Picnic Helps Transplanted Iowans Recall Where the Tall Corn Grows

Times Staff Writer

“Hear about the intelligent Minnesotan? Oh well, it was just a rumor anyway.”

“Hear about the Minnesota farmers so upset with the price supports they marched on Washington? Last time they were heard from, they were 10 miles south of Seattle.”

“What’s the best thing to come out of Minnesota? A Greyhound bus.”

Several hundred Iowans, transplanted Iowans, adoptive Iowans and Iowans-in-spirit rallied Sunday afternoon over beer, beef and a few stale Minnesota jokes in the first Iowa Club of San Diego picnic.


They met old friends from neighboring farm towns and swapped stories from weekly newspapers to which they still subscribe. They reminisced about crisp, fall days, home cooking and “good beef"--and the wind-chill factor that finally blew them west.

“Out here, everyone is so disconnected,” explained Bing Weldon, a lawyer from Iowa Falls. “A lot of us are five, six, seven generations in Iowa. With all that time in one spot, you really have a yearning for your roots--kind of like Kunta Kinte.”

They came from San Diego County and beyond, some in cars with license plates from Iowa counties like Winneshiek. They bore names like Jossem, Jorgenson and Maiwurm. They wore Hawkeye hats and T-shirts from places like Clutier.

Steve Cortwright came in a “Boar Power” lid from a Des Moines boar-semen firm. Bob Ottilie’s shirt read, “Iowa, it’s a state (and we don’t grow potatoes).” Ed Kolker’s button showed a picture of the University of Iowa football coach: “Hayden Fry for Governor.”

“Who’s Hayden Fry?” Kolker mimicked a passer-by, in mock horror. “Who’s Ronald Reagan! I could understand you not knowing who Ronald Reagan is. But Hayden Fry! That’s criminal.”

They popped open lawn chairs and unpacked picnics beneath a broiling blue sky and barren, boulder dotted mountains. With few trees for shade, they rolled up a Winnebago. All that was missing, one man said, was a swarm of mosquitoes.

“All Iowans like to eat and drink until they get to market weight,” Ronda O’Riley, formerly of Stuart, explained to a visitor.

Said Kolker, summing up his state, “Earth, relationships, people, reality, simplicity. And open space.”

The picnic--in the dying tradition of the Iowa picnics in Long Beach, where attendance peaked at 50,000 in 1958 and bottomed out at 27 in 1984--was the first attempt to rejuvenate the ritual by the year-old Iowa Club of San Diego.

The club had already staged several outings. At one, a pig named Weiner arrived in a convertible and was interviewed by a TV personality who was a transplanted-Iowan. In June, the club staged Beef Days, crowning the Iowa Beef Queen with corn stalks.

Qualifications for membership are as broad as an Iowa horizon, and a person needs to meet only one of 13. They include having been born in, lived in or passed through Iowa; knowing how to pronounce Iowa, or knowing a Minnesota joke.

“Bloomfield! Yeah! We’re not from there, but do you know Brad Stevenson?” a woman asked Russell Bridgman on Sunday, scrutinizing his name-and-place-tag. Bridgman said he did, so they fell into conversation. ". . . And Beth was going with this guy . . .”

Susan Ogilvie met an old student-teacher from Ankney High School. Bing Weldon met a distant cousin who had baby-sat for his father.

“There’s not a soul here from my hometown,” Ed Brewer said quietly. “People don’t leave Keokuk.”

Some said they had left Iowa for work--for example, a stint in the Navy. Some said they had come to be with family. But nearly everyone had at least one common reason for leaving Iowa and coming to California. The weather.

“I remember 85 degrees below wind-chill factor. You couldn’t even walk to the grocery store,” said Jane Ahrens from Fairfield.

Added Julie Tone from Gilman: “I can remember not being able to open the door for three days. And I was out of cigarettes.”

“Twenty-eight below zero for 10 consecutive days with a wind-chill factor of 60 below--that will make you leave,” Kolker said. Then there were steaming, scorching summers, “and the mosquitoes pick you up and carry you down to the river.”

Evelyn Marmet cried regularly for her first six months in California. Then her relatives began following her out. Bridgman still subscribes to the Bloomfield papers. Brewer learned of the picnic in a clipping from The Daily Gate City, sent by his 86-year-old mother.

“Oh yeah. Home-cooked foods, the smell of the air, good beef,” said Ahrens, mulling over what she missed.

Ronda O’Riley said, “You know, the change of seasons, the football weather. Crisp and cold.”

But almost no one said they would go back to live.

Ogilvie and Julie Conrad explained that simply enough. There’s nothing there, they said.

Some spoke sadly of the plight of the farm economy that provided the past they remember so fondly, but no future.

“It’s getting worse all the time,” said Cortwright, 37, who said he left a year ago after his Waterloo real-estate business went belly up. “Like I was telling my wife, last year we got out with our underwear. This year, we’d get out nude.”

George and Carolyn Larson sat in the parking lot in a battered, blue Ford crowded with five small children. Laid off in Waterloo, Larson had driven his family cross-country last year. Then for three months, Larson said they lived out of shelters and the car.

Finally, Larson said, he found a house in East San Diego and a job driving a bus. But on Sunday, he said his family had no money for groceries. Hoping for a meal and being from Iowa, they had come to the picnic--only to discover it was bring-your-own.

“California is no place to come unless you know someone out here. There’s not too much room for poor people like us,” he said. “So many people migrate out here like there’s a dream. And there’s no dream.”

Back on the recreation field, Jim Fulwiler’s name tag announced ominously, Native Californian. “It’s a plot. They’re trying to take over California,” he confided. ". . . We have a deportation program being fed into the computer at this moment.”

Nearby, Bob Ottilie, formerly of Oelwein and now a club co-founder and picnic organizer, admitted there were Iowa jokes, too: “Why do they have AstroTurf on all the football fields in Iowa? So the cheerleaders won’t graze at half-time.”