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August 21, 2012

Moulton-Udell grad takes a deeper look at her hometown

MOULTON — Editors Note: Jennifer Heartley is a Moulton-Udell graduate who is currently studying journalism at Drake University. She submitted the following for publication to the Daily Iowegian. It will be ran as a multi-part series on the People Page. This is Part 1.

In a place unknown, around a bin, over rock roads, in the middle of trees, there is a landscape that has only been seen in story books that has hills made just for sunsets and creeks made just for exploring. It is far enough away from the city that you can see millions of stars in the sky yet close enough that you can see the neon lights in the distance.  

Ok, so it’s not exactly unknown, it’s just not known very well by very many.  This piece of land, to be exact, is 40 acres of nothing but grass, trees, water and hills. This land doesn’t really have a name, but I call it home. From my time spent at Drake University (I’ll be a sophomore in the fall,) I have learned that not many of my friends have ever seen a sight such as this. They all came from cities where their graduating class was anywhere ranging from 150 to 1,000. The ones that graduated with 150 other people believe their hometowns to be small. Well, I’m here to tell you there are smaller ones. I graduated with 25 students in my class at Moulton-Udell in rural Iowa. And that was one of the largest classes recently at our school. Our school, preschool to seniors, is all one building with about 300 in attendance.

These details are just to give you an idea of how small our town is physically. As you drive through Moulton, Iowa, there is a sign welcoming you to “a little town with a big heart.” I’ve grown up in this community and lived here my entire life.  High school was hard, not academically but emotionally. It was hard being in a place where everyone knew everything about everybody, which has been said too many times to count.  The kids here grew up knowing each other as extended family (even if we didn’t always consider each other family).  However, I’ve grown to miss my little town, and through this research project I have learned so much more than I ever thought possible.  How much is there to know that I don’t already?  The things I’ve found out have made me proud of my hometown and I only wish I could have seen it in the “good ole’ days.”

From a River to a Railroad

I think Charles Forest Bybee said best in his article about the railroad that used to come through town:

“The moonlight gleamed like two silver ribbons as it reflected off the Wabash, maneuvering its way through my small hometown. However it was not the Wabash River.  It was the Wabash Railroad; more specifically, the Wabash Railroad tracks. The moon was not shining in Indiana; it was shining in Iowa. ‘The Tracks,’ as they were known, became a central part of my life during my early childhood.  How much a part, I did not realize until years later. They were always there, unbending, solid, something that could be depended upon. They carried passengers in and out of town and they carried merchandise to be sold in our local stores. This was before the trucks took over the job of the tracks. The Wabash was the town’s main source of income, even more so than the farming community surrounding the area.”

In his article, Mr. Bybee explains how “unwelcome” he and his family were in Moulton. Yet, there is something in his tone that says he still loved it in our rural Iowan town. His family was “unwelcome” because they were known to be one of many families that joined the strikebreakers or “scabs” against the railroad. People moved to Moulton for jobs at the railroad that were advertised in other towns. They weren’t looked upon kindly, but the men were able to support their families better financially by taking these jobs at the railroad. When I talked to locals about something they remember that has changed in Moulton, Wabash Railroad came up the most frequently.  Even the librarian, Wilma Stevenson said, “The railroad is what made this town.”

Moulton was actually named after John Benjamin Moulton, son of Rev. and Mrs. Josiah Moulton. They were an Old English family that came to America in 1611.  John Moulton was the chief engineer of the North Missouri Railroad, “from which sprang the Wabash system.” There was a western branch from Moberly to Kansas City, a northern branch through Macon, Mo. to Ottumwa, through Moulton, named in honor of John Moulton.   Before the railroad, Moulton was just a few houses in the same area. The town was created as a stop for the railroad.  Jack Fowler and Jerry Johnson (long time locals) remembered when they could ride to Centerville for 10 cents. I can almost see the tracks running through the middle of the grain bins on the edge of town. I can hear the whistle blowing as it slows to a stop. I can just imagine the dining cars, luggage crates, and engineer with a top hat. The man on the platform is taking my ticket and giving the “ok” as I board the train of the past to take a journey through the history of my hometown.

Look for Part 2 soon, in which the author solves a childhood mystery about Moulton.

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