This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
Nearly every small town up and down the Mississippi Valley makes Herculean efforts to distinguish itself from all the rest. Monona, the home of Iowa's one-eyed Governor. Lake City, birthplace of water skiing. La Crosse, God's country, and so on.
Meanwhile, the 700 residents of Sabula just sit on their porches and smile and watch these pitiful efforts drift by. As Iowa's only island city, Sabula is naturally unique. Islands attract their own kind, men and women willing to live more by the laws of the river than the legislation of the state.
It's always been that way in Sabula. The first white settler arrived on the current in 1835, floating on a log across the Mississippi. Isaac Dorman climbed ashore, saw that the island would make a good steamboat landing, and staked a claim. Other settlers heard the call of island life and washed ashore to take root among its willows and maples. The Mississippi is selective; not everyone stayed.
But slowly, a town grew, and eventually took an appropriate name. Sabula comes from the Latin word for sand, sabulum, the ground on which the town sits. Today, as always, life in Sabula follows the rhythms of the river. Framed by the palisades along the Illinois shore and the fish-rich backwaters separating it from Iowa, Sabula lives at a different pace from towns on the prairie.
That's what the elders of the village will tell you—the older men who have gathered six mornings a week in the back room of John Ackerson's corner grocery since 1895. Sabulans refer to it as the town library. Here, under a pressed tin ceiling, the men take turns putting on the coffee, take their coffee mugs from the wall rack, relax back into easy chairs, and exchange information directly rather than through books. Where are the walleyes biting? What's happening in the world out there, or over in Iowa? Are there any visitors in town?
On a typical morning, about ten coffee pots worth of news is exchanged in this busy library without books—or without a librarian. An island city is used to reading life directly.
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.