Tonight I’m staying in Muscatine, Iowa, a smallish town on the banks of the Mississippi. It’s much more farmy here and much less marshy, but still quite pretty. I was feeling a little tired of woods, so I ventured into town with Monty and Niko in tow.
Muscatine was once famous for its Pearl Button Factory, which made tiny pearlescent buttons from the shells of freshwater mussels. The building is now a restaurant, but it’s surrounded by an historic district that is full of beautiful architecture. Surprisingly, unlike many small towns I’ve traveled through recently, the town seems to be on the up and up, almost metropolitan at points. (Almost.) I suspect some of this has to do with the very large oak-laminate factory to its north.
Down the road is Wildcat Den State Park (I have seen no wildcats. I am not disappointed.) Here you can visit the cemetery where the original first settler is buried. (Sidenote: Did you know that EVERY small town has a Cemetery Road? I’ve checked, and can confirm this. How would you like your address to be 147 Cemetery Road? How do you explain that to people?)
You can also visit the old Grist Mill, built in 1837, and the lovely, old bridge with its thick wood planks that spans the creek beside it.
The mill itself IS the original mill, though of course they’ve added a new roof, etc, to keep things up. A grist mill mills wheat into flour, in case you were wondering. A few of the old mill stones are lying around in the yard, and the wall of stones holding back the now trickle of a creek is still there.
But that’s not the interesting part.
The mill is at the bottom of a hill in the park. People can come and go as they please at any time of day, really. And at the north side of the mill, I discovered something wonderful. The siding on the mill has grown so soft that one can literally scrape out his initials with a rock or a key in just a few minutes.
And literally hundreds of people have done so over the last 80 years.
From one end of the building to the other, maybe 20 feet long and almost 8 feet high is a list of names and initials. Many of them are love tokens. The weather has given the wood a beautiful blackish patina in places, making the names stand out even more. Some I found had dates as early as 1950, and I would bet many have been washed away from before that. I usually feel sort of wishy washy about graffiti, especially in historic places, but in this case, having so MANY people contribute to this special, yet relatively unknown spot over so long a time period makes it kind of romantic, and its own kind of history.
That’s what I love to discover: the sort of small history that isn’t processed and packaged and put behind glass. It’s the kind of history that lives and grows. That wears away a little. The kind that shares a secret all the way through time, a secret that reminds someone that she’s not alone in the universe.
In case you’re wondering, I did carve my name.