Tama Building architect reveals post-fire plans

Tama Building fire 2018
Prior to moving to the corner of Jefferson and Third, Sutter Drug was located at 307 N. Third, then 309-311. That portion of the Tama Building has collapsed now after a devastating fire in August 2018.  This photo shows the Third Street view. 


Doug Wells, the Des Moines architect who owns the Tama Building in Burlington, Iowa, estimates the rebuild from the fire in the Historic Tama Complex will be completed in spring 2020.

I won’t hold my breath that it can be done that quickly, as the project, up until the horrible fire in August, had been undergoing renovation for several years. Still, I’m excited that Wells says he is going to rebuild as this building has so much of my family and Sutter Drug Company history tied up in it.

In this recent story in The Hawk Eye, Wells said he was still waiting for the insurance investigators to release the building to him. Grinnell Mutual Insurance Co. and at least one other insurer are involved, and Grinnell has offered a $10,000 reward for information to assist in identifying the cause.

Other highlights from that story:

  • Wells doesn’t plan to tear down what remains standing and will rebuild according to his original plans.
  • Many people wondered why the sprinkler system hadn’t been activated, but Wells said that they typically aren’t until work is mostly complete. He may do that it differently the next time around, he said. Seems to me that would make a lot of sense!
  • The support he’s getting from the community, Burlington city government and Burlington Downtown Partners is spurring Wells on. “They’re all maintaining contact with me on the project, and they’re wanting to offer me any support or help any way they can, and that’s a lot of what makes us want to rebuild,” he told The Hawk Eye.

In the meantime, life goes on, and the downtown merchants of Burlington need support. If you live in Burlington or are back visiting (as I will be doing in November), please take time to go downtown. Shop, eat, drink and check out things to do by clicking here. The merchants will be happy to see you and you’ll have a great time.

Related posts: Architect plan to rebuild on Tama Building fire site

Tama Building fire update with photos 

Tama Building owner Doug Wells thanks Burlington fire fighters, police

Inside Tama Building renovation before big fire


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Architect plans to rebuild on Tama Building fire site in Burlington, Iowa

Tama Building
The front of the Tama Building on Jefferson Street after the 2018 fire.

There’s good news for those of us wanting to see the Tama Building rise from the ashes after the devastating fire that occurred on Aug. 4, 2018.

The Hawk Eye reported that Eric Tysland, community development and parks director for the city of Burlington, said that Tama Building owner, architect Doug Wells of Des Moines, wants to rebuild on the site.

This wonderful nugget of news is the last sentence in this story from The Hawk Eye.

While the fire is still under investigation, the property was schedule to be released back to Wells by the end of the day of Sept. 14. The Hawk Eye reported that structural engineers will now be able to evaluate the building, and that in turn will impact the decision to move back fences to open up parts of Jefferson and Third streets.

Tama building fire 2018
The front view of the Chittenden and Eastman Building, part of the Historic Tama Complex, remains blocked off on Jefferson Street.

Having those streets blocked has had a negative impact on downtown business owners, taking up vital parking spots, and I imagine just scaring people from coming downtown. Of course, we don’t want there to be any danger to citizens in case part of the damaged structure would fall into the street.

The Historic Tama complex (consisting of the Tama Building and the Chittenden and Eastman Building) was on the verge of opening both for retail and apartments this fall, and it was going to be such a huge boon to the downtown. Now it’s been a terrible setback to downtown development. According to The Hawk Eye, insurance company Grinnell Mutual is offering a $10,000 reward for information that could help solve the mystery of what started the fire.

I hope and pray that the front structure of the Tama Building, with all its architectural significance, can be saved. If not, I hope Wells will design another building that is reminiscent of the current structure.

Related posts: Tama Building fire update with photos 

Tama Building owner Doug Wells thanks Burlington fire fighters, police

Inside Tama Building renovation before big fire


I’m committed to sharing the latest news about the Tama Building to keep readers up to date. If you don’t want to miss a post, you can receive posts quickly via email. Please scroll to the bottom of this web page and fill in your email address and submit it. I will not share your email address with others.


Tama Building fire investigation update with photos

As my husband, Gary, and I were driving across the Great River Bridge into Burlington, Iowa in the early evening on Aug. 14, we could see the damaged roof from the massive fire at the Tama Building (Historic Tama Complex).

You could see a crumpled roof and black outline.  We crossed the bridge and turned down Main, then took a right onto Jefferson and drove up to the corner at Third Street. We saw windows blown out of the building, debris in the street, and fencing that prevented accessing the street at the corner.

Tama Building
The front of the Tama Building on Jefferson Street after the 2018 fire.

We quickly parked on Third Street in front of the Capitol Theatre, got out and walked to the corner, just taking the scene in.

Tama Building fire 2018

Sutter Drug was located in the Tama Building at the corner of Third and Jefferson from 1930-81. At left was the entrance.

Tama Building fire 2018
Prior to moving to the corner, Sutter Drug was located at 307 N. Third, then 309-311. That portion of the Tama Building has collapsed now.

