Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - October 21, 2016

Our “Blue Highways”

We’ve made dozens of trips to husband Art’s home state of Wisconsin. Traveled in a day, the journey takes between 13 and 15 hours, depending on our final destination. But in recent years, we’ve adopted a more leisurely pace, breaking the trips into two days. We’ve also been including secondary roads in addition to Interstates. This change has meant we’ve seen some interesting things that we previously bypassed.

On our latest jaunt to enjoy the North Woods before closing our cottage for the winter, we noticed a sign along Highway 71 in Iowa advertising the “Ax Murder House!”

Say what?

While we didn’t stop, I was curious. I Googled it and discovered that sometime between the night of June 9 and the morning of June 10, 1912, Josiah and Sarah Moore, their four children and two visiting children were bludgeoned to death in the Moore home in Villisca, Iowa. Josiah was a successful John Deere dealer and Sarah was active in the Presbyterian church.

Their murder was never solved and has inspired books, a documentary and a film project. The Moore home was renovated and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Those interested in seeing the house can do self-guided tours on Halloween night for $5 or can do day tours from 1-4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Those who REALLY want to experience the place can book overnight stays, available seven nights a week all year long.

I will definitely take a rain check on that offer. Too creepy.

Near Winterset, Iowa, we came to a sign for the Roseman Covered Bridge. This one we both wanted to see. After all, we had both enjoyed the movie “Bridges of Madison County,” starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.

The bridge, located four miles off Highway 92, was built in 1883 by Benton Jones and is one of six surviving covered bridges in Madison County. It is the most well-known because it was featured in the novel and the 1995 movie based on the book. The bridge spans the Middle River and was used until 1981 and renovated in 1992.

We weren’t the only ones visiting that bright blue-skyed October afternoon. Cars from South Carolina, North Carolina, Nebraska, Texas and Iowa were parked in the small parking area. I heard one couple speaking Spanish. I wanted to ask them how they heard about the bridge, but the woman was too busy giving the man “helpful” instructions on how to take photos of her standing on it or near it.

When I went inside the 107-foot-long span, the smell reminded me of our barn - slightly damp and earthy. The design type is “covered timber town lattice truss overlaid by a queenpost frame,” according to the nearby sign. I wasn’t quite certain what that meant, but the huge planks used in the flooring and side trussing certainly made it look very strong indeed. Near the entrances on both sides, whitewashed boards provided space for visitors to write their names or whatever messages they wanted to leave.

Having satisfied our curiosity, we returned to the highway and soon passed through Winterset, the birthplace of John Wayne. As with the ax murder house, we didn’t stop, but I snapped a picture of the lovely cupola on the courthouse.

We spent the evening in Rochester, Minnesota before continuing our journey. The hilly bluffs next to the Mississippi River were beautiful, dressed in their full autumn colors.

Once in Wisconsin, we traveled along State Highway 85, passing through Durand, where Art’s parents lived a few months after they were first married.

About midway between Durand and Eau Claire, Art suddenly said, “Look at that!” I turned just in time to see a young Amish man working a field with six horses. In the yard nearby, two young boys wearing small straw hats were playing.

As we neared Eau Claire, we came to a sunflower field on the south side of the road with “Seeds of Hope” signs posted near the edge. The sunflower heads were drooping and brown, ready to be harvested.

Once again, I turned to my phone. I read that Babbette’s Seeds of Hope is a family-owned business along the Chippewa River. The business was established to honor Babbette Jaquish, who died in 2014 after a nine-year battle with multiple myeloma. According to her family, Babbette’s favorite flowers were sunflowers and she had an idea to sell them to help fund cancer research. To honor her idea, her husband Don planted more than four miles of sunflowers on both sides of the highway. The company donates a portion of the proceeds from its sunflower seeds and flowers to hospitals, research, and patient advocacy.

Our final stop was late in the afternoon back in the woods at a scenic overlook of the Prairie River Dells off of Highway 17 between Merrill and Gleason. The Prairie River, which once had a series of four dams, now flows freely through forests and farm meadows. We could hear the river running over the rocks before we saw it. The water, sun, fall colors and quietness made a serene scene indeed.

When we finally stopped in front of our cottage, I paused to reflect. Our trip was usually little more than cars, trucks and pavement. But this time, it had involved seeing an Amish farmer at work, learning about an ax-murder house, walking through a famous covered bridge, seeeing a special sunflower field, and breathing the fresh air by river dells.

In 1978, William Least Heat-Moon wrote a book called “Blue Highways” after a 13,000-mile trip on America’s secondary roads. Our trip was shorter and quicker and still had its share of Interstates. Still, I somehow feel by making the journey as important as the destination, we had a glimpse of what Heat-Moon experienced.

Top-left: Gloria, in the purple shirt, on the Roseman Bridge; top-center: decking and trussing of the Roseman Bridge; bottom-right: a Roseman Bridge beam compared to Art's hand; top-right: courthouse cupola in Winterset, Iowa; bottom-left: dells of the Prairie River in Lincoln County, Wisconsin.

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