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Butter Knives and Sugar Tongs

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Doesn't it ever bother you that no matter how hard we try, we Midwesterners can never come up to the high standards set by New York City? It's a failure that goes way back, long before The New Yorker magazine made fun of "the little old lady from Dubuque."

Even our grandest attempt to impress Easterners fell short. In 1854, the Rock Island and Pacific Railroad reached Rock Island, the first railroad to reach the Mississippi River. That June, to celebrate the event, railroad officials held a magnificent excursion. More than a thousand Easterners were invited to Chicago for an inaugural trip on the railroad to Rock Island, and then by an armada of steamboats up to the Falls of St. Anthony in Minnesota. Among those attending were former President Millard Fillmore, the eminent historian, George Bancroft, notable professors from Harvard and Yale, the American novelist Catherine Sedgewick, and a reporter for the New York Tribune.

While President Fillmore, Bancroft, and Sedgewick praised the up-and-coming Mississippi Valley all the way, the New York reporter was sure there must be something wrong. He did admit that the parties on the way up the river were spectacular, and the dancing fun. He did admit that the milk was fresh—from two cows on the lower deck—and the food plentiful. The number of puddings, pies, ice creams, custards, and jellies was, in fact, astonishing. He did admit that one could "not hope anywhere to behold nature in such multiform loveliness and grandeur as on the waters of the Mississippi between Rock Island and St. Paul."

But of course, there was something wrong. He warned readers who might want to take this same tour up the river not to expect the conveniences and comforts of New York. Why, he complained, there were not even any butter knives or sugar tongs. Travelers not able to overlook these deficiencies should remain out east.

I understand how he felt. Surely, you have sugar tongs at all your meals, don't you? I clearly remember the sugar tongs I grew up with. I could pick up two lumps of sugar at a time if I were careful. And they were a fancy pair: silver-colored, with an ornate handle, on which, if you looked up close, you could read "Chicago World's Fair, 1933."

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.