Main Street in McGregor on the Mississippi, across from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.
By Madeleine Johnson
Published: 2008-09-08
I should have been writing this column, but instead, after a long day of cleaning seven decades of dirt and detritus out of my great-grandmother’s summer cottage, I paused for a drink on the deck of Beer n’Bratz in McGregor, Iowa. The Mississippi flowed at my feet. A towboat, sunk low under black mounds of its coal cargo, slid by, its lights aglow like a festive steamboat. The sky grew pink over the Wisconsin hills on the river’s other shore. A distant train whistled…

But more pressing thoughts quickly dominated the scene.

Unable to enjoy my drink, I suddenly felt like a college student faced with an undone paper on Sunday night. Guilt and desperation set off an analysis of the chain of events behind my predicament. In college, the chain of procrastination would have included other work, a party or a silly crush. This time the chain lead right back to where I sat.

My great-great-grandfather was a founder of the city of McGregor. An ambitious young lawyer from New York, he went West in 1850, seeking the bigger risks and rewards of a wider world. Passing up Chicago, which he called a “mud hole” going nowhere, he settled in McGregor. It was all happening here. The Mississippi ferry disgorged hundreds of covered wagons needing supplies; steamboats stopped for fuel and freight.

A ferry town.

My great-grandmother’s memoirs described the teeming streets and busy dock, the Indians on Main Street in blankets, the local rattlesnake killer (and snake-oil merchant), the hope-filled faces of west-bound families and the defeat-filled ones of the east-bound.

It all ended when the Trans-continental Railroad crossed elsewhere. McGregor slumped and emptied. Undiminished youthful enthusiasm blinded my great-great grandfather. Waiting too long to leave, his distinguished career as a judge and senator never revived a spirit wounded by the mistake of choosing McGregor.

My great-grandmother, distracted by her school’s world map, dreamed of travel and escape from narrow-minded McGregor.

She eventually got her wish when her disappointed father sent her to college at Northwestern when she was 16. There, she married her chemistry professor. Another seeker of broader worlds, he had come to Chicago via Tübingen, then in the scientific vanguard, where he had received a doctorate in 1875.

Traces of them and their peripatetic children — Albert, Lothar, Byron, Esmond and Ariel — emerge during our cottage cleaning. Lothar, named for Tübingen professor Lothar Mayer, appears in a photo of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. Byron’s photos from a Marine posting in China in 1911 are in boxes under a bed. We find my own grandfather’s ticket stubs and programs from Bayreuth in 1912. Esmond, an infectious disease authority, left behind his journal of a 1946 army-sponsored inspection of Germany’s tuberculosis sanatoria. Our toaster sits on one of the trunks that accompanied my great-grandmother when her school-day daydreams came true.

Widowed by her older husband and with her children grown by 1920, she closed her house in Evanston, Ill., keeping only what fit in two trunks. One she stored in the residential hotel where she lived. With the other she crisscrossed Europe, sailed the South Pacific, visited Angkor Wat and the Khyber Pass. In her eighties, she flew over the Andes; the oldest woman to do so.

Nevertheless, the Mississippi’s spell was strong and in the 1930s she built a tiny summer cottage overlooking it in McGregor. My mother came as a child, as did I. Difficult to reach, dusty and dilapidated, we keep coming back. This cottage, this Brigadoon on the river, unchanged since my childhood — unchanged since my mother’s — intrigues my children. My brother, sister and I grumble about the leaking roof, the taxes, the relentless vegetation. When a pompous, newcomer neighbor asks if we are cleaning to sell, I almost shout that we’ve been here since the beginning and we’ll stay ’til the end. If I had one, I’d brandish a gun.

My mother went to Northwestern too. There she met and married my father, an ambitious young doctor, who soon left for World War II in the Pacific. Later, he went to England, then in the vanguard of his medical specialty, to complete his education. Although my parents then moved to Rockford, Illinois, our family was soon off to India, where, influenced by great-uncle Esmond, my father received a Fulbright to work on leprosy. He volunteered in Vietnam and the Soviet Union.

Our house was busy with friends and colleagues from those trips. The friends my mother felt closest too were from North England and Bombay. When I was 11, we went around the world; my mother read aloud my great-grandmother’s journal from five decades before.

My own childhood dreams were of New York or Paris. They came true too. Living in New York, I met an ambitious young Italian lawyer, there on a Fulbright. When I told my mother that we were marrying and moving to Italy, she said, “Why couldn’t you marry a nice doctor from Milwaukee?”

What on earth made her think I would?