STORM LAKE, Iowa -- I paused while walking on Hudson Street on Wednesday, as the July 4 parade, likely the area's largest on Independence Day, was winding down.
A Laotian family prepared food and drink on their lawn, multiple generations mixing amid a sea of red, white and blue. Next door, a family of Guatemalans did the same, everyone sharing a wave and a "Good morning," greeting.
Just then, George Kramer and his wife, Joyce Van Anne, of Ashland, Oregon, happened by. They stopped to compliment me, saying they never dreamed of accidentally bumping into a parade of this size -- and this enthusiasm -- in a small Northwest Iowa city.
"We stayed in Sioux City last night, left this morning and headed to Mason City when we decided to pull off in Storm Lake just to see if anything was happening," Kramer said. "We'd just said to each other that we hadn't yet seen much in Fourth of July festivities and then we came into this!"
Van Anne's family has roots in Rock Rapids, Iowa, and nearby Ellsworth, Minnesota. The Van Anne-Fields VFW Post in Rock Rapids is named for her great uncle. She knew something about the territory, though she's resided for years in Ashland, a city of 21,639 in Oregon.
Kramer knew more about the Buena Vista County seat, though he'd never stepped foot into the community. His connection surrounded research as the City of Ashland directed him oversee the restoration of Ashland's "Pioneer Mike" statue that was vandalized beyond repair several years ago.
"I'm a restoration consultant," he said. "Oregon has the only other surviving 'Pioneer' statue. We have 'Pioneer Mike' on our plaza. He's the brother of the Storm Lake, Iowa, 'Pioneer.'"
I had walked by the Storm Lake "Pioneer" about 90 minutes earlier as I headed east along Lakeshore Drive, keeping up with the July 4 parade as it rolled out before 10,000-plus residents and guests. The parade turned north at Hudson Street and continued five or six blocks.
I can't say I'd ever given much thought to the Storm Lake "Pioneer" who looks west out over the lake. But when Kramer and Van Anne asked if I could point them toward the statue, I said I'd lead the way. It was the least I could do for visitors some 1,768 miles from their home.
Kramer told me about the statue restoration as we walked south and west, he and Van Anne stopping occasionally to shoot photos of relics like the century-old (or so) fire engines from Storm Lake and nearby Rembrandt, Iowa.
"Ashland has an old-fashioned Fourth of July parade like this, but it's limited to the business district," she said. "We don't venture into the residential areas like this. The food spreads on your lawns is wonderful! That's the way to celebrate the Fourth of July!"
It took 10 to 15 minutes before we reached the "Pioneer." Kramer examined the statue and launched into a history of the project he helped steer three years ago when "Pioneer Mike" in Ashland was falling apart, victim of decades of abuse. The project reached a head when a vandal climbed onto "Pioneer Mike" and swiped his rifle and hand away.
Kramer researched "Pioneer" statues and found that four of this type existed at one time, but that the Storm Lake statue was the only one remaining. Kramer reached out to Storm Lake City Hall and got the green light to do what he could to have a model made.
"We sent Kendall Mingey, a Portland (Oregon) bronze artist and Kendall spent a week in Storm Lake (in 2015) and made a model of silicon and plaster that was shipped back to Oregon," Kramer said. "We made a new bronze statue based on the Storm Lake 'Pioneer' and on July 3, 2016, we rededicated him on our plaza where we have an old-fashioned July 4 parade, much like Storm Lake's."
The "Pioneer Mike" in Ashland is taller and stands in the center of town, looking east. Storm Lake's "Pioneer" stands on the north shore and peers west across the lake.
Storm Lake's statue, Kramer said, is a replica built in or around 1974 after the original was damaged, forcing city officials at the time to send the damaged statue to the Kennedy Galleries in New York. Folks there made this statue out of bronze and it replaced the zinc oringal, which, Kennedy said, is now a part of the Buena Vista County Historical Society Museum.
Kramer and Van Anne allowed me to take their picture to help document their visit to The City Beautiful. They couldn't get over their good fortune in stopping in town during the parade, a highlight of summertime fun, togetherness and activity on the lakeshore. Perhaps it was a day like this the "Pioneer" once envisioned.
Said Kramer, "Ashland and Storm Lake have many similarities. They could be sister cities."