Dan Williams stands beside the Skunk River at Oakland Mills and waxes eloquently. He is tall and slim, and at 72, looks more like a man in his fifties, which means he has energy and enthusiasm.
“The Skunk River is a proud river,” he says, gesticulating with his hands and arms. “It flows freely and wildly between the Iowa and Des Moines Rivers, emptying into the Mississippi between Burlington and Ft. Madison. It has two forks: the North Fork, originating in Marshall County, and the South Fork, in Hamilton. It doesn't deserve to be called the Skunk River. That name has too much negativity. It was originally called 'Shecaqua' (Sh-kauk-wa) by the Sauk and Meskwaki Indians, and means anything with a bad or obnoxious odor, such as the wild onions which grew along its banks, or the skunk cabbage, which can smell skunky when its leaves are bruised. The white settlers came along and renamed the Shecaqua, the 'Skunk.' So, I don't want to rename the Skunk River, I want to reclaim its rightful name.”
Dan stops for a moment and contemplates. His voice builds, competing with the roar of the river over the spillway. “We don't deserve the 'Skunk River,' it's prouder than that. It's the 'Shecaqua.' It's like the Mississippi River. If you call it the 'Muddy Mississippi,' you have a dirty image. But if you call it, the 'Mighty Mississippi,' well now, that's a different feeling altogether.”
Dan Williams is on a campaign to reclaim the name “Shecaqua” and restore the river to its rightful standing as a dignified, proud watercourse, like the Des Moines and Iowa Rivers. He serves on the Board of Directors of Henry County Health Center Foundation and proudly recruits and welcomes new people to the area. Among all the positive attributes of Mt. Pleasant—Iowa Wesleyan University, Henry County Health Center, Midwest Old Threshers—Dan says it's when you mention the Skunk River that peoples' faces drop. “We need to change that.”
He has talked to Joe Mitchell, a state representative for Mt. Pleasant, and at 21, the youngest member of the Iowa House of Representatives. Mitchell is enthusiastic. Dan called the Vice President of Iowa Natural Heritage, an organization for protecting and restoring Iowa's land, water and wildlife. They are very interested. Dan also wants to talk to conservation offices in the 15 counties that the river flows through, and mayors of the towns, such as Ames, Story City, Ellsworth and Kellogg; also Iowa State University. Then there are the unincorporated towns like Rome, Lowell and Augusta. He has talked to Butch Biddle of Butch's River Rock Cafe at Oakland Mills. Butch is all for it and has offered his cafe as a meeting place for people to discuss reclaiming the “Shecaqua River,” not to be confused with “Chautauqua,” which was an adult education movement in the United States in the early 20th century, and a popular name for parks, clubs and organizations.
Ultimately, renaming the Skunk River is a federal decision. A groundswell of support needs to build through the legislature, news media and social media. Bumper stickers could be made. American Indian Tribes need to be involved, such as when Mt. McKinley was changed to Denali.
Dan does not want to be the face of the “Shecaqua Movement,” but already is. He's used to organizing large projects. Along with another developer in Mt. Pleasant, they are working on a 53-unit housing development in Mt. Pleasant called Robin Run, named after Dan's late wife.
Tongue-in-cheek, the organization to Dunk the Skunk might be called, Peoples United—PU.
Have a good story? Call or text Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at 319-217-0526, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.