Monthly Archives: December 2012

2012 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 7,100 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 12 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Posted by on December 31, 2012 in Uncategorized


Nativity display: 2,000 different ways of telling the same story









IMG_0511(Photos above taken by Phil Roberts.)

For two weekends (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays) each December, a beautifully restored old opera house in Ainsworth, Iowa, is transformed. That’s when retired teacher Michael Zahs fills the building with a display of his huge collection of nativity scenes from around the world.
Well, that’s not entirely true.

Zahs shows off much of his collection of 2,139 sets. But there’s not enough room for all of his nativities. So scores of them remain in storage, waiting their turn another year.

Zahs is rightfully proud of his nativities.

“We say this is 2,000 different ways of telling the same story,” he says.

Zahs received his first nativity from an aunt when he was 5 years old, and he’s been collecting ever since. About 200 individuals and groups also have donated sets to Zahs’ collection. Many are from his former students who have traveled all over the world and bring back sets to him.

The historian, preservationist and speaker, has a sense of humor. When I asked him during a recent visit how long it takes to put up his annual display, with a chuckle he quickly answers, “several lifetimes.”

In reality, “I’ve never really timed it,” he admits. “Most of what you see was put up from a Monday to a Thursday.”

Zahs is one of a group of people who bought the opera house and restored it. They borrowed a lot of money to do so and are using the income from receptions and other events, including a large, annual display of feed sacks, held there to retire the debt.

All of the nominal $5 charge that people over age 10 pay to view Zahs’ nativities goes to the opera house.

“It was built as an opera house in 1915, the third opera house in Ainsworth,” Zahs notes. “It served as an opera house just a few years.”

Later the high school played its basketball games in the long, narrow auditorium, students graduated there and community movies were shown there.

Zahs says the building has been restored to look the way it had in it its prime.

“But we put in (modern) heating and air conditioning. We thought that would be a nice touch,” he says with a smile.

During our visit, as recorded Christmas carols play in the background, Zahs happily tells visitors about his favorite or unique nativity sets, the oldest of which dates to the 1600s.

A sheet of paper accompanies each nativity. On it is a number showing the chronological order in which Zahs received it. Also listed is the year the nativity was made, the year it became part of Zahs’ collection, what material it’s made from, the number of pieces in it and its country of origin.

If a sheet indicates China/USA, explains Zahs, “that means it was made in China for the U.S. market.”

The sheet also details any special information. As an example, Zahs points out a set made in China in which “everybody’s looking at the sheep. None of them are looking at the baby.”

Another unusual nativity is a one-piece set purchased from among many at an Iowa City store that had no baby Jesus in them. “Apparently nobody noticed that,” says Zahs.

Zahs says, “People ask, ‘What’s your favorite?’ Well, my favorites are the stories that go with them.”

The nativities, which represent about 100 countries, are made of made of materials as diverse as banana leaves and ash from Mt. St. Helens. A one-piece set is carved of ironwood. Sets from Peru are made from clay. A set from Niger is carved out of stone.

Zahs owns some wooden sets from the Holy land. “Some of those trees were alive when Jesus was there. By law they can only carve from the trimmings. You can’t cut down a tree.”
He picks up a set from Bolivia to show us. “Bolivian sets are very small, and everybody is just always very, very happy.”

Colors and other features vary.

Says Zahs: “Colors are very significant. In sets from Europe, Mary is almost always in blue, for purity. Joseph is in brown for insignificant.

“Sets from Latin American countries very often have a prominent chicken,” says Zahs. They are a sign of prosperity and good luck.

Copyright 2012 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.

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Posted by on December 17, 2012 in Uncategorized


We live in an evil world

Hug your children! That was the advice given Sunday, Dec. 16, by the Rev. Nick Needham to those who attended services at Calvary United Methodist Church in Walcott (Iowa).

My wife Sherry and I normally go to church in Davenport. But we went to the Walcott church so we could see our grandchildren, Harrison and Marin, play the parts of Joseph and Mary, respectively, in a Christmas program directed by Robyn Stender, one of the most enthusiastic and upbeat people you’ll ever run across.

As I watched all of the Calvary kids portraying how children around the world celebrate Christmas, I couldn’t help but remember all of the kindergarteners in Newtown, Conn., who won’t be celebrating Christmas or their next birthday, high school graduation or anything else because their lives were cut short by the senseless act of a madman.

“Don’t ask me why it happened,” Needham told his congregation. “because I don’t have an answer.”

Some people, he continued, are asking where God was when the shooting took place. Needham said God was standing beside each victim.

Since Friday there’s been lots of discussion both pro and con about guns. People on both sides of that issue make good points. But the fact is, troubled people intent on doing evil will finds ways to do it with or without access to firearms.

My wife and I were reminded of that all too well in October when we visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, a tribute to the 168 people, including 19 young children, who died because Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building there on April 19, 1995.

A friend of mine, in as essay posted on his Facebook page, writes that we can blame a variety of causes — including guns, poor parenting, the Internet, the media, drugs, courts, a lack of prayer in schools, a lack of ethics — for these mass killings. But the bottom line, he writes, is we live in an evil world.

True. But the problem is spotting evil and dealing with it before innocent people have to die.

Copyright 2012 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This piece submitted as a column to The North Scott Press.

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Posted by on December 17, 2012 in Uncategorized


Burns Gallery & Tea Emporium: Tea and art are a pleasant combination

Ken Burns. All photos by Phil Roberts.

Ken Burns. All photos by Phil Roberts.

Sue Burns waits on a customer.

Sue Burns waits on a customer.

Art's not the only thing for sale.

Art’s not the only thing for sale.

