Posts Tagged: Iowa

Probituary, A Notice of Life: Ernest “Pokey Pete” Peterson!

PokeypostcardErnest “Pokey Pete” Peterson was born in the spring of 1925 in Cedar Falls, IA. He grew up on a farm just outside of Osage where milking and chores took the place of extra curricular activities, but also accounted for a strong family life and respect for hard work. He joined the US Navy on Thanksgiving Day 1943 and from an early age figured out that he didn’t personally need much money, especially when it could be better used helping children and those in need. In August of 1968 Ernest paid off his bills and bought the best riding lawn mower he could find, a Massy Fergeson, as it would need to be red to be the locomotive of his train. Two wooden cars – a “coal car” and a caboose were built in his basement that winter, and moved up in the spring so that a fun, new attraction could be presented at the many rural town festivals across eastern Iowa. And of course it would raise money for charities.

Ernest knew his operation needed to run entirely non-profit – “morally non-profit” as he says – from covering his own expenses, to sharing the proceeds with those in need with no judgment or concern. All of his proceeds, including much of his janitor’s salary, an incredible sum nearing $400,000 total over three decades went to charities such as the Salvation Army, Ronald McDonald house of Iowa City, private individuals in need, and more. He also rang bells for the Salvation Army in Cedar Falls – complete with his railroad engineer’s outfit on, for 35 years.

Pokey Pete, aka “Troll’s Trolley” was (and still is) an institution at Decorah’s Nordic Fest, where he donated his train to the Decorah Lion’s Club in 1989. You can read more about Mr. Peterson’s incredible contributions in the new book by Dawn Svenson Holland entitled “Nordic Fest: 50 Years Strong”.


1) What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Take your own advice! Actually, my parents didn’t do a lot of talking, but they sure set by example.

2) What did you want to be when you grew up?

I didn’t know there was another job other than farming – my brothers and I milked 25 holsteins – an hour and a half every morning and every night. There wasn’t time for the other activities, and I didn’t get exposed to the problems that people have today.

3) What did you do?

I came back in ‘45 and just looked for a job – whatever was available. A short time at the Rath packing plant, and then at that time in the 50’s we had 9 dairies bottling and delivering milk to homes. I thought the dairies would go on forever – Carnation and Walnut. So I worked there, but as of about 1970 there wasn’t a milk bottler in Cedar Falls. I got to sanding floors for 10 years after that – I just took what was available at the time. And then I became the school house janitor at Orchard Hills school in Cedar Falls for 16 years. The school job allowed me to take my vacation days off to drive the train.

4) If you were stranded on a desert island, what 3 things would you want?

Hahaha, well it ain’t ever gonna’ happen! Well, look around your home. Who needs all this stuff? Not me – we could all get by with a lot less.

5) Try to describe yourself in one or two sentences:

I was just a carnie operator doing my job, if you want to call it that. I’m awful proud I did it (the train) and made all the decisions myself. And you need to do what you believe.

6) If you could eat anything every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?

I don’t eat to eat. The hunger to over eat is pitiful.  You learn that on the farm too – you work to eat, and eat to work, and exist. I can live without food now almost – I’m 91. I have my 2 slices of toast, but I don’t ever expect too many tomorrows at my age.

7) Name one thing you could not live without:

We all need a dream, and you have to get to living that dream.

8) Tell us about…

Your Wedding Day:
I was married in 1947, for ten years – but things didn’t work out. We didn’t see the same way about money. Then there was a nice young lady that lived near my folks – Juanita and I got married in 1958. She had been through a tough marriage as well – we both had our challenges, but those 2 negatives made a positive. The only job she travelled with me on each year was to Nordic Fest, as it was more than one day. She ran the “Station”, and Gary Svenson always had someone lined up that we could stay with. That was the only job she came with me on each year.


Your favorite memory:

There are many, but the times when I would help a toddler get up on the train engine and walk them in a circle letting them drive. Parents, and kids, loved that – taking pictures, their little darling was the engineer. I did too. I gave the train away in ‘89 (to the Decorah Lions Club), one of my biggest helpers telling that story was Paul Harvey. I gave away the rest of my money on my 90th birthday, just before I came to the Western home. What I did, you know, I wasn’t Mickey Mouse or Super Man – I’m just a human. Its time we all get back to doing more human things. ——————–


Benji Nichols can remember riding on the Pokey Pete (or “Trolls Trolley”) train from a very young age. Getting to interview Ernest for this article and realize the magnitude of his extreme generosity have been a major highlight for Inspire(d).


Nordic Fest Itinerary (according to us)!

