At Home in the Heartland

Introduction to three 2015-16 BUS-eum tours, with an illustrated Project Outline to

At Home in the Heartland:
Forgotten Stories of How
Iowans Got to Be ‘Us’

Project Outline — What, Part I: exhibit on Midwest identity,
with workshop available

TRACES Center for History and Culture is pleased to bring to various hosts its newest BUS-eum exhibit “At Home in the Heartland: Forgotten Stories of How Iowans Got to Be ‘Us.’”

The BUS-eum exhibit At Home in the Heartland: Forgotten Stories of How Iowans Got to Be “Us” examines how the Midwest developed in ways different from other regions, how Iowa’s settlement distinguished it from its neighbors, and what both blesses and burdens us today. While the exhibit supports visitor discovery and interpretation of Iowa history and culture, rather than trying to provide stock or “right” answers, it seeks to stimulate effective reflection on essential questions. (Additional mages of the BUS-eum are at



the BUS as parked in Le Grand, Iowa, by day (left) and Albion by evening in fall 2015

Typically, the BUS arrives half an hour before showing. After set-up, it shows for three hours—although some communities opt for double that. It requires a standard 110-wattage, three-prong outdoor outlet and a parking space at least fifty feet long—preferably curbside, as that assists easier access for seniors. TRACES supplies hosts or their teacher-partners with materials for schools, as well as a complete press package for PR use.

An hour after the exhibit in the BUS opens for viewing, TRACES director Michael Luick-Thrams offers one of several possible programs; hosts can pick from programming about Iowa history, family history, the refugee crisis now dividing Germany and Europe, or some other topic, agreed upon beforehand. In the auditorium in the BUS’ back, a handful of films featuring little-known Iowa stories run constantly.

Visiting all counties in Iowa during three regional tours between September 2015 and the November 2016 election, it tells little or unknown and forgotten stories of who we have been in the past, how we got to be who we are now, and who we might yet become.

The exhibit and related programming respond to questions like:

  • Who bestowed the name “Iowa” to the region between two great rivers—and why?
  • What is the legacy of the ethnic groups who then settled the Hawkeye State?
  • Why did Iowa (15 years after statehood!) send the most soldiers to the Civil War, per capita?
  • Why did minorities usually fare better in Iowa than in some neighboring states? Why did the Underground Railroad operate in a state that had no slaves? What motivated that effort?
  • Why did the Ku Klux Klan flourish here in the 1920s, despite generally tolerant conditions?
  • How did “Penny Auctions” help save thousands of farmers during the Great Depression?
  • How did Iowa Quaker farmers and college kids bring 185 refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe to the American Heartland, and how did they offer them a new life in the US? Why does it matter?
  • What motivated Iowans to treat the 20,000 German POWs here in WWII so well during WWII?

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The exhibit’s period-piece artifacts and relics displayed in four vitrines support the panel narratives and images. In the auditorium in the BUS’ back, three looped video documentaries feature little-known Iowa stories tell stories that distinguish the Midwest from other U.S. regions..

Before the BUS leaves a given community, hosts also can view a broad selection of books about Iowa published by TRACES or cooperating authors, which otherwise are not available to the public. Book sales both supply libraries or museums with rare works, as well as help fund TRACES’ on-going tours/projects.

After showing the BUS and a half-hour-long take-down (totaling four hours of engagement at a given venue), the BUS sets off for the next showing, usually in a neighboring county. Some hosts opt for a “vertical” all-community showing, involving a local school, church, etc., resulting in an all-day event that engages different audiences, taps local people as participants and gives deeper focus to local issues.

If two staff come for a four-hour engagement at one venue in a given community, we ask for $350 to cover our costs. If we give two showings in one town, we ask $300 each; $250 each for three sites. We can work with would-be hosts to find supplemental or alternative funding: We rarely decline offers to show the BUS based on a lack of money, as our goal is to tell stories and ask questions, not to get rich. 2016 BUS tours are underwritten by Humanities Iowa, the Hanson Foundation and Vander Haag’s Inc.

