Today I'm happy to have Herbert L. Smith, author of HURRICANE KINGDOM, as my guest! He's sharing some history of the town of Glenwood (or Hillville):
Glenwood, the town that is Hillville in the Starfire Mystery Series, was a divided town in many ways. Nearly half the population remained hidden from view during the years I lived there. They were the patients, sometimes considered students, at the Glenwood State School, which is now called the Glenwood Resource Center.
The center was started way back in 1866 as an orphanage for civil war orphans, but changed radically in 1876 to become the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children. At some point in the past it was officially renamed the Glenwood State School, and housed nearly 2,000 residents as well as a very large number of staff.
The Iowa State School was situated on the south part of town, on a high hill just beyond the railroad tracks. It was a symbolic juxtaposition, as was the common name for the school - The Hill. That’s where I got the name for the town if Hillville, although the Institution (as it was also called) isn’t mentioned in any of the books – so far.
From a distance The Hill was an interesting tangle of beautiful old buildings which looked very much like the old mansion-manor houses of the English countryside, although the total impact was stronger; The Hill was a very large complex, beyond the scope of most palaces. Many townspeople worked there, as did my mother. She was the primary housekeeper at the Boys’ Custodial Building, the BCB in Hill-talk. It was a huge place, with lots of halls and large wards as well as an imposing entry and a big half-basement where my mother’s workroom was located. All the walls in the basement were about three feet thick, and provided a good foundation for what rose above. The walls also kept the lower level cool in summer and warm in winter.
I never went anywhere in the building beyond the first floor or my mother’s pleasant work room, but heard some of the horror stories about the ‘patients’ and their living conditions that existed at that time. I had no desire to see anything of that kind and was content to keep my distance.
Much of the work that was done in maintenance and cleaning was under mother’s supervision, and I heard about the people who helped her; the higher grade of patients who were residents of the Institution. Ward attendants – generally townspeople – were also assisted by those higher grade residents, and they were the ones who took care of lower functioning patients, classified as ‘low-grade.’ The favorite derogatory epithet for any patient to call another was ‘low grade,’ and that caused most of the fights that took place between the residents there.
Stories about The Hill were common in American media during the mid-century. Both Life Magazine and Time carried feature stories about the place, and important newspapers in surrounding states as well as New York and other cities carried stories. One of the major reports dealt with a man who had been a life-long resident, only to discover in his fifties that he had a high-normal IQ. It caused quite a buzz for a while, and the man left to take up a new life outside. He didn’t last long because he hadn’t developed the kind of coping he needed to survive outside an institutional kind of life.
The story isn’t over. There is current controversy about leadership at the GRC, which the place is called now. The institution hasn’t exactly covered itself with glory, but it still clings to the top and sides of the hill, commanding the best views of Glenwood, looking down on the town from its superior position. The Hill remains another world, keeping as far away from town activities as it did in the past, and probably will far into the future.
The Hog Ranch near Hillville, Iowa, is a notorious place. All kinds of illegal ‘business’ prospers there. It’s a known hideout for the criminal element, and its proximity to Omaha is a major plus for the goings-on inside – and outside as well. The sturdy old log structure sits along the shoreline of the Missouri River; that mighty waterway flows just steps outside the back door and provides a good place to dispose of dead bodies. Set in the middle of the 1950’s, the tale of Hurricane Kingdom – who seems (at first) a minor character in the entire scheme of things – twists and forks along the muddy trails of the riverbank behind the Hog Ranch with its gambling Cellar, gigantic barroom, and a well-populated House on the top floor.
The quiet and somewhat dull town of Hillville is nearby but also a world away, exactly as the town and the Ranch both want it to be. Guy LeFevere and Caleb Starfire, the men who shoulder the burdens of the Starfire Detective agency, share the responsibilities of policing the town as well as all of Bogger County with an inept, portly and rather absurd sheriff, Fred Baylor. It’s a mixed match-up, but despite all the fuming and fumbling of the dull-witted sheriff, the detectives prevail, and more often than not the criminal element is subdued or eventually rendered harmless – and sometimes actually imprisoned. Frequently, however, the criminals inflict their deadly punishments upon each other. The 1950’s shine through the novel and offer a fun-filled romp through Hillville and its environs, creating renewed memories for those who survived that time, and a lesson in human history for those who missed all the fun.
Herb Smith, the author of eight books and counting, is a native of Glenwood, Iowa, the town that is the prototype for Hillville, which is featured in the Starfire Mystery Series. He has memories of people and events that stretch back to the 1940’s, and his memory is not only long, but detailed as well.
He has recreated the Iowa of his youth in the Starfire Mystery Series. (This is the third book in the series.) The stories are all set in the 1950’s, something of an American Golden Age, and the joys and struggles of life, along with the murders, are evident as the reader becomes ever more beguiled by that world.
Smith’s own life has included places far flung from Southwestern Iowa: Egypt and the Middle East, Argentina, Idaho, and even exotic central California, where he spent thirty five years (except for the time he was working outside the U. S.)
He is a musician – mostly church music – and has worked in all kinds of churches as organist, sometimes doubling as choir master as well. He also taught English as a Foreign Language in California Universities and other schools around the world. Currently, he lives the retired life in Eugene, Oregon, with his wife, Glenda. Their daughter Melanie and her husband William live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area. Theirs is a small but closely linked family, and they spend holidays and many other times together. They don’t have dogs, but Pippa, the colossal cat, reigns unquestionably in her California home.
Smith’s future remains bright. A new series, called the Quest Samson Mystery Series (based in Eugene), is in the works, as well as other unusual but interesting book projects, and he is considering some musical compositions that will add to his artistic credentials.
Webpage: herbertlsmith.com http://www.herbertlsmith.com/
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May 28 – Sapphyria’s Book Reviews – Guest Post
May 29 – Queen of All She Reads – Guest Post
May 30 – Deal Sharing Aunt – Review, Interview
May 31 – Christa Reads and Writes – Guest Post
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June 2 – A Blue Million Books – Interview