The small community of Lehigh, located in the Southeast section of Webster County, in many ways is a symbol of small town Iowa.
Once a bustling community, unique in the fact that it lies in a valley and is bisected by the Des Moines River, Lehigh is now home to just more than 400 people. It’s school district is gone, twice joining neighboring towns through consolidation. Now, Lehigh is part of the Southeast Webster-Grand district, a district covering a large geographic area — the high school is located in Gowrie, the middle school in Burnside and an elementary school is located in Dayton.
Lehigh is unique in that it’s a small community built along both sides of the Des Moines River — in fact, Lehigh was once two communities. Lehigh was located on the west side of the river, while the town on the east side was known as Slabtown.
My grandfather, who came to America from Sweden in 1900, found work at the tile factory in Lehigh; my father graduated from Lehigh High School in 1935, when he was just 16.
Even though my father died in 1963 at the age of 44, two weeks after I’d graduated from Waldorf Junior College, I was often drawn back to Lehigh to learn more about the man who left us at such an early age. Sure, there were always stories shared by members of the family who’d known my father in his younger years, but to know the real man I’d called “Dad” I had to seek out others who’d known him when he was a much younger man.
Driving down Lehigh’s main street on a recent trip to Fort Dodge, my eyes were drawn to a vacant building. On the side of that deteriorating old wooden structure was a painted sign that read, “Gardini Grocery.” Once the last of the two Gardini sisters who ran the family store had passed away, the building became vacant. Inside, I could still see the small aisles of canned vegetables, and the gum and candy which had been the business’ main items of sales in its last years. School-age children in Lehigh would gather there every morning, buying gum and candy bars as they awaited the bus that would take them out of town for their days in school.
I’d stop there on occasion. Sometimes I’d even buy a pack of gum or a candy bar, but I was always there for the same reason.
You see, “Blackie” Gardini, one of the two sisters who operated the store, was one of the last remaining classmates of my father. Once “Blackie” got to know me, she was quick to share stories of my dad, stories I’d not heard from family members, but stories of my dad as a youngster growing up on a hill that was on the west side of the Des Moines River.
“Blackie” was a wealth of information for me. I’d known my dad’s two best friends in Lehigh — Harold Runyon and Joe Panzi. But, like my dad, Harold had died and Joe was hard to find as he helped his own sons in a family construction business. Joe’s wife wasn’t much of an information source, since Joe and she had married when he was in the military somewhere out East.
But “Blackie” was always there and always ready to share a story or two. Perhaps it was due in part because long days tending a seldom-patronized business led to boredom. Whatever the reason, on the too few occasions I stopped there, she was welcoming and she always willing to talk.
“Your dad wasn’t like his other friends,” she’d say. “He was always willing to help us other kids when we couldn’t figure something out in school. He was very smart, but he never acted that way. He was so willing to help us when we couldn’t come up with answers.”
I knew my dad had been a good student. He was just 16 when he graduated and had the opportunity to go to Iowa State College in Ames on a scholarship. But, he’d turned that opportunity aside, noting that “I’m going to be a farmer.” I’m sure he regretted that decision later. His dreams of farming never became a reality in Depression-era America. And, when he went down to volunteer of military service after Pearl Harbor was bombed, he was told he wasn’t medically fit to be a soldier. At the Army induction center, Dad was told “you have a heart like an old lady.” Of course, that was a poor choice of words given the fact that most “old lady” hearts are quite strong.
“Blackie” Gardini shared many stories of my dad when he was a schoolboy in Lehigh. I never tired of listening and she never tired of talking. Often, I wish I’d taken a tape recorder with me on the too-few occasions I stopped there. She died several years ago when she was in her 90s.
Although I never recorded any stories she told, I have many tucked away in the back of my mind and I promise to share them all with my children and grandchildren. My dad often said, once he learned his heart was so weak, “I just want to live long enough to hold one grandchild.” He never made it. His heart finally stopped more than five years before his first of six grandchildren was born.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful, though, if he knew that his first-born son is doing his best to pass along his story to a new generation? He lies in a beautiful cemetery atop a hill west of Lehigh — almost as if he can still look down on the small, dying community, he once called home.
Bill Haglund is a retired writer for the Boone News-Republican and Dallas County News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.