How a fruit farm became the setting for Once Upon a Time in Iowa

There I was scrolling along on twitter, wasting time until the guys left for work and I could pull out my computer and begin my own work day.

I came across a question that I knew the answer to without even thinking. I knew the answer with such certainty, I could almost taste it.

There I was, finger poised above the little comment icon. Blink. The screen flashes and I’m looking at an entirely different set of tweets.

What flavor would your MC be?

Often times, I scroll right on past these questions. Mainly because I have no answers. But, every now and again, I come across one that I can actually answer. This was one of those times.

Mary would be an apple and pear coffee cake or danish. The ghost of flavors danced on my tongue for only a moment. I closed my eyes and savored them.

I started to write just a quick tweet answering the question. I found myself wanting to add more. And thus, this blog post was born.

Why would your MC be that flavor?

I can’t say for certain, as I didn’t have to think about it before naming her flavor. Interesting because I’ve never really thought of people as being flavors. I look at my husband funny whenever he calls me yummy. I do believe I know why these are the flavors that came to mind.

The Hecox farm is a fruit farm. They grow apples and plums in their orchards and sell them by the bushel. They also keep a couple of pear trees and a cherry tree for their own enjoyment.

Like me, Mary enjoys baking. She uses the fruit from their farm and creates some delicious treats for her family to enjoy.

Where did the idea for their farm come from?

While researching my family, way before Once Upon a Time in Iowa was even a spark of an idea, I was on the Chronicling America section of the Library of Congress website. I was searching for my third great grandfather, Jesse Messer.

These newspaper clippings are what brought me closer to Mary and Jesse and left me wanting to tell their early story. These bits and pieces left me wishing for a time machine and a chance to meet them. These tiny glimpses led me to Once Upon a Time in Iowa.

Thursday, June 21st, 1906

I came across a day in the Missouri Valley Times that was full of little snips of my family’s life. It started with an ice cream social on Saturday.

An ice cream social was enjoyed by many at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Messer at their home on the Willow Creek, Saturday night.

There was a piece telling that Uncle Lewis and his partner, J. W. Fouts, were in the midst of a cherry harvest and that it was a good crop. A few lines down from there was the announcement that Grandpa Jesse had finished painting F. Chambers’ house. This is how I know what he did after he retired from the railroad.

Just a little further down the page, I found out where they went after the ice cream social. They packed up and moved in with Uncle Lewis.

Jesse Messer's family moved into Lewis Hecox's House and will remain during the fruit season.

How did newspaper articles 35 years later create my setting?

In 1871, the newspaper was not the social media of the time. Likely, word of mouth was still common, and, of course, people wrote letters. I don’t have access to any of these things.

I took a little bit of who they became and mixed it with what I could find out about them on the 1870 census. Lewis was always a farmer. Every census, every news clipping I find refers to his fruit farms. I like to believe he must have been good at it.


In 1870, their mother, Mary, was the head of household. Meridian — listed as Perry here — was a farm laborer. Lewis worked on the farm with him. Meridian and Mary Ellen were married in September of 1870.

In Once Upon a Time in Iowa Meridian has handed over the reins to Lewis and Lewis is learning to run the farm. Mary Cardelia likely helped her mother to keep house and looked after Saunders and Laura Bell.

A little mapping and a lot of deductive assumption

Armed with all ten pages of the 1870 census, I located the only map I could find of Calhoun township. That’s where things got a little tricky.

The map is from the Harrison county 1884 atlas. By then, my family had moved on to Missouri Valley. Some of the boundaries may have also been changed.

map Calhoun_Township atlas-plot map with names-1884

Looking at the 1870 census and the 1884 atlas, I plotted out my family’s neighbors to pinpoint a likely location. D. Mickey purchased their property shortly before this atlas was created. N.G. Boynton was their immediate neighbor, so I decided that the Mickey property was a good place to set up.

Those dashes that run the length of the property represent orchards according to the atlas’s legend. And thus the Hecox family fruit farm came to fruition.


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