Come join live “Skype” chat with fascinating diplomat Michael S. Owen, a Lincoln Highway explorer & author

JEFFERSON, Iowa, Feb. 24, 2020 — Retired U.S. ambassador Michael S. Owen said after extensively traveling the roads of a half-dozen African nations, Pakistan, Ireland and India in his 30 years as a career diplomat, he was thrilled to explore his American homeland by driving the historic Lincoln Highway in recent years. That’s brought him through Greene County each of the last two summers.

He’ll talk about all that and his new book, “After Ike: On the Trail of the Century-Old Journey that Changed America,” this Sunday, March 1, when he’ll be interviewed live at 2 p.m. at the Jefferson Public Library – via Skype.

Retired Iowa journalist Chuck Offenburger and others in the audience in Jefferson will chat with the 68-year-old Owen, who will be at his home in Reston, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C.

The free program – and free refreshments – are being sponsored by the Jefferson library, the Greene County Iowa Historical Society and the Iowa Lincoln Highway Association.

Ambassador Michael Owen and President Barack Obama in 2011, when Owen was the U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone, having been appointed by Obama.

Owen’s 223-page book is delightful reading. Earlier, he’d written many journal articles and official cablegrams in his state department years, but his re-tracing of the 1919 military convoy’s exploration of the then-new Lincoln Highway route across the nation produced a fascinating first book for him.
The “After Ike” in the title refers to the fact that one of the Army officers who commanded the 1919 trip was Lt. Col. Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, who would become Supreme Allied Commander in World War II and then president of the U.S. in the 1950s.

Yes, author Owen gives you a chronological report on his own east-to-west journey on the Lincoln Highway – Washington D.C. to San Francisco – but he also fills it with the American character (and characters) he encountered.

“One of the things he does really well in the book is tell about his occasional side trips off the Lincoln Highway route to see other nearby things that interested him,” said Joyce Ausberger, of Jefferson, who is on the boards of both the historical society and the Iowa Lincoln Highway Association. “The highway association has always encouraged people to think of the Lincoln Highway as a corridor, not just a highway, and go explore other attractions that are a few miles off the actual road.”

Owen did that in Iowa with side trips to the Field of Dreams outside Dyersville and to museums in Waterloo, La Porte City, Rockwell City and other spots.

From Greene County, Owen included interviews with Ausberger at the Lincoln Highway Museum in Grand Junction and Robby Pedersen at his “RVP 1875” working museum and furniture shop in Jefferson.  In the book, the author describes Joyce Ausberger as “an inexhaustible font of enthusiasm and knowledge about anything related to the nation’s first highway.”

Copies of Owen’s book are available locally for check-out at the Jefferson Public Library and for purchase at the highway museum in Grand Junction.
Historical society board member Margaret Hamilton, of Jefferson, gave Owen a nice review of the book as she was arranging details for next Sunday’s interview.

“I’ve read your book now and really enjoyed it,” Hamilton wrote in an email to him. “I wasn’t expecting to read so much about so many places. It gave me ideas for future trips. I also wasn’t expecting it to be so funny. So, thanks for writing it and thanks for agreeing to do a program on it for us. We hope to have a good audience.”

Owen grew up in the northwest Mississippi town of Lyon, pop. 250.  He went on to Rice University for an undergraduate degree in civil engineering, then earned a master’s in public affairs from Princeton University.  A highlight of his 30 years with the U.S. State Department was serving as U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone from 2010 to 2013.  He said he traces his interest in serious road-tripping, as well as in wanting to learn more about and serve nations in Africa, to an adventure he took with pals in 1980 and ’81 — an 8,400-mile driving trip from London, England, to Cape Town, South Africa!

Iowa trivia expert brings “Iowa Trivia Challenge” to museum on Monday

JEFFERSON, Iowa, Feb. 19, 2020 — We’ll find out how well everybody knows their Iowa history and culture on Monday, Feb. 24, when Jessica Rundlett of the State Historical Society of Iowa brings her “Iowa Culture Trivia Challenge” to Jefferson for a free program at 2 p.m. at the Greene County Historical Museum.