By Inspire(d) • All photos courtesy Decorah CVB unless noted

When you live in Decorah, you have to either embrace Nordic Fest or head out of town. We here at Inspire(d) HQ really kinda love it, so we put together an itinerary that would make us burst from all the fun (and food). We hope you think it’s great too, and that you’ll make 2016 your best Fest yet! Happy 50th, Nordic Fest!

Thursday, July 28:
It’s the first day of the Fest! Wake up and grab some coffee and explore Decorah a bit.

Photo by Impact Coffee

May we suggest… a Nitro cold brew from Impact Coffee on Washington St. and a Waving Grains jammer or treat from the Oneota Co-op? Then head right on over to ArtHaus on West Water St. for the Summer Art Fair. After that go on a hike or mountain bike or Trout Run Trail ride (you can rent bikes from Decorah Bicycles on College Drive – hit up the trout hatchery if you’re heading out on the TRT and watch for those sneaky Nisse!) – or hop on the Upper Iowa for a float, or just check out all the great shops in Decorah. It’s gonna be a beautiful weekend.

Photo by ArtHaus

Shout out to some Inspire(d) friends and partners perfect for shopping/pampering in Downtown Decorah: Vesterheim, Red RoxyDecorah Hatchery, Oneota Co-op, Eclips, Blue Heron Knittery, J-Tupy’s, Modish, Amundson’s, The Good Foot, Donlon’s, Sparrow’s (formerly Milkhouse Candles & Gifts), Sim TV & Electronics, The HairloomDragonfly Books, Ace Kitchen Place, Agora Arts, RevelationDay Spring Spa,  & Lillesoster Butikken! Stop and say “hi” and tell ‘em Inspire(d) sent you!

Make sure you’re back in Fest mode by 6:45 for Opening Ceremonies – it’ll be a Norwegian flurry of flags, costumes, music, and dancing!


Thursday evening, food booths are open and Water Street will be closed to vehicles. Canopies are rockin’ – tonight you can hear (to name just a couple of our favorites) Jim Busta Band with Mollie B at Canopy 2 and Bread and Butter String Band at Canopy 4. Check the Official Nordic Fest Guide for details.

Next, better head on down to the Beverage Garden (formerly Canopy 5) to see our good friends, Absolute Hoot…oh, and to enjoy some local brews and beverages! 🙂

Friday: July 29:
If you’re gonna Fest, you better get out of bed, friends! Maybe try coffee and treats from Java John’s this morning, or grab lefse from the Official Lefse Station in front of the Oneota Co-op Kitchen Classroom (they’re doing demonstrations all weekend, or until they run out), and walk down Water Street.


May we suggest…a stop at Vesterheim to see all the exhibits, activities, and, yes…Vikings! Bring your kids over to the West Water Street area to make some cool stuff with the ArtHaus crew, or take in an afternoon Oneota Film Festival screening at the Bethania Church near Vesterheim. There’s SO MUCH MUSIC all day – OK Factor, Homestead Act, Jim Busta with Mollie B…or maybe Square Dancing?!? Yes! Take it alllll in, friends.

Have you gotten a varme polse yet? What are you waiting for?!?

Feeling adventurous this evening? Sign up for Kanoløpet, the canoe race down the Upper Iowa! Registration must be completed by 5 pm, and the race starts at 6:30.

Really get into the spirit of it all with the Foot-Notes at the Courthouse Square this evening (9 pm)!

Great music continues into the evening at the Beverage Garden with Rochester, Minnesota band, Time Machine.

Saturday, July 30:
Are you one of the awesome folks doing the Elveløpet? We commend you! You can register up until 7 am at Canopy 5! The race starts at 7:30 am. Go, you, go! (Then go to the Decorah Fire Department pancake breakfast…)

Later on…It’s PARADE DAY! 10 am on Water Street! You know the drill: coffee, breakfast (rømmegrøt before noon, what?!), then grab a spot to watch the parade.


Once the last police car has made it’s way through, it’s time to really get down to business. Taste all the food. Listen to all the music. Do all the things. It’s all happening on Water Street.

May we suggest…Erik Sessions and John Goodin on Canopy 3, Decorah Drumline at the Courthouse, or Helen Johnson at Canopy 1? Plus check out water activities for the kiddos at NE Iowa Montessori School and make sure you grab a Balloon by Kevin before the Fest ends!

Looking to cool down just a smidge? There’s an awesome Arts and Crafts Center set up Friday and Saturday from 9 am – 4 pm at the Decorah Middle School (405 Winnebago St.). Looking around a bit? Check out the yard and garden tours around town or the tour of troll trails (see program for details)!

