Sunday, March 29, 2009

Dixie Gebhardt, Generals "Black Jack" Pershing, George S. Patton, and Pancho Villa

Today is Iowa State Flag Day. As most people from Marion County know, the Iowa State Flag was designed by Dixie Gebhardt of Knoxville. But what does the Iowa State Flag and designer Dixie Gebhardt have to do with Generals Patton, Pershing, and the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa?

On the eve of World War I, the United States engaged in skirmishes along the US border with Mexican troops as well as Pancho Villa's army. Officially known as the Mexican Expedition, it was more widely known as the Pancho Villa Expedition, or the Punitive Expedition. It began with Pancho Villa's raid on the small town of Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916. Pancho Villa was leading an uprising against the Mexican Government. Apparently a local merchant in Columbus, New Mexico, was supplying weapons and other supplies to Villa and his army when that relationship soured. At 4:17 AM that morning Villa and his troops attacked the town, located about 3 miles north of the American/Mexican Border. The U.S 13th Regiment based in Fort Bliss Texas had an outpost in Columbus at Camp Furlong. Ten American civilians and eight soldiers were killed in the raid, and the town was burned. Villa escaped back across the Mexican border with horses, mules, machine guns, ammunition, and other merchandise, but suffered severe losses--more than 60 of his troops died in battle.

On March 15, President Woodrow Wilson ordered General John J. Pershing into Mexico with 10,000 men after Villa. Interestingly, the first airplane used in war, a Curtiss JN-4 was deployed for reconnaissance. Lieutenant George S. Patton led a raid on a small community, reportedly killing several of Villa's men personally, and this is where it is also rumored that he came into the habit of carving notches on his revolvers. While Pershing's forces never found Villa, they did engage Mexican Federal troops (likely to the delight of Villa, who was fleeing both armies). The US 7th Calvary and the African-American 10th Calvary (among the legendary "Buffalo Soldiers") met the Mexican army in the Battle of Carrizal, Chihuahua. Most forces were withdrawn in 1917, and the mission has never been considered a success. The battle at Carrizal is considered a loss, 50 Americans died, and 23 were captured. Historians speculate that threats from Germany in Europe at this same time resulted in a diplomatic settlement with Mexico, and the conflict did not escalate. Pershing wrote that he had been "outwitted and out-bluffed at every turn," and wrote "when the true history is written, it will not be a very inspiring chapter for school children, or even grownups to contemplate."

But what does this have to do with Knoxville's Dixie Gebhardt and the Iowa State flag?

Troops from Iowa served in the Mexican Expedition under Pershing's command. History tells us that they wished to serve under a regimental banner that represented their home state. In response to this request, the Iowa Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution held a design contest for the flag, Gebhardt's design won, and presumably our Iowa troops chased Villa, and engaged the Mexican Federal Army under this banner. The Iowa Legislature adopted the design as the official State Flag on March 29, 1921. Gebhardt wrote that "Iowa's banner should embrace the history of its domain from the time of its occupation by the Indians to discovery by the French and purchase from Napoleon by Jefferson, to its admission into the Union, down to the present . . . in a design so simple that school children and adults can recognize its symbolism and know that it meant Iowa."

The design is patterned after the blue, white and red flag of France, with the blue symbolizing loyalty, the white purity, and the red courage. Our national symbol, the eagle, carries a blue streamer on which is our state motto, "Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain." By legislative decree, we celebrate Iowa Flag day every March 29.

I lived in New Mexico, and worked for many years in Mexico, and I have been to Columbus, New Mexico, dozens of times, and have enjoyed wandering through the State Park where Camp Furlong once was, and presumably where Iowa soldiers were stationed. A number of years ago I found myself in Carrizal, Mexico during the celebration they have in July of their victory over our forces in the Battle of Carrizal. Carrizal is a small town, with maybe 100 residents, but that day hundreds of people from miles around gathered for speeches, fireworks, dances, and an approximately 50 gun salute by then current soldiers in the Mexican army in honor of their fallen comrades. The celebration began mid-morning under a severe desert sun, and lasted late into the night. The celebration is held every year.

