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Esther's town by Deemer Lee

Esther's town

by Deemer Lee

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Deemer Lee's ESTHER'S TOWN is a biography of a place, Estherville, Iowa; and it covers the town's history from its very beginning in the 1850s all the way up to the late 1970s. (The author died in 1979 and the book was published the following year by Iowa State Press. This handsome Bur Oak edition is a reprint from the University of Iowa Press.) You will read of Indian raids, blizzards, drouths, plagues of grasshoppers, stagecoach lines and the coming of the railroad. The gradual building of the place, from village to town to city, is interestingly documented throughout the narrative, as you follow Estherville's development from a few log cabins and soddies and a handful of families to a city of several thousand that boasts a college, a modern hospital, an airport and other 20th century amenities.

Deemer Lee was a newspaper man who worked for the Chicago Tribune for a few years in the 1920s, then moved back home to Estherville where he ran the local paper, the Daily News, for over forty years. Lee was able to take ownership of the newspaper with the help of his father, who got it in trade for a house and a lot in town. Lee notes at one point that "swapping land for new buildings was common," and it obviously worked when it came to obtaining a business too. It was 1927 when Lee and his father swapped real estate for the newspaper; but apparently this practice was still around years later, because I can remember my own father having a custom-made house built in 1960 by a local lumber company in exchange for several acres of prime residential real estate.

Lee obviously did yeoman's research to produce ESTHER'S TOWN, particularly the early pioneer era, but a major portion of the story comes from newspaper files from as far back as he could find them, with a lot of it from his own era as owner/publisher of the Estherville Daily News. There is plenty here on the railroads, the bank failures and the Depression, the effects of the wars - US Civil, Spanish-American, and the two world wars - on the town and its citizenry, all of which I am sure Iowans will find fascinating. But the more personal stories and anecdotes were what interested me the most. My favorite chapter was the one in which Lee lapsed into stories of his early schooling and childhood, in "Our Neighborhood Was Rarely Dull." Here he tells of favorite teachers, piano lessons, playground games and family dinners. Disappointingly, very little is said about his college years in Chicago.

I was also much enterained by certain anecdotes about famous people. He tells of "Lawrence Welk, who regularly hauled his musicians from Yankton, South Dakota, in a small black bus" to Estherville in the 1930s to play for dances at the Orleans Hotel. There are also stories of the circus coming to town and, another time, Lee remembers seeing Bobby Jones win the 1930 U.S. Open in nearby Edina, Minnesota. He fondly recalls a couple of semi-pro baseball teams fielded by the town. There are also stories of irregularities in local politics and bootleggers that roamed the area, flaunting Prohibition laws of the time to supply a thirsty populace.

In ESTHER'S TOWN Deemer Lee has produced an invaluable historical look at Emmet County, Iowa. You can tell he was proud of his hometown and the part he played in its development. The University of Iowa has done its state an enormous service in bringing this book back into print. Bravo to the UI Press and its Bur Oak imprint. I recommend this book highly to Iowans and historians alike. ( )
  TimBazzett | Mar 2, 2013 |
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