Rembrandt stars in new book

Thursday, July 11, 2002

158 natives turn author to capture life in small-town rural America

You can take the people out of Rembrandt, it seems, but you just can't take the Rembrandt out of the people.

The humble Buena Vista County town of just over 200 souls will prove its everlasting appeal in a new 330-page book being published this month, "Rembrandt Remembers: 80 Years of Small Town Life."

More than a history of a classic American hometown, the book sets out to capture what it means to grow up in a close-knit small community - and goes about it in a unique way, making authors of 158 different people who grew up there in different eras.

"The project is an outgrowth of a reunion of former Rembrandt school band members that we had last year to honor our former band director, Myron Teague," said Helene (Ducas) Viall, a Rembrandt native and now a schoolteacher at Des Moines Roosevelt. "I started looking around at the people who came from all over the country to re-form that band, some of them that I hadn't seen in almost 40 years, and thought to myself, 'This isn't normal.' We had people coming from as far as the coasts to come back to a tiny town where the high school ceased to exist a quarter of a century ago."

Curious, Viall sent a mass e-mail to all of them, asking them why they returned home. One of those who responded was Betty (Foval) Hoskins, a Rembrandt native who is now a professor at a Virginia university.

"She wrote what growing up in Rembrandt had meant to her, and did it so beautifully that I told her she should write a book. She didn't have time for that, but she agreed that if I did the grunt work to get a book together, she would apply her editing skills," Viall said.

The duo found essayists representing every class from 1925 until the school closed in 1979 as the smallest school in Iowa at the time - with the exception of the class of 1926, which has no members still living. "We told them they could write anything they want, as long as it touches on the experience of growing up in a small town, going to a small school, or coming home to visit their hometown," Viall said.

"I was so impressed with the response. We have people in their '90s telling us about what it was like to pick corn by hand. We have a person from the class of 1927 relating the death of her mother in an epidemic just after World War I. This is the history of small-town America that we wanted to capture while that is still possible."

There are essays on driving cattle in the streets in the early 1900s, hauling ice chopped from Storm Lake, going to war as a B-29 pilot, generations of legendary basketball games, a church-going dog named Bimbo, a music teachers who recalls being passed by a piano on the highway, a man who farmed 1,000 acres despite losing both arms, life in a father's barber shop or general store.

"No person went unappreciated" in a single-class society, wrote Dr. Lloyd Pressel of growing up there during the Depression era.

"It was a simple life in may ways, but satisfying," added Orv Mosbo, class of 1945.

"We raised corn, beans and five kids," said Roger Mickelson.

"In a small town with a small school enrollment, we didn't realize something really good was happening to us," wrote Cordy Peterson. " And weren't we lucky? The never-to-be-duplicated setting of which we were all a part is priceless."

"It was a place and a time that no longer exists anywhere," said Eldona Pingel Hahm of the scattering of the town's offspring. "Thus, perhaps Rembrandt and other small towns of the 1950s in America were a victim of their own success - producing successful adults who enjoy the stimulation of cities and suburbs."

"We were instilled with a desire to go and do and be," contributed Linda Stratton Renshaw. "So we went and did and were."

"They won't let you move to Rembrandt unless you are a good baseball player," said Ed Nielsen, class of 1962. "But if you were born there and you're no good, they make you move away."

"What did you do on a farm? I learned at a very early age not to say 'I'm bored' to my parents. The livestock likes to eat on a regular basis and they were not potty trained," said Paul Ducas, class of 1967.

Barb McKibben Binder remembered party-line phones in the early 1970s - "We put the hi-fi by the phone and played 'You Talk To Much' right in that lady's ear."

"I cannot give the gift of my childhood experiences to my children. I cannot expect my metropolitan community to provide assistance, safety, comfort and always demand the best from my children," said Betty McKibben Branhagen. "I can only try to reflect the caring, respect, responsibility and desire for excellence that my family and community demanded from and gave to me."

And Mary Ness Ward remembered a difficult Christmas made better by kindness. "That box of decorated sugar cookies, shared with my brothers and sisters, was one of the best Christmas presents I have ever had; but that simple act of kindness shown by a neighbor was the very best of all."

All 158 essays together not only put faces to Iowa history, but "really give a good picture of what life in rural Iowa is all about," Viall said.

"Many of us raised our children in cities, so their world was very different from ours. We experienced a true 'community' back then, even though we probably didn't realize or appreciate it at the time," she said. "Many who left found the rest of the world wasn't as trusting, encouraging, or safe as our hometown."

The trust is evident in the way the former Rembrandt people stepped forward with their dearest memories. "The element of trust amazed me. All I had to do was say that I grew up in Rembrandt, and they were willing to trust Betty and me with their memories," Viall added.

"I feel very strongly that this book needed to be written - stories of ordinary people living ordinary lives. It is a snapshot of time, of place and of values, that is not so common anymore."

The two are self-publishing the book, which is on the presses this week.

It will make its debut at the Rembrandt Community Reunion to be held July 19-20, and will then be available for mail order.

"We wanted to have the books there when people from Rembrandt come together. It won't be a money-making venture, we may make enough to cover the publishing cost and we may not," Viall said.

The writers get nearly as much from the experience as the readers, it seems, as the writing assignment rekindles memories of the little town with the powerful hold.

"My grandparents came from Germany to homestead near Rembrandt, it's a great part of Iowa to have grown up in," said Loren Green, a member of the Rembrandt High School class of 1937.

"I may not be here next year," Green concluded his essay in the book. "If I'm not, it's because I've gone to a far better place, and there's not many better places than Rembrandt."

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