When you head back to Water Street, grab a lingonberry ice cream and a get your kid a ride on Pokey Pete the train; it’s a Nordic Fest tradition.


Sporty folks can get in on the Molkky Tournament, and if eating is your sport, there are several contests for that! Check out the Official Nordic Fest Program for details

Speaking of food, if the booths are starting to run out, pop into one of Decorah’s great restaurants to grab a bite. May we suggest visiting Inspire(d) friends and partners at (in order of location) La Rana, Mabe’s, Restauration in Hotel Winneshiek, Rubaiyat, T-Bock’s, Oneota Co-op, Java John’s, or (down the road a bit) McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita! P.S. You should probably get a One Bite Cake from Beyond the Bar Bakery at some point this weekend!

At the Beverage Garden this eve we have Chris Avey and Jeni Grows, and headliner Anthony Gomes. Plus, in addition to being parade day, it’s FIREWORKS NIGHT (10ish pm)! They’re always SO GOOD!

It’s a fun party tonight at the Courtyard and Cellar with Absolute Hoot (8 pm) – you can usually see the fireworks from there too – and check the Haymarket FB schedule to see if there are any live music details there!

P.S.A. Don’t miss your chance to get Dawn Svenson Holland’s amazing book, Nordic Fest: 50 Years Strong online or at the Visitors’ Center downtown.

Make sure to pick up one of the Official Nordic Fest Programs to get the full details…these are just some of Inspire(d)’s favorites! Oh, and buy a button (designed by Inspire(d) favorite Lauren Bonney) for a chance to win $500!

Enjoy the Fest!!!

Cresco, Iowa


Cresco Community: A history of innovators

By Aryn Henning Nichols • Originally published in the Summer 2016 Inspire(d)

“You make your family,” says long-time Cresco, Iowa resident Bootie Kapler. “Cresco is my family.”

In that family, Bootie Kapler would definitely be the mom. If there’s a committee, volunteer position, or, really, any person in need, Bootie is there. Seriously – she sits on at least a dozen area boards. If they ask, she says yes.

“I don’t mind as long as we get something done. And so often they feed you,” she says with a chuckle. “I do lots of volunteering too.”

From taking shifts at Howard Community Hospice or The County Store non-profit to tour-directing for CUSB Bank’s VIP 55+ club –“We went ALL OVER creation! Before that, I’d never even been on a bus!” – Bootie finds a way to help out.

BootieKapler“You do a lot of reading and calling, and eventually you learn how to do things,” she says. “Oh, and every year I make 12 Easter baskets for local shut-ins. I even made myself a bunny costume to deliver them! Can you imagine?! Ha! It’s the best thing in the world to make people laugh.”

The now 78-year-old moved to Cresco when she was 14. A few years later, when she graduated high school, it looked like Bootie was heading on out.

“My parents gave me two weeks to move out of the house. That’s just the way things were then,” she says. “I wanted to be a nurse. The tuition for an LPN was $75 for a year back then – I knew I could afford that – so I went to St. Mary’s in Rochester.”



“When I ran out of money, I came back to Cresco. Some classmates and I had the intention that we were going to get to Denver, Colorado, once we had enough money. But I met a cute fellow with black curly hair instead,” she says.

Bootie and Ike Kapler got married in 1959. “I went west!” she says with a big laugh. “Half-a-mile west… to this farm!”

Bootie opens the door to her farmhouse with a hug. Inside, oldies music is playing. There are fresh-out-of-the-oven butter brickle cookies and, of course, hot coffee.

She may crack a lot of jokes, but there’s no doubt that all Bootie wants is to be there for her community.

“The support from your friends in Cresco – they may want to know every possible thing about you, but they sure are there for you in a crisis,” she says.

When Bootie and Ike’s youngest daughter suffered through anorexia in college, their friends supported them without judgment, and when Ike passed away in 2004, 500 people came through to pay their respects at the funeral.

So when Bootie ran into a local businessman at the grocery store, lamenting that he couldn’t find land in town and was looking elsewhere to start his new business, of course Bootie had to help.

“I said, ‘What if I sold you part of my farm?’”

Photo by Jessica Rilling

Photo by Jessica Rilling

Right on the edge of town, the 60 acres of property was perfect for Cresco growth, and Bootie was eager to see jobs and dollars stay in the county. She and her family made the sale in late 2008, and Campsite RV and Shopko have since been developed there, joining an already industry-rich community that includes, to name a few, Featherlite, Alum-Line, Donaldson, Masonry Technology Incorporated, Bear Creek Archeology

“The hospital too,” Bootie continues with the list. “Oh, and Plantpeddler. They employ a lot of people.” She pauses. “I work there part time.” (Of course she does.)