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looking at a past exhibit from the front to doorway (left) and from the auditorium to the front

Because a community consists of individuals, most of whom hail from families, the curators believe that the seeds of a community lie in the family histories of the people who built or later inhabited a given place. Thus, during a morning exhibit showing, Michael Luick-Thrams can offer (among others) a 90-minute workshop, “Roots of Darkness: Exploring the Social Contexts of Family History;” it encourages visitors to reconsider family legacies in the setting of larger histories, as a way to better understand the origins of their wider community and their connections to its people.

To enhance the project’s impact, before the BUS visits a community, hosts can offer patrons (for example) pre-visit book discussions which could include virtual or real-time visits by featured authors—some profiles of whom are at* Also, the panels include the experiences of women and Native-, African- and Hispanic-Americans. Local authors’ books are displayed in the BUS and are available as a way to feature local histories. In these and other ways, the exhibit not only distills but documents the experiences of Iowans, past and present. (*If TRACES’ director’s book Roots of Darkness is chosen, it focuses on Iowa social history from 1888-1980: see As a here-today-gone-tomorrow project benefits no one, the exhibit’s designers not only offer pre-visit activities in preparation for a given BUS visit to a community, but also post-visit ones. We seek lasting relationships with both hosts of and visitors to our programming: Already, we enjoy decades-long ties to most target communities.

Project Outline — What, Part II: program “Words between Worlds”

After a half-day showing, HH ideally moves to a local high school or college. Volunteer seniors, parents or other community members can accompany it to a short, introductory large-group program, then divide and meet with small groups of students in 20-minute sessions, first to speak in-depth about their experiences with themes (which students choose beforehand), then to field students’ questions. (TRACES works with the Iowa Genealogical Society, AARP-Iowa, Iowa Retired School Personnel Association, NIACC’s Lifelong-Learning Institute and that of other regional community colleges, plus hosts to recruit speakers; while hosts ultimately are responsible for coordinating the list of speakers, TRACES can help find and orient them, pre-event; BUS staff help coordinate speakers at the schools.)

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An entire class can fit in the BUS’ “auditorium” (left) or the program can be moved indoors.

Educators can access teaching materials before a BUS visit. To reinforce critical-thinking skills, the downloadable guides help students see their guests’ narratives and comments in wider contexts, as well as offer them tips on active listening and effective questioning. Students may visit multiple sessions.

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Special display cases fit the space available and contain exhibit-relevant artifacts or props.

Project Outline — What, Part III: public forum, with inter-generational dialogue

In the evening, a facilitated program (held at a third partnering venue, such as at a church, city hall, a civic or fraternal club’s building) can provide community members of all ages, as a group, time and space for inclusive public discussion. Reflecting on historical themes from the exhibit as well as themes the students explored with seniors or other adults at the school, the third program affords a brief review before eliciting inter-generational exchange about a community’s possible local futures.

  • mapping the past: As you look at your community over time, from its founding to the present, what distinguishes it from other communities of similar size in the region; what makes it special? Why?
    • pre-empting decline: What could happen in your community that could compromise, diminish or even destroy the things that make it special? Can you cite cases of such processes already?
    • conserving the good: What would have to happen in your community to protect, enhance or expand upon what makes your community special? Who or what bodies would take such steps?
  • surveying the present: What works especially well in your community; why do you enjoy living here?
    • pre-empting decline: What could happen in your community that could diminish or destroy the things that you especially enjoy about living here? Can you cite cases of them happening now?
    • enhancing the positive: What would have to happen in your community to protect, enhance or expand upon the things you enjoy about your community? Who or what would take such steps?
    • acknowledging the negative: What aspects of living in your community do you enjoy less?
    • slowing or stopping decline: What would have to happen in your community to transform what you dislike or find less than optimal, so that it changes or your relationship with it could change?
  • charting the future: What durable resources (land, water, mineral, sun, wind, etc.) or human resources (organizations, groups or individuals) can your community utilize as it considers its possible futures? How might your community best leverage its resources to their fullest potential, to the benefit of all?
    • What aspects of your community would you like to change? What would have to happen for those changes to take place? Who or what would have to take which steps for such changes to be effective, successful and lasting? What does “successful” mean in this context; and “failure”?
    • What could your community do to increase opportunities for young people who wish to stay in the community or for new residents to it? Who would have to take what actions to realize those steps? For seniors and working adults, what existing but untapped potentials could be realized or what new potentials could be created? What would have to happen for that to succeed?

