Genies learn about McGregor history during recent visit to library

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Andrew Clemens

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

The Clayton County Genealogical Society held its June meeting in McGregor, where members enjoyed a local history lesson from McGregor Public Library Director Michelle Pettit.

Pettit began the presentation by sharing some history about the community’s libraries. The first, she noted, was created in 1867 and operated out of a law office before closing 10 years later. The city didn’t have its next library until 1920.

“It was a subscription library,” Pettit said. “So people had to pay to be part of it.”

Over the years, the library became a public entity, housed at one point in the Masonic Building, as well as in a building near the current post office, which no longer exists.

In 1953, McGregor native Elizabeth Updegraff, hoping to inspire future generations, donated a third of her estate to the city, for construction of a new library. That building—the library’s current home—was built in 1963. The library was remodeled 40 years later, in 2003. The roof and carpeting were also replaced this past year, following the July 19, 2017 tornado.

“The building has served the community well,” Pettit said.

In addition to providing reading and video materials, the library also offers meeting space and computer access. It’s a rich historical resource, as well, with binders of information about local people, places, events and more—much of it gleaned from the North Iowa Times and other newspapers.

“My favorite part of history is always the people,” Pettit told the Genealogical Society. “We have, I believe, a really interesting history in McGregor.” 

Some of the community’s most notable characters included  town namesake Alexander MacGregor, Emma Big Bear, millionaire grain dealer Diamond Jo Reynolds and nine-times-married Virgin Em. The Ringling Brothers, of circus fame, lived in McGregor for 12 years.

“I’m always finding things in old papers,” Pettit shared. “The primary sources are gems—before anyone interpreted it or did a game of telephone and re-told the story.”

“It’s fun to learn and read blurbs from back then, before they were ‘the Ringlings,’” she added.

Pettit’s favorite individual, though, is celebrated sand artist Andrew Clemens.

Clemens moved to McGregor in the mid 1800s, as a young child. At age 5 or 6, he contracted “brain fever,” or encephalitis, which left him deaf.

At age 13, Clemens began attending the school for the deaf in Council Bluffs. It was during summers home from school that he started creating sand bottles, using naturally colored sand from the Pictured Rocks at Pikes Peak, where his family often visited.

“Those early bottles were quite simple,” Pettit explained. “But he had dedication, precision, a steady hand and genius. Within a few years, his bottles were more complicated.”

Some of Clemens’ more well-known designs included words along with images like steamboats, flags and eagles. 

“He ground the sand down to have the smallest details, and used hickory sticks to place it. Some [bottles] were even done upside down. It was such fragile, delicate art,” Pettit said. “But it was all packed in there tightly, with a cork holding it in place. He did it so tightly they’ve been fine all these years.”

Clemens died in 1894, at age 37. Today, said Pettit, he’s considered the greatest sand artist, with recent bottles selling for thousands of dollars.

Pettit said people have estimated Clemens created thousands of bottles in his lifetime, and she has identified around 300 known sand bottles.

“They come up every once in awhile,” she remarked, thanks in part to publicity from Antiques Roadshow. “There may still be some undiscovered ones.”

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