April 9, 2017

Iowa’s Cultural and History Impacts Developing Writer By Gayle M. Irwin

When a person thinks of Iowa, chances are one, two, or all three of the following come to mind: corn, soybeans, and pigs. My father raised each of these on our small farm located in the southeastern part of the state. Iowa is a fertile state, and according to AwesomeAmerica.com, Iowa is the #1 producer of corn and soybeans in the United States and is also the nation's third most productive agricultural state. The population’s heritage is mostly German (about 35%), with Irish and English making up another 24%, and Danish roots composing more than 3%. My mother’s ancestors were German and Danish as well as Swiss. She grew up on a small farm outside of Burlington, Iowa, near a tiny town called Denmark (and yes, her father was Danish! Mom attended school in that little community.). Her grandparents immigrated from Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark.

Here are a few other fun facts about Iowa:
·         Became the 29th state in the U.S. on Dec. 29, 1846
·         Known as “The Hawkeye State,” the nickname stems from a tribute to Native American Chief Black Hawk.
·         The state flower is the Wild Rose and the state tree is the Bur Oak
·         Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in Burr Oak, Iowa (notice the different spelling?) with her family starting in 1876; her father operated a hotel there with a friend. Called The Masters Hotel, the building remains, now a museum honoring the famous children’s author and her family.

Mom and I were both born in Burlington, located along the Mississippi River. The town has a population of nearly 30,000 people and is home to Sterzing’s Potato Chips – a simple, yet crunchy and delightful chip that goes well with hamburgers or sandwiches of any kind! There’s also a wonderful locally-owned bookstore downtown called Burlington by the Book; I’ve been blessed to have a booksigning there alongside two former high school classmates (who would have thought back in the 1970s that three of us from the same class would impact the children’s literary world!) I look forward to another signing at Christopher Murphy’s bookstore after I complete current works in progress. I also look forward to eating catfish at Big Muddy’s Bar and Grill, downtown on the river front in an 1898-constructed freight house – YUM!

Iowa holds a lot of fond childhood memories for me, including Laura’s Little House books; I grew up reading those and watching the 1970s television show. I attribute my joy for writing (and reading) in large part to Mrs. Wilder.

Other things about Iowa impacted my writing – and still does. Like my mother, I was an only child, and nature and animals served as playhouse and playmates. We moved from Burlington to our own “little house” when I was 10 – a mobile home on 14-acres north of town, near the communities of Sperry (where I finished elementary school) and Mediapolis (my junior high and school years). On land comprised of field and forest, I created fortresses from downed hickory and cedar trees and loped through rows of corn and soybeans. My tawny, wavy-coated German shepherd mix shared outdoor explorations with me as we raced cotton-tailed rabbits and monarch butterflies and listened to owls hoot and woodpeckers drill. I practiced the art of writing in these settings, composing poems and essays about the beauty and wonder of nature.

Family vacations included camping and fishing to nearby areas like Skunk River. Another place we visited was Effigy Mounds National Monument. Located in northeastern Iowa, this amazing site preserves prehistoric mounds constructed by early Native American tribes in the outline of mammals, birds, and reptiles. We’d camp at either Spook Cave Campground or Pikes Peak State Park (Iowa’s tie to Colorado: explorer Zebulon Pike, for whom Pikes Peak in Colorado is named; Pike mapped the state of Iowa).

In addition to the unique cultural site of Effigy Mounds, Iowa is home for the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, the John Wayne Birthplace and Museum, and the Amana Colonies. This active German commune developed on the prairie during the 1800s, started by people fleeing religious persecution; today handcrafts and delicious food bring visitors. Additionally, Pella Windows was founded in the small Dutch community of Pella, Iowa, located about 40 miles south of the state capital of Des Moines.

Another piece of history and pride for the state involves a person whom I greatly admire. The conservationist and writer Aldo Leopold was born in my hometown of Burlington. Known as the father of wildlife ecology, he was promoted to supervisor for the Carson National Forest in New Mexico by age 24. In 1922, he was instrumental in developing the proposal to manage the Gila National Forest as a wilderness in that state, which became America’s first official wilderness area in 1924. My father knew Aldo’s brother; the three of us worked on a wood duck box nesting project together when I was 12, and I truly believe that experience as well as learning more about Aldo, helped guide my love for nature and writing (my high school science teacher also had a strong impact). Combining my enjoyment for nature, animals, and writing at a young age has guided my life, and today I write works that reflect these passions.

I compose inspirational pet books for children and adults; I’ve also written short stories and essays about nature, including a story about America’s national parks that was published last summer in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America. Dad made sure that every few years we visited national treasures like Yellowstone and Teton parks, even though they were thousands of miles away from Iowa. That’s another trait which has continued into my adulthood: I value America’s national parks and visit as often as I can.

Nature, culture, travel, animals, and writing – interests garnered growing up in the incredible state of Iowa and continuing into my middle years today. Iowa’s natural history includes vast prairies and varied species of wildlife, plants, flowers, and trees, and its cultural history includes Native Americans and European immigrants. Growing up near the Mississippi River on an acreage of field and forest with ponds and creeks nearby whetted my appetite for the natural world. That sensation never abated, and I am blessed to share my love for the outdoors and animals through my writing. It all began in Iowa.

Gayle M. Irwin writes inspirational pet stories for children and adults. Her first book was published 10 years ago: a children’s chapter book about her blind dog Sage titled Sage’s Big Adventure – Living with Blindness. One of her latest books, Tail Tales: Stories of Pets Who Touched My Heart and Impacted My Life, relates stories about some of the animals Gayle grew up with in Iowa. Her current work in progress is a children’s book about dog rescue. She is also a contributing writer to six Chicken Soup for the Soul books and writes articles for magazines and newspapers. Learn more about Gayle and her writing at her website: www.gaylemirwin.com.
Win an autographed print copy of her Tail Tales book by leaving a comment; your name will be put into the drawing. Make sure to leave a contact link.
(all info provided by author)


  1. My roots go back to Iowa, both grandparents who migrated to Colorado and were married here. Still have relatives there and definitely pigs and farming are a part of their lives. Your books look lovely and I enjoyed the cover art. Good luck.

  2. Thanks for your fascinating post about Iowa. Your books interest me greatly and I enjoyed learning about your life and Iowa. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com

  3. Iowa sounds like a very special place. Your descriptions are vivid and wonderful. Your books would be treasures to enjoy. elliotbencan(at)hotmail(dot)com

  4. This brings back memories of the great times we had together and with other friends. Like you, I always loved wandering through the woods. It sparked my imagination and provided me with a sense of peace like no other.

  5. "Nature and animals were playhouse and playmates" totally resonates and still represents how I relax and feel at home today. Joyce Witte

  6. Looking forward to having another signing with you soon :)

    - Chris at Burlington By the Book

  7. Heart-warming! And I was especially interested in the bit of information about Aldo Leopold, whom I greatly admire.

  8. I am so close to your hometown right now. I'm in Middletown and it has 500 residents. We looked up what to do in Middletown. LOL Casino or bar? Lots of stuff, stuffed in this blog, fun and informative Thanks. Cher'ley

  9. Gayle, you bring back memories, only from the east side of the Mississippi. Of course I spent many a day in Keokuk (naned for Chief Keokuk who was killed by Black Hawk's peoplee) and working in Fort Madison, along with a few side trips to Burlington.

    Grea post. Doris


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