Meanwhile, back at home, few remember our fallen in the Battle of Carrizal, or even the Mexican Expedition. Celebrations of defeats is not a custom we embrace. We do remember, however faintly, Dixie Gebhardt and at least part of the story behind the flag of our state under which the Iowa soldiers fought. A painting of her and our flag can be found in the Marion County Courthouse, as can a display of the original flag as it was designed. A memorial is on the courthouse lawn, as is one in the lawn of her former home just west of the Knoxville Public Library.

One warm morning a couple of weeks ago, my friend Ralph Porter and I walked over to the memorial on the courthouse lawn. Ralph is old enough to have known Dixie Gebhardt personally, and as he told me a few stories about her, I realized that Dixie Gebhardt and the Battle of Carrizal is only one handshake distant into the past. As we left the memorial, Ralph pointed out that the Iowa Flag was missing from the pole at her memorial.

While Iowa Flag Day passes without speeches, fireworks, dances, and gun salutes, this year it hasn't passed unobserved. The Knoxville Historic Preservation Commission passed out line drawings of the Flag for elementary school students to color, along with a CD and brief text that teachers used to prepare a lesson. Carolyn Formanek with the Historic Preservation Commission tells me that more than 300 colored Iowa State Flags were returned, and that our teachers were able to present a lesson on the flag and it's importance to the community that hopefully students will be able to pass on to their children when the time comes. Early this coming week these colored Iowa State flags will be on display in local businesses.

While I don't know how many Iowans served in the Mexican Campaign, I do know that enough of them did that they requested a banner representing our state under which they could serve. And Knoxville's Dixie Gebhardt gave them one. While victory belongs to the Mexicans, it is no small consolation that it is likely that General Patton learned some lessons in the Chihuahua desert with Iowa troops at his side that served him and our forces well in our victory in Europe in World War II.

Dr. Bob Leonard

My acknowledgments to Wikipedia entries on the Mexican Exhibition, Black Jack Pershing, and the Battle of Carrizal, and to the Iowa State code for information on Iowa Flag Day.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Good Rainy Day

Dawn seemed to come late this morning, as gray clouds blocked the sun and a gentle rain fell. While I know that most of us would have preferred a sunny day, the cloudy skies and rain were likely a welcome sight to area firefighters. A minimum of 28 grass fires in the past seven days in Marion County have made for a busy week for the dedicated men and women—mostly volunteers—who fight our fires.

Sunday afternoon a tiny flame or ember that escaped a burning trash barrel set fire to approximately 20 acres of land west of Knoxville on McGregor. That only 20 acres burned is a tribute to our area firefighters. Just outside of Knoxville, McGregor is in the fire territory assigned to the Knoxville Township Rural Fire Department. Shortly after arriving at the scene, crew leaders determined that they needed help. The fire was about to reach hundreds of acres of land managed by the Corp of Engineers that serve as a buffer against floodwaters when Lake Red Rock reaches capacity. These waters back up into the Whitebreast drainage and its grassy shores, and with recent dry weather the grassland could have been ablaze quickly, with the possibility of miles of the southern shore of Lake Red Rock aflame.

I can imagine the feelings of the person who accidentally set the fire, just as it slipped from their grasp. Pure panic. Perhaps they were simply burning the Saturday trash as they did every week, and were watching it carefully, when the wind picked up and a bit of paper blew away, setting the nearby grass on fire. Very likely for a moment they thought they had the fire under control, fearfully running and stomping at the little pyre as it quickly grew, then finally chasing it desperation as it fled with the wind. Or maybe they set the trash in the barrel on fire, like they had done a thousand times before, and then retreated inside and upstairs to wash dishes at the kitchen sink, with plans to look out at the burning barrel below as the trash slowly burned--just to be safe. And then, with their hands in sudsy dishwater, they spied the fire leap from the barrel, caress the grass, then rise, and sprint to the nearby Whitebreast grasslands. Perhaps they yelled for help, ran outside, and grabbed the hose to turn it on only to realize that they were too late. The hose didn't stretch that far. Either way, and perhaps recognizing that there was no plausible deniability as to who started the fire, dialed 911.

