Read the sports commentary
by Sean Keeler here ...
always disconcerting for those who value history
and a sense of place to find out that another
historic building is receiving death threats.
This time it’s one of the oldest homes in Des
Moines. So what thoughtless developer wants
to wipe another landmark from our city’s landscape?
It’s the Iowa State Fair Board. Yes, the 16
members of the Iowa State Fair Board — none
of whom are from the Capitol City — have decided
that a pioneer Des Moines home that has survived
for more than 150 years should be destroyed.
Though the fairgrounds spread across 400 acres,
the board decided they wanted the 2,012 square
feet of ground the original farmhouse occupies.
Why? Well, they’re not exactly sure. They have
no real plan for the space. I’m not kidding.
According to Fair CEO Gary Slater, the nearby
barn, not the house, is the “iconic structure.”
Perhaps if it was the site of the Holy Manger,
he might have a point. But the pioneer family
that homesteaded the property in 1848 raised
their family in the house, not the barn.
When John Harris was born in 1796, George Washington
was president. His journey took him from his
native North Carolina to Wayne County, Ind.,
where he met and married Nancy Harvey in 1817.
John and Nancy raised five children. Not long
after Iowa became a state, the Harris family
landed in Polk County. In April of 1848, Harris
and a group of early pioneers met at Fort Des
Moines to help establish a method for settlers
to safely stake their land claims. Polk County
was the Wild West, and land claims were a hairy
ordeal. It was the land where the Iowa State
Fairgrounds now exists where John Harris laid
his claim. Nancy passed away in 1853, and John
in 1864. Both are buried in the ancient Sim’s
Cemetery just 800 yards from his homestead.
John Harris is the oldest “resident” of the
After his death, the land passed down to his
daughter, Araminta Harris Thornton, and her
brothers. Araminta’s husband, Calvin Thornton,
was born in Illinois in 1830, the fourth of
10 children. His father followed his brother,
Riley, who came to Polk County in 1846. Calvin
visited in 1848, but didn’t return to Fort Des
Moines until 1850, after completing an apprenticeship
as a cabinetmaker. He bought farmland in 1851,
became Delaware Township clerk, Director of
the School District and President of the School
Board. He was the township’s first Justice of
the Peace. He married Araminta in 1854, and
they had seven children. Calvin and Araminta
took possession of the farm after selling their
own place and settling with John Harris’ heirs.
In 1886 he sold the farm to the Iowa State Fair
Board and bought a farm in what is now the heart
of Pasadena, Calif. The 1890 census listed Calvin
as an “Orchardist.” He died in 1908 at age 78.
Araminta died one month short of her 90th birthday
The house and barn, originally built by a man
born in the 18th century, have existed side
by side since before the Civil War. For 125
years, the stewards of the Iowa State Fair have
maintained both the house and barn. More than
$100,000 was spent on the barn in 1994 and more
in 2008. The barn is now home to “The Wine Experience”
where kids get to stomp grapes while their folks
sample wine. Did I mention John Harris was a
Quaker? Until about six years ago, the home
housed fair employees. Over the last century
and a half, any historic charm has been lost
to utilitarian “updates.” However clues to its
original Carpenter Gothic architecture, like
the bay window (visible in an 1875 Andreas Atlas
etching) still exist. Given the chance, Iowans,
especially those in Des Moines and Polk County,
would surely reach out to help in the restoration
of such a worthwhile project. But to do so,
they need to be given the opportunity. The Iowa
State Fair Board does a fantastic job operating
one of the best state fairs in the country.
It would be a shame for them to miss a fabulous
opportunity to educate Iowans with an authentic
example of an Iowa homestead that is nearly
as old as the state of Iowa. But it would be
a crime for them to destroy our local community’s
In a recent conversation CEO Gary Slater had
with Aaron Putze of the Iowa Food and Family
Project, Putze said: “The architectural beauty
of the Iowa State Fair buildings is amazing
and makes for a tremendous legacy. Is it overwhelming
to be entrusted with it?”
Slater’s response: “The board and I take great
pride in not only maintaining what’s here, but
building from the traditions that have made
the state fair so successful. This includes
our facilities. Our broad pledge is that our
children and grandchildren will be as proud
of the buildings as we are. They have character
and functionality. That’s important to us and
always will be.”
