116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Ann Cejka is living history at home and at work.
Cejka — pronounced CHAY-kuh — tends to her horses, cattle, chickens, cats, dogs, orchards and garden on her Springhill Farm near Bertram. At work, she’s the program coordinator at Ushers Ferry Historic Village in northeast Cedar Rapids. It’s a position she’s held since 1991, but she began volunteering there in high school.
The lines between home and work often blur for Cejka, who just turned 49 and can tell “well-rounded” stories about her family on her mother’s side back seven generations.
And the skills she teaches at the perennially popular kids’ Zombie Survival Camp at Ushers Ferry came in handy at home after the derecho whacked the region Aug. 10, 2020, and the electricity went out — for days and days, sometimes weeks.
“If there’s one thing I seriously learned about the derecho, is that we have lost a lot of really important old-fashioned skills that are just basic survival skills,” she said. “I think everybody got a real shock to their system going at least a week without power, right?”
She said she was “floored” to discover social media messages from mothers wondering how they were going to feed their kids when the fast-food restaurants were in the dark, too.
“I have to admit, I’m a little almost ashamed we were living like kings,” she said. “We had canned goods on the shelf. We had a fire pit out in the backyard, and we had all of grandma’s skillets. We were cooking on the open fire and using my Dutch ovens and all of those things.”
When it came time to do laundry, she invited her cousin and kids over from Marion, hauled out grandma’s wash boiler, found a washboard, filled the horse tank from the spring on her nearly 40-acre farm, and did laundry in the backyard. The kids wrung out the clothes and hung them on the line to dry.
“You don't really think about it until you have it or you don't have it,” she said. “And then, just basic food things — growing your own food, preserving your own food. I'm watching food prices climb here, and I'm going, ’I think I’m going to can more tomatoes this year.’ It's that old farm wisdom when you couldn't just buy it or it wouldn't show up.
“If you have some of these old skills, no matter what the worst thing is, you’re still going to be able to survive and actually do pretty well,” she said. “It's going to take you longer, but you can do it.”
Where: 5925 Seminole Valley Trail NE, Cedar Rapids
Events: More activities returning in June
Ushers Ferry Historic Village has survived some of the worst things Mother Nature has hurled its way.
This recreated turn-of-the-20th-century village has been recreated several times, after floods in 1993, 2008 and 2016, as well as last year’s derecho, where winds reached 140 mph and turned a barn at the village to “matchsticks,” she said.
It takes a village
Ushers Ferry never was a real town. It was created in 1973 in Seminole Valley, and each building was donated and moved to the site, to give today’s visitors a taste of small-town life between 1890 and 1910.
“It was the ’70s, and the bicentennial was coming up, and everybody was hot to build a pioneer village,” Cejka said. “So we were probably one of about 3,000 pioneer villages that cropped up across this country, especially in the Midwest.
“It's a very common way for small historical societies to save buildings, because the tiny little schoolhouse 8 miles from anywhere out in the country on its own is not going to make it as a museum,” she said.
Cejka noted that Cedar Rapids Parks Commissioner Stanislauv Reinis carved out 10 acres on the east end of the Seminole Valley Park property in 1973 to create the attraction, which opened two years later as Pioneer Village. It’s now operated by the Cedar Rapids Parks and Recreation Department.
According to the village website, it was renamed in 1986 in honor of the Usher family, among Linn County’s earliest settlers. Dyer Usher, who arrived in the area in 1836, operated a ferry across the Cedar River about a quarter-mile upstream, until the 1860s. Cousin Henry A. Usher, the first landholder on today’s village site, built a house near the ferry landing, and that house was moved to the village in 1983.
Building the village
Over the years, the buildings have been a mix of historic and recreated structures. The first to arrive in 1973 was Christ Fully Sanctified Church. Last owned by the late local civil rights pioneer Viola Gibson, her father preached there in the early 1900s.
Cejka believes it stood on land that is now Viola Gibson Park, across from Bender Pool in southeast Cedar Rapids.
“She was really, really adamant when the city was taking control of it, that they save her church,” Cejka said.
The original builder was the Rev. Thompson, a Free Methodist pioneer minister who preached in the streets to large crowds and passed the hat until he gathered enough money to build the church, Cejka said.
That’s part of the reason Cejka said she’s persevered through each natural disaster befalling the historic village, which sits in the Cedar River flood plain. The site didn’t flood from 1973 to 1993, but since then, flooding has become a more common occurrence, she said.
The 2008 flood “took out” 16 of the village’s 36 buildings, leaving 20. FEMA funds helped preserve the Usher house, the church and the Cherry Valley Schoolhouse. Grants and donations helped fund the other work needed to reopen the village.
Another four buildings were lost to flooding in 2016, and four more were lost to the derecho. And then the pandemic hit, closing the site in mid-March 2020. By fall, the village was holding restricted events in the new lodge and a couple of small classes.
More camps, tours and events are returning in June.
With each disaster, Cejka is waiting for the site to close.
“But in that waiting, you find yourself looking, going, ‘I can't just stop. I can't just not do anything — I have to do something.’ Sweep my own front door. Make it just a little bit better every day, whether it's picking up the mess, and then when the mess is picked up, it's, ‘Well, I can at least fix this.’
“So that was part of what kept us going — we just couldn’t sit there and look at the dreck and not do anything,” she said. “So every day we would do something to make it a little bit better wherever it made sense.”
Another motivator is preserving the life skills and artistry that she and others teach to youths and adults at the village.
The third aspect is the commitment she feels to the people who have donated the buildings.
“I still remember standing in the church in 2008 when it was gutted down to the studs,” she said. “And I’m just sitting there and I was in tears. I'm like, ’I don't know how we're ever going to save this building. This is just too much. I don't know what's going to happen.’
“And I remember just standing there and thinking that Reverend Thompson, who built that church, preached to 1,500 people in the streets every day for an entire year to raise money for it, and Viola Gibson raised all sorts of heck to save it when it looked like it was going to be torn down.
“And I’m like, ‘Well, if they could do that, then I can do this.’ I can at least try.”
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