By Jim Duncan
In 1804 Captain Meriwether Lewis first laid eyes on what would later be called Iowa, describing it as “the most beautiful prospect.” By 1846, when Iowa became the first free state carved out of the Louisiana Purchase, 100,000 settlers had come prospecting — for religious freedom and for land rich enough to sustain their families.
Through the next 150 years, the state’s story was “The Iowa Dream” coming true through the genius and labor of new settlers prospecting better ways to utilize the beautiful land: surveyors bestowing its order through neatly platted grids of townships and counties; rail-splitters and coal miners delivering its bounty to the economic miracle of commodity markets; inventors and scientists increasing that bounty with gas-powered tractors and hybrid seed.
By the end of the 20th century, consequences wrought by the success of their genius had propelled the state’s most profound transformation — the movement of Iowa’s people from the land to concrete-covered cities. Visionaries in 21st-century Iowa are reconnecting Iowans with the beautiful land, mining new ways to understand and value what one early settler called a “soul-kindling country.” The state lost two such beautiful prospectors in the last year.
Margaret West enjoyed a rich life as a mother, artist, musician, emergency paramedic, and physician’s assistant before she discovered how to kindle the preferred cooking fuel of the professional barbecue circuit.
On the respected www.nakedwhiz.com website — which includes charcoal tests, reports, and reviews — her Seven Oaks Lump Charcoal received a “Best I Have Ever Used” rating from an astounding 65 percent of its readers.
Most popular charcoals include clay and coal compositions that burn quickly. Margaret made hers by laboriously burning down hardwoods. She began her business to help out her brother. After retiring from Louisiana to Iowa, he couldn’t find decent lump. So Margaret and her sister Marta built a kiln in Lineville and charred a few thousand pounds of the good stuff.
“That was 2,000 pounds more than he could use. So he started giving it away. One thing led to another, and it opened up a whole new world to us. We never knew a thing about barbecue, but we just love meeting these wonderful people on the circuit,” Margaret explained a few years ago, describing the trips she and Marta made throughout the Midwest in their Ford pickup truck to hand-deliver bags of Seven Oaks to devotees.
For three decades, gentle bearded giant Bobby Braverman prospected on Friendly Farm, a hilly 20 acres on the south side of Iowa City. He was into natural, sustainable farming before those things were cool, keeping his farm organic in all ways except paperwork. Federal regulations weren’t his thing. Good stewardship was.
He nurtured his land with cover crops and compost, rotating crops and plant varieties to replenish the soil. His vegetables, fruits, and flowers were cherished by individuals, stores, and restaurants within 10 miles of his farm. He wouldn’t sell them any farther away, believing such a practice was unsustainable.
Braverman also cultivated troubled souls, opening his farm to anyone who might benefit from the labor of love called farming. Head Start kids were particularly welcomed, some of them originally from Sudan, Mexico, Bosnia, and the Chicago ghetto.
Lincoln Cafe chef and owner Matt Steigerwald, who had been negotiating with Braverman to open a restaurant on Friendly Farm, considered him a charismatic leader. “It’s the interesting, idiosyncratic folk that break ground. They push forward for us to follow. Bobby was one of those people for sure.”
Friendly Farm survives Bobby Braverman’s death, and the legend of Seven Oaks lump charcoal will continue without Margaret West. Prospects are quite good that both have inspired a new generation of beautiful dreamers.
Photos ©istockphoto.com / konradlew / stocksnapper