Posted on

TERPSTRA – I’m no Indiana Jones

  • Jeff Sisson, chairman of the Charles City Historic Preservation Commission, stands next to a gravestone in Riverside Cemetery in Charles City. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

  • A.B.F Hildreth's gravestone that sits in Riverside Cemetery in Charles City. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

  • Charles W. Hart's gravestone that sits in Riverside Cemetery in Charles City. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

  • The chapel at Riverside Cemetery in Charles City. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

I’ve always been a sucker for sentiment.

I won’t go as far to say that nostalgia runs deep through my veins – but I’ve always been a firm believer that a link to the past can lead to a strong presence in the future.

A history buff I am not, but that old movie that keeps you up past 2 a.m. on a work week?

I’m all over it.

Leafing through past high school yearbooks and church directories?

TERPSTRA – I'm no Indiana Jones
Kelly Terpstra

I’m your man.

I’m no expert about yesteryear’s lore or a fact finder on a quest to unearth archaeological hidden treasures from ancient Rome or Egypt.

That’s Indiana Jones’ gig.

I will sit down with you and play a game of Trivial Pursuit and enjoy it – win or lose.

What happened say 30 or 40 years ago I deem relevant. It’s relevant in the fact that what happened in 1982 still matters to this day, whether you want to believe it or not. Now to what degree is the world better off for someone knowing that in 1982, Steven Speilberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” first graced movie screens?

I don’t settle scores or debates, so you’re going to have to figure that one out on your own.

Cal Ripken Jr. started his consecutive games played streak that year in ‘82. The future Hall of Famer went on to play 2,632 consecutive games for the Baltimore Orioles to set a major league record – a record many thought would never be broken.

What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?

Trivia experts or actual history buffs like Charles City’s Jeff Sisson can perhaps explain it better than I can.

“I learned a lot about what I know from people that were born in the 1870s, the 1880s and the 1890s that grew up here,” said Sisson.

I spent an afternoon with Sisson talking about history and the past on my birthday last month. For those that may inquire or wonder when that was, it was Monday, May 20.

It was a beautiful late spring day in Charles City and the topic of discussion was historic preservation month. All of May was National Historic Preservation Month.

Sisson allowed me to look at one of the first newspapers ever printed in Charles City – The Charles City Republican Intelligencer. The newspaper was first printed in 1861 by publisher A.B.F. Hildreth. The paper would later become the modern day Charles City Press.

“It’s the oldest operating business in town,” Sisson said.

Sisson went on to tell me the first newspaper was printed and sold at an auction on Mills Street for $20. That’s a lot of money back then. If I type that monetary amount into my trusty inflation rate time machine, that comes out to about $600 of purchasing power in today’s economy.

Just who was Azro Benjamin Franklin (A.B.F.) Hildreth?

He was a pioneer of Charles City.

He built the Hildreth Hotel in 1893. The hotel was located at 401 N. Main (current location of the Charles City Chamber of Commerce) and was later destroyed by fire in the 1930s.

I found out more about Hildreth as Sisson hopped into my car and we took a drive over to Riverside Cemetery to learn more.

We found his gravestone and I was informed Hildreth was a leap-year baby. He was also a seventeen-term Republican U.S. Representative from Iowa’s 4th congressional district.

Now before I regale you with tales and stories about one of Charles City’s famous founding fathers, I will say this.

Walking around a cemetery in the middle of the afternoon isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but the more Sisson and I talked, the more intrigued I was.

He took his smartphone out and placed it up next to a metal rod sticking out of the ground near Hildreth’s grave. The phone scanned a QR code and thus began a history lesson right then and there in the middle of the cemetery. A young voice spoke through that smartphone and informed each of us about Hildreth’s background and his contribution to Charles City during his time on earth.

He was resting right below us when the audio clip was playing, so I didn’t want to say anything that may offend the old man and encumber his eternal sleep. But I was impressed with his credentials.

From Hildreth’s grave, we moseyed on over to countless other headstones and remarkably crafted pieces of limestone that were more intricate and ornate than I ever could have imagined.

I never realized the living could learn so much from the dead in this way.

They have a story to tell, you just have to listen.

