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Bobsledding, popcorn balls and swinging rural Iowa elections

1/16/2013

What a delight to chronicle the story of Lillian Braden and her 12 brothers and seven sisters, all biological kids of Jans and Elizabeth Peters, German Lutheran immigrants who settled near Glidden in the early 1900s.

Mrs. Braden passed away at the age of 92 earlier this month, the last of her siblings to depart this earth. She’d only been in the nursing home since just before Thanksgiving. Word is she even enjoyed a beer not too long ago.

Around here, back in the 1920s and 1930s, election watchers eagerly awaited the arrival of the Peters family. As they went, so could many a local race, especially as you factored in the extension of the bloodline.

Jans and Elizabeth Peters emigrated on the steamship Necker from Hamburg, Germany, to the United States in May 1901 — already with four children. Elizabeth had her first son, Derk, in 1897 at age 20 or 21. She would bear her last child 27 years later in Carroll County in 1924, at age 47 or 48. Based on an average pregnancy of nine months, Elizabeth Peters (1878 to 1952) spent 15 years of her 74-year life with child.

Hollywood wanted to do a movie on the family, but Jans rejected the idea, concerned the Los Angeles West-coasters would lampoon their way of life. It’s hard to tell. The entertainment machine gave us both Donna Reed and Jed Clampett.

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After reading the Peters feature in our newspaper, my mother, Ann Wilson, who grew up in Carroll and is now the general manager of The Carroll Daily Times Herald, told me a wonderful story about a car ride she had with my grandmother, the late Constance Wilson.

Somewhere between Des Moines and Carroll in the 1960s, my mother glanced through the windshield at a farmhouse, still in the night to the observers passing by at 55 mph.              

“It must be lonely there,” Mom said to Grandma.                

“Oh no, there’s so much fun going on inside there,” Grandma replied, her face alive with years of memories.                

Mom never forgot that brief exchange.                

Grandma Wilson (1902 to 1975) grew up on a farm outside Bloomfield, one of seven children. She talked of reading lots of books, playing games and the simple pleasures of joining other family members with sewing — chores that were as much about time together as hard work.                

We grew up in the city of Carroll, Mom and I, but the farm influence of Grandma Wilson is there in us. We are the legacy of Iowa farm girl Constance (Guernsey) Wilson. There’s no doubting that.               

The Peters story is a celebration of a way of life that, sadly, is largely but a memory of an Iowa that once was — an Iowa inhabited by lovely women like the grandmother I barely knew, but is with us here each day. The Des Moines Register brought this into full view with a feature in its business section Sunday — “The shift from rural America.” A U.S. Department of Agriculture map shows Dallas County growing by 133 percent from 1990 to 2011, and Audubon County losing 18 percent of its population. The two counties are separated only by Guthrie, a slight loser in population as well.                

In the winters, the Peters children had bobsled parties and nights of making popcorn balls. I can’t think of anything I do on January nights to rival that. And I’ll bet they had bobsleds in southeast Iowa for Grandma Wilson back in 1915.                

There were Peters family picnics at least once every two weeks in the summers. The older children knew it was their responsibility to help in the raising of the younger.                

I think most of us would take such a life in a New York minute over the modern connectivity, 777 Facebook friends, marathon Netflix watching, Skyping and the constant banality of texting. Who has the time to make a popcorn ball? Grab that iPad.                

There’s no way we know each other the way the Peters kids did. A hundred texts in 2013 wouldn’t mean as much as a split-second, knowing glance from one Peters kid to another in 1929.              

Lillian Braden’s son and daughter-in-law, Dan and Nancy Braden of Glidden, were gracious enough to allow me in their warm home. We went through old pictures, talked of their memories of this family of 20.                

I walked out of the house into the darkness of eastern Glidden just before 8 p.m., forgetting it was even cold.DougBurns               

Standing for a moment by car at the edge of town I could see Ralston, the farms in between and on the horizon.            

What a great night for sledding. Right, Grandma? CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.

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