Of all the joys vouchsafed to man in life's tempestuous whirl. There's naught approaches heaven so near than sleighing with a girl. Oh, for the girl that's merry and wise With wavy hair and sparkling eyes That's always as merry and gay as a kitten And never will give a fellow the mitten. -- Elmer Reeves, Waverly, Iowa, March 2, 1877
OVERHEAD, a flock of Canada geese followed the course of the Cedar River. Below, a jackrabbit skittered across the sleigh trail and disappeared into a clump of blanched cornstalks temporarily laid bare by the drifting snow. Hattie tossed her head and snorted, a little cloud of vapor rising from her nostrils in the cold morning air. Elmer Reeves, riding behind Hattie in a cutter, reined in a little. There was plenty of time. He'd left for school early and he wanted to savor the moment.
Ordinarily, Elmer rode horseback the six miles from the farm in Lafayette Township to the high school in Waverly. Today, though, his father had lent him the two-man cutter. It was a special occasion.
Today Ida May Ryan had promised to go sleighing with him after school. Ida May Ryan! The prettiest girl in all of Waverly, Elmer thought, and the perkiest, too.
Elmer had never stepped out with Ida May. The sleigh rides from the Baptist church -- with two horses and a big bob filled with straw -- were great sport, singing and snowballing and hot cider at the church at the end of the ride, but Ida May had never been along. Ida May was not a Baptist.
The Cadwallader girls, old classmates from the log school down in Jackson Township, were fun to sleigh with, sure, but he'd known them all his life and heck, they were like sisters. Carrie Peck was pretty enough, but an awful snob . . . Mentally, Elmer scored off May Woodruff and Hettie Harmon -- Hettie always had a cold. Florence Spaulding was a grind. Flora Burbank, Doc Burbank's daughter, was smart, and nice, too. But none of them could hold a candle to Ida May Ryan. Elmer shuddered.
If only he didn't have to stay after school today! Hattie Jackson, the assistant principal, could be kind of mean, even on Fridays. Especially on Fridays. (Elmer had named his horse in Miss Jackson's honor -- meaning no disrespect, of course, but there was a resemblance.fs.fs.) Miss Jackson, he thought, had it in for the boys from the country who didn't show up at high school until fairly late in life.
Elmer himself was 18, and only in his first year. But no, no detention today. Elmer patted his McGuffey's reader and smiled. No after-school today! Elmer's sturdy brown McGuffey's Reader was bought this year at Len Bernstein's Caravan Book Store in Los Angeles by a colleague who collects rare books. It had found its way to California with a family of Elmer Reeves' descendants who'd made the ultimate trip West.
We thumbed through the book, admiring the beauty and concision of its prose, vaguely regretting that our children were being brought up on "Spider Man" and "Saturday Night Fever," and toward the end of the Reader, we came upon Elmer's penciled poem.
The newspaper day crept by. We dealt with hostages and drugs and rape-prevention courses and invasions and shortages, and some of us kept returning to Elmer's poem, a little haven of charm, exuberance, simplicity and love, on a desk cluttered with the insanity of the '80s.
Somehow, it become an obsession. Who was Elmer? Who was the girl? "Elmer's muse," we called her. "The maiden in the mittens." Would we ever know? Could we possibly re-create a day in the life of Elmer Reeves, 2,000 miles away and 103 years ago?
In Waverly, people live a long time. (Elmer was 87 when he died.) It must be the air. In Waverly, people still remember Elmer Reeves, albeit as man, not boy. Why, weren't Elmer's father, Norman, and his uncle, Bill Harmon, founders of the town? Should've been called Harmony, maybe, except that somebody got carried away with one of Sir Walter Scott's novels, "Waverly."
It's just as well, some say. When the Barber brothers were strung up on Bremer Avenue for horse thievery, you wouldn't have wanted to say they were hanged in Harmony.
Oliver Reeves (no relation) and his wife, Mary Ellen, remember Elmer. Oliver ("just a corn-and-hogs country lawyer") and Mary Ellen, a member of the DAR, had as much fun tracking down the legend as the reporter did -- poking through archives, reading headstones, tramping the old homesteads.
Maude Haight remembers, though there are a few things she'd just as soon gloss over. Maude's father was Greasy Ingersoll, who played a fantastic bass fiddle and ran the slightly shady second-floor dance hall out at the hamlet called Irma, a mile from the Reeves' old farm.
At Elmer's own church, Maude, 94, points out the Reeves pew, four rowsback from the baptistry.
Ted Henkner remembers how could it was picking strawberries at Elmer's before dawn. Arlie Smith, 90 years old and as sharp as the teeth on a new Deere plow, remembers well. "Times were hard," says Arlie, "but times are always hard. It's what you make of them. "In Elmer's day, and in mine, if you were a farm boy you didn't have a lot of time to play, so you made the most of that, too. "Sleighing was one of the few ways you could get close to a girl. If she gave you the mitten, well, that was mostly a wasted ride." ("Giving the mitten," volunteers Melva Stufflebeam, "was an expression for breaking it off with a boy. You'd say, 'She's not going with Johnny anymore; she's given him the mitten.'"
