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A parodic sign – 'Any functioning adult 2020' – lies in the snowy front yard of a house in Des Moines, Iowa's main urban centre, ahead of the state's Democratic caucus. This mostly white, heavily agricultural state is the first battleground in the American party primary season.

Annick Sjobakken/PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANNICK SJOBAKKEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

David Shribman, the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.

In 1880, an Iowa pioneer homemaker named Selma Gelhaus Pribbenow conjured up what she called a “sure cure for black diphtheria.” It involved two cups of pure apple vinegar, a cup of sage tea, a cup of honey, a piece of borax (size: “end of thumb”) and a pinch of alum. All that plus one instruction, written on a scrap of lined paper preserved in the state archives: Add blue vitriol when boiling.

Almost a century and a half later, with Iowa’s pioneer days well behind it but its rural identity as powerful as ever, eleven men and women who have been campaigning from the Mississippi River in the east to the Missouri River in the west have added their own vitriol – the verbal variety, but just as noxious as the fungicide of Pribbenow’s recipe – to the boiling presidential race.

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On Monday night, Iowa repeats its most precious ancient ritual, as tens of thousands of people – Pribbenow’s descendants in remote farming communities, agribusiness workers in sprawling corn and soybean fields, UAW members affiliated with the farm implement industry, immigrants working in meat-packing plants, hospital workers, computer engineers and insurance-industry employees in the state’s small urban centres – will be taking part in this year’s first real test of the U.S. political system.

To church basements, town libraries, community centres, high-school gymnasiums and even living rooms they will tread, there to express their views in a complex process requiring them to gather in small groups or in the corner of a room, one band of people for each candidate, then bicker and beseech until they have settled on a Democratic candidate for president – a process that will occur at 1,683 caucuses and may, but possibly won’t, produce a clear verdict.

Each American state claims a discrete identity – New Hampshire as ground zero of flinty New England pragmatism, Wisconsin as the dairy-washed centre of Midwestern civility, California as sentinel of the future – but Iowa has always stood apart, an agrarian empire with a special commitment to literacy and a peculiar preoccupation with producing stratospheric college-admission test scores. In 1936, the first university degree-granting program in creative writing, the fabled Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was founded here. Almost two decades ago the state established the Iowa Center for the Book.

But Iowa’s voting patterns – winners of its caucuses have included establishment figures such as George H.W. Bush (1980) and ideological insurgents such as Ted Cruz (2016), upstarts such as Jimmy Carter (1976) and veteran politicians such as Bob Dole (1988 and 1996) – reflect the state’s well-cultivated openness to new ideas.

An openness to new ideas – when it opened in 1855, the University of Iowa became the first public university to admit women and men on an equal basis – and yet Iowa is defined by the openness of its land, by the great empty spaces across its broad horizon.

In the bleak February of 1867, a woman who left the East 14 years earlier wrote in her diary, “This evening I am alone and thought I would write once more just to see if I am forgotten.”

More than 150 years have passed, and Iowa still possesses what U.S. historian and former librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin called “the American archeology of space," for in the prairies settlers stopped, dropped roots, then uprooted again, producing “abandoned places, where people once had lived, received mail, built their houses and their hopes, before moving on.”

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Above, a pancake breakfast fundraiser at Lincoln High School in Des Moines; below, people clap for Bernie Sanders as he leaves a rally in Ames. Iowans' openness to new ideas has led them to make varied and pragmatic choices in their caucuses over the decades.

The story of Iowa is in part the tale of those who passed through – and in part the story of those who stayed.

The pioneer experience produced a certain ruggedness; in his penultimate speech before being elected president in 1928, Iowa native Herbert Hoover spoke of “rugged individualism” and “self-reliance.” The process of settlement produced a state culture that is, quite literally, down to earth.

“People in Iowa are pragmatic,” Representative Eric Swalwell of California, a one-time Democratic presidential candidate born in Iowa, said in an interview before he withdrew from the contest last July. “They are people of integrity. They like directness. They are focused. They are interested in their community. A lot of how I was raised reflected my parents’ Iowa values.”

Mr. Swalwell was born in Sac City, Iowa, founded in 1855 by a man who built a hotel and stage station 76 miles from the Nebraska border. The New Deal-era Federal Writers’ Project noted that throughout the town “chickens peck and flop in puddles of water thrown from the kitchen door; and the hogs are sometimes seen wandering about the front yard.” The community, situated along the North Raccoon River, is named for the Indigenous tribe that once populated the area.

If Stephen Vincent Benét – who a century ago wrote the beloved poem that begins, “I have fallen in love with American names” – could return from the dead and visit Iowa in caucus season, he might wonder about a community now known as What Cheer (population 600), where a coal mine, general store and saloon sprouted in a tiny town that abandoned the name Petersburg because, according to one of the many versions of the story, it seemed too common, adopting in its stead an old English salutation for its name. The poet would have a feast visiting Iowa towns that scream of the state’s attributes: Independence (population 5,966), Spirit Lake (4,840), Middletown (318), Grand Junction (824) and Mount Pleasant (8,668).

“I was raised in Iowa to believe that when you meet a person you assume they’re a friend until they prove otherwise,” said Indianola native Dayton Duncan, who was the press spokesman for former vice-president Walter Mondale in the 1984 caucuses and governor Michael Dukakis in 1988. Mr. Duncan now lives in the state that holds a presidential primary eight days after the Iowa caucuses. “In New Hampshire, you meet a person and assume they’re not your friend until they prove otherwise.”