Snapping photos, we walked north up Third Street until we stood across from a huge pile of rubble, where the back half of the building had collapsed.

Tama building fire
This is the view of what remains of the back side of the Chittenden and Eastman building, part of the Historic Tama Complex. Note the staircase that looked new.

We walked through the drive-through of the Great Western Bank, to see the back of the Tama Building and the Chittenden and Eastman Building, the two that have been called the  Historic Tama Complex as it was being developed into apartments and businesses. More big piles of rubble, windows blown out, looking like a bomb had gone off to my amateur eyes.

View from Washington Street; to the left is what remains of the Chittenden and Eastman Building, part of the Historic Tama Complex renovation.

Although I had seen many photos from the Hawk Eye and Facebook, I had to see it in person just to grasp the enormity of the damage.

Two days later, my sister, Tracey,  and I drove downtown to pay a visit to Burlington By the Book, which sits directly across from the Tama Building on Jefferson. As we stood on Third Street, outside the old Palace Theatre (which is now a church), a man in a hard hat walked by. My sister said, “Our drug store used to be in that building.”

“Oh, yeah?” the man answered. He stopped to chat. Turns out he is the lead fire investigator for the insurer of the building. He’s from near Cincinnati, Ohio. He said he’d probably be in Burlington a few weeks. He told us that he was planning to meet the Historic Tama Complex’s owner, architect Doug Wells, that evening; he said this would be Wells first time to go into the building.

The investigator wouldn’t commit to how long it would take to determine how the fire started.  Said he didn’t want to set any expectations. Smart guy.

Tama building fire 2018
The front view of the Chittenden and Eastman Building; Olive Wine Barr and Big River Popcorn Co. were planning to relocate there from other locations on Jefferson Street.

There hasn’t been a lot of news this week about the fire. The Hawk Eye reported that some businesses had to be evacuated for about 45 minutes on Thursday, Aug. 16, when investigators hit a gas line. You could read about that here.

If, like me, you’ve been wondering why the sprinkler system wasn’t working, The Hawk Eye quoted the fire marshal saying the sprinkler system was installed but not operational — there was no water connected. And the alarm system wasn’t fully installed yet either.

If you live in or near Burlington, please come down to Jefferson Street and shop and eat; show your support by spending a few dollars. (The chain stores won’t miss your money, but the local merchants will give you great products and service. They are your friends and neighbors, too.)

I bought a copy of the new book Fly Girls at Burlington By The Book, and my family and I had dinner at La Tavola!

Note: A previous version of this blog called the Great River Bridge the MacArthur Bridge. It will always be the MacArthur Bridge to me, but when they tore that one down, the new one was named Great River Bridge. Thanks to Dawid Otto for pointing out my error!

I’m committed to sharing the latest news about the Tama Building to keep readers up to date. If you don’t want to miss a post, you can receive posts quickly via email. Please scroll to the bottom of this web page and fill in your email address and submit it. I will not share your email address with others.

Tama Building owner Doug Wells thanks Burlington fire fighters, police

Tama Building
The Tama Building and Sutter Drug Store in the 1940s.

Des Moines architect Doug Wells, owner of Historic Tama LLC, has been pretty quiet about the devastating fire at the Tama Building that began on Aug. 4. The complex was just weeks away of opening in some fashion, with retail on the first floor and apartments above it. Wells was quoted in The Hawk Eye, saying “After working on the project so much and the length of time it has taken, the hundreds of dedicated construction workers who spent thousands of hours here, it’s just shocking to me. I’m devastated.” My heart goes out to him because with my family’s history of Sutter Drug so tied up in the Tama Building, it’s been a tough time for many of us.

Wells issued this press release on Aug. 10:

Our heartfelt thank-you to the City of Burlington Fire Department and
Police Department for their courageous efforts battling and extinguishing
the fire at the Tama Building on August 4-5, 2018. We hope the firemen,
who were injured, are making a full and rapid recovery. Shocked and
devastated to see this happen so close to the finish line, we were ready for
occupancy of this fully-restored historical building in September and
October 2018.

We are most appreciative of the ongoing efforts by numerous entities:
City of Burlington, Downtown Partners Inc, State of Iowa – Iowa Economic
Development Authority, and Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs – State
Historic Preservation Office.

We thank the many Burlington residents who had committed to
downtown residential living in the Tama. We thank Donna & Eric Renteria
and Mark Renteria (Olive Wine and the proposed Snake Alley Market) and
Greg Flietner (Big River Popcorn) for their ongoing loyalty to the project
and plans to move into the commercial spaces with their vibrant
community-based businesses.

With momentum, the design/construction team was anticipating
fulfillment of this project within weeks. Caleb Giesel, our determined
Burlington on-site manager, has been loyal, tenacious, and relentless to
get the job done.

Right now, we are pouring over several viable options with a focus on
rebuilding the Tama and C & E Buildings, which are such important
elements of the Burlington historical fabric and downtown revitalization.