Unframed prints also are available.

Unframed prints also are available.

The gallery has a relaxing feel to it.

The gallery has a relaxing feel to it.

Artist Anita Lee stands beside one of her works.

Artist Anita Lee stands beside one of her works.

If you enjoy art or tea — or both — no visit to Van Buren County, Iowa, is complete without some time spent at Burns Gallery & Tea Emporium, 509 First St., Bonaparte, IA 52620.

Their website is, and they’re also on Facebook.

Burns Gallery & Tea Emporium is located in a beautifully restored old building in the Bonaparte Historic Riverfront District, a stone’s throw from the picturesque Des Moines River.

The district was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, so bring your camera.

The Emporium’s owners, Ken and Sue Burns, will happily pour you a cup of tea to sample as you stroll through the gallery.

During our most recent visit, my wife and I tried some pumpkin-flavored tea. It was very good, but we ended up buying some Bella Coola Herbal/Fruit Tea to take home.

The Burns will accompany you, if you wish, on your gallery tour to provide information about the artists. Or you can look on your own.

The gallery displays framed paintings by artists from as far away as Japan and Alaska to as close as southeast Iowa. The subdued LED lighting provides a relaxed atmosphere and perfect viewing.

The day we visited, artist Anita Lee of Van Buren County was on hand, greeting visitors. That was a bonus.

Every piece of art is for sale as are some unframed paintings and, of course, a variety of teas from around the world. They also do framing.

On their website, the Burns say they “hope to create a world of art and specialty teas within the walls of our gallery that allows you to escape the daily routine and dream of far off places.”

In our case, their plan worked.

Copyright 2012 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.

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Posted by on December 1, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Privy digging: This is one interesting hobby!

digging 1 8-18-12digging 2 8-18-12digging 8-18-12Keithsburg bottles 003A Buffalo, Iowa, woman has a very unusual hobby. Chris Carson works as a contracting officer at the Rock Island Arsenal by day. But in her spare time, Carson and some friends are into privy digging.

You read that right.

They locate spots where outhouses had once stood and dig down an average of 6 feet or so to find items – other than the obvious ones – that someone disposed of in the privies over their years of use.

Carson says the human waste products are long gone, leaving just dirt and whatever items people threw down the outhouse hole.

“I am very interested in history, especially the history of Buffalo, Iowa,” says Carson “I am a member of the Buffalo Historical Society.”

Her interest in privy digging grew from a dig on a small farm she has in Buffalo.

She discovered there is a small dump on her property, and a lot of old medicine bottles had been dumped there over the years.

Coincidentally, since she is associated with the Buffalo Museum, a bottle collector had contacted her.

“In talking to him, I told him about all the bottles I had at my house, and he just went gaga,” says Carson. “He has come out to dig several times.”

The collector then introduced Carson to Dave Hast, a privy digger and bottle collector from Port Byron, Ill. And that led to Hast and Carson digging up a former privy location on her land.

Hast, who is in his mid 50s, says he got interested in bottle collecting in about 1970 when he and a fellow teen stumbled upon a dump in some woods in Rapids City, Ill., where he used to live.

“And we started digging bottles,” he says. “There were tons in there. It was the old city dump.”

As for privy digging, Hast says few people were involved in it until the 1960s.

“But somebody figured out that, hey, when someone was in the outhouse and he finished his favorite patent medicine, he’s going to throw the bottle down the outhouse hole. Maybe that would be a good place to go digging.”

Privy digging is a lot of work and takes some finesse, too. (See the contributed photos above.)

Hast figures out where an outhouse likely sat and probes the ground there with spring steel rods. They have a T-handle and a tip that’s larger than the rod.

If he has chosen the right place, the rod punches through the hard ground and finds loose and gritty dirt below.

“If the ground is too hard, diggers know there wasn’t a privy there,” Carson says.

But if he’s struck pay dirt, so to speak, Hast then pushes the rod deeper. When it hits something, he says he can tell by the sound if the object struck is a rock, pottery or glass.

Carson says Hast, after probing, will tell the property owner if there’s been an outhouse there and if it’s worth digging. “Sometimes he’ll say, ‘There’s nothing in here’ or ‘It doesn’t sound like anything good.’

“It’s an art,” Carson says of the probing. “I just think it’s amazing how they do that.”

She also says a privy digger will pull the rod out of the ground and look for seeds on it “because I guess back in the old days people ate a lot more fruit.”

If a privy is worth digging, Hast says he will dig a hole from 3 to 10 feet deep, though he admits the deeper holes “can get really kind of scary.”

Because people’s waste products are long decomposed, Hast says, the work isn’t messy and “all that’s left is what they threw in.”

Carson has arranged for and been involved in several privy digs in Buffalo, in addition to her own. She also has accompanied Hast on digs on formerly flooded lots in Keithsburg, Ill. The old houses that stood on them are now gone.

She says diggers are looking for old bottles, but they find much more because “people did use privies as garbage dumps.”

Between the two of them, Carson and Hast say they’ve retrieved porcelain doll heads, horseshoes, animal bones, a rusted handgun, broken chamber pots, tools, plates, bowls, cups, saucers, women’s hygiene syringes, a full set of dentures and a bone toothbrush.

Hast says he also found a pocket watch complete with chain, “and it was in good condition.” It must have slipped out of its owner’s hand.

Carson says the pair found “hundreds” of whiskey bottles where the outhouse had sat on her property. Whoever used it, she says with a laugh, “definitely had an addiction to the sauce.”

Copyright 2012 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This piece ran as a column in The North Scott Press.


Posted by on December 1, 2012 in Uncategorized