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Central Standard

A Time, a Place, a Family

Patrick Irelan

Publication Year: 2002

 Not so long ago, the Rock Island Railroad was a household name, the Great Depression was a recent memory, and family farms dotted the landscape. Today, the great railroads have nearly disappeared, the Depression is a chapter in history books, and family farms are hard to come by. Yet this time is not forgotten.

In Central Standard: A Time, a Place, a Family, Patrick Irelan vividly recaptures a remarkable era in midwestern history in twenty-four beautifully crafted and often witty essays. Beginning with his parents’ marriage in 1932 and continuing into the present, Irelan relates the many wonderful stories and experiences of his Davis County, Iowa, family. In “Country Living,” he describes his parents’ disheartening life as farmers during the worst years of the Depression. “The CB&Q” then relates the happiest years of his family’s life when his parents lived and worked in the Burlington Railroad depots of rural Nebraska.

Irelan’s tales of hard times and harder work, family meals and talkative relatives, depots and farmsteads paint a brilliant yet deceptively simple portrait of one rural, working-class family. At its heart, Central Standard carries a greater message: it reminds us of the enduring strength of the American family.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. ix


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pp. xi

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pp. 1-2

I never knew Grandma Susan Hudgens Irelan. I never sat on her lap and ran my fingers through her hair and over her face the way that babies do as they set out to discover the world. I never smelled her skin, thereby learning that only she emitted that exact scent, a scent that...

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pp. 3-5

We always met in some small brightly lit café on the south side of Ottumwa, not far from the Des Moines River, Morrell’s packinghouse, the John Deere plant, Barker’s Implement Company, and other factories with names I never learned. The dinnerware was heavy and indestructible. Paper napkins bulged...

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pp. 6-10

After my mother’s first child, a boy, died at birth in 1934, she would sometimes disappear for long periods from the little farmhouse where she and my father lived. Following a frantic search by my father, Grandpa Hunter, and Uncle Kenny the first time this happened, Father always knew where to look the next time. He would drive to Hopewell, a country graveyard...

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pp. 11-15

“Patrick,” my father said when he got home from the depot one day, “whatever you do, don’t ever take a job where you have to work with the damn public.” I was only a boy at the time and knew nothing of jobs and the public. After coming of age,...

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pp. 16-23

My parents were married on Friday, August 19, 1932. This routine statistic becomes more interesting when you consider the setting. One of the local newspapers, the Davis County Republican, pointed out...

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pp. 24-30

The landlord of the farm near Troy did not invite my parents back for a second year. Perhaps he held some residual misgivings about the issue of the timothy field. Perhaps he...

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pp. 31-34

One fall while my parents and sister were living in the CB&Q depot in Murphy, an early blizzard swept across the Great Plains, driving all but the foolish or unlucky indoors. The sound of a freight train taking on corn at the grain elevator woke my father late one night. Murphy...

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pp. 35-42

My mother blossomed in Nebraska, like a wildflower beneath the vaulting blue sky of the Great Plains. She loved it there, not because of wealth, position, or power, none of which she possessed, but because she was out among the people—working, caring for her child, living in places unlike any she had lived in before. Altogether, she...

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pp. 43-45

In recent years, a great deal of ink, film, and videotape has been used to document a dying breed of men known as tramps or hobos. Unlike the thirteen migrant workers my parents befriended during the Depression, tramps did not ride the...

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pp. 46-50

By the spring of 1941, my father had accumulated enough seniority to bid successfully on jobs in Iowa, jobs that would bring his little family closer to its many relatives. In May of that year, he obtained the position of second-trick agent in the prosperous town of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, on the main line of the CB&Q. My sister remembers...

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pp. 51-59

One windy summer day during the drought of 1955, I was standing in the front yard of our farmhouse when I saw a huge red cloud approaching from the southwest. I had never seen anything like it before, and I ran inside to ask my mother what it was. She...

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pp. 60-71

Every schoolteacher knows that children learn more as class size decreases. For this reason, the best education occurs in classes with one teacher and one student. Quite by chance, this precise ratio existed during my entire nine years in grade school, for I attended...

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pp. 72-79

One Sunday when I was in college, I drove over to Aunt Blanche and Uncle Cliff ’s house in Newton, Iowa, to meet with a small segment of the huge Irelan clan. We were drinking coffee and inhaling the odors from the kitchen when one of Uncle Cliff and Aunt Blanche’s grandchildren, little Jennifer, walked into the room and said, “There’s a man...

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pp. 80-86

On a summer afternoon when I was five or six years old, Uncle Emmett drove down the lane to our house while I was at home with my mother. He had barely climbed out of the car before I was all over him. “Patrick,” he said, “what are we ever going to do with you?” Mother came out of the house with...

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pp. 87-94

When the white pioneers arrived in Davis County in the 1840s and 1850s, they saw that the northern half of the county was hilly and heavily wooded and that the southern half was flatter and possessed relatively few trees. The hilliness of the northern half resulted from about five hundred thousand years of the meandering of a little stream called Soap Creek, which flows from west to east and empties into the Des Moines River. Because the pioneers needed...

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pp. 95-100

As a young woman, Aunt Thelma Hunter’s most striking characteristic was her physical beauty. She may even have been as beautiful as her mother, my grandmother Austa. The evidence for these claims resides in a family portrait taken by the Warner Studio in Bloomfield sometime in 1928, when...

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pp. 101-104

Almost every family can claim some hero or heroine from the mythic past to whom the family can return for consolation during hard times. If no such hero exists, some clever relative can invent one. If one does exist, everyone can...

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pp. 105-111

Uncle Clell was the youngest of my father’s eleven brothers and sisters. Some people theorize that the youngest child in a large family often develops a mild, easy-going disposition. Based on my observations of Uncle Clell, I would say that his personality supported this theory. I never saw...

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pp. 112-121

In 1948, my father left the CB&Q and went to work for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Company, informally known as the Rock Island Railroad, the Rock Island Lines, or simply the Rock Island. Neither my sister nor I knows why...

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pp. 122-129

During World War II, the federal government imposed year-round daylight savings time on the entire nation as a means of diverting fuel consumption from civilian to military use. By setting the clocks ahead one hour, the sun appeared to set an hour later than before, and people turned on their electric lights an hour later, thereby allowing the power companies to use less fuel for the production of electricity. The energy...

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pp. 130-133

I have a clear recollection of my morals and behavior for my entire life. I was an angelic boy until I reached adulthood, at which time I became a model citizen and have remained one ever since. My sister, Jane, has a different recollection...

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pp. 134-137

After my father left the faltering Rock Island Railroad in 1966, he did what all Americans do when faced with time on their hands: He began looking for ways to make money. He continued...

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pp. 138-142

The little house on the farm my parents bought in 1945 had much in common with the land itself. Both needed immediate restoration. The best thing about the house was the place where it stood—at the north end of a lane that led to a grave...

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pp. 143-145

During the last year of her life, in her mind, my mother returned to the CB&Q in Nebraska in the 1930s, to the time that she had once told my sister was the happiest in her life. Every weekday I would leave the office shortly before noon and walk over to see her. If...

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pp. 146-157

In the spring of 2001 my sister and I drove out to Nebraska to find the towns and, if possible, the CB&Q depots where she and my parents had lived in the late 1930s and early 1940s. We could have taken a train, but, of course, the trains don’t stop in those towns anymore. Jane had...


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pp. 159-161

E-ISBN-13: 9781587294235

Page Count: 175
Publication Year: 2002