It’s great to see Wells making this statement and thanking and acknowledging all the people involved in the Tama Building project and fire fighting.  Having spent my career in journalism, I know that the more he and other officials involved in the investigation can share information with the public, the better off everyone will be. Now is the time for openness, for giving periodic updates about the investigations into how the fire started, what options are being explored for the future for that complex, etc.

Given that the fire is a major setback for downtown redevelopment and is having a negative impact on existing businesses,  Wells and Burlington city officials need to pledge to keep the public updated as often as possible.

To read more about the fire investigation and its impact on downtown, click here to read the latest story from The Hawk Eye.


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Inside Tama Building renovation before big fire in Burlington, Iowa

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The shock of seeing the Tama Building in Burlington, Iowa, being consumed by massive flames has worn off, and now I just feel a sadness that I suspect won’t go away.

From 1903 to 1981, there was a Sutter Drug Store somewhere in that building, first at 311 N. Third, then 307-309 N. Third, then in the prime corner spot at Jefferson and Third from 1930 to 1981.

Tama Building
The Joseph R. Sutter Drug Store opened in 1903 at 311 N. Third St. in the Tama Building. My great-grandfather is at the far right.

I’d been watching with great interest the renovations of the Tama Building the last few years. And I was fortunate enough to get inside to see what was happening, first in April 2017 and then most recently this past May. I’m sure a good amount of progress had been made since May, given that some local businesses were close to relocating into storefronts.

In May, some of the apartments had kitchen cabinets installed, when I did a tour one Sunday afternoon with my childhood friends Bruce and Dave Baker, and Dave’s wife, Maureen. Bruce was able to get us into the building as he knows Doug Wells, the Des Moines architect and developer of the $12.5 million renovation of the Tama Building and the Chittenden and Eastman Commercial Building. Those buildings made up what was being called the Tama Complex.

If you haven’t seen the work, here are some photos that Bruce, Maureen and I took that day.

Tama Building
Facing the corner of Third and Jefferson inside the Tama Building in the former drug store space.

I was most interested in the renovation of the corner at Third and Jefferson, where the Sutter store was located for 51 years.

Tama Building
Looking down into the basement below the drug store space.

Bruce, Dave and I had some animated conversations about the store. Their family owned Witte Drug for years, and my great-grandfather, Joseph R. Sutter, got his start at Witte’s and learned about pharmacy working there.

Tama Building
Bruce (in green) and Dave Baker and I in the drug store space near the Jefferson Street windows. The soda fountain was against the wall on the right.

After the drug store closed in 1981, the space was home to various restaurants and bars. I always felt happy seeing the space occupied, until the fire of 2010 gutted the interior.

Tama Building
Despite all the different occupants over the years, the tin ceiling in the Sutter Drug Store space has remained intact.


We also climbed several flights of stairs to check out other parts of the building.

Tama Building
Looking down between the Tama and Chittenden and Eastman buildings. Tama is the building to the right.
View from Tama Building
Looking out an upper story window at the Tama Building, you can see the Schramm’s building with the awning. The upper stories are now condos.

We talked that day about how the Tama Building got its name and that the new owners wanted to get the Tama Indian sign back from Des Moines County.

Tama Building
The word Tama was on the doorway on the Third Street side of the building.

After we finished walking around and said our goodbyes, I drove by the Des Moines County Courthouse to see if Chief Tama was still on the front lawn. He is.

Chief Tama of Tama Building fame
The image of Chief Tama, which used to grace the Tama Building many years ago, now sits in front of the Des Moines County Courthouse.

To read how Chief Tama came to reside in front of the courthouse, click here.  I’m thankful that it hadn’t been moved back to the Tama Building yet, because it likely would have been destroyed in the fire.

If you want to read about and see photos of the devastating 1915 fire that started in the basement of Sutter-Ludman in the Tama Building, click here.  A 1939 fire wasn’t nearly as bad; click here for my blog on that.

I’m hopeful that someday there will be another iconic and beautiful structure at the corner of Jefferson and Third, to replace the amazing building that had stood there since 1897.

I’m committed to sharing the latest news about the Tama Building to keep readers up to date. If you don’t want to miss a post, you can receive posts quickly via email. Please scroll to the bottom of this web page and fill in your email address and submit it. I will not share your email address with others.

Those were the days: fond memories of a drug store in Fulton, NY

Hargraves Pharmacy
Pharmacist Sal Lanzafame bought Hargraves Pharmacy in Fulton, N.Y., when he was 24 years old.

I just love the serendipity that can happen when you sit down next to a stranger at an event.

That happened recently to me when I attended Writers & Books‘ The Ladder Literary Conference in Rochester.

This stimulating event included a buffet lunch, and it was my good fortune that my friend and fellow writer Robin Flanigan was sitting at a table where there were a few empty seats. I just happened to sit down next to Jim Farfaglia. It turns out that Jim loves the history and people of his hometown of Fulton, N.Y., in Upstate New York as much as I do the history and people of my hometown of Burlington, Iowa.

