A Little Town Called Bonair
In 1892, when my grandmother was born there, Bonair, Iowa was a town with 30 inhabitants. My great-grandparents, Lewis Philander and Nellie Caroline Sanborn, had moved there not long before from Plymouth Rock, Iowa with their two older girls, Ini and May, aged eight and ten. L. P. Sanborn, as he was known, owned the flour mill. My grandmother’s recollections of the Bonair of her girlhood, which she recorded in 1971 when she was 79, included a lumberyard, a grain elevator, and a school about a mile or so east of town. (“The ones in the town didn’t like that so we had a second school upstairs over one of the stores. That was where I started to school, a cracker box, wooden of course, was my desk and Mother brought a small chair for me from home. I was up in the middle grades when they built the schoolhouse.”)
As the town grew, there were improvements: in 1897, the Lime Springs Sun hailed the spanning of Bonair’s main street with “an artistic sidewalk of the latest design, by means of which one can now cross the street without wading knee deep in the mud.” In that same year, the paper reported that my grandmother’s father had purchased the general store owned by Mr. Webster, and now had “one of the finest residences in the city.” My great-grandparents had built a new storefront alongside the old store, which had been on the first floor of a house. They turned the old storefront into a living room and bedroom, and now with three extra bedrooms that they didn’t use, could take in boarders.
Mother served meals to anyone coming or going that wanted to eat, so you could say she had a boarding house I suppose. There was Clare Barrett, the depot agent, Harry Dawes, lumber yard, Mike Welch, blacksmith. Then others coming and going. A grain elevator man, a stock buyer. She generally had a table full. As the years went by it seemed that married men had the jobs and she wasn’t busy, but the teacher often stayed there, and a student preacher would come from Fayette each weekend and stay there.
L. P. Sanborn had bought his business at a good time: in three short years, by 1897, the population of Bonair had more than tripled, to 100. There was now a creamery, a dealer of farm implements, two music teachers, a carpenter, a restaurant, a livery, and a barbershop. In addition to running his general and feed store, L. P. Sanborn was the town postmaster. Two years later, in 1899, there would be a new Methodist church, of which my great-grandmother was treasurer, and a schoolhouse on the edge of town, in which “Miss Vinnie Carman handles the birch and teaches the young idea how to shoot,” as reported by one of the Cresco newspapers, in an apparent reference to the widespread belief of the time that “to spare the rod” was to spoil the child.
While it was at its peak in those days at the turn of the twentieth century, Bonair always had to struggle to survive. News items from the same time period expressed anxiety over the fate of the creamery: one, in April of 1897 commented that “If wind were the only thing needful to start a creamery, the one in this city, instead of remaining idle, would be running day and night.” A few months later it was noted with relief that the creamery had “at last” been rented, and would soon be put into motion.
I had the general impression from the way my Mom had talked about her that Nellie Punteney Sanborn, my great-grandmother, was a rather formidable figure, but I wasn’t sure if her formidability was on the whole a good or a bad thing. One of the things I found during my research, in her personal Bible, was a newspaper clipping about a revival company that had come to town in December of 1892, the year my grandmother was born. Nellie had carefully recorded, on a piece of paper secured in the pages of that Bible, the fact that in December 1892, she had “consecrated her life to Christ.” A newspaper clipping describing the revival preacher, pianist, and singers was next to that. And another note said that L. P. Sanborn had consecrated his life to Christ in 1914. What happened in the intervening 22 years, I wondered. How did he hold out for so long? Was it a friendly or a hostile waiting period? And what was that like for my grandmother as a child?
Clearly my grandmother had absorbed a vivid and acute sense of right and wrong. One of her school essays, entitled “Sidewalk Education,” carefully outlined an argument against people allowing their children to run free in the streets of the town, where they would be exposed to “the bad element as well as the good….What can their parents be thinking of to let them do this! and probably the reason is they don’t think at all,” she wrote. “If asked they will say, ‘The children want to play on the street, why not let them?’,” and added, “Who does not know that it is easier for a child to learn bad habits than good?”
But her moral stance was not devoid of compassion. She ended her essay on a softer note, asking, “Can we not help this in some way by providing proper ways of amusing them? They are not bad at heart and surely something must be done.”
Certainly in the town, the prevalence of “solid Christian values” was dominant. One typical entry in the social notes for the Howard County Times in 1910 reported on the first in a series of stereopticon lectures, on the Philippines, given at the M.E. Church in Bonair on a Tuesday evening. “The pictures thrown upon the screen were very plain, showing the people and their modes of living, and the great work our country is doing in educating and Christianizing the people in that country,” it was reported, adding rather primly, “The lecture was a very interesting one.”
In the same issue an upcoming “box sociable,” the type of event at which my grandparents were to meet some time later, was announced. “Each gentleman must bring a box containing lunch enough for two and a slip of paper with his name inside the box,” it was explained. “The ladies select the boxes and the gentleman who owns the box is weighed and one-third of a cent per pound is paid for his weight.” It ended with a command: “Everybody come and have a good time.”
Lectures, chalk-talks, box sociables and community theater offerings seemed to be the main social events in the small burgs around Howard County, plus, in the summer months, Chautauquas. There were also book clubs. One event in 1916 was a debate that took place at the Literary Society in Kendallville. The topic to be debated was “Resolved. That War Causes More Harm in the World Than Liquor,” an interesting choice int he middle of “the Great War,” though the war had not yet come home to the U.S. Whatever the result of the debate in Kendallville that night, however, prohibition did become the law of the land in 1919.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature. Each summer she teaches a literature course in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY (“Paris: A Literary Adventure”). She also teaches culture and literature courses at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. and “Writing from the Heart” workshop/retreats in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France. This is an excerpt from her work in progress, “A Long Way from Iowa: Living the Dream Deferred.”