“But I just drive around delivering flowers and making people happy. It’s pretty good work. Better than bill collecting!”

Bootie is just one of the thoughtful and innovative people who make things GO in Cresco. But really, throughout history, Cresco has been home to a great many innovators – people who aren’t afraid to take chances – on their career, on themselves, and on their community.

150 years ago, Cresco founder Augustus Beadle recruited folks to the freshly platted land with the promise of a railroad and a good life. There’s a beard-growing contest in the name of Augustus for Cresco’s upcoming 150th Birthday Celebration.


Many years after Augustus, Cresco High School’s most famous graduate, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Dr. Norman Borlaug (1914-2009), developed a high-yield, drought-resistance strain of wheat that helped billions of people grow food that could survive – and help them survive – on their land. Cresco hosts the Norman Borlaug Harvest Fest most falls to celebrate his accomplishments as well as those of the Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation (the next Harvest Fest is 2017).

And Cresco native Ellen Church (1904-1965) innovated an entirely new profession – that of airline attendants! The local airport is named in her honor.

The town itself sits about 10 miles shy of the Iowa/Minnesota border. It is the Howard County seat, and roughly 4000 people live there. The main drag – a tree-speckled Elm Street – takes you along historical buildings (the recently renovated theatre and the library buildings are over 100 years old and still operating under their original purpose), a variety of bronze public art sculptures, and a great big county courthouse. It’s charming. And it’s clear people in the community care – about each other and their town.


“I know it sounds cheesy, but the best part about Cresco is its people,” says Katie Ferrie, a local “do-er” and the marketing co-chair for Cresco’s 150th Celebration. Katie volunteers in addition to working her day job at CUSB Bank and keeping up with two busy, young daughters.

Yep, folks in small towns have to wear many hats if they’re going to make progress.

“Some of the best volunteers are some of the busiest people,” says Mark Johnson, technology manager at Cresco’s Masonry Technology Incorporated. “I’m a big believer in altruism. We need to give back.”

BrendaMarkJohnsonMark and his wife, Brenda, love living in Cresco because of the great proximity to nature of all kinds – from Prairie’s Edge Nature Center, to Vernon Springs, to the 22-mile Prairie Springs paved bike trail that connects to the Prairie Farmer Trail and links Cresco, Ridgeway, and Calmar, Iowa. But they are especially passionate about the cross-country ski trails – trails they helped create.

It was the mid 70s when Mark and Brenda came to Cresco – separately; they met and eventually fell in love after they were recruited as teachers in the Cresco school district.

“They specifically were looking for a physical education teacher who could also teach art,” Brenda says with a laugh.

Mark had degrees in English and reading, and ended up teaching those skills through computers. He went on to become an Adobe Master Teacher, and also taught classes at the Northeast Iowa Community College center in Cresco.

“I learned much more from the kids than they ever learned from me,” he says.

It was shortly after their arrival in Cresco that the new couple got their first cross-country skis.

“We bought them in La Crosse because nowhere around here sold them,” Brenda says.

Back then, people just beat down their own tracks for skiing. But the Kiwanis club made a trail near Prairie’s Edge Nature Center and Mark and Brenda started to really get into the sport.

“We got so excited about it we bought a little house just east of the courthouse and turned part of it into a ski shop,” Mark says with a laugh.

It was all very DIY – they bought a snowmobile and had a local blacksmith make a track-setter. They helped start the Upper Iowa Ski Club in the early 1980s. Although the club doesn’t exist anymore, its mission continues on. A group of volunteers, with help from the Howard County Conservation Board, that currently keep the trails going, and they’ve made significant (re: state-of-the-art) equipment upgrades. The group now grooms some of the best cross-country ski trails in the region.

Mark and Brenda volunteer elsewhere too. In the warmer months, Brenda helps to clear trails at the Nature Center and works at the local Meals on Wheels, and Mark is on the Normal Borlaug Heritage Foundation Board and both serve on the Prairie Springs Trail Committee.


“I get more out of it than I probably put into it,” Mark says. “I’ve met so many great people, and you walk away feeling good that you’ve helped out…that you’ve accomplished something.”

A lot of the challenges that face the community of Cresco are universal to small towns…heck, maybe all towns.