Jim Farfaglia
Jim Farfaglia

I was fascinated to hear that Jim works with his local library to help elders to write their memoirs, and these have been collected into anthologies. You can read about the project here.  When I told Jim about my book about my family’s pharmacy, he relayed how he had helped a long-time pharmacist to write his memoir for the library project.

The next day, I got an order from Jim to purchase a copy of Sutter’s Sodas Satisfy. I immediately signed one and mailed it to him.

Within a few days, I got this heart-warming email from him:

Hi, Jane. I had a chance to read your wonderful book on Sutter’s Pharmacy. What an enjoyable read! I was impressed with how thoroughly you covered your family’s history with the pharmacy – including everything from newspaper articles to family memories. I feel like I know your family now!

A few things that stood out for me:

1)      The cartoon caricatures show the widespread respect of your family’s business

2)      The same goes for those in attendance at your great-grandfather’s funeral

3)      The poem written in honor of the pharmacy captured the admiration for your family

4)      Your family’s persistence through major changes in how and where people shop

In your book I kept seeing parallels between Burlington, Iowa and Fulton, New York, my hometown. There really has been a common experience in small towns and small town businesses. There’s a comfort in that and a sense of community beyond city borders.

Jim attached to the email the memoir he helped pharmacist Sal Lanzafame write plus a poem Jim wrote about visiting Sal’s pharmacy.  Jim’s parents were customers of Sal’s, and Jim often picked up their prescriptions. For five years, Jim submitted a poem to his local newspaper The Valley News and it published this poem. Jim has given me permission to print it here.

Sal Lanzafame
Sal Lanzafame behind the pharmacy counter at Hargraves in Fulton, N.Y.

Good Medicine      

The wooden display cases look odd 

with all the brightly boxed

over-the-counter meds,

fancy brand names and bold guarantees

calling to us.

But just above them, proudly displayed,

are the shaded glass bottles

that once held our treatments –

none of them need to shout to be noticed.

Comfy chairs have been provided,

a place to rest as we wait. From there

we can browse a display of fine toiletries,

linger over timeless Timex watches

or ponder a choice of boxed chocolates –

perhaps we know someone who needs

some sweetness in their life.

Greeting cards are next.

Who doesn’t enjoy a pleasant regard

now and then?

These are sorted by a few categories:

        Birthday           Wedding

        Anniversary     Get Well

reminding us how choosing used to be


And when we reach the counter

the Pharmacist asks about the ailing

and wants to know how life is

beyond medicines and diagnoses.

We offer our stories as we settle the bill

and when he pushes firmly on the keys,

the register opens with a familiar ring.

Just about everything the poem mentions (except the comfy chairs!) could have been written about Sutter’s.

What makes me happy is that Hargraves is still open for business. That’s unusual in these days of chain drug stores. Check out its website here.

Jim started writing prolifically after retiring in 2011 from work at the Oswego County Youth Bureau and he has a variety of books (including poetry) to his name.  I’m looking forward to reading them!

Finding my Sutter roots: Walenstadt, Switzerland

Lake Walensee, Walendstadt
My husband, Gary Brandt, and I on the shore of Lake Walensee in Walenstadt, Switzerland.

My husband, Gary Brandt, and I recently spent time in Switzerland in what I’m calling our “Finding Our Roots” trip.

Both Gary and I have family roots in Switzerland, and we set out to visit some of our ancestors’ birthplaces. One of them was Walenstadt, from whence came my great-great-great-grandmother Ursula Marie Hugg, who emigrated from there to the United States.

Before I go into the family history, let me describe for you the beauty of the area.

Walenstadt (pronunced vah-len-schtadt) is located in the Canton of St. Gallen. (A canton is what we’d refer to as a state in this country.)

Lake Walensee
A man rows a boat in Lake Walensee.

The town sits on the northeastern edge of beautiful Lake Walensee, (pronounced vah-len-see) surrounded by amazing mountains (Churfirsten on the north and Murtschenstock on the south). The population of Walenstadt is about 5,500 and consists of a few hotels and small businesses and homes.  Summer cottages dot the shores of the lakefront with forests and farms encircling the lake.

Lake Walensee
The beachfront of Lake Walensee with majestic Churfirsten mountains in the background.

We drove down from the city of St. Gallen (stay tuned for a blog on that city), and we parked at a little beachfront park, where kids were playing on the sand and families were picnicking on a sunny, 60-degree day.

The beauty practically took my breath away: the deep blue water, the snow-capped mountains high above everywhere you looked, the trees blossoming with green leaves.


Hotel Seehoff
The Hotel Seehoff with outdoor patio.

We arrived in late morning and walked around the lake side, took photos, and then sat down for lunch in the covered patio area of the Hotel Seehof. I couldn’t resist ordering the Wiener Schnitzel (a traditional dish of breaded veal) with potatoes, carrots and green beans. So delicious. I ordered it with a Coca Cola, because that’s what I’d been seeing everyone in Switzerland drinking. The Coke comes in glass bottles there! Loved it.

