Jackson is located in the Des Moines River valley and on the hills above the river. It’s not a big, wide, deep river, just a little river. It’s not the Mississippi, with its thousand-foot bluffs; it’s not even the Minnesota, with its 200 foot bluffs. The bluffs in the Des Moines River valley can’t be much more than a hundred feet high. But a hundred feet is enough.
The town is surrounded by these bluffs, of course. Some are named, like Thomas Hill. Others are unnamed and unheralded. We lived on top of a hill in Jackson. It was the hill in the northeast part of town, where the grain elevators stand, and where the railroad tracks run. If I remember it correctly, it was called Depot Hill, but my memory won’t allow me to say that with certainty. You can still see the hill when you come into town. The grain elevators are visible for miles around. We’d go up the hill on State St. and then turn north across the railroad tracks, and as the road curved east on the other side of the elevators, there was a little, short street called Branch St. If you turned on Branch St, the first house was Benny Mier’s, then Dana and Dorothy’s, then our house, and finally Grandma and Grandpa Zimmy’s.
Back in the late 1950s, when I was starting school, my brother Kevin and I would walk south from our house, either to State St., or more likely we’d walk a few blocks along the railroad tracks going west from the elevators. Then we’d cut along the alley as it curved over to State St. and follow it down the hill past Ashley Park, across the bridge over the river, then up North Highway past the clinic, and the Lutheran Church, to Riverside Elementary School. I remember it was a mile; a fascinating mile full of places to explore! It’s amazing we weren’t late to school every day!
Of course, we loved walking the railroad tracks, past the park, and across the bridge. But the big attraction to me always seemed to be the hill; down in the morning, and up after school in the afternoon. It was easy going downhill, but the going was tougher on the way home. That hill was kind of steep, but for healthy little boys it wasn’t much of a challenge. Sure, there were very warm days that got us huffing and puffing as we climbed, but our imaginations got the best of us and we would find ourselves dawdling, looking for stuff in the ditch, playing with a friendly German Shepherd that lived along the hillside. Those were different days back then; I don’t know if Mom ever worried about us boys walking from school, but if she ever did, we didn’t know about it. We’d get to the top of the hill and go over to the tracks, walking along and exploring. There was a railroad building up there that held different types of coal, I always assumed it was for coal-fired locomotives.
At the west end of the tracks, just before the gravel alley turned over to State St, there was a house where an old man lived. We called him the Colonel. His front yard was decorated with fancy concrete columns covered in sea shells and pieces of glass, and marbles, and all sorts of stuff that would fascinate little boys. And I think it was the Colonel’s house that held the scariest of beasts that lived along our route: Pekingese dogs! When you are little, their yapping and barking was really frightening! I hated those dogs! I was much more comfortable with the calm demeanor of that German Shepherd we often encountered.
Once in a while we’d stay on the north side of the street and walk, or should I say climb, through the woods along that side of the street as we descended the hill. But that route was often muddy, and could be a lot of work, because we would have to hang on to the bushes along the pathway to keep from falling to the roadway below… or so it seemed to us little boys. The truth is, I never heard of anybody falling from there. But I did hear of a kid who tried riding his bike down that hill once, and he was going so fast by the time he got near the bottom that he lost control and fell. No, I don’t believe he was killed, but I think he busted his lip and lost a tooth or two, which was almost as bad as far as we little kids were concerned.
Grandma Synstelien lived in a house just past that Lutheran Church and across from Riverside Elementary School. If you looked northeast from her house, you could easily see the elevators up on top of the hill. That always gave me a nice, warm feeling, especially in the morning when the sun would reflect off those elevators. Up there on the other side of the elevators, that was home. Even all these years later, I can still remember that special feeling I got, especially when I looked out the little upstairs window in Grandma’s house, and could see the elevators up on the hill.
The hill was always there. It’s still a big part of my memories of living in Jackson, and it still feels good, whenever I visit my old home town, to look up and see that same old hill. It’s still there.