Talk is cheap. CV
Kent Carlson is a native Iowa artist interested
in the preserving Iowa’s architectural heritage
and the common sense of its leaders. And he
writes a few columns for Cityview, too.
By Sean Keeler
Desire could be a great equalizer for
The No.1 tailback didn’t make the trip to Arizona.
The next man in didn’t, either. The defensive
coordinator is a game away from retirement.
The defensive line coach just bolted for Nebraska.
Speculation is running rampant up and down Johnson
County. The buzzards are circling. The rancor
on the recruiting trail got so chippy that Iowa
coach Kirk Ferentz felt compelled to issue a
quick “I’m firmly committed to Iowa City” statement
Are you like me? Are you thinking the Hawkeyes
are going to be looking to let off some steam
when the Insight Bowl finally kicks off on Dec.
30? That all these distractions might actually
make this team more dangerous in a contest that
— on paper — it has no business of winning?
That Ferentz might actually have us all right
where he wants us?
A lot of programs feel more comfortable with
a chip on the shoulder. Ferentz’s Hawkeyes thrive
off of it. Hell, they feed off of it. It’s as
if they’re Popeye, and public disrespect is
that can of spinach, rolling just out of reach.
This week’s Bluto is the Oklahoma Sooners, the
Associated Press’ preseason No. 1, a team that
wasn’t supposed to be here. A bunch that doesn’t
want to be here.
In bowl games, superior talent tends to win
out in the end. But want-to, desire, is the
So is preparation, which is a major reason why
Iowa has won its last three postseason contests
— and beat the spread over its last four, dating
back to the 2006 Alamo Bowl against Texas. Give
defensive coordinator Norm Parker a month, and
he will find ways to pick you apart.
And it must be said: We’re going to miss Norm.
You’re going to miss Norm — the laughs, the
stories, the wacky analogies, the references
to his golf game. The defenses that were fundamentally
tighter than a bass drum, the units that prided
themselves on making you earn what you got.
(Spread teams with mobile quarterbacks who feasted
on those little 7-yard throws tended to earn
more than most, but, hey, nobody’s perfect.)
Once the dirt starts flying in Tempe, you’re
going to miss running back Marcus Coker, too;
it’s just a matter of how much. The No. 2 tailback
listed on Iowa’s pre-bowl depth chart, Jason
White, has three carries on his resume. The
team’s No. 2 rusher, DeAndre Johnson, hasn’t
recorded a carry since a loss at Minnesota on
Oct. 29. Ferentz has two options here: The unproven
or the unknown. Either way, he’s not dealing
from a position of strength.
Meanwhile, the rumors involving Coker are all
over the map, from grades to drugs to girls
— all of which have burned the Hawkeyes in the
past in one way or another. Considering the
Maryland native was named “Gentleman of the
Year” twice at his high school for community
service as a junior and a senior, it sure doesn’t
fit the profile. Even good kids screw up on
occasion. The smart ones know not to repeat
their mistakes. Regardless, the timing — Coker
was reportedly still practicing with the team
as late as Dec. 18 — is curious.
Ultimately, the No. 1 choice may be whichever
option hurts the passing game the least, either
through blocking or catching the ball out of
the backfield. No matter how you slice it, it’s
quarterback James Vandenberg’s show, for better
or worse. In light of the fact that coach Bob
Stoops’ Sooners ranked 83rd out of 120 Football
Bowl Subdivision teams in passing defense, that
may not be a bad thing. Oklahoma also racked
up 37 sacks, which means the pressure will come
early. And often.
Stoops hasn’t slipped to non-BCS bowls very
often, and he totes a 3-1 record in those games;
since 2000, the AP preseason No. 1 is 8-3 in
postseason contests. Still, these are the Hawkeyes,
and in a season that’s had more ups and downs
than your 401K, they’re overdue for a day in
the sun. Vegas likes the Sooners by two touchdowns.
Conventional wisdom likes them a heck of a lot
Sean Keeler was a sports columnist at The
Des Moines Register from 2002-2011. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.