Wiener Schnitzel
My amazing lunch of Wiener Schnitzel, vegetables and a bottle of Coca Cola!

Gary ordered the Club Sandwich. It was huge, with layers of pineapple, chicken and thick bacon. He declared it the best Club Sandwich he’d ever had.

The view of the lake and the mountains from our table was picture perfect. Gary told our waitress, a middle-aged woman who spoke decent English, that my family came from Walenstadt. (By the way, German is the spoken language in this part of Switzerland.)

Waitress at Hotel Seehof
The friendly waitress at the Hotel Seehof restaurant who recognized some of my family’s surnames.

Our waitress then brought over another waitress who spoke better English and wore a beaming smile. I showed her a paper I’d brought that had some of my family tree on it, and she told me there are families named Hugg (pronounced Hoog) and Schlegel in the area. I suspect those are common last names in Switzerland, as is Sutter.

Here’s the family history:

Usula Marie Hugg was born in Walenstadt  on June 20, 1830 to Josef Hugg and Maria Anna Schlegel.

Maria Shlegel Hugg
My great-great-great-great-grandmother Maria Schlegel Hugg.

Ursula married her husband, Charles Frederick Sophus Enger,  in St. Louis, Mo., on Oct. 3, 1850.  He was 30 (having been born in Schleswig-Holstein, Prussia in 1820). She was 20. From there, they settled in Burlington, Iowa, my hometown. How they met, why they lived in Burlington, I don’t know and may never know.

Regardless, Ursula and Charles had eight children: Lena, Sophia, Charles, Joseph, John, Mary Ann (Anna), George and Albert.

From left, four generations: Ursula Hugg Enger, Gertrude Sutter, Anna Schlacter Sutter, Sophie Enger Schlacter.

Sophia married a man named Adrian Schlachter and they had a daughter named Anna. Anna married my great-grandfather,  Joseph Robert Sutter, and that’s how the two families became aligned. Anna and Joseph’s children were Clarence Joseph, Ray (my grandfather), Gertrude and Ursula.

Charles Enger (the father) died in 1906 and his wife, Ursula Hugg Enger, died in 1907.

Back to our day in Walenstadt: After our delicious lunch, we walked along the northern edge of the waterfront, watching the kids and adults enjoying their day at the lake. We looked at the signs about the area, written in German (I took photos in hopes of translating them later).

Swiss Reformed Church in the town of Walenstadt, Switzerland.
Swiss Reformed Church in the town of Walenstadt, Switzerland.

As we were driving away through the town, we passed a beautiful old stone Swiss Reformed Church, and I had Gary stop the car so I could take pictures.

Lake Walensee
View of Lake Walensee as we drove west along the southern shore, on our way to Bern.

It was a memorable day, and I tried to just soak it all in. As we drove away on our way to Bern, I thought about about how my great-great-grandmother left this beautiful area either as a child or a young woman, and probably never returned. Did she miss those mountains and that clear blue water and think about them? Undoubtedly!




St. Joseph’s strong connection to the Sutter family

St. Joseph
Christ learning carpentry from St. Joseph Photo credit: Fr. Lawrence Lew O.P. http://bit.ly/2FMD5pH


March 19 is St. Joseph’s Day  and I got to thinking about all the Sutters who have “Joseph” as either their first or middle name.

I’m not sure why that is, and all my ancestors that I could ask are gone.  The family tree I have goes back just to 1816, with the birth of my great-great-great-grandfather, Ambrose Sutter, born about 1816 in the canton of St. Gallen, Switzerland.

He and his wife, Amelia Gaertner (also listed as Amanza and Amanda) had a son they named Robert Joseph Sutter, born Nov. 1, 1845 also in the canton of St. Gallen.

Why Joseph? Perhaps for religious reasons. St. Joseph of course was the husband of Mary the Blessed Virgin Mother and the foster father of Jesus.  In the Old Testament, Joseph is the 11th son of Jacob, and Joseph has been immortalized for modern-day audiences in the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

According to the website Behind the Name,  Josef is the spelling that Germans used, and German is the language spoken in northeastern Switzerland.  Perhaps Robert Joseph anglicized his middle name when he came to the United States.

Joseph Sutter, Robert Sutter
From left at back, Joseph R. Sutter and sister Anna around 1890. In front, Robert Joseph, Ida, Anna holding Robert Boniface.

Robert Joseph and his wife, Christina Dallinger, immigrated to Burlington, Iowa, and named their first-born son, Joseph Robert Sutter, my great-grandfather, who went on to found Sutter Drug Co.

Joe and his wife had two sons: Clarence Joseph (called C.J.) and Raymond Otto, my grandfather.

C.J. Sutter and Raymond Otto Sutter
Clarence Joseph and Raymond Otto Sutter in 1950 at Sutter Drug cigar counter. 

