A Land of Sweet Melons and Excellent Tacos

In Muscatine, I met many new friends, received generous gifts, found a river town with a significant Latino population, learned about famous Muscatine Melons, and interviewed the son in-law of the heir to a pearl button fortune.

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The Secret History shantyboat moored at the Muscatine public docks under dramatic skies

I wandered town which is the first thing I do when I arrive somewhere. I was surprised to see Mexican markets right downtown. There were even a few taquerias that looked promising. Interesting note: If a restaurant says “Authentic Mexican Food” it isn’t. It’s very likely gringo-mex tailored for an American clientele. I found that El Olmito Mexican Grocery had to-die-for pastor and chorizo tacos.

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Mexican grocery stores in downtown Muscatine, Iowa

Talking to people, the word is that H.J. Heinz Co. opened their first plant beyond Pittsburgh in 1892 in Muscatine due to the prolific and high-quality produce grown on “the island.” For this agricultural work, Heinz brought in a Latino population that a few generations later make Muscatine one of the most culturally diverse places I’ve visited on the Mississippi River.

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Secret History in the Muscatine Journal

Within a few days, the local press had discovered the shantyboat and the project. Within hours, people begun stopping me on the street to give me and Hazel random thoughtful gifts. Of course, the shantyboat had literally boatloads of visitors. Two of my visitors were Mike and his grandson Gabe.

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Mike Berry and his grandson Gabe, soon-to-be builders of a shantyboat of their own

Mike was just recovering from an accident and starting to rethink how he wanted to spend his time. He was genuinely interested in building a shantyboat and we talked for a long time about possibilities.

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Mike’s wife Chris generously baked me cookies and brought a huge care package for me and Hazel

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I met a man named Cruz who was down almost every evening fishing with his daughter. They would start by castnetting for shad to use as bait. He would cast and bring the net in; his daughter would put the little fish in the bucket.

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Cruz castnetting for shad

Cruz had lived near the river his whole life. He helped me understand why there was a substantial Latino population in Muscatine. Several generations laters, the children of Mexican migrant farmers moved out of the fields and held good jobs at several nearby manufacturing plants. According to Cruz, friction between Latino and white residents was minimal to non-existent.

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Gray Man, thinking his usually gloomy thoughts, looks out across the waters.

We didn’t have ships mates for a while, and so Hazel and I spent quiet evenings, cooking, reading, and sitting by the river. Gray Man, the little ragdoll that comes along with the shantyboat everywhere spent an evening just watching the lights out along The Island over the water.

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