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The facilitators use both small- and large-group structures during the forum to assure that everyone, of every age, has a chance to participate, and to discourage a few individuals dominating large-group sharing. While the body politic remains fair game for group review, the forum’s facilitators steadfastly stress the non-partisan nature of the discussion; these community conversations aim to bring people together, despite what might otherwise to divide them, for the sake of seeking and more clearly seeing a common good by the end of an HH event. This project strives to stimulate meaningful, on-going community dialogue among local residents of diverse backgrounds and perspectives; hosts, facilitators and participants from the general public are asked to affirm their commitment to truly participatory processes. Rudeness, loudness, disrespect or threats won’t be tolerated.
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The BUS served as a mobile museum, including “auditorium,” display space and “couchette” long before being repainted for the current exhibit.

Project Outline — How

A “typical” BUS-eum day follows below; in reality, times or components can be shifted, added, etc.:

  • 8:30am set up BUS-eum exhibit At Home in the Heartland: How Midwesterners Got to Be “Us”
  • 9am — open BUS for public viewing of the exhibit
  • 10-11:30am — offer workshop Roots of Darkness: Exploring Together Social Contexts behind Family History for adults and motivated teens/college students
  • noon — close BUS showing; move BUS to the local high school or community college
  • 12:30pm set up BUS exhibit at a local school or college
  • 1-1:30pm — offer presentation Tappin’ Young Blood in a large-group setting
  • 1:30-3pm — offer “Words between Worlds” sessions with seniors presenting their biographies to students in groups of (ideally) 5-10 per senior; students opt pre-visit which themes to attend
  • 5:30pm — set up BUS for showing; volunteers set up potluck on site chosen by evening-program host
  • 6pm — open BUS for public to view exhibit At Home in the Heartland: How Midwesterners Got to Be “Us” with potluck dinner as background for community members to come together
  • 7-8:30pm — offer intergenerational forum Growin’ Forward Together: Exploring Possible Futures
  • 9pm — close BUS showing; move to next community

Preserving and interpreting local history does not depend only on offering the general public exhibits or events, but on strengthening the vitality of history- and culture-focused institutions operating on the local level. For that reason, on two weekends, the community forum will be replaced by conferences, Facing Inconvenient Truths: How Museums Might Survive, Even Thrive, Despite Shifting Demographics and Shrinking Resources. Participants will include staff from county historical societies, “niche” (e.g., ethnic, military and specialty) museums, etc. While the conference will open with comments from social-historian Michael Luick-Thrams, it will build upon input from local consultants and attendees, and include roundtable discussions. It will focus on re-purposing premises or projects; leveraging existing collections, staff, volunteers and other resources; drafting new interpretation guidelines and goals; networking with complementary organizations; and honing best-practice strategies for strengthening local museums. TRACES staff currently are in the process of confirming those events.

For more information about our organization and its present as well as past programs, see or

Project Outline — Who

     Staff: After a half-decade-long respite, Irving Kellman is again accompanying the BUS-eum around the Upper Midwest. He drove the two BUS-eums for several years (before stopping in 2010), across 25 U.S. states, to hundreds of showings, for tens of thousands of people. He later wrote of his role as docent-BUS driver: “It was one of the most challenging and gratifying jobs I ever had. I found it challenging, keeping a 40-foot-long bus going straight and being on time while navigating the winding and narrow paths of the back roads that comprise the heart of Mid-America; gratifying in meeting the wonderful and colorful people who populate those back roads.” He brings a unique perspective to the BUS as a son of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, a former Civil-Rights volunteer in the Deep South working against segregation and, later, as a flower child in ‘60s-era San Francisco. He’s also worked as an art-house cinema manager, and on Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri River tug boats plying the Midwest.Share2015-05-22-49aa24717e7463083c4f419f7858483002324fbed80d0c94d6c7d8d9e98e793f-Picture
Irving Kellman
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artifacts and period props from the exhibit about German POWs in the Midwest, 1943-46