Ray and his wife, Rubye, named their first-born Raymond Joseph, who was my father. Everyone called him “Joe,” no doubt to differentiate him from his father, Ray. My dad always listed his name as R. Joseph or R. Joe on documents.

David, Joe, parents Rubye and Ray, Bill Sutter in the 1940s.

The name Joseph continued into a fourth generation of Sutters, when my parents named my brother, Andrew Joseph aka Drew.

Drew Sutter Jane Sutter
Drew (Andrew Joseph) and me at Mosquito Park in Burlington, Iowa.

To go back to St. Joseph, he was a carpenter and is the patron saint of all workers. I like that connection, as I know my family and ancestors to be hard workers, too. Certainly my great-grandfather was industrious, not just founding Sutter Drugs but growing it into a successful business with various locations, with his legacy carried on by his sons and grandsons as pharmacists.

Click here to learn more about St. Joseph.


Author Tommy Murray shares back story of novel ‘Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball’

Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball
Tommy Murray with his father, John Murray

A favorite pasttime of mine is reading the works of other Iowa authors, and I’m delighted to recommend the novel Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball by Tommy Murray.

The Murray family was well known among us Catholics in Burlington, Iowa, because with 10 kids in their family, you were likely to have a Murray in your class.  They were all nice kids. Tom Murray (the oldest) was in my sister Tracey’s class, Mary Murray was in my brother Drew’s class, and Jean Murray was in my class and group of friends. All of us graduated from Notre Dame High School in the ’70s.

Tom’s novel was published in 2017, and it’s a great read. The characters are complex and real, and the plot is full of surprises. I have to admit I also learned quite a bit about baseball strategy from reading it. In some ways it’s a “coming of age” story, and in other ways, it’s a story about “coping with aging.” Tom manages to present both themes with humor and empathy.

Tom is a retired teacher from the Minneapolis Public Schools who lives with his wife, Mary Ann, in Shoreview, MInn. They have four adult children who are baseball and softball legends in the Shoreview area. Because I liked his book so much, and because I admire fiction writers, I invited Tom to answer some questions for this blog.

Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball involves three elderly coaches and some of the key members of the varsity baseball team at Holy Trinity High School. How did you come up with the plot and characters? 

In 1973 I was a junior scrub on the junior varsity football team early in the season at Notre Dame High School in Burlington, Iowa sitting on the bench against arch-rival West Burlington when my big football opportunity manifested itself.  My coach told me I could report into the game on defense under one condition:  After the ball was hiked, I should race in three feet and hold my position.  It seemed simple enough.  However, he still made me model that attack strategy for himself and the group of my teammates that awaited the spectacle. When the coach was certain that I understood, he anxiously sent me into the game.  On my second and last down as a football player at Notre Dame I watched the quarterback run away to the complete opposite side of the field.  Instead of holding my ground as I had been instructed, I raced after him at which point West Burlington executed a deft reverse resulting in a speedy runner easily sidestepping me and eventually escaping right through the hole I had been ordered to plug.  It’s a continuing  nightmare I still have to this day, watching that guy run 89 yards for a West Burlington touchdown.

My football career was over. Banished to a solitary perch on the bench, I had the rest of the season to observe my coaches, all older men (two retirees from Burlington High School and a crazed priest from St. Patrick’s Church in Burlington), and the fathers in the bleachers living vicariously through their sons on the field.  Like many of those boys, I played for my hero, my father.  And also like many of those boys who battled for victory and glory in athletic contests, I wished that I had known my father better.  Sometimes I felt I didn’t know him at all.

Way back then I filled my empty head with dreams of a story where the old men were coaching, and fathers were cheering on their sons, but instead in another sport in which I was also a miserable failure—baseball. It’s true that those who can’t play baseball write about it.  I’ve been thinking, writing, editing and eventually publishing and promoting this story since 1973.

In the book, you write in-depth about the game of baseball and strategy. Did you play and/or coach baseball?

Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball I was a terrible football player and even worse at baseball.  Though I was always the tallest player on the field I was also always the slowest.  I also had one other huge impediment.  I was deathly afraid of the ball.  Instead of charging in and genuflecting in front of a hard ground ball I would stand to the side, out of harm’s way and wave my glove in the general direction of the ball and hope by some chance it would get tangled in its webbing.

I was even worse at bat.  As the pitcher began his windup I was already moving out of the batter’s box and taking a giant step toward third base.  By the time the ball reached the plate I was always far away, almost in a different ZIP code.  In my junior year of high school, for the sake of the coaches and fans and myself, I quit playing baseball.

That action, raising the white flag, absolutely broke my father’s heart.  He was devastated.  Like most fathers he didn’t see my inadequacies and obvious failures.  He only saw my potential, future glory and most of all the fulfillment of my legacy.  My legacy was determined before I was born, when it was decided I would be named for my uncle Tommy Murray.

You dedicate the book to your grandfathers, your uncle Tommy Murray and your father. Tell us about them and their influence on your life and love of baseball.

