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25 Things You Should Know About Des Moines

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Most people think of Des Moines as one of those cities they fly over or drive through on their way to a more interesting destination. But there’s a lot more to this Midwestern town than corn fields.

1. Your Facebook "likes" live just outside the city. In 2014, Facebook set up shop in Altoona, a suburb of Des Moines. The $300 million, 476,000-square-foot building houses servers and hard drives and is the third Facebook data center in the U.S. A second building is planned. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t the only company leader who sees potential in Des Moines—Microsoft is building data centers worth $2 billion in West Des Moines.

2. On January 20, 1982, a 17-year-old metal fan named Mark Neal threw a bat onstage at a Black Sabbath concert. Thinking it was fake, Ozzy Osbourne picked up the bat and chomped down—which is when he realized it was the real deal. He went to the hospital for rabies shots immediately after the show.

3. What does “Des Moines” actually mean? There are two common theories. One is that “Moines” refers to the Trappist monks (Moines de la Trappe) who once lived at the mouth of the Des Moines River. The other is that “Moines” is derived from “Moingoana,” a native tribe that also once lived along the river banks. Michael McCafferty, a scholar who specializes in Algonquian languages, says the name “Moingoana” is actually a little inside joke. In 1673, when Father Jacques Marquette asked the chief of the Peoria tribe what other tribes were in the area, the chief, not wanting Marquette to trade elsewhere, told him “mooyiinkweena” or “Moingoana.” That translates to “excrement-faces.” The joke was apparently lost on Marquette.

4. People have occupied the greater Des Moines area for at least 7000 years, drawn to the nearby river. In 2011, archaeologists uncovered a massive site they dubbed "The Palace," which housed more than 6000 artifacts dating back to that time period. 

5. Pinterest’s founder, Ben Silbermann, was born and raised in Des Moines. Though he lives in California now, Silbermann continues to promote STEM causes around Iowa.

6. In 1933, Ronald Reagan accepted a job as the chief sports announcer for WHO in Des Moines. He was a very colorful announcer, and when he interviewed singer Joy Hodges a few years later, she suggested that he call her agent. RKO Studio screen tested Reagan immediately, and after just two days back in Des Moines, he received a telegram offering him a seven-year film contract.

7. We're counting the suburbs, but here are a handful of celebs who hail from the area: actors Brandon Routh, Jason Momoa, and Cloris Leachman; musicians T-Boz Watkins (TLC) and most of the band Slipknot; author Bill Bryson; and athletes Lolo Jones and Shawn Johnson. Masters champ Zach Johnson went to school at Drake University in Des Moines, but was born and raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 

8. Speaking of world-class athletes, Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute is located in West Des Moines. Because coach Liang Chow has two Olympic gold medalists under his belt—Shawn Johnson and Gabby Douglas—other hopefuls are moving to Des Moines in droves just to train with him. He currently has three international elite gymnasts on his roster.

9. At 80 feet in diameter, the golden dome in Des Moines is one of the largest in the world. It cost $3500 to gild the dome back in 1905, but a 1999 restoration cost a little bit more: $400,000.

10. Iowa City was the capital of Iowa until 1855. When the state decided to move government operations to a more centralized location in Des Moines, the University of Iowa took possession of what is now called the Old Capitol Building.

11. More than a million people flock to Des Moines every August to experience the Iowa State Fair (to put that in perspective, the entire population of Iowa is about 3 million), in part because of the deliciously caloric foods. Apple Pie on a Stick and Fried Peanut Butter and Jelly on a stick are new this year, but other skewered options include funnel cake sticks, chocolate-covered chunky bacon maple nougat on a stick, Caprese salad on a stick, deep fried brownies on a stick, hot bologna on a stick, and the ever-popular Fair Squares (giant Rice Krispie treats on a stick).

Stacy Conradt

12. Another big draw for the Iowa State Fair: Its butter cow. Every year (dating back to 1911), the fair's dairy artist carves the 600-pound creation, along with a themed accompanying sculpture. (This year's paid homage to Monopoly in honor of the game's 80th anniversary.) The Iowa State Fair's butter cow is a must-see for presidential candidates passing through the swing state; this year, Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley, Lindsey Graham, and Carly Fiorina all stopped by to pay their respects. 

