Almost Iowa

IowaWhen I first met my wife, I asked where she was from. She told me she grew up on a farm near a small town in Southern Minnesota.

“Where’s that?” I asked.

She named a larger nearby town as if I would recognize it.

I shook my head.

“It’s almost in Iowa,” she said.

I knew where Iowa was.

Fifteen years later, that is where we live, outside a little town in Southern Minnesota that is almost in Iowa.

It is the perfect place. Not too country, not too city, it is close enough to town to be on a first name basis with almost everyone but far enough away to be free from the sting of daily gossip.

The only real disadvantage is being off the grid.

To make a cell phone call, you have to wander out into a soy bean field then tread around in circles searching for a signal. For television you need an antenna so high that the FAA requires you to fit it with red blinking lights.

When you ask about cable or internet, people snicker.

But being off the grid has it’s advantages.  On one hand, life is less regulated. You can use old cars as lawn art and let your muse guide your carpentry rather than building codes.

On the other hand rural counties compensate for their lack of regulation by enforcing the few rules they do have with unprecedented zeal and ferocity.

And nothing elicits more zealotry than septic mound regulations. For those of you who don’t know what a septic mound is, think of it as the place where everything goes when you flush.

The irony is – this is hog country – and while our local government fanatically enforces tough regulations on home septic system, they are utterly mum about the practice of spreading millions of gallons of pig poop on the field next door.

But mostly, the county lets you be – until you buy or sell a house then they come down on you with both feet.  So before closing on our new home, I thought it best to check out what changes would be required for our septic system.

It is a long drive to the county seat and about half of that is gravel. So I brewed up a thermos of coffee and spent much of the morning kicking up dust.  About mid-day, I took my place in a long line of contractors at the permit window.

Apparently Gladys, the civil servant who issues permits had been on vacation for a month and this being a small county, no one filled in for her, so the line at the permit window was backed up.

As I waited, I spoke with the guys in line about septic systems, permits and especially the formidable Gladys.

Everyone was scared of her.

Considering that a septic system can cost between $20,000 and $40,000 and even a five year old system can be condemned because of the rapidly changing regulations dreamed up by lobbyists at the capital in Saint Paul, Gladys has become the most powerful person in the county.

As we talked and waited, the thermos of coffee caught up with me.

“Where’s the biff?” I asked.

Across the room, Gladys looked over the top of her glasses and pointed down the hall with her pen.

When I got back, the line had not moved so I waited and waited – until the coffee got to me again. My kidneys are like that. They snooze most of the morning and then get frantic about mid-day to make up for lost time.

After several trips, I finally reached the counter and told Gladys that I wanted to see my permits. She stared at me that way a hawk looks at a mouse and asked, “How many times did you run down the hall.”

Sheepishly, I told her, “Four.”

She reached into a file drawer and pulled my permit.  Frowning, she reviewed the document then attacked it with a red pen.

“Considering your bladder,” she said, “these are your new mound specs.”

A contractor peering over my shoulder, exclaimed, “Holy Moly!!”

“Why the change?” I asked.

Gladys went into a long lecture about the water table, soil conditions and proximity to the Cedar River. She would have gone on for some time had I not interrupted to ask, “What kind of mound would I need if I were building a six thousand pig hog-house?”

Her inquiring mind wanted to know, “Would you still be using it?”


“Then it would be bigger.”

Another contractor looked at the numbers and started to sweat. “I don’t know, but that’s the biggest septic mound I ever heard of,” he said, “Are they all going to have to be that size?”

“If another Starbuck’s moves into the region, yes,” Gladys told him.

Again, “Holy Moly!”

It was the same reaction my contractor had when he saw the revised permit. By the time he finished, my mound was the fourth highest point in six counties.

But it is kind of nice.

I walk up there to make cell phone calls and my television antennae on top of the mound picks up stations not only from the Twin Cities and Des Moines, but Chicago, Saint Louis and Denver..

I’m considering installing a chair lift and a Chateau at the summit to make a few bucks come winter.

But the best thing is we are no longer isolated. People stop by from all over the six county area just to climb Mount Schiller and have a look around.

They have the time of their lives.

“I can see our house” they will yell and on a clear day, when the scent of hogs is not blurring the distance, somebody will holler:

“Hey, I can see Iowa.”

Author: Almost Iowa

18 thoughts on “Almost Iowa”

  1. Permit officials are feared everywhere. I find utterly ironic that as you point out, they will regulate a homeowner to death about a few poops per day, but. Give a free pass to giant animal feeding factories.

  2. I just wander can you see Canada from your septic tank mound. After all, Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house and I can see Cuba from my house.

  3. Greg, I must have sparked a fun light. I knew about the mound, but I had no idea what was behind it or how large it was. Gosh, I think I smell the pig farm from here.

        1. BTW, I’ve heard of ‘john’, ‘powder room’, and ‘where’s the place I can talk to an attorney’, but never the word ‘biff’.

  4. When we lived out in the Mojave, between Apple Valley and Barstow, in a tiny town called Lucerne Valley, Population 3,000, mostly in the hills; my father bought a small house from a businessman from L.A.
    He had planted 2 oak trees and a bamboo patch on the septic tank.
    When it got stopped up,, mom had broken disk disease, and dad was having heart attacks.
    Guess who got to clear the mess?
    Took a pick mattock. And when we sold the place a few months later, the bamboo was coming up. Guess I missed a few thread roots.

  5. Ahhhh – so funny!!! This had me laughing out loud – I grew up mostly in a smallish town in Missouri, same kind of deal about codes and all that. We were “Almost Kansas.” Gladys sounds like a hoot – I need to invite her over for coffee. I’ll introduce her to my chickens and the sagging roofline on my 200 year old barn and watch her go crazy over building codes… Excellent post as always! MH

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