I begin all my readings by telling the story of my Uncle Tommy, my namesake, and explaining his legacy.  Iowa, like Minnesota, originally had two different paths to a high school state championship—one for public, the other, private. In 1943 all schools were combined into one tournament.  Uncle Tommy led an undefeated Bancroft St. John team to the Fall Iowa State Baseball Championship game and then pitched and won that game.  St. John became the first private school to win a championship of any sport in Iowa.  He was a hero in Bancroft, a baseball star who excelled despite suffering from severe juvenile arthritis. He parlayed that success and charm to finagle my grandfather to influence the Army to accept him during World War II despite this obvious deferment.  In gratitude he trained for the most dangerous position in the Army, portable flame thrower.  He was killed in the Philippines in November 1945.


Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball
The obituary of the author’s uncle, Tommy Murray.

All of northwest Iowa was devastated by my Uncle Tommy’s death.  Fort Dodge Public High School was scheduled  to play St. John on the very day of his passing.  They called my grandfather to offer their sympathies and cancel the game.  My grandfather explained that nothing could ever bring back his beloved son and that the game should go on.  In Bancroft, Iowa, baseball is more than a game.  It’s a life and death passion.  Baseball is a religion.

So that night my Grandfather watched his nephew and son (my dad) compete and win the baseball game against Fort Dodge Public.  Life goes on, especially and no matter what, the life of baseball.

Nearly all of the characters in my story are composites of loved ones that have passed on, some that I’ve never met like my Grandfather Art Murray, others that I did meet and treasure—wistful old men like my Grandfather Joe McTigue and even former students that were brutal and charismatic gang leaders on the streets of North Minneapolis. Somehow I seem to continue to see and hear them, mostly in the persistent whisperings of those who want to be remembered — want their story to be told because they continue to live as long as I and others tell their story. I believe these holy ghosts have given me permission to embellish their stories as long as those stories illuminate their truths.

Your book is set in fictional town of Cottage Park, Iowa. What’s your connection to Cottage Park? In writing about Cottage Park in the book, did you reference real places? 

I was the bat boy for my father, the baseball coach at St. Mary’s in Storm Lake, Iowa.  Cottage Park is a combination of all those little towns just big enough to support two bars, a Catholic church, and perhaps most importantly a baseball field.  However, Cottage Park is mostly modeled after Bancroft, Iowa a town of 727 residents also in northwest Iowa. The church and the baseball field there are open 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. I wrote Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball to provide readers in that community a mirror to see themselves, and for everyone else a window to experience the joy and exasperation of small town Iowa life.

Toward the end of my father’s life he couldn’t tell you the name of the wife who mothered his 10 children, or even the names of his children, but he never forgot one detail of life in Bancroft, particularly as it related to baseball.

It wasn’t until nearly the very end of my 40-year journey of writing my novel that I learned that Cottage Park was also a metaphor for the relationship with my father.

Many people say “I want to write a book,” but few have the self-discipline and creativity that it takes to do so. How long did it take you to write your novel, and what was your process? 

I am hopeful that everyone who reads this blog will carefully read my strategies for writing a novel and then, no matter what, do the exact opposite of what I’ve done.

For starters, I would rather stick darning needles directly into my eyeballs than ever write one single word.  Writing is painful for me.  It was something I never enjoyed doing, but I felt compelled to do at the persistent nagging of old men, now passed, who relentlessly insisted that I tell their story.  I did everything I could think of to avoid sitting down and writing, which included elaborate nightly nesting rituals, mostly cleaning, picking up, and putting things in order after my four children went to bed each night.

My goal at first was to write one single word each night.  I was not going to be the most prolific author, but I was going to be the most consistent.  After days of writing only one word, I enlarged my goal to write at least one sentence, and then a paragraph, and finally a page.  Humans are the most adaptive animals on earth.

In just a few decades I had written a novel.  By the way, I’ll match the cleanliness underneath and behind my refrigerator against anyone.

 Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

 First and foremost find pictures of the author of this blog, Jane Sutter Brandt, at the signing of her memoir, Sutter’s Sodas Satisfy at Burlington By the Book. The line of people purchasing the book was not unlike that of people waiting in line for Taylor Swift Concert tickets.  Post those pictures on your refrigerator and it will give you motivation that your story is of great value to some if not all.

Second, talk to Jane Brandt’s sister Tracey who will give you confidence that you can and must market and promote your story, and a good place to start is at Burlington By the Book with its owner Chris Murphy, and his enthusiastic coworkers.

I know how to amass a small fortune writing a novel.  My third counsel is to always start out with a large fortune.  When my Uncle Pat McTigue passed, he left me enough money to purchase all the services and requirements for the publishing of this novel through an “indie” press called Beaver’s Pond Press in Edina, Minnesota.