In Iowa, in March, the brush off was administered with the hand fully clothed.) "The girl must have been sweet on Elmer," Arlie concludes. "A lot of them that didn't give the mitten, well, later, they'd wish they had. . . ."
Elmer carried the soapstone, wrapped in a blanket, from the high school where he'd been heating it upon the old stove. For warmth, he arranged the stone on the floor of the cutter, then draped a horse hide robe over his and Ida May's laps. Some of the boys used a dog hide robe, but Elmer knew from sad experience that when dog hide got wet, it smelled like . . . well, like dead dog.
Hattie swung north from the school, then west, up Bremer Avenue. Ida May was relatively new in town, in from Idaho only three years before, and Elmer, nervous, began to talk about himself. Until he was 9, he'd gone to a one-room schoolhouse down in Jackson Township where his father had farmed, and what he remembered most was the hollow log he'd sat on during his lessons, and Uncle Tommy Sewell's hogs rooting under the schoolfloor. There was Aunt Hannah and Uncle Ben, too, the first of the freed slaves who'd found their way to the region.
Ida May listened, rapt, as if he were describing a trip up the Congo. Later, after helping to build and run a sawmill with Mr. Harmon, his father moved north to Jackson Township where Elmer went to school -- "well, sometimes" -- Mr. Van Diver's barn, which the local farmers had converted. Samuel Dirks, a crusty old Dutch bachelor, had helped with the desks, Elmer recalled: "I haf no shilder." Sam Dirks had said, "but I fixed him upgude for the boys and girls, by golly, met out pay."
Ida May laughed -- a sound more sical than sleigh bells, Elmer thought -- as Hattie neatly side stepped a big pile of lumber spank in the middle of Bremer Avenue. "It's for the celebration next Monday," Elmer explained, "for President Hayes' inauguration. There's going to be bonfires on every corner and a torchlight parade and a big brass band and this enormous American flag .fs.fs.Say, would you like to watch it with me?"
"I dont't think I can stay out that late," said Ida May, who was only 14.
"HAYES INAUGURATED" headlined the Waverly Republican of March 28, 1877, "And Peace and Quietness Reign." It was about as peaceful and quiet as 1980. The shah was assembling his troops on the Turkish frontier, "solely to prevent the depradations of a Nomadic tribe," reported the Republican, while "Col. Valentine Baker, the disgraced English officer, has been employed by the Sultan of Turkey to organize a military police force 60,000 strong." Austria was "concentrating an Army corps on the Serbian frontier," while, closer to home, "The miners in the Black Hills are becoming alarmed at the threatening attitude of hostile Indians. A band of savages recently made a night attack on Spearfish City . . ."
Even closer, in Waverly itself, "Mrs. Pomeroy's clothesline was visited by some petty, thieving vagabond and stripped of a large washing." A dentist who had sold a widow a $50 set of teeth and got tired of waiting of an overdue bill seized the woman and "despite her screams and biting, pulled the teeth out and kept them."
On the brighter side, one could always find solace in Mustang Liniment, advertised on the Republican's front page as "The Foe of Pain." "A bottle costing 25 cents," read the ad, "has often saved the life of a human being and returned to life and usefulness many a valuable horse." Out in Plainfield, "Deacon Bement and Uncle Billy Dinning now write their names with M.D. attached -- which means Mule Drivers." And in nearby Nashua, "Mrs. J.M. Nevins succeeded in taking out of the ear of a child a grain of popcorn which had been in the ear eight years. She used a common pin . . ."
Elmer pulled his cap over his ears as the cutter headed north again, into open coutry, and asked Ida May if she were comfortable. Ida May was very comfortable.
"Over across the river, that's Yell City," Elmer said, pointing out the landmarks in the bleak landscape. "We call it Yell City because a few years back, some folks got stranded. No wayout. They began to holler and yell . . ." Ida May giggled and snuggled down farther into the robe.
"You know," said Elmer, "I'd kind of like to take you to the barn dance, but you know I'm a Baptist . . ."
"I took a girl to a country dance once." Arlie Smith recalls, "but just once. There was bootleggers there, you know -- someting about drinking booze out of a bottle made you blood brothers or something. Next week, the Klan burned a cross in front of the place. "Anyway, my girl asked me to take her back to the next dance. I refused. She cried. "I told her mother, 'Tell Grace I'm going to Sunday School tomorrow. It she wants to go with me, fine. If not, that's it. "She went with me. Later we got married.
"She was a neighbor's daughter, of course, from a farm about 1 1/2 miles away. Five miles away, they was strangers.
