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Fields of Dreams : Memories Grow Tall at Reunion of Iowa Transplants

February 11, 1993|DICK WAGNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They once lived in Algona, Iowa, and now they reminisced about its county-fair summers and snowbound winters and its emphasis on quilting, wrestling and corn.

It was the 36th Algona Picnic in Long Beach, a city once called "Iowa by the Sea." For years the picnic would attract 150 ex-Algonians who had relocated in Southern California, but it was evident Sunday that attendance has fallen.

"Sure, you bet, people die," said Howard Genrich, the sport-coated picnic chairman. "And the younger people won't pick up the banner, or they have other interests."

But about 50 of the faithful, wearing paper name tags, were eating at three long tables covered with white cloths in a clubhouse in El Dorado Park.

Most of the picnickers, some who came from as far away as San Diego, were in their 60s or older. Genrich, 68, a retired science teacher who has lived in Long Beach for 39 years, graduated in 1943 from Algona High School.

"There's no place like home," Genrich said, recalling his youth in the town that then numbered about 4,000. "I used to go out to the Chrome Cafe. They had a nickelodeon and we liked to dance there and just kind of hang out. It was like 'Happy Days.' "

Genrich and Fern Haynes, who graduated in 1942, sat with Perry and Marie Lowman, who

farmed in Algona for almost four decades. The Lowmans live in La Palma.

"It's beautiful back there in the summer months," Marie Lowman said of Algona. "Beautiful corn fields and bean fields. I loved the farm and I loved Iowa, but I'm happy to be around my family in California."

Beautiful summers had not been enough to keep Genrich, Haynes, the Lowmans and just about everyone else at the picnic from leaving Algona.

"Snow, cold, ice," Haynes, laughing, gave as the reason. But Genrich said, "Economic opportunities were more readily available out here, and the defense industry had a lot to do with it in the '40s."

Algona is larger now, with 6,000 people, a shopping center and a large K mart. But on a map on the clubhouse's bulletin board it remained a dot at the junction of U.S. highways 18 and 169, 30 miles south of Minnesota and 130 miles north of Des Moines.

There were other items on the bulletin board--a red 1916 Algona High pennant that belonged to Ed Genrich, Howard's father, who always set up the public address system at the county fair; a plaster figure of a boar with corn wrapped around its middle, and a menu from Frank & Em's Cafe that featured a lobster tail with French fries for $1.50.

"That was about 1960," said Darwin Youngwirth, Frank and Em's son, who came down from Riverside.

Recent copies of the Algona Upper Des Moines newspaper were displayed. "Coffee Club Tradition Comes to an End" and "Schroeder Loses Cousin" were among the headlines. One paper contained a photo of the newest quilt made by members of the Prairie Quilters Guild, and another had a story on the high school wrestling team.

"Rassling is big in Iowa," said Roy Mathison, 75, of Whittier, who wrestled in the 1930s at Algona High. His coach, Dave Ward, was at the picnic, a man of 87 wearing a string tie.

"Was he a good wrestler? Oh, sure, 135 pounds. It was Le roy then," Ward said.

Mathison, broad-chested and wearing rimless glasses on his pink face, weighs close to 190 now.

*

After lunch, on a platform that served as a stage, Genrich opened a short program with a definition of the picnic itself.

"This is a great phenomenon," he said in a Midwestern voice whose twang suggested Southern, not Northern Iowa.

After a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, Genrich told the audience: "I have some song sheets I'm going to pass out. Are the corn song sheets back there? Where did I lay them down? Tread water, your chairman's not very well-organized."

The sheets were found, and everyone sang:

"I-o-way, I-o-way,

State of all the land,

Joy on every hand.

We're from I-o-way, I-o-way,

That's where the tall

corn grows."

"Are there any visiting people here from Algona who are snow-birding out here?" Genrich asked.

A woman rose and said, "I'm Anita Haase."

"Glad to have you aboard," Genrich said. "You could be shoveling snow."

"They haven't had an awful lot, it sounds like when I call back," Haase said.

Genrich moved on: "Is there anyone here older than Perry Lowman or Dave Ward, that they will admit to?"

No one did, so Lowman and Ward, both 87, came up to be honored. They stood erect in their dark Sunday suits as Genrich pinned carnations on them.

"The next thing on my agenda," Genrich continued, "is a moment for the departed. I need your help with this. Dave, who do you have that's departed?"

"My wife passed away last April," Ward said. "Georgia Ward."

"Who else?" Genrich asked.

Gail Haase, Anita's husband, and Lucille Amunson were mentioned, and the picnickers observed a moment of silence.

The emcee then asked for news from Algona.

"Walt Richardson had knee surgery and then hip surgery, and he's not at all well," a woman said.

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