A Bernie Sanders sign in Oakland Acres, a town of only about 150 residents, and an Elizabeth Warren sign in Iowa City, population 76,000. Small-town life is still central to the identity of Iowa.

For all the gleaming buildings of Des Moines, an insurance capital and home of the state legislature, the soul of Iowa – a state whose shape has roughly the same contours as the United States – remains in the soil and in its small towns.

In 1984, Peter Feldstein photographed all but six of the 676 residents of Oxford, Iowa. Two decades later he returned and did it again, this time with Stephen Bloom, a University of Iowa professor. The result is a striking portrait of what Mr. Bloom described as “an unheard and invisible America.”

In this invisible America, people enter homes through the back door, they collect lamps and figurines, they make casseroles when someone dies, and no one uses a turn signal “because everyone knows where everyone else is going.”

One of the Oxford residents the team visited was Linda Cox, whose favourite recipe is for sliced venison cooked in cream of mushroom soup. Five of her six children live within a block of her home, and the sixth is 16 miles away.

Just last April, the lead story in The Storm Lake Times described how a local man was killed when his motorcycle hit an anhydrous ammonia fertilizer tank hitched to a pickup truck. The community swiftly began raising money to send the victim’s body back home to his native Cuba.

“My grandparents and my parents came here in a covered wagon,” former president Hoover said when he returned to his hometown, a speck on the map called West Branch. “In this community they toiled and worshipped God. They lie buried on your hillside. The most formative years of my boyhood were spent here. My roots are in this soil. This cottage where I was born is the physical proof of the unbounded opportunity of American life.”

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Young people and dancers take part in I’ll Make Me a World in Iowa, a festival of African-American culture in the state. While Iowa is more than 90 per cent white, it has a rich black history.

Annick Sjobakken/The Globe and Mail

Critics of Iowa’s outsized role in choosing America’s president are right when they cite statistics revealing its lack of diversity: The state is 90.7-per-cent white. But Iowa’s 1844 constitution prohibited slavery, and it was here, where fugitive slaves followed primitive roads and Native American trails on their rush to freedom in Canada, that senator Barack Obama began his 2008 journey to become the United States’ first black president.

And the state has an unexpected kind of diversity that belies its status as a corn cornucopia – a reputation it has earned, producing a record 2.7 billion bushels in 2017.

“Canadians might think Iowa is homogeneous, but it is anything but," said former Republican representative James Leach, who since leaving Congress has taught at the University of Iowa. “You have big cities here and county seats and farm areas. There’s a different ethic to each of them. You can divide Iowa by regions, geology, crops and immigration patterns, and it makes Iowa an exceptionally rich place.”

Indeed, there is the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids and the German American Heritage Center and Museum in Davenport. But such unlikely centres of ethnic celebration are found not only in the cities. The Museum of Danish America is in Elk Horn (population 662) and the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum is in Decorah (8,127).

Much of Iowa seems like a tranquil inland island, and indeed there is a certain serenity in its town squares and country roads. Journalist William L. Shirer, who chronicled the rise of Nazism in Europe, thought of himself as “a pretty typical small-town Iowa boy” and wrote in his memoir that he never “felt a moment of boredom, which was supposed to be chronic in the Midwest Main Street towns.”

But the state from time to time has been an epicentre of rebellion, most recently against U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade war with China, which has exacted a heavy toll on Iowa’s agricultural exports.

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The Iowa City beer riots of 1884 were triggered by the state legislature’s imposition of prohibition laws. In the 1920s, Iowa was the site of the Cow War, when farmers fought state testing of cattle for bovine tuberculosis because they thought it was a conspiracy to lower meat prices. When grain prices plummeted a century ago, Iowa farmers with pitchforks besieged the state Capitol and, with spiked telephone poles, blocked 10 highways leading to Sioux City. A mob of farmers once dragged a judge from his bench and stripped him to his underwear. A 20th-century struggle between rural and urban communities took form in a war over oleomargarine, a supermarket item favoured by city dwellers but reviled by farmers because it looked like a dairy product and thus posed a threat to the state’s dairy industry.

Scenes from Des Moines: Above, activists take part in Stop Factory Farms Lobby Day at the state legislature, and below, signs on a skywalk advertise the coming Democratic caucus. Agriculture and the environment are just some of the urgent issues Iowans are weighing ahead of the 2020 election.

The state that produced such figures as actor Donna Reed, painter Grant Wood and cowboy icon John Wayne is changing – albeit at its own languid pace. “Iowa is now somewhat coming to grips with diversity challenges,” said former Democratic governor Tom Vilsack, who served as secretary of agriculture during the Obama administration. “For the most part you are never more than 15 minutes from your job, you know your neighbours, you know they care about you, and there is still a sense of community. When you ask someone from Pittsburgh where they are from, they will say they are from Pittsburgh. When you ask someone from here, they will say they are from Iowa. They won’t say they’re from Mount Pleasant or West Des Moines. They’re from Iowa.”

But in an age of change, parts of Iowa stay the same. “Worlds are built and worlds are busied amid the tall grass here in Iowa,” wrote Art Cullen, who won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. “You plunge your finger into the soft black soil and expose a seed, a kernel of knowing where you are, a story, an idea, a myth of who you are, and it grows out here against all the odds. It persists against the hail that comes sideways. It preserves itself frozen in a January gale out of the northwest that makes you wonder how you ever survived. It goes flooded and scorched and comes back. No matter what you do for the next 10 years, it comes back. It demands you pay heed to it …”

Iowa, from the 19th century on: a place against the odds. Iowa, on caucus night Monday: a place that demands you pay heed to it.

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