“What is history?”
Gary Craver repeated the question, buying a few more seconds to form his answer.
At home, sitting on a naked oak kitchen chair, the noted local historian’s voice begins deep and thoughtfully, “Well it means ... well, history instills pride in you. Maybe you’ll find a Civil War veteran in your family and for the first time, you become interested in the Civil War. Not only did you find a relative but also a historical war you didn’t know very much about.”
“You can feel pride discovering relatives who have fought for the country,” Craver continued. “But you can find skeletons too! I found a few of mine. You can relate and learn through history. I don’t know, I have just paid attention in my life and it’s always interesting.”
Winter is laying down in Gary Craver’s city. A bleak pre-Thanksgiving sky belies the unseasonably warm, blustery afternoon. A steel 18-foot flag pole stands at attention in the front yard of Craver’s yellow cottage on Haynes Avenue. The pole’s grommet fingers clutch onto an American Flag straining to fly away during a gust.
Through decades of research, travel and education, Craver has earned his reputation as one of the, if not the area’s, preeminent historians. His life’s work in local history reads as a page ripped from Wikipedia: The Centerville City Council appointed Craver to the Centerville Historic Preservation Commission in 1995, serving as its chairman from 2001 to 2005. He is the current chairman of the Appanoose County Pioneer Cemeteries Commission, of which he has been a member since 2002.
The commissions that Craver has been involved with have placed properties on the National Register of Historic Places and the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom for the underground railroad. In 2004, he also served on the Appanoose County Courthouse Centennial Committee, and Craver has been a board member of the Appanoose County Historical Society since 2002.
We’re just getting warmed up: The historian has documented works in genealogy covering family trees, ancestry, roots, legacies, and DNA markers. “What I find interesting are the Black families,” notes Craver. African American Lineage for do-it-yourself genealogical researchers has become more popular in recent years.
“I have helped to research some Black families,” he said, “but the records are even less helpful because they often only had first names and then after emancipation, they took their slave owner’s names.”
The man who has worked parts of six-decades towards a city and its county’s biographies, skeletons and all, prefers to remain anonymous.
“I don’t enjoy talking about myself but I am willing today,” says Craver, wiping his hand across the kitchen table as if clearing a path for his thoughts.
Craver’s eyes creased as he tried to straighten his left leg, “I feel like I’m 108, life hasn’t treated me very well the last couple of years. I can’t get around at all, it’s crazy.”
Now at 78 years old, Gary Craver the son of a coal miner prepares to look back:
Galleyville’s mining camp
Craver entered life at Galleyville, the youngest of three boys, all born at home to Marguerite and Clyde.
Galleyville was a small coal mining camp south of Centerville a few miles, near the area of the old Town ‘N’ Country Drive-in. His oldest brother, Richard, dies in an accident in 1960 and his other brother Donald lives in Moravia.
“My dad was a coal miner before we moved to town during 1946,” Craver said. “Later he worked as an auto mechanic, retiring from Jack Morris Motors.”
Craver is an authentic product of the Centerville school system passing through every grade available: Lincoln, Central, Washington Junior High (which was torn down, rebuilt and named Howar). He graduated from Centerville High School in 1961 and from Centerville Community College in 1964.
A young Gary Craver wasn’t afforded the typical student amenities that others take for granted.
“I couldn’t participate in sports because I contracted polio at age three that paralyzed my left leg,” Craver said. “I spent a lot of time in Iowa City where I had surgeries while still going to school. At first I didn’t have the brace supporting my left leg but eventually I did and it helped. I tried to not think too much about it.”
The Summer Scourge Polio of the 1940s, before the polio vaccine, resulted in near panic during the epidemics. At the time when the three Craver boys were born, polio was one of the more feared and studied diseases. “My brother Donald was born with Polio but he recovered,” added Craver.
The Iowegian and road maps would soon be the bridge connecting a youth’s curiosity and an adult’s passion.
“Well, my interest in history has always been about my family and Centerville,” Craver continued. “I remember little from history classes in school because I wasn’t so much interested in world history as I was what happened locally. I would have been around 10, maybe fourth-grade, when I became interested in newspapers and road maps. Every time I could read something about Centerville I would. You know when the Iowegian would have a special edition and have all that history in it, those always interested me. I remember it was fun laying a road map out to read and see where it went.
“I’m just a fan of Centerville and always have been.”
Craver researched with his family’s support. He traced his family tree.
“My mom always supported me, one day I got an old brown paper sack, and I cut it open and traced our family tree,” Craver said. “Asking mom a lot of questions helped me to have it all on there. She was Italian — her folks came here from Italy in the early 1900s. I used to write letters to any place that could help me learn about my family and track my mother’s genealogy. ... My dad’s relation, the Cravers, came here from Germany in the 1700s and settled in New Jersey. Then they moved to Indiana and then to Iowa.”
As Craver matured, his investigations grew with him.
“When computers and the internet became accessible was when I could really research,” Craver said. “Having my DNA analyzed confirmed that my research was correct. DNA is when you send off a saliva sample that they run through a database matching you with other people. It’s just never ending.”
Marguerite’s youngest son’s interest into his family’s genealogy peaked when in 2000, at age 59, Craver traveled with his niece Christina to Northern Italy, near Vincenza.
