In consideration of the Thomas Wolfe) novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again”, I asked myself recently, can I go home again?
My answer? Nope.
I’ve been gone from my home state, Iowa, for 24 years. I only live three hours away in Minnesota, but whenever I visit Iowa it feels like I’ve been gone for a lifetime. Maybe that’s because I live in a large metropolitan area of 3.5 million, which is more than Iowa’s entire population of 3.1 million.
I actually have two hometowns. Technically, my hometown is Greene (population 1,100) as I spent my first four years on a farm outside of town. My parents moved 15 miles away to a farm a mile north of Bristow in 1965. I graduated from the Allison-Bristow School District in 1979 and attended college in St. Paul, Minnesota. I’d return home on holidays and for the summers, but when I got my first job in 1983, I left Bristow for good. Thus, in my heart, Bristow is my hometown.
My memories of Bristow are few and fuzzy; probably a case of out-of-sight, out-of-mind. My parents retired to Greene, so that’s been my destination for almost 20 years. As I pondered a visit to Bristow this summer, sites and memories began to emerge. Perhaps some were legends passed down.
- The two-story red brick junior high school with its Quonset hut gymnasium where I attended for two years.
- The grocery store with a pop machine where you pulled out glass bottles from behind a glass door and popped off the caps using the opener on the machine.
- The post office, grain elevator, three churches, beauty shop, bar, feed and seed store.
When the meat locker burned down one frigid winter night, threatening to take the entire town with it (so the legend goes), the volunteer fire departments from Bristow and area communities saved the town. My mother still marvels how the meat we bought that survived the fire had a wonderful smoked flavor. Ya think!?
During my high school days in Allison, Mom would pick me up in Bristow, parking in front of the feed and seed store, to save me a boring 30-minute bus ride. I’d get my hair cut in the beauty shop; the poor lady having to deal with my unruly curls. We filled our car with gas at the station on the corner. We didn’t dare set foot inside Dora’s Tap.
The Trip Home
The decline of the rural population and difficult ag economy over the years took its toll on Bristow and many small towns. The population dropped from 250 in 1980 to 160 currently. The junior high moved to Allison, the schoolhouse was torn down, and low income housing was built on the site. The post office closed, often considered a death knell to a community, and some buildings were torn down leaving vacant lots or crumbling foundations.
I set aside time on a recent trip to visit my mom to check out Bristow. I walked around town seeing it with wide-open 56-year-old eyes. The homes are quaint, well-kept and surrounded by lush lawns and colorful flowers and shrubs. The tree canopies over the streets are mature and full.
The town is re-inventing itself. A playground, splash pad, and concession stand have been built in the park. There’s a quaint museum in which my novel “Embracing Hope” has been placed for posterity’s sake. The “main drag” through the center of town is being repaved and sidewalks are being replaced. One resident (a neighbor when we lived on the farm) has created a beautiful garden oasis featuring the smallest church in Iowa.
Community Pride is Alive and Well
The day I visited was Bristow’s annual summer celebration featuring a tractor and pickup truck pull. I had never seen one and my cousin had to explain it to me. (Photo.) Other activities were a pancake breakfast at the fire station and a street dance that night.
The parade exemplified rural middle America’s values: public safety vehicles noisily leading the way (Nice fire trucks, by the way!), veterans, plenty of American flags, Miss Bristow, the grand marshals, horses, antique tractors, a politician, and lots of candy thrown to the curb for the kiddos.
I’ve been to dozens of parades in the Twin Cities, obviously on a grander scale: 200 entries, two hours long, two-mile routes, award-winning high school bands, and impressively decorated floats with Miss Name Your Community and her court waving graciously to the crowd of thousands. Yet as I stood there on Bristow’s Main Street watching the parade, I realized the sentiment was the same: community pride. Maybe that’s why a tagline has emerged among residents, “Bristow America.”
Not the Same
Yet as I wandered around Bristow and watched the tractor/truck pull, I felt a little (OK, a lot) out of place. I didn’t recognize anyone, although an elderly lady who is my mom’s friend recognized me. Her son and my brother were in the same high school class.
I realize I’m not the same. Bristow isn’t the same. The times in which we live aren’t the same. After being gone for 35 years, I no longer feel at home in Bristow. However, I will keep track of the town via Facebook and return occasionally to see how Bristow America continues to re-invent itself.
I write this with fictional George Webber in “You Can’t Go Home Again” on my mind. Webber, a fledgling author, writes a book that makes frequent references to his hometown of Libya Hill. The book is a national success but the residents of the town, unhappy with what they view as Webber’s distorted depiction of them, send the author menacing letters and death threats.
I don’t think I’ve distorted the past or current depictions of Bristow. If anything, this blog has rekindled memories and insights that I feel comfortable sharing. And I hope any Bristow residents and those who have moved away understand that.