   Having grown up on his family’s Century Farm in North Central Iowa, Michael Luick-Thrams is the recent author of his own family-history chronicle, Oceans of Darkness, Oceans of Light—a Pentalogy: Our Troubles and Treasures in the New World. (See for details.) His ancestors arrived in New England and Nieuw Amsterdam in 1630; they came to Iowa in the 1830s.  The stories in this pentalogy take place in, among others, all Midwest states (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri), between 1785 and today.
Michael Luick-Thrams (Ph.D. in Modern European History from Humboldt Universität in Berlin) divides his time between Germany and Iowa, as he serves as executive director of a non-profit, educational organization in each country—Spuren e.V. ( & TRACES ( Both provide social-history-based public programming to educational and cultural institutions of various kinds.
Michael Luick-Thrams

Project Outline — When and Where

Counties/cities* visited in September-November 2015 included these, located north of Interstate 80 and east of Interstate 35:

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Allamakee, Lansing

Black Hawk, Cedar Falls

Boone, Boone

Bremer, Waverly

Butler, Greene

Cedar, Tipton

Cerro Gordo, Clear Lake & Mason City

Clay, Spencer

Clayton, Elkader

Clinton, De Witt

Dubuque, Dyersville

Fayette, Fayette

Floyd, Charles City

Franklin, Hampton

Grundy, Wellsburg

Hamilton, Webster City

Hancock, Garner

Hardin, Eldora

Howard, Cresco

Iowa, Marengo

Jasper, Newton

Marshall, Marshalltown, Albion, State Center & Le Grand

Scott, Davenport

Story, Ames

Tama, Tama

Winnebago, Forest City

Winneshiek, Decorah

Worth, Northwood

Wright, Belmond

     In April and May 2016, the BUS-eum toured 40 communities in 32 Iowa counties, all south of Interstate 80. Target towns included these, located south of Interstate 80 and north of the Missouri border:


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Adel, Adel

Adair, Greenfield

Adams, Corning

Appanoose, Centerville

Benton, Vinton

Cass, Atlantic

Cass, Griswold

Clarke, Osceola

Davis, Bloomfield

Decatur, Leon

Des Moines, Burlington

Douglas, Omaha, NE

Fremont, Sidney

Henry, Mount Pleasant

Jefferson, Fairfield

Johnson, Iowa City

Keokuk, Sigourney

Lee, Fort Madison

Lee, Keokuk

Louisa, Wapello

Lucas, Chariton

Madison, Winterset

Mahaska, Oskaloosa

Marion, Knoxville

Marion, Pella

Mills, Glenwood

Monroe, Albia

Montgomery, Red Oak

Muscatine, Muscatine

Page, Clarinda

Page, Shenandoah

Pottawattamie, Council Bluffs

Ringgold, Mount Ayr

Taylor, Bedford

Union, Creston

Van Buren, Keosauqua

Wapello, Ottumwa

Warren, Indianola

Washington, Washington

Wayne, Corydon

     In September 2016, the BUS-eum will tour to 30 communities in 25 Iowa counties, north of Interstate 80 and west of Interstate 35. Target hosts include those in:

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Audubon, Audubon

Buena Vista, Storm Lake

Calhoun, Rockwell City

Carroll, Carroll

Cherokee, Cherokee

Crawford, Dennison

Dallas, Perry

Dickens, Spirit Lake

Emmet, Estherville

Greene, Jefferson

Guthrie, Guthrie Center

Harrison, Logan

Humboldt, Humboldt

Ida, Ida Grove

Lyon, Rock Rapids

Monona, Mapleton

O’Brien, Primghar

O’Brien, Sheldon

Osceola, Sibley

Plymouth, LeMars

Pocahontas, Pocahontas

Sac County, Sac City

Shelby, Harlan

Sioux, Orange City

Sioux, Sioux Center

Webster, Fort Dodge

Woodbury, Correctionville

Woodbury, Sioux City

Feel free to use the following Public-Packet components, adapting for your usage:

BUS-tour flyer as PDF

poster for 2015-16 BUS tour

press release for 2015-16 BUS tour

ADULT talking points

BUS-eum exterior photo (click on image)7 BUS exterior photo





BUS-eum interior photo (click on image)8 BUS interior photo







Michael Luick-Thrams photo (click on image)9 Michael L-T photo







BUS-eum visitor evaluation

Teachers can use the below materials to enhance their pupils’ visit to the BUS-eum:

YOUTH talking points

worksheet for touring the BUS-eum