"If a fella was smart, he married a girl who could milk the cows. slop the hogs. I kept telling my folks I was going to go out to Dakoty and find me a Norwegian girl. Never did. Not then nor later; though I sure wanted to see Dakoty. My wife would have been homesick. Loved the girl better'n the place, I guess.
"Took her on sleigh rides, sure I did. You'd ride a cutter in a single track, behind where the big bobs had made double tracks. The cutter would veer off one track and naturally you'd have to put your arm around the girl to protect her, you know.
Elmer stole a kiss. He did, by golly, and in Elmer's day you stole a kiss. They weren't giving them away. Elmer waited for a mitten. No mitten. It was unspoken, but Ida May Ryan was his girl now. Elmer and his girl scrunched down behind the cutter's cashboard against the cold evening wind from the northwest. Later, they turned for home, back toward Waverly.
The older residents of Waverly love the town. So do the kids. Those in their middle years are not so sure: "There's not much to do here." In Waverly, population 7,500 (2,000 in Elmer's day), there are 11 churches, about half as many bars and Wartburg College. There is a newspaper in town, which publishes as the Waverly Democrat on Tuesdays and the Bremer County Independent on Thursdays.
There is boating and fishing on the Cedar River, and there is a golf course and a movie theater, though the old Opera House is gone. Attorney Oliver Reeve, who never went to law school but hitchhiked the 40 miles from Sumner to Waterloo to learn the law from old Judge A. B. Lovejoy, likes it in Waverly. Oliver has been around the world, "but I got homesick to see the sun come up over the horizon. I like the change of seasons," says Oliver.
"I like . . . well, I just like Waverly better than any other place. People are friendlier here than in most parts of the country," says publisher F. C. Grawe. "We have nothing to lose."
"Everybody say 'Hi' on the streets," says Kathy Gray, 21, originally from Washington, D.C. "At first I wondered what they were after. On, it's friendly all right, but the gossip -- it can be vicious . . ."
Brian Button, 11, and Kris White, 12, love the outdoor life, even the sledding, though "you have to watch out for the cow manure. When it gets frozen, you can cut your face on it."
Kris, already a liberated young lady, is going to leave Waverly: "I'm going to be a doctor or a lawyer and there's not much business here -- but I'll visit my parents on Christmas." Brian is "going to Annapolis military academy and be a nuclear engineer. Then I'll go into politics. Sure, I'll comeback."
"What I want to do," said Elmer, now full of hopes and dreams, "is own my own nursery, grow some trees and flowers that have never been grown in Iowa before. And I want to do something about the schools here -- we sure could use some plumbing. I guess I just want to make Waverly better." He glanced shyly at Ida May. "Of course," he said, "I'll probably have to leave town for a while to get a proper education.
Ida May would write in Elmer's Reader: When you are in a distant land, Think of the writing of my hand [When you are lonely and sad ]Think of the good times we had. At school."
When Elmer left high school a year later, he worked a while on neighboring farms to earn enough money too go off the the Agricultural College at Ames, Iowa, in 1881. He returned in 1884 to buy a parcel of ground just west of town and opened a nursery.
On Jan. 3, 1886, the Baptists chopped a hole in the ice of the Cedar River and baptized Ida May Ryan. On April 14, 1886, Elmer and Ida May were married by Elder Alonzo Raymond. "Valuable presents and the kind and hearty wishes of many friends who were present were given for a long and happy life," reported the Waverly Republican.
Early on a snowy morning in March 1887, old Doc Burbank arrived by cutter to assist in the delivery of a son, Ralph Reeves, to Ida May and Elmer.
Mary Mether, 85, clambers through her barn east of town, shoves back a heavy wooden sliding door and proudly displays Doc Burbank's cutter to a visitor. "That's Doc's all right," says Mether. "Used to ride it myself when I was a few years younger . . ."
In time, Elmer Reeves expanded his holdings to 125 acres. With Elmer's hard work, education and an imagination rare for his times, the nursery became known as the finest in Iowa, if not the whole Midwest. One of the most beloved and respected citizens of Waverly, Elmer went on to raise and educate four children and was prominent in Baptist, horticultural and banking circles. As director of the Waverly schools for 14 years, he finally got that plumbing put in.
Elmer died in 1947 and is buried in Waverly's Harlington Cemetery, the prettiest spot in town, overlooking the Cedar River, the golf course and a vast expanse of thriving farmland. A red granite tombstone marks the grave of Elmer and Eva C. Reeves, nee Cadwallader, 1863-1958. Elmer had married Eva, his second wife and old school chum from Jackson Township days, in 1890.
To the right of Elmer and Eva's grave, buried beneath a weather beaten sandstone marker, rests Ida May Reeves, 1863-1887. Less than a year after her wedding she died in childbirth.