February 27, 2024 | Rome, Italy

We Busted

By |2024-02-13T03:29:41+01:00February 1st, 2024|"Notebook"|
The Stoneman house in McGregor.
I

n 1856 soon after graduating from Williams College, my maternal great-great grandfather John Stoneman left the upstate New York farm where he had grown up and traveled west in search of the right place to start a law practice and a home. He passed by Chicago, which he described as a “dirty mud hole” without prospects (it really was before massive drainage works).

It was only after he had crossed the Mississippi that he found what he sought. Nestled below the Upper Mississippi’s limestone bluffs was a busy ferry and steamboat stop called McGregor, Iowa.

The following year he returned with his bride (and childhood sweetheart), whom he carried across the threshold of the house he was still building. In 1862, the young couple welcomed my great-grandmother to the still unfinished house.

McGregor soon busted too. By the 1870s, the steamboats had disappeared. The logging industry shrank, as did the fur trade.

Stoneman threw himself into his new town. He visited clients and courts across the county by carriage and sleigh (occasionally followed by wolves). He laid out the town’s plats, and managed the construction of a jail — and a park with a fountain. And he bought lots of land in fast-growing town.

In the 1940s, my great-grandmother — then in her eighties — wrote a book for her children about McGregor in those days. “…Strong currents of excitement were running through the valley for it was the great highway to the fabulous west. Covered wagons passed through McGregor all day long filled with eager, hopeful families, their eyes fixed on the land where the sun went down, its glory presaging wonders to come beyond. These wagons often had signs on them, ‘Going to California’ or ‘Pike’s Peak or Bust’. Sometimes one came back with another sign nailed below; ‘We Busted.’”

McGregor soon busted too. By the 1870s, the steamboats had disappeared. The logging industry shrank, as did the fur trade. Railroad routes bypassed McGregor for St. Louis and the Twin Cities. McGregor had become a “discouraged and slowly failing place” with “little to justify its existence” of “dull complacency.”

Great-great grandfather Stoneman, now burdened by worthless real estate and faded dreams “stayed on too long and was caught in the backwash.” Finally he gave in and started over in more successful Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He rebuilt his legal career, became a judge and a two-term state senator. But he never got over McGregor. He moved back and lived there until he died in 1903. My great-grandmother described him as “feeble, spent and depressed.”

John T. Stoneman

Many would have considered John Stoneman anything but a failure. He educated himself despite no family help. He built a successful professional career from nothing. His daughter graduated from Northwestern University, married well, and had successful children. None of it seemed to matter. The choice of McGregor overshadowed everything else.

But that is not the way American stories should go. In the ones we hear, the wagons only go west and no one knows disappointment.

In the 1920s, McGregor again quivered with excitement. A second chance was on the way. This time the town bet that tourists attracted by the natural beauty and history of the Upper Mississippi would restore the town’s glory.

Even though my great grandmother had sworn never to return to McGregor after she left for college, McGregor’s possibilities called her back. In 1932 she bought a lot in a new development on top of the town’s scenic bluffs from local developer John Bickel. There she built a compact little cottage, whose centerpiece was an immense fireplace built with stones salvaged from the now-demolished jail her father had built.

Bickel was from another original McGregor family, who had not given up on the town. Bickel bet big on his development which was to have a hotel and a golf course. But the tourists never came. The Great Depression did instead. McGregor busted and Bickel lost his land.

In the 1960s, my mother inherited my great-grandmother’s cottage. Family vacations there were a time warp. Except for small changes — cars, shop signs, an updated storefront —McGregor’s Main Street was the same as in the 1880s or the 1930s. At the cottage, we heated water on the 1932 stove, used a 1932 toilet and a 1932 toaster. The screen door even sounded the same as in 1932 (so said my mother).

When my mother died, my brother, sister and I returned to McGregor after decades. We cleaned up the cottage and did some repairs. For several years, we visited regularly. It was still the same stove, same toilet (now quite unreliable). The screen door sounded the same as always.

At the cottage, we heated water on the 1932 stove, used a 1932 toilet and a 1932 toaster. The screen door even sounded the same as in 1932.

I however, had changed. As a girl, I had read my great-grandmother’s book about her childhood in the same spirit as I — and millions of other girls — had read the “Little House Books” of Laura Ingalls Wilder (a contemporary of my great-grandmother born farther upriver from McGregor). Rereading it as an adult, I was less interested in the “romance” of frontier life than the book’s reminder of how deeply my great-great grandfather’s “mistaken” choice of McGregor had wormed its way into my psyche, leaving a paralyzing fear of failure.

During our 2023 visit to McGregor, my sister and I suddenly felt that the deep sense of our historical place in McGregor no longer outweighed the effort of holding on to it.

John Bickel’s grandson stepped in with an offer to buy the cottage — and a promise not to change anything (except the toilet and dangerous wiring).

In August, the screen door banged behind us for the last time. We headed back east across the mighty Mississippi. We may not have busted, but I cried all the way to Chicago.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."