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Iowa in the World

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Early in 1860, the New York World sent an anonymous reporter to spend a year in Iowa in an attempt to discover just what was happening out there in the western wilderness. What strange prairie sirens were calling immigrants from around the world in record numbers? Iowa’s population had tripled in just a few years.

The reporter dutifully endured a 28-hour train ride from Pittsburgh before taking up temporary residence in Muscatine. From here, he was to travel across Iowa and, as befits a reporter, supply “early, regular and authentic information” to the World.

And so, he did, sending a weekly feature to his newspaper from Iowa City and from towns along the Mississippi such as Dubuque and Keokuk. He reported with an observant and critical eye. The prairie was dusty, raw and uneven. The river communities already too crowded, the government land policy all wrong. On the other hand, there was still good land for Easterners wishing to settle in Iowa, racing at the state fair was as good as out East and cattle farmers were far more sophisticated than he had expected.

Then it was July, and the crops were in full growth. His objective tone failed. “Never,” he wrote, “have all kinds of grain given such rich promise of a full harvest as the wheat, rye, corn, oats and the whole cereal tribe now present.” Week by week he became more laudatory of Iowa’s lands and people. He began to use “we” in his reports. He had heard the siren’s song.

It was at this point that the World reporter discovered the hog. “There is money in the hog,” he wrote, “Though neither the hog couchant, the hog salient, the hog rampant, nor the hog in any of his postures defensive or postures offensive, had hitherto been emblazoned upon the escutcheons of our States, or adopted as the coat of arms of any of our first families,” it deserves to be so.

He had now found the siren herself—or at least Iowa’s version. He succumbed to her song, or her oink, and his reports disappeared from the pages of the World.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa 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.