The program is a collaboration by the Greene County Iowa Historical Society and the Jefferson Public Library.

Rundlett is coordinator of special projects and outreach for the state historical group. She helped see that the “Iowa History 101” mobile museum brought its remarkable exhibits to Jefferson last summer during the Bell Tower Festival.

A native of Vinton in east central Iowa, Rundlett knows Iowa trivia well. She twice won the “Van & Bonnie All-Iowa Trivia Bee” held by the morning show co-hosts on WHO radio in Des Moines.

Jessica Rundlett with her two championship trophies from the Van & Bonnie trivia contests.

“I love Iowa and I love Iowa history,” said Rundlett. “I got my love of the state from my parents – so shout-out to Bill & Deb Rundlett, who are still there in the same house where I grew up in Vinton. Dad is a trucker, and so he traveled all over the state and got interested in the people and places. That led to our family – I’m the oldest of the three kids – going on lots of car trips around the state. I can remember one time we were heading from Vinton to Yankton, South Dakota, and it took us two days because there were so many things along the way we wanted to stop and see.”

She’s learned a lot traveling Iowa by bicycle, too, as she is one of the state’s most avid cyclists.

After graduating in politics, history and international business from Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Rundlett earned a master’s of teaching at Simpson College. She joined the State Historical Society staff eight years ago. Five years ago, that organization developed an “Iowa Culture” app for easy-access to information about state attractions on smart phones and computers.

“When we were doing that Iowa Culture app and had all that information readily available, that’s when we put together the ‘Iowa Culture Trivia Challenge’ and started taking it around the state,” she said.
When she presents the challenge, like she will be doing in Jefferson on Monday afternoon, “usually there are one or two people in the group really know Iowa well, and everybody else learns a lot,” she said. “And we all have fun.”

The program at the museum will include free refreshments.

Thinking of Greene County’s old country churches, like St. Mary’s, north of Jamaica


JEFFERSON, Iowa, Feb. 15, 2020 — Many roads in Greene County will take you past a church or two, or the ghost of a congregation from years past. Most of these churches have some written history from their origins.

Some churches may have been formed by the very first settlers in the area. The earliest rural church was around 1880 in Bristol Township, northwest of Jefferson. There were several more that met in schools or homes. Earlier churches were established in several towns in the county around 1863-1872.

Roger Aegerter Profile PictureIn 1896, there were 20 country churches in Greene County. The Methodists at this time had a church in every Greene County town except Farlin, which had Christian and Baptist churches. Most of these churches have been gone for many years.

Greene County does have a country church on the National Register of Historic Places, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church west of Churdan. St. Patrick’s does not have regular services but is used for special occasions.

Another of the interesting past churches in Greene County was St. Mary’s Catholic Church, two miles north of Jamaica on County Road P30 and west on 330th Avenue, in section 26 of Franklin Township. Like many country churches, St. Mary’s had its own cemetery. St. Mary’s originated in 1881 when the Tighe family deeded five acres of their homestead to Bishop John Hennessey, of the Catholic Diocese of Dubuque, to be used as a cemetery. The next step was raising funds for a church to be built on the cemetery grounds.

Early in 1882, the first load of lumber came from Rippey. Late in 1882, the first mass was said by Father Michael Joseph Quirk, and the church was totally finished a year later. Father Quirk was assigned to Grand Junction and came by train to Rippey where he was met by members of St. Mary’s and transported with a team and wagon to the church over roads that by today’s standards would be impassable.

At this time Father Quirk was the priest assigned to all of Greene County, all of Boone County and part of Calhoun County. He served four years.

St. Mary’s was dedicated Sept. 8, 1890. Priests from Cherokee and Perry officiated and a choir from Lohrville provided music. At the time of the dedication, there were 34 families that were active members at St. Mary’s. In the following years, a priest out of Jefferson had mass once every three weeks. The priest referred to St. Mary’s at this time as “Little Ireland.”

