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Keokuk Against the World

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

In June of 1858, the small community of Keokuk, Iowa, at the foot of the Des Moines Rapids on the Mississippi decided to take on the entire world—one of those moves you know does not have a high probability of success.

That June, posters appeared in small communities up and down the Mississippi River. "Keokuk Against the World," they said. The fine print announced that on June 12th at Keokuk there would be a small boat regatta and invited all comers to show up at Keokuk and challenge local boat builders.

The contest would be limited to two classes: rowboats and sailboats. The prize was a silver goblet lined with gold found in the bluffs above Keokuk and valued at $20.

Keokuk was proud of its reputation as the small boat capitol of the Mississippi and confident of winning. Unfortunately, they had not paid much attention to the tiny, almost unnoticeable village of Warsaw, directly across the river, or to a dentist there named Andrew J. Wiard. Wiard had moved to Warsaw two years before, and as a hobby had begun building small sturdy rowboats. He had already gained some fame for them in Warsaw.

Several Warsaw residents asked Wiard to accept the challenge of the big bully across the river, and he did. He had already made a sailboat, the Black Swan, but he had no rowboat. He began construction two days before the race. Building time for the new rowboat, the American Eagle, was thirty-two and one-half hours. Wiard drove the last nail in after the boat got to Keokuk.

On June 12th, 3,000 spectators lined the banks to watch the race. Keokuk builders entered three rowboats, the Joppa Chillian, the Fast Maid, and the Fort Des Moines.

Wiard's boat leaked some. During the race, while two friends manned the oars, Wiard had to operate the rudder and furiously bail out the water leaking into the boat. But the American Eagle won the prized gold and silver goblet.

Wiard's sailboat might have been competitive, too, had he not forgotten to bring the centerboard. It still came in ahead of several Keokuk boats.

For Andrew Wiard, the race marked the end of his dental practice and the beginning of his famous Warsaw Boat Yard, and a reputation as the best builder of small boats on the Mississippi.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.