Sisson went on to tell me that Riverside Cemetery is owned and operated by the St. Charles Cemetery Association, which was formed on Dec. 29, 1857.

Sisson was mayor back in the day – 1994-1995. He formed the Charles City Historic Preservation Commission at that time. The commission helped Charles City became a member of the Main Street program in Iowa.

“It’s not just buildings. It’s not just things. Historic preservation is memories, storytelling,” Sisson said to me.

Sisson showed me a plot of land where he’ll eventually be buried. There is no headstone yet.

“The more I learn about the past, the more it helps me prepare for the future,” said Sisson. “You have to prepare yourself. History does help you do it.”

We walked past many war heroes on that beautiful day. Small markers that indicate a gravesite pepper the grounds – many of them Civil War vets that fought with the Union Army for the North out of Wisconsin, Sisson said.

Sisson preserves the past.

He helped middle-school students a few years back with an Iowa BIG North project that started the grave casts. The students chose 25 prominent people or individuals that were born over 150 years ago for the grave casts.

“My whole goal there is to turn the cemetery into an outdoor classroom in a respectful way. I think that’s important,” Sisson added.

The grave casts – they are currently 10 right now – allow visitors a chance for a self-guided tour in the cemetery. Sisson called it a “novel idea.” He said about 120 kids helped out. They’re sophomores now.

“I was amazed at the way that they received the invitation to participate at the cemetery and to come up with ideas for projects,” said Sisson. “From top to bottom – from A to Z – no matter who those kids were, they all took a vested interest in the program. It was that that got Trivia Night going and it got the chapel project and it got the National Wildlife Federation involved.”

The students helped restore the cemetery’s chapel and also created a bird sanctuary near the cemetery.

Sisson and I walked through the bird sanctuary. A deer stopped to gaze back at us about halfway down the long corridor. Sisson continued to speak. The plan by the middle school students was to extend the bike path into the sanctuary, but because of flooding concerns, that was scrapped.

“This is one of the best kept birding opportunities in and around Charles City. This used to be a road that went back to Oak Park,” said Sisson. “This time of year, the warblers are remarkable.”

Once we continued our trek into the sanctuary – the deer’s interest was peaked and it raced back into the cemetery, prancing and skipping with a fervor that I would expect out of Iowa deer.

Sisson moved to Charles City when he was five years old – roughly six years before the big tornado struck Charles City in 1968.

We talked about the tornado a little as we walked back to my car. I was worried that bad weather in the forecast was going to ruin my birthday weekend. Little did I know at the time that bad weather would come again in the form of another tornado that would sweep through the Floyd County Fairgrounds and destroy several homes in Charles City some half a century later this past Memorial Day.

They say history has a way of repeating itself.

I would say that’s true.

Charles Citians are again starting to rebuild and pickup from what the tornado destroyed last week – albeit on a much smaller scale.

Sisson talked about a contentious time 51 years ago leading up to the tornado. The town was divided over the prospect of an urban renewal project that was in the works. Sisson said that came to a culmination in April of 1968.

“It was polarizing the community. We had people that wanted urban renewal and then we had people say ‘hands off, leave everything the way that it is,’” Sisson exclaimed.

Mother Nature had other ideas.

“A month later we had instant urban renewal. It was crammed down our throat with the tornado,” said Sisson. “It was kind of ironic that whole thing came about.”

Through devastation and loss comes rebirth. I guess that’s the main thing I took out of our walk around the cemetery on my birthday. That through some of the most desperate hours come some of our most shining moments.

That’s a history lesson if I’ve ever heard one.

“Where we came from 51 years ago today – 51 years ago last week from the tornado. The way we picked ourselves up and put everything back together. For anybody that wasn’t here, you just can’t imagine what kind of a mess that was. It was horrific,” said Sisson.

So whether it’s putting that dusty old vinyl record back up on the turntable and letting the needle do its thing or paging through an old photo book, the past brings back memories. Those memories can inspire.

“If we can get young people – people of all ages – if we can get the citizens of Charles City and surrounding area – if we can get them excited about the history of the community, it causes people to be proud of their community. It makes them become active in historic preservation,” said Sisson.