“The doers can get tapped out,” says Jason Passmore, Executive Director of Howard County Business and Tourism. “We’re also seeing a population loss. It’s hard to get younger people to come live here. Like a lot of rural Midwest towns, we’re seeing a decline in enrollment in schools. We have a lot of great manufacturing here in Cresco, but the workforce is aging. So we need to bring in families to replace that depleting workforce. We’re going to have to become more diverse, and that can be a challenge.”

But they’re up for the challenge, says business and tourism Development Coordinator Spiff Slifka.

“We’re asking ourselves, ‘What will draw people? What will set us apart?’” Spiff says. “We’re trying to take on that next level infrastructure.”

The City Council is on board as well (no pun intended). They’ve worked over the past couple of years to increase energy efficiency in town – all the streetlights are LED, as well as the new Cresco Theatre marquee (but designed to be historically accurate). Plus, they’re early participants in a solar power purchase agreement.

“By spring we will have 300+ kW of solar panels on city property. We are really working hard on reducing the city’s energy usage to save the taxpayers’ money,” says six-year city council member Amy Bouska. “We’re pretty proud of what we’ve got over here.”

As Bootie says, Cresco is family. The people of this small Midwestern town are working hard for each other and their community. They’re making great efforts to bring folks in to visit and work and live, and they are carrying on a rich history of innovation.

“For 40 years, I’ve been part of project after project to help make this community better,” Mark says. “And that’s the thing. The people of Cresco keep re-making or re-working ourselves to be even better.”


Aryn Henning Nichols loves heading out to meet people for these stories, and figure out what it is that makes them feel proud to call their towns home. Cresco is a really cool place, and Aryn looks forward to heading over there more this summer for some outdoor fun!


Cresco 150th color logo

Cresco 150th Birthday Celebration July 20-24, 2016

There are SO MANY things happening for Cresco’s big 150th Celebration – here are just a few of the highlights.

  • Augustus Beadle Beard Contest!
  • Live music and entertainment all weekend
  • Lots of kids’ activities (bouncy houses, slides, and more)
  • Cooking contests
  • Food vendors
  • Cruise to Cresco Car Show & Tractor Show
  • Pine Wood Derby
  • Fly-In Breakfast
  • Art in the Park
  • Grand Parade
  • Tons of tours – Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame, Borlaug Heritage Farm, Ag Education Center, Howard County Museum, Cabin in Beadle Park, County Hospital, Cresco Theatre, Kellow House, etc.

Head on over to or for additional details and up-to-date information.

PrairiesEdgeCenterOther Cool Cresco Stuff to Check Out:

Prairie’s Edge Nature Center

The Prairie’s Edge Nature Center was opened in 2000 – it gets its name from the native prairie planted right outside its doors. The Nature Center also houses multiple displays, including live animals, such as a tiger salamander, native fish swimming through a 180-gallon tank, and a live honeybee display. Outside, enjoy trails for all seasons!

Iowa’s first rock ladder dam at Vernon Springs

Right across from Prairie’s Edge Nature Center, Vernon Springs Rock Ladder Dam was introduced and then completed in 2010. Instead of an outdated dam, the river now contains 280 ft. of pools and rapids that spread this drop out with an average grade of three percent versus the previous dam’s vertical drop of eight feet. The rapids open the Turkey River to fish migration while making the area safer for people of all ages. This first-in-the-State of Iowa rock arch rapids is safer for people and now wildlife and offers a unique perspective to the Turkey River and Vernon Mill Pond.

Prairie Farmer Trail

A 20 mile crushed limestone trail that connects Cresco and Calmar, Iowa. It’s a great bike ride through native prairies and Iowa farmland.

Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation & Farm

The Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation owns Dr. Borlaug’s boyhood 103-Acre farm in Northeast Iowa. There’s the farmhouse/museum, various outbuildings, and an old schoolhouse on site. Visit in September for the Norman Borlaug Harvest Fest (next one is scheduled for 2017).

Cresco Theatre / Opera House

This amazing theatre and opera house hosts live music, theatre, and popular movies as well! It was recently renovated and painted with amazing intricacy by Riehle Decorating.

Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame

Check out cool Iowa wrestling history. Housed in the Cresco Welcome Center, it’s a great launching point for your Cresco visit. And don’t miss the super-awesome IWHOF mural on your way in!

Cresco Fitness Center and Indoor Pool

This place is a lifesaver in the winter for those with kids! Swim time!

Driftrunners Snowmobile Club

In addition to cross country skiing, there’s great snowmobiling in Howard County. Driftrunners Inc. is a non-profit organization established in 1968, has a long history of snowmobiling in Northeast Iowa. They host an annual Snowfest weekend event in January (2017 will be the 45th!).