13. Actor Rob Lowe was playing in a PGA Pro-Am celebrity golf tournament in West Des Moines when a golf ball he had just hit struck and killed a goldfinch, Iowa's state bird, in mid-flight. Actuaries actually calculated the odds of him going to Iowa and killing a goldfinch with a golf ball: 1 in 747 million.

14. Tones Spices, which has a factory in the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny, sometimes donates outdated garlic salt to help with icy roads in the winter. “Yes, it can make your eyes water a little bit,” Ankeny’s public works administrator said. “Everybody has a different reaction to it.”

15. With easy access to a variety of farmers and producers, it should come as no surprise that the Des Moines Farmers’ Market tops lots of “best of” lists. More than 20,000 people attend every Saturday morning from May through October, and the Des Moines Farmer’s Market is consistently ranked as one of the best in the nation.

16. Don't want to go outside in below-zero winter temps or the sweltering summer sun? You don't have to if you're in downtown Des Moines. Its extensive skywalk system—climate-controlled overhead walkways that connect buildings—covers about 4 miles and 30 city blocks of “ground.”

17. Even if you’re not familiar with Claes Oldenburg, you’ve seen his work: Massive art installations of everyday objects like the Free Stamp in Cleveland, the Spoonbridge and Cherry in Minneapolis, or the Clothespin in Philadelphia. Des Moines is lucky to have two Oldenburg pieces: the Crusoe Umbrella and Plantoir.

DSM Public
ArtFoundation // Larry Bradshaw // M.J. Rowe


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. Slightly less highbrow art can be found within city limits, too. Exhibit A: the Pondering Rabbit, a sculpture by artist Barry Flanagan meant to mimic Rodin's The Thinker. 

19. If you’re a fan of Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, Parents, and other magazines published by Meredith, you’re supporting a Des Moines-based business. Edwin Thomas Meredith founded Meredith Corporation in 1902 with the publication of Successful Farming magazine, then started publishing Fruit, Garden and Home magazine in 1922. Fittingly, Claes Oldenburg’s Plantoir sculpture is located outside of Meredith’s headquarters in downtown Des Moines.

20. Nearly 75 inches of rain fell in Iowa in 1851, a record that has gone unmatched since. The result was a flood that annihilated most of the town. Because it was relatively new, there were no bridges, levees, or other pieces of infrastructure in place to withstand such a substantial amount of water. According to one account,

The damage done to the farms in the river bottoms was immense. Some were stripped utterly of their fences; fields under cultivation were washed into ruts by the violence of the water; all hope of a crop for one season being destroyed, not only by what was carried away, but by the debris which was left by the subsiding of the river. It was almost impossible to estimate the losses. Roads were rendered impassable—bridges swept away—the mails stopped, and traveling by land to any distance utterly vetoed. Houses were carried away, mills damaged, timber floated off, and all manner of mischief done by the flood.

21. Likely named after the Raccoon River and not the animal itself, the town was renamed at the direction of General Winfield Scott. Even if it does mean “poopface,” Des Moines residents are likely thankful to be Des Moinesians and not Fort Raccoonsians.

22. When children trick-or-treat (on Beggar’s Night, not Halloween), many adults require them to tell a joke in exchange for candy. The tradition started in the late 1930s when Des Moines police received a record number of calls about vandalism on Halloween night. The director of recreation for the Des Moines Playground Commission started a campaign to encourage more constructive Halloween activities, and told residents that "eats should be given only if such a 'trick' as a song, a poem, a stunt or a musical number, either solo or in group participation, is presented." 70+ years later, the tradition still stands.

23. From 1942 up until 2009, it was illegal to dance between the hours of 2 a.m. and 6 a.m in Des Moines. But unlike other silly local laws, this one was actually enforced: According to a 2009 report by the Associated Press, citizens became aware of the ordinance after the Des Moines Social Club, seeking permission to host a late-night party at their facility, was told they weren't allowed. 

24. Got a thirst for … brraaaaiiinnss? Zombie enthusiasts (and anyone with an appreciation for the offbeat) flock to Des Moines' Zombie Burger + Drink Lab, where patrons can choose from burgers with names like "East Village of the Damned" and "Dead Moines."

25. According to the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Science Center of Iowa, located in downtown Des Moines, is home to the only “functional clear toilet in the Northern Hemisphere.” If anyone knows where the clear toilet in the Southern Hemisphere is, be sure to let us know.

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Excerpt
The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Art
Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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