Fourth, before you are published, choose who you allow to read your work more carefully than you choose a spouse.  I had an opportunity to have the great Catholic novelist J.F. Powers read an early draft of my manuscript.  I wasn’t prepared for his critique (which was savage, but entirely on the mark) and hid my story away for several years in a box in my bedroom closet.  That’s one of the reasons why it took me 40 years to get this story published.

Last, write for an audience.  This book is dedicated to my father.  After the debacle with J.F. Powers, my hope was to publish one copy and present it to him.  I couldn’t write and edit my manuscript as fast as dementia took away his memory, and finally his life. Dad never got to read the printed copy. So I wrote this story for my four children.  When I went to the printer, I discovered that it wasn’t that much more expensive to print up another 200 copies.

One pleasant surprise of my writing journey is that others are liking this story too.  This summer Minneapolis City Council Member Blong Yang requested an order for 200 copies to distribute to volunteers and contributors to his reelection campaign.  When I asked him why he liked my story he responded, “Because I’m Catholic.  I love small towns and I love baseball.”

I recently published a third edition of 1,000 that now includes glowing newspaper reviews.

As many authors know, actually getting published is also a challenge once the book is written. What was your experience? 

As is often the case in life, many problems can be solved if you have time and money.  I retired as a teacher in the Minneapolis Public Schools in 2014, so I have the time.  At about that same period in my life my Uncle Pat McTigue passed away and left me just enough money to purchase the services that are necessary for every aspect of the publishing of this novel, including promotions.  I’ve signed on with a professional marketing company that is generating good leads in media.  It helps immensely to be from Burlington, Iowa where people are unbelievably gracious and supportive.

What’s next for you? Are you working on another novel? 

There’s a line in the cable television series, The Affair, where a grizzled old writer remarks to a younger writer, “Everybody in the world has one novel in them.  Writing a second novel is the real challenge.”

I actually wrote a novel many, many years ago about a ninth-grader and the trials and tribulations that he must confront in his life.  The Empty Set was a young adult novel before there was such a genre with subject matter about suicide, before we talked about that subject.  Now it is somewhat dated, so I’m doing a massive rewrite in hopes I can make it more relevant for today.

I’m hopeful that it doesn’t take me another 40 years to rewrite and get this story published.

To read a review of Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball, click here.  The book is available at Burlington By The Book in Burlington, Iowa, and by mail order from Itasca Books. 



Des Moines County Historical Society seeks wedding photos

1920s flapper wedding dress
Rubye Ekstrom married Raymond Sutter on Sept. 24, 1924.

I just love this photo of my maternal grandmother, Rubye Ekstrom Sutter. She married my grandfather, Raymond Otto Sutter, on Sept. 24, 1924 at St. John the Baptist Church in Burlington, Iowa.

How cool that she wore a flapper-style hat and dress. She was 25 years old. I don’t have a lot of memories of her, as she died on her 60th birthday on May 13, 1964, when I was 5 years old. I do recall that when I visited her at her home at 1515 N. Eighth St., that we would walk down the alley to Heinie’s Grocery at Ninth and Oak streets where she’d buy candy for me.

I have this photo in a frame in my office, and I recently shared it with the Des Moines County Historical Society, for its upcoming “Desserts by Design.”

I’ve never attended the event, as I haven’t been in Burlington when it’s been held in the past. It’s an annual event (held April 19 in 2018) and sounds delicious! This year’s theme is “Wedding Customs: 1900 to 1950.” The planning committee is seeking photos from 1900 to 1950, including photos of the bride and groom, the wedding party or the general event.

wedding party 1952
Barbara Louden married R. Joseph (Joe) Sutter on Sept. 27, 1952. Harriet Jones and Pat Curley were attendants.

I also shared this photo of my parents from their wedding, which was Sept. 27, 1952 also at St. John’s. According to the  news clipping that I have, my mother wore a “white strapless ballerina gown of nylon tulle and imported Chantilly lace over satin, the bride carried an arrangement of white roses centered with a white orchid.  Her gown was styled with a basque bodice with a white lace Spencer jacket with long pointed sleeves and bouffant skirt bordered with Chantilly lace. A bonnet of white satin with lace ruffles and seed pearl held her fingertip veil of imported silk illusion in place.”

I just love how newspapers used to write these long stories about weddings, what the bridal party wore, who attended, etc.

The maid of honor was my mother’s good friend, Harriet Jones (who later became Harriet Shetler), and friend Pat Curley was the bridesmaid. Too bad this photo isn’t in color, as the newspaper stated: “They were dressed in companion gowns of Nile green and emerald green with short-sleeved Spencer jackets and matching tiaras. They carried bouquets of rust pompons with wheat and green velvet leaves.” I’m sure my mother picked that color scheme with the idea that the colors epitomized a fall wedding.

Do you have wedding photos from that era? If so, you can email them to gretchenw@dmchs.org or robins@dmchs.org. Or you can take them to the Heritage Center Museum, 501 N. Fourth, to be digitized on site. They need submissions by March 1 to be considered for the slide show that will play during the event.

Questions or for more information on the event, call 319-752-7449.