A lifelong resident of a small Iowa town, my grandma saw everything as it was -- and how it once had been.
The cornfield right next to the town golf course? Rows of green, yes, but also the plowed-under high school football field where my dad used to play. My friend's mom? A Spree girl who married a DeGroote, then a Huisman. The weathered brick ice cream shop -- to me, a beacon on hot summer days. To her, the former creamery that made the pale yellow butter that she rang up at the Main Street mercantile.
As a kid, I found it almost magical, that ability to look into these everyday people and places and conjure up far more than met the eye. I was forever squinting at things, trying to peer through the historical layers as Grandma did.
A new photo book by a fellow northeast Iowa transplant to the Twin Cities provides an intriguing glimpse of all I couldn't see. "Sunday Afternoon on the Porch" is a touching documentary of ordinary life in a small Iowa town from 1939 to 1942 -- the apex of Midwest rural culture. It's also a book with a great story behind it. Everett Kuntz, the young man behind the lens, grew up to be an electrical engineer in the Twin Cities. For decades, the negatives of the film he'd shot near Ridgeway, about 15 miles south of the Minnesota-Iowa border, sat in his home. Kuntz blew his life savings ($12.50) to buy the camera and at the time couldn't afford to make prints.
Fast-forward to 2002, when Kuntz developed terminal prostate cancer. With time running out, he dug out the negatives and brought Ridgeway's ice cream socials, town picnics and Sunday dinners back to digital life using Adobe Photoshop. He died in 2003. His legacy: a photographic time capsule of a book, with text by Jim Heynen, in which Ridgeway residents gaze out almost quizzically, as if curious about those looking back at them in 2008.
Ridgeway residents dubbed the young Kuntz "Scoop" as he prowled about with his 35mm Argus AF camera. The moniker was right on. Kuntz brought a journalist's eye to his hometown, capturing such big events as threshing days (horses still did most of the work), along with everyday happiness: a smiling migrant worker's daughter. Residents grew so used to Kuntz and his camera that the photos are remarkably free of posing and stiffness.
Kuntz left Ridgeway to attend the University of Iowa and then, like so many to come, struck out for the big city. The Midwest's small towns have bled their best and brightest kids since. Kuntz's book makes you both celebrate and mourn all that's left behind.
Jill Burcum is a Star Tribune editorial writer. She grew up in Parksburg, Iowa.