger road, both as straight as could be. On the other side of the big road was a tract of flat, brown land that stretched as far as my 10-year-old eyes could see.

I was with my dad, who knocked on the door of the house. He told the folks he had been born there. They let us in and I remember that on the right-hand side as you walked in was a bathroom and in it was an old iron tub. My dad told them he had been born in that tub.

That place – it must have been the early part of fall, after the corn harvest – stayed with me as a dim memory for decades.  It seemed like a forlorn, run-down and dusty land and I understood why my dad had a near-constant yearning to see new and far-off places.

Many years later, my nephew affirmed his dual citizenship in France, which required a copy of his grandfather’s birth certificate. I saw that my dad’s birthplace was Earlham, a town of about 1,200 people, in Madison County, Iowa. So last week, while in Des Moines to extend Courthouse News coverage, I took a rental car out on Interstate 80 going west towards Earlham.

I figured if I drove around the edges of the tiny town, I might find the big road and the smaller road that went off it, and recognize the house.

But I did not see the flat, dry, empty land that I remembered. The fields were lush green, much of the terrain consisted of rolling hills, streams and lakes came into view fairly often. The houses were in good repair with pickups and agricultural machinery alongside.

Realizing that I was not finding what I was looking for, I stopped at a big, low-lying, white-painted Church of Christ. It had a huge gravel parking lot, so it must have been popular. The minister was inside working on a big motorcycle.

“My grandfather used to preach around here,” I said, explaining why I had come by.

He welcomed me in and checked a book that listed the church’s preachers back into the early part of the last century. I told him it had to be in the 1920s. He did not find my grandfather’s name, but noted that most churches in the area considered themselves Christian churches.

I said it had been known as the Disciples of Christ at one point and was now simply the Christian Church. He suggested I try the Early Chapel. He told me it had burned down in the 1960s and been rebuilt.

We talked about local crops and politics in his small cluttered office. A big poster of Evel Knievel, all in white and in full jump, was on the wall behind him. Having no doubt cruised the local roads on his motorbike, he hand-drew a precise map of the area with a winding gravel road that led well outside town to the Early Chapel.

It was a gray day and I went off on the route he had drawn, not at all sure I was going to the right place.

Off the highway, the roads in Madison County are made of crushed white rock and perfectly graded. I went past green fields and farmhouses and wound through a long S curve until the road straightened back out. And I found the Early Chapel Church right where it was drawn on the map.

The church was a low-slung, white building that looked more like a Quaker meeting hall than the churches we see out in California. No religious symbolism adorned it.

I pulled up in back of the building and parked under a big, solitary oak next to a brilliantly green lawn. It was a small parking lot, indeed. I walked around to the front where a small, hand-painted sign hung from a white post saying “Early Chapel.” The names of two sisters who had contributed to its reconstruction were also mentioned. But the front door was locked, there were no other cars in the lot, and no one answered a knock.

I looked around and did not see what I had seen as a youth. The land across on the other side of the road was green and a set of low trees stopped a long view. A house with farm machinery stood where I had seen open space.

I walked back to the car, looked for a moment on the small lawn and neat fence around it, and then turned back onto the road toward the highway. But nearby was a smaller road that teed off it, and on the corner was a two-story house painted with purple trim. I thought this might be the house but it looked very different than I remembered. Nobody was home. It all seemed unlikely.

So I took off driving on the smaller road through groves of cedar, ash and oak and alongside green fields. The road curved around a stream and rose and fell as I drove. When it rose, you could see a lush landscape of tree tops, waves of different shades of green and gray-brown.

At Minister Steve’s recommendation, I stopped in nearby Winterset to check out the John Wayne Museum and walked through a covered bridge, not immediately understanding why they were so special. And before the afternoon wore on too late, I got to Interstate 80 and headed back to Des Moines to meet our new reporter and check out the courthouse.

A week later, after I returned to California, I was telling my Aunt Carol about the trip and she was unsure about where my dad had been born. But when I told her the name of the town, she said, “Earlham sounds right.” And when I said “Early Chapel,” she reacted with certainty.

“Uncle Bill used to talk about the Early Chapel,” she said, referring to her oldest brother who I am named after. She also confirmed that the house was two stories, because her mother used to talk about going up the stairs. “OK!” she said with enthusiasm as we rang off, “Earlham and the Early Chapel.”

It seemed I had been in the right place after all. It was an odd sensation to feel the cloud of doubt suddenly lifted and to now believe that my quest had been successful. I had found the old church and probably the right house where the old man started out.

 

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