The door to Ahoy Fountain opened and shut, but no entered or left. It was just the wind on Edgington Avenue in Eldora, Iowa, population 2,732 – 671 families in 1,079 houses.
“I’ll be right out to get your order,” the waitress yelled, her tone smooth and professional, her hair tied back neatly.
“There’s no help?” A man asked.
“Yeah, I’m the only one here,” she said. Her help had gone off somewhere.
There was about five of us in the dining room, and only three of us were there for the food. The other two, a man and a woman, were talking about a thwarted plot by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) to behead Australians. I didn’t catch all the details, but it sounded like the woman had travel plans for Australia. Bad timing, you know. It made for good conversation.
“Alright, my turn,” I said as the waitress finally approached my table to take my order, about 10 minutes since she’d handed me my coke. Not that I cared. As usual, I had nowhere to be, though I’d overheard one of the other customers making a ‘joke’ about not tipping.
“Alright, your turn, yes.”
“OK, I’ll do the deli sandwich with turkey on rye. And I’ll take swiss, and I’ll have mayonnaise and, uh… no mustard.”
“You want dijon, or just mayonnaise?”
“OK, how about any veggies?”
“Um, how about potato chips. That’ll be my veggies.” (Aren’t I funny?)
Now, I don’t know if I was brain dead or what, but I thought she was asking what I wanted as a side. I assumed that, unless I said otherwise, my sandwich came with lettuce, tomato, and onions. In my defense, I’d just walked about eight miles from the tiny town of Steamboat Rock, past two the artificial lakes the Civilian Conservation Corps had made out of Pine Creek during the New Deal era. I wasn’t in the right state of mind to deal with the vagaries of choice.
So what I got a few minutes later was a very plain sandwich, just turkey slices and mayonnaise. I decided to say nothing and eat it. I didn’t want to make a fuss. If I’d learned anything from my days in the restaurant “biz”, I should’ve blamed the waitress, throwing in a few gratuitous comments about how long I’d waited for her attention. But really, I just wanted to eat, and I wasn’t expect gourmet anyway.
Besides, the plain sandwich fit the ambiance of the Ahoy Fountain. It was probably a mighty fine soda fountain and pharmacy in its day. The store fronts Eldora’s main square, right across the street from the ornate Hardin County Courthouse, a European-inspired brick building with a turret and a clock tower. A steady mix of townspeople and visitors on county business made the soda fountain, I’m sure, a prime spot for socializing. This was the center of Hardin County, a bustling center of agriculture.
But times changed, and for years the fountains sat collecting dust, disassembled, until the Hoy family – Eldora natives – moved back to run their own soda fountain and pharmacy. They reassembled the fountain, and though they decorated the inside with everything from an Eldora baseball jersey to the requisite Coca-Cola memorabilia, it didn’t quite quite capture the magic you’d associate with a classic soda fountain.
It was, essentially, a turkey and cheese sandwich with mayo, its mint green swirl color scheme recalling more than it recreated.
Sort of like Eldora. The old square full of shops, the old houses on a nice grid – it was all still there. On the wide, quiet streets around the courthouse, one could almost hear the clip-clop of horses. You could certainly smell dung on the occasional errant breeze.
Still, you couldn’t help but notice that the excitement of daily life, people going about their routines, existed elsewhere, outside of old Eldora. At the new school, the new grocery store, and Casey’s General Store – a convenience and gas station chain, of course. I couldn’t help but ask myself: why were we here? Why Eldora, Iowa?
The farmers of Hardin County, I suppose, had once needed a centralized location to meet and run errands. A few politic maneuvers later and they’d chosen the hill Eldora now sits upon, perched safely above the Iowa River. It was that simple.
“By the river bridge, there’s a campground that’s there – he got flooded out,” Alice Draper of the Hardin County Historical County told me that same day I’d ordered that fateful turkey sandwich. It was just a bit of idle chatter, but for some reason it stuck with me. “His business is known as ‘Rock-n-Row’, and they take tubers up to Steamboat Rock and drop them off. Or, you can go up to Hardin City bridge and be dropped off and float down the river, and then you get dropped off here. His business was completely destroyed.”
You wouldn’t know that today. You can tube down the Iowa River with Rock-n-Row like nothing happened. That’s the Iowa spirit. Come hell or high water, people are here to stay. It’s their home. You can take a struggling town, flood it, and they’ll rebuild it and repair it until it’s as good as new.