This statue of Mary stands on the spot where St. Mary’s Catholic Church stood. And note the etching of the church in the base of the statue.  The cemetery is now operated by the Franklin Township Board of Trustees. (Photos by Roger Aegerter)

Within a few years a new parish as established in the town of Jamaica, and St. Mary’s lost about half of its members.

From 1906 through 1954, St. Mary’s was administered as a part of parishes in Perry, Jefferson, Coon Rapids and Scranton. St. Mary’s closed in the fall of 1954. Most families became part of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Jefferson, and some families attended Jamaica. The church was torn down soon after.

Country churches had many memories, weddings, funerals, first communions, box socials, baptisms, Sunday School and Christmas programs. In many cases the church was the center of activity for the rural community. Midnight mass at St. Mary’s, with an “Aladdin Lamp” hanging from the ceiling, made the church seem typical, and yet special, at the same time.

A white marble memorial was erected in St. Mary’s Cemetery in May, 2005, in remembrance of the Ireland immigrant founders. The entrance arch to the cemetery was restored and installed in October, 2007.

This story and historical events could be told about numerous rural churches in Iowa and around the country. The 2011 book “Heritage of Greene County Iowa” has many of these country churches’ stories and is the source of some of my information here. Also, Madeline Garrity, of Cooper, provided information on St. Mary’s, or as she may have called it in the past, “Little Ireland.”

You can comment on this column in the space below here, or you can write directly to the author by email at The author is executive director of the Greene County Historical Society.


The top of the altar from old St. Mary’s Catholic Church is now in the Greene County Historical Museum in Jefferson, a donation by Madeline Garrity, of Cooper.



A memorial to the Irish immigrant families that were the founders of St. Mary’s Catholic Church and Cemetery.
Entrance to St. Mary’s Cemetery, two miles north and just west of Jamaica. The cemetery is also where the church stood.
Looking to the east from St. Mary’s Cemetery.


We’re celebrating President Lincoln’s 211th birthday at the museum, with free lunch, party and chat

JEFFERSON, Iowa, Feb. 8, 2020 — This coming Wednesday, Feb. 12, will be the 211th birthday of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, and the Greene County Iowa Historical Society is having a new kind of event that day to honor the president — a “Lincoln Lunch & Birthday Party” at the museum in Jefferson, beginning at 11 a.m.

Jed Magee, of Jefferson, a retired attorney and Iowa District Court judge, will lead a conversation about President Lincoln with those who want to gather for the lunch.

Jed Magee

Magee has had a fascination since his junior high school student years in Dunkerton, Iowa, about the life, career and legacy of Lincoln. After his college and law school years at the University of Iowa, Magee moved to Jefferson and practiced law here for 25 years. In 1992, he was appointed a judge, moved to Charles City and worked much of north central Iowa.

Over all those years, he amassed quite a collection about President Lincoln. It included 10 shelves full of books about Lincoln, 30 busts of Lincoln at different stages of his life, photographs (including two that are more than 100 years old), prints, paintings, and more.

As Judge Magee began retirement in 2008, and finally took full retirement in 2015, he was looking for a permanent home for most of his Lincoln collection. The Greene County Historical Society jumped at the opportunity to make it a part of the collection in its museum, which is located on the historic Lincoln Highway as it passes through Jefferson. Magee made the transfer in early 2016.

He and his wife Betty decided to move permanently to Jefferson this past fall and are enjoying becoming active — again — in activities in Greene County. Jed Magee was elected to the historical society’s board of directors at the organization’s meeting in December, and he agreed to conduct a Lincoln chat in the new special event on Feb. 12.

The lunch of soup, sandwiches, cornbread, cookies and drinks is free, and no RSVPs are necessary.

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    There have been three courthouses built where the Greene County Courthouse stands today.  Ground was broken on the current courthouse in November of 1915, the cornerstone was set in May 1916 and the new building was dedicated in October of 1917. The centennial celebration of the courthouse is already underway, with events being planned by the “Courthouse 100” committee, with support from the Greene County Historical Society.  You can learn more about the courthouse history and the celebration plans on the Facebook page “Courthouse 100: Greene County, Iowa.”


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