From here, our dispatch team at the Marion County Law Enforcement Center paged out the Knoxville Township Rural Fire Department, and they quickly arrived, perhaps their fifth or sixth fire of the weekend. Tired, and thinking of their families and the conversations, chores, and other tasks left incomplete or unattended, they raced through the streets in their red fire trucks, sirens wailing and flashing lights blazing to the fire scene. As they arrived, I'm sure someone was out in front of the house, pointing the way for our firefighters to pass through the yards safely, even though the smoke from the fire could be seen for miles. Perhaps the person who started the fire mouthed "I'm sorry" as the firefighters passed, or gave an apologetic shrug as they pointed the way. Either way, knowing many of our firefighters as I do, I suspect that they were either expressionless, taking in the fire scene in front of them, or nodded and smiled as they passed.

KNIA KRLS Knoxville News Director Alex Rusciano and I were there, watching as Knoxville Rural FD fought the fire, soon with help from Knoxville, Pleasantville and Columbia Fire Departments. Marion County Sheriff's Deputies positioned themselves where they could watch the fire engines and pumpers abandoned on the street, as the quicker grass trucks with their small water tanks and hoses were more efficient fire fighting equipment on the sloping terrain. Our firefighters worked with speed and efficiency, much to the appreciation of the family in whose back yard the fire was started. The family stood on a deck behind the house, quietly cheering the firefighters on as they took photographs and shot video. Scanning their faces, I tried to figure out who had started the fire, but soon realized my powers of perception were insufficient, and I felt it rude to ask.

As we watched, grass trucks darted around the field, returning to refuel from tankers and fire engines as needed, then roared back into action, chewing up the landscape as their tires spun spitting dirt, burnt grass, and charcoal. After about an hour of hard work, and when it appeared that the fire was under control, and that the southern shore of Lake Red Rock was saved, the grass trucks moved more slowly, checking hot spots to make sure that nothing would re-ignite.

Once the scene was secure, the firefighters gathered their gear, climbed into their trucks, and with the Sheriff's deputies they formed a firefighting conga line, engines, tankers, grass trucks and sheriff's cars slowly driving down the street, towards home, family and tasks unfinished. I took up the rear, lagging behind, and saw the family who started the fire waving thanks at the crews, even if they didn't.

Dr. Bob Leonard

PHOTO: Austin Kingery (in truck) and Brian Schlotterback check hot spots.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The First Day of Spring

The first day of spring always brings such joy. Today was a little cool in Marion County (about 50 degrees mid-day), a little overcast, but signs of spring were everywhere. Technically, the day is the vernal equinox, where the earth’s axis is oriented such that the sun is directly above the equator. The word vernal is from the Latin word ver for spring. Equinox is derived from the Latin words aequus (equal) and nox (night), which refers to the fact that the night and day are about the same length.

I managed to find a bit of time just after lunch for my son and I to take a 45 minute or so walk on the Karr Trail just below the Cordova Tower at Lake Red Rock. What a treasure the trail is! A flock of red-winged blackbirds greeted us as we parked at the trailhead. The trail winds through rolling hills at the margin of the lake, and is covered with old oak/hickory woodland, with several interesting wooden bridges serving as fun resting points along the way. Several cardinals sang for us, accompanied by chickadees. My son is seven, so we spent most of our time discussing hickory nuts, snails, fossils, aliens and the physics of time travel.

When we neared midpoint of the trail we heard laughing ahead. Down on the beach were two boys and two girls--late teens probably. The boys were leaping off of rocks, barefooted, into the sand while the girls sat on driftwood laughing at their antics. They all smiled and waved at us as we neared, and the boys started acting even more silly, causing the girls to hold their sides with laughter as the sun broke through.

I smiled, and we waved back. Ah, spring is here…

Dr. Bob Leonard

For KNIA / KRLS News

(Photo thanks to Ron Huelse)