'Ghosts of McGregor's Past:' Guided tours will bring legendary characters to life

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“Ghosts of McGregor’s Past” guided historical walking tours will be offered from 6 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 31, then again from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 1. The tours will leave from Triangle Park roughly every half hour and take attendees to locations in downtown McGregor, where community members will act out short vignettes highlighting seven of the town’s most legendary characters. Emma “Virgin Em” Eastman (right) is pictured here getting close to her brother-in-law, Jacob Klotzbach, while sister Louisa is seated on the left. (Photo courtesy of McGregor Historical Museum)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

McGregor’s unique history will soon come to life through “Ghosts of McGregor’s Past,” a guided walking tour based around seven of the town’s most legendary characters.

Offered from 6 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 31, then again from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 1, the tours will leave from Triangle Park roughly every half hour and take attendees to locations in downtown McGregor, where community members will act out short vignettes.

The characters who will be featured include Mississippi River pirate Doc Bell, steamboat magnate Diamond Jo Reynolds, pilot Clifton “Tuffy” Oleson, sand artist Andrew Clemens, the Ringling Brothers of circus fame, nine-times-married Virgin Em and farm wife Mary Moody, who once hosted the outlaw James Gang.

“It surprised me, being a newer resident, just how many people—both famous and notorious—have lived in or passed through McGregor,” said Laurie Klosterboer, one of the event organizers. “The characters are all very interesting. It was hard to narrow it down to just a few.”

The short vignettes will be both informational and entertaining. They’ll highlight aspects of the character’s life through not just his or her own perspective, but those of a family member or acquaintance as well.

“Early on, we considered having just the character tell their own story,” said Michelle Pettit, another event organizer. “But then, rather than a monologue, we thought it would be good to have them interact with others in the story. It brings contrast.”

One example is Diamond Jo Reynolds and his wife, Mary.

“She was a homebody and he was hardly ever at home. She was a penny-pincher and he liked to buy her gifts,” Pettit shared. “Those personal stories add something distinct and make the characters more human. You really get a glimpse into each of their lives.”

Pettit, who’s the director at the McGregor Public Library, wrote most of the scripts using historical information compiled in binders at the library. That included newspaper clippings, book excerpts and other resources. For some characters, finding background wasn’t too difficult.

“For example, the Ringlings, that binder is the biggest size you can get and it’s packed full,” she said. “It was the same for Andrew Clemens.”

One of the characters with the least amount of background was Mary Moody. There’s a lot of information about the extensive Moody family, Pettit noted, but little about Mary herself. And although the story detailing Mary’s encounter with Jesse James and his outlaw gang was repeated many times over the years, there were no additions.

The pirate, Doc Bell, was another tough one. Pettit went so far as to contact other libraries in Michigan to follow his trail after he escaped from McGregor.

“I got articles on where he ran off to and when he was captured,” she said. “I like doing that kind of detective work.”

Klosterboer said the actors are all local volunteers from the McGregor, Elkader and Prairie du Chien areas. 

“Many are people who’ve been in plays before, and three couples are acting together,” she stated. “They all have an interest in history.”

For the stop on Emma “Virgin Em” Eastman, Rivertown Fine Books owner John Malcom will present an original poem he wrote about the well-known historical figure.

The actors will all be decked out in authentic period dress, with some of the costumes coming from the Elkader Opera House.

“We want to get as close as we can to the look,” Klosterboer said.

Tours will last around an hour. There is no set charge, but free will donations are appreciated. “Ghosts of McGregor’s Past” is sponsored by the McGregor Historical Museum and McGregor Historic Preservation Commission.

If the event goes well, there’s potential to do it again in the future, Pettit said.

“McGregor, for the size of town it is, has so much history and such amazing people in its past,” she remarked. “In terms of historical material, we could do this with all-new figures a few more times.”

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