“I wanted to find relatives on my mom’s side,” Craver said. “I didn’t know the details, so we flew to Italy to find out. It was exciting to meet with an interpreter who took us to meet my mom’s cousins for the first time. When we left to come back home, I was happy we had taken the trip to figure everything out.”
Craver’s eyes rolled up and out his kitchen window watching the spastic flag dance around the pole. As if he was back in Italy walking through a windy Venice canal, Craver mused, “I could never make that trip now, though. I’m so glad I went when I did because it would be impossible for me to do all the walking my niece and I did.”
A season of change for Centerville, a season of change for her proud historian. To everything there is a season.
A few brown leaves resembling parchment rushed across the yard, end over end.
Gary Craver’s historical contributions to the county and to Centerville specifically is literally half of his story. Craver has spent 37 of his 78 years with the Centerville Police Department as a full-time dispatcher. Hired in 1966 by then Chief Bob Curtis, Craver represents the compelling lifeline from resident to rescuer. From 1966 to 2003, Appanoose County depended on Craver’s ability to do his job connecting the worse day of their life to an officer, a deputy, a first responder, or a firefighter.
“After graduating from the community college I spent a couple years figuring out what I wanted to do,” Craver said. “There wasn’t a lot of jobs in Centerville in 1966. Chief Curtis, who lived across the street and knew me, got a hold of me about the dispatcher job.”
And so in 1966, at the age of 24, Craver would begin one of the longest runs in local law enforcement history.
“In the ‘60s, the sheriff’s office had a radio in the courthouse but after hours I did all the dispatching,” Craver said. “The police department, including me, worked out of the old city hall that burned. The fire department stands there now, and the police department moved into their new building in 1974.”
Chuckling while recalling his aptitude for the on-the-job dispatcher training Craver says, “I was only supposed to be a part-time dispatcher but as soon as I got there it was full time. It wasn’t complicated like it is now. There weren’t computers or anything like that. You just had a radio and a phone.”
The first dispatcher ever hired was in 1960. Craver will always have the distinction as the fourth dispatcher to serve.
Gary’s innate talent to recognize what to research and when lead to a 1986 book on the history of the CPD for the Historical Society. “You work here so long, you wonder what it was like here 50 years ago,”
Retiring from law enforcement after 37 years in 2003 and entering his 60s, Craver’s life-long affliction of polio was an inspiration for those who knew him. Reluctant to talk about himself, when pressed Craver minimizes the difficulties of living with only three healthy limbs.
“Most of my life I never thought of polio keeping me from what I wanted to do, I have learned to adapt,” he said.
Everyone loves a parade
Gary Craver saw his first Pancake Day parade at age seven in 1949. The boy from the Galleyville mine camp found a kindred spirit that day. He’s been to every one of the 71 Pancake Days.
“I have always been a big fan of the parade,” he said. “I have filmed every one of them since 1985 and I even have some home movies of the earlier ones.”
The 2016 Pancake Day’s theme was “Under The Big Top.” Even a day of inter-mediant rain couldn’t cloud Pancake’s Day’s affection for its biggest fan. The Pancake Day committee honored the 75-year-old Craver as that year’s parade grand marshal.
“I had no idea they would do that! It’s hard to tell how that all came about but it was fun, I really appreciated it. Except I missed the parade,” Craver smiles with a wink.
Gary Craver is one of only 70 people to walk the planet as a Pancake Day Grand Marshal! It would be three years later, on September 28, 2019, when Craver would once again have the attention of the parade.
During the Pancake Day Parade of 1971, the 30-year-old Gary knew something didn’t sound right. The parade was a little less historic, a little less fun and a lot quieter. The famous Johnson Calliope that had brought so much joy and fun each year had been retired and now sat in a museum.
After 48 years of missing the carnival-like sound that only those magic pipes could produce the former grand marshal took matters into his own hands.
“I had been thinking about the missing calliope for a while,” he said.
Curator of the Appanoose County Historical Museum Lisa Eddy worked with Craver until they found a calliope made by hand, like the one that was so sorely missed.
“I decided I’m just going to buy that one,” Craver beamed.
Marching Through The Years was the apropos theme for Pancake day 2019. The Craver Calliope returned the universal sound of music and fun that can only play from those magic pipes.
Red, white, and blue fabric curls then pops on the flagpole. A fox squirrel sprints, stops, twitches, then hightails it up an oak tree. The locals are ruggin’ up for winter.
The winds of winter
Gary Craver’s life has inconvenienced polio.
“I have done about anything I’ve wanted to do,” he said. “Go about anywhere I wanted to go. I used to climb on top of the house and decorate with Christmas lights. I’ve tried to not think much about it. I used to think having one strike against me might make up for other things but it didn’t. After I left the dispatcher job I began losing strength in my other leg. I can’t walk. The doctors tell me its post-polio syndrome.”
“At this point, even though it is harder to get around, I do positive things like history research,” Craver continued. “I’m trying to research all the burials in the county farm cemetery because they are forgotten people. There are no headstones, it’s all grown over but we will get it cleared off. That’s a project I want to finish.”
History has no punchline, no final chapter to the story. History is about the journey of Pancake Day parades, family, Italy, coal mining camps, calliope smiles, dispatching relief. Gary Craver’s journey through the only city he has called home is just beginning. His destination is the seasons on a road map of a 10-year-old boy, not yet marked.
To everything, there is a season. And a time to every purpose.