National average is 22; Hawkeye State has six
Tennessee’s failed attempt to codify the Holy Bible as its official state book made me wonder about Iowa’s official items. Relative to other states, we have very few state symbols.
One of the first acts of the General Assembly in 1847 was to adopt the state seal, which pictures a citizen soldier standing on a wheat field, surrounded by farm and industry implements, with the Mississippi River in the background. An eagle is overhead with a scroll of the state motto: “Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain.” The motto itself is not singularly official. It was the work of a three-member Iowa Senate committee, and has been incorporated into the official flag and seal.
Fifty years later, the General Assembly gave a nod to the wild rose as the official state flower. It was one of the decorations used on the silver service that the state presented to the USS Iowa that same year. Although the General Assembly declined to name a specific species of wild rose, many have used the wild prairie rose (rosa pratincola) as the state flower.
We were a bit behind in the state banner or flag department, the state being nearly 75 years old before the General Assembly adopted an official design in 1921. It was designed by Dixie Cornell Gebhardt of Knoxville who was a member of the state’s Daughters of the American Revolution. Of the three vertical stripes in blue, white and red, Gebhardt said the blue stood for loyalty, justice and truth; white for purity; and red for courage.
The eastern goldfinch, also known as the American goldfinch or wild canary, was chosen as the official state bird in 1933. Males have black feathers on their heads, wings and tail and bright yellow on their bodies. Females are a more dull olive-yellow and have wings and tails more brown than black. Male plumage also dulls during the winter months.
Honored next was the mighty oak as the official state tree in 1961. It was chosen due to its prominence as well as its usefulness to man and wildlife.
The last of Iowa’s state symbols is the geode, which was named the official state rock in 1967 in an effort to promote tourism. It beat out limestone and fossil coral to earn the official designation.
While other states have accumulated dozens of state symbols — ranging from official state muffins to insects to ghost towns — Iowans have officially named only six.
Perhaps we take symbolism more seriously than other states?
The variety of state symbols has its origins in a “National Garland of Flowers” that was created in 1893 for the Chicago World’s Fair. The garland was created by flowers selected by each state, and seems to be the inspiration for state adoptions of official flowers. That trend led to state trees, birds, soils and more.
As a general rule, state symbols represent cultural heritage or natural treasures. And, yes, some states have switched symbols or designed more than one item for specific categories.
Since the Tennessee push for a state book has failed, no state appears to have one. Maybe Iowa can change that, and become the first-in-the-nation title namers.
Such quests to name a single creative work are challenging. Many states, for instance, have a handful of titles listed as their state song. Oklahoma has developed genre subcategories for its official state music, choosing to highlight titles from folk, rock, country and western and children’s music. Since presumably none could overshadow Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” it is designated the state’s anthem.
New Mexico gave a nod to its Spanish heritage when it named state songs sung in English, Spanish and bilingually. Florida’s official song was “Florida, My Florida” (sung to O Tannenbaum) until 1935. At that point it was switched to “Old Folks at Home,” which is better known as “Swanee River.”
Obviously, choosing just one isn’t easy, but has got to be more widely entertaining than school funding deadlocks.
To get us started, I posted on social media, asking followers to submit their proposals for an official state book. Here are some of the (serious) suggestions received:
• A Thousand Acres — This is a work of fiction by Jane Smiley that won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Smiley, a California native, received several degrees from the University of Iowa and spent 15 years as an English professor at Iowa State University. The book, which tells the story of a successful Iowa farmer dividing up his property for his three daughters, is largely based on William Shakespeare’s King Lear.
• O Pioneers! — Another work of fiction, although this one is more than 100 years old. Author Willa Cather weaves the story of the Bergson family, beginning when the dying patriarch chooses to leave the family farmstead to his daughter and not his sons. Born in Virginia, Cather’s family move to Nebraska when she was 9-years old. She would later graduate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before leaving the area for the east coast, and was well-known for her depictions of frontier life on the Great Plains.
• The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid — A humorous memoir by Des Moines-native Bill Bryson, who hopped the big pond to work as a journalist in England for most of his adult life, and served as the chancellor of Durham University. The memoir was published in 2006, following a short-lived return to life in the states. The book is a coming-of-age piece set in Des Moines during the 1950s and 1960s.
• Gilead — Named after the small Iowa town where it is set during the 1950s, this religious-inspired epistolary novel is the message a terminally ill 76-year-old pastor wants to leave for his 7-year-old son. Author Marilynne Robinson, an Idaho-native and Iowa Writer’s Workshop alum, was awarded a Pulitzer for the work in 2005.
• Shoeless Joe — Most readers will recognize this book by Canadian W.P. Kinsella as the inspiration for the movie, “Field of Dreams.” It tells the story of a poor Iowa farmer who builds a baseball diamond in his cornfield that attracts the spirits of the 1919 Chicago White Sox. Lesser known is Kinsella’s 1986 work, “Iowa Baseball Confederacy,” which also mixes fantasy and reality to retell the story of a minor league team’s game against the 1908 World Champion Chicago Cubs.
• Bridges of Madison County — An Iowa love story that also made its way to the silver screen — as well as the musical stage. Author Robert James Walker tells the story of Robert Kincaid, a photographer and free spirit searching for the covered bridges, and Francesca Johnson, a farm wife needing something more. The novel is considered one of the best selling books of the 20th century.
• Why Iowa? — This non-fiction book, published by the University of Chicago Press, is a collaborative effort by political science professors David Redlawsk, Caroline Tolbert and Todd Donovan. It takes readers on a tour of the Iowa caucuses, and seeks to answer the question on whether the existing nomination process beginning in Iowa and New Hampshire is fair or a benefit to the country.
• Blizzard — Born in the tiny town of Pittsburg and a graduate of Drake University, author Phil Strong is best known for his 1932 novel “State Fair,” which was adapted to film and the stage. Blizzard was published years later, in 1955, and tells the story of a group of people who are stranded in rural Iowa during a cold natural disaster. Readers say it provides a good view of Iowans through meticulous character development.
• Boy Life on the Prairie — First published in 1899, the book tells the experiences of author Hamlin Garland on a northeastern Iowa farm from 1869 to 1881, the years just after the Civil War. Although he later won the 1922 Pulitzer for “A Daughter of the Middle Border,” which was a sequel to his better-known biography, “A Son of the Middle Border,” many historians believe his earlier account in “Boy Life” is one of the most detailed accounts of rural life at that time.
If Iowa was going to select an official state book, would one of these work or would you choose something else?
Those who doubted lawmakers could agree on an official state book suggested movement on state symbols might be easier in other categories:
• Good Luck Charm — Nile Kinnick statute in Iowa City
• Bad Luck Charm — Zodiac floor tile in the Memorial Union in Ames
• Grain — Maize (Wisconsin did it. We can too.)
• Bike Ride — RAGBRAI
• Beverage — rhubarb wine
• Wonder — Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend
• Mammal — Hampshire Swine
• Heroine — Carrie Chapman Catt or Arabella Mansfield
• Whiskey — Templeton Rye
• Starship — USS Enterprise
• Dessert — Eskimo Pie (created by Iowan Chris Nelson)
• Road — Snake Alley in Burlington
With some states boasting 30 state symbols or more, Iowans should pick at least one or two more things that represent us.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on April 19, 2015.