Interview with Donna and Merrill Sterler

By Roger Rowlett

Donna and Merrill Sterler have a unique perspective on being a highpoint owners.

Rather than buying the highpoint, they just woke up one day and read in the newspaper that the land on which Donna was born had taken the crown from Ocheyedan Mound  (1,613 feet)  as Iowa's highest at 1,670 feet.

Without missing a beat, the Sterlers were soon greeting visitors and meticulously keeping logs, having fun with notoriety (their pick up has "High Point" vanity plate) and above all showing Midwest friendliness, hospitality and grace to visitors from around the world.

Living on a highpoint with its howling winds and huge snows is just part of the adventure along with the quirky visits at various times and seasons of highpointers.  

I personally visited the Sterlers in 1973 shortly after the farm first appeared on the Rand McNally maps.  Merrill pointed the way as my dad and I walked by a grove of trees to through the feedlot to the highpoint (the only highpoint I visited with my father).  My mother had sat in the Sterler driveway.  We were officially in the area visiting my mother's haunts on her first teaching job nearby at what now seemed prophetically called Climbing Hill School.

Following the Illinois 2003 convention, I returned for the first time along with several other highpointers for the scattering of Jack Longacre's ashes organized by Wendy Hecht.  The Sterlers had opened their registration book to the 1993 visit when Jack Longacre visited.  The served soda.

Buildings have come and gone since 1973 but the Sterlers remained just as gracious.  They sat in a swing by the drive welcoming visitors.  It's a little harder getting around these days.  Merrill has to drive a cart the short distance from the house to the highpoint and Donna drives her car.

They invited me into their kitchen so I could interview them about their life 70+ years of living on Iowa's highpoint.

What's your background?
I was born on September 17, 1933,  and lived on the farm here.  My grandfather George Albers bought the farm in the 1920's or early 1930's.  I attended a one-room school just down the road.  In the sixth grade my parent Martin and Mattie Albers moved us to Sibley where I finished my school.  I played organ at the Trinity Reformed Church and met Merrill when he came to church.  Some friends went with us to a skating party.  We were married on March 10, 1952.  A week later Merrill went off to serve in Korea.  When he came back we moved to the farm in January 1954.  We have three children, Lori VandBrake of Orange City; Mark Sterler of Ocheyden and Kahy Eimers of Lamars.

I was born on February 8, 1930, in rural Ashton, Iowa about seven miles south of Sibley.  After we got married I served in Korea.  I've been on the board of directors of my church,  the local electric and Basin Electric and Dakota Gasification board which is based in Bismarck and serves an eight-state region.  

However, I've mostly been a farmer.

We farmed this until nine years ago raising cattle and hogs.  The water trough was where the highpoint is.   We now have somebody farming it and he raises corn and soybeans.  He does a good job and is flexible about the highpoint.  Some people think we should have torn down the silo and farmed the area but my daughter thought it makes a nice landmark and we've kept it.  We're very happy with our tenant because we have crops that we can be proud of.   The standpipe that provides water for neighboring communities was put up there and they built a repeater tower for the electric coops.

How did you find out you had the highest point in Iowa?
As I understand it, there was never a topographical map of Iowa.  They started making one in the 1970s.  They surveyed the adjacent roads and then came in with the survey crew and actually surveyed this location and this was determined to be the highest spot.  I was out there with them when they were surveying the land because we had cattle out there.  They also surveyed a cemetery about three-quarters of a mile south and it was a foot and a half shorter.  They said they thought it was going to be the highest point in the state but we never heard officially until we saw it in the paper.

Did you have any inkling it was going to be the highpoint?
Not really.  We realized the trains had a lot of problems up here going north.  The train engines would unhook several cars and go up a few miles and then come back and get the others.  So that was an indication that there was quite a grade here.  An engineer wrote an item that's at the Osceola Courthouse in 1958 in Sibley that he thought there were some places higher than Ocheyedan Mound but nobody did anything about it.

Have you climbed Ocheyedan Mound?
Sure.  We've driven by it.  Our son lives near there.  We  never walked up it though.

Have you climbed other state highpoints?
We would have liked to when we were younger and healthier.  We've been to Amidon and near Harney.  Our daughter went to Charles Mound a couple years ago and came back with pictures of chairs on top.

I like going to quaint towns and I have an interest in quilting.  So I've been to Galena.

How did you arrive at the name of "Hawkeye Point"?
We thought it needed a name and Iowa has been called the Hawkeye State for more than 100 years.  We didn't name it for the University of Iowa mascot.  We never really considered any other name although we did consider calling it "Hawkeye Hill" but it's not really a hill.

Has owning the highpoint changed your life?
I can't say that it has changed our life but we have had a lot of activity.  It's hard to believe there could be so much interest in our little green acre.  We have been enriched by all the people who have visited.

It was interesting to meet all sorts of people from all walks of life and from all the different states.  To think they would take the time to stop here is kind of encouraging in our older age.  We enjoy visiting with the people.  We take a lot of razzing here because people can't believe that somebody would enjoy doing this.

What plans do you have for the highpoint?
We would like to put a permanent granite marker up there.  There's not even a bench mark there now.  Some veteran groups would like us to put up a flag.  It would have to be a big Perkins style flag that floats.  We get so much wind that a smaller flag would be shredded to nothing in less than six weeks.

The state is planning on replacing the highway with a new four-lane.  They put up a sign on the highway and one just outside our front yard saying the highpoint is one eighth of a mile south.  Some folks follow the trees to the highpoint from the sign but most people pull into the driveway.

We want to ensure that there is continued access and will probably put that in the deed.  We would like for our son to come back and live here.

We investigated at one time putting one of those telescopes up there but we were told that you have to have a minimum number of people using it and we couldn't meet the minium.

How many visitors do you get?
We get about 300 a year.  The most popular time is in the summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  August is our busiest month.  However, lately we've been getting more visitors in the winter.  The snow can be really bad here.  We get some people from overseas.  We have had visitors from Great Britain, Germany, Uruguay, Japan and New Zealand. Somebody was here just a few days ago from Dublin, Ireland.  The register makes for interesting reading.  We have two volumes that we have kept since the 1980s.

We sometimes get motorcyclists going to the rally in Sturgis, South Dakota.  We've had bicyclists who came up here during RAGBRAI ([Des Moines] Register Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa).

There's a couple of  busloads that regularly visit.  There's a group of retired Iowa teachers and there's a group of sixth graders from Rock Valley about 40 miles southwest who come and visit us before going to Ocheyedan Mound and Lake Okoboji.  We also had a group of picnickers from the IDS Insurance Company.  The insurance company picnickers all signed waivers before visiting.

Are you concerned about liability?
We sometimes think about that but we don't want to make people sign waivers.  People sue each other over such frivolous matters these days.  I don't think any highpointers would do anything.  But we do worry about it.  We considered putting a step or two on the highpoint so people could get a higher view of the area.  If we're growing corn you can't see much in the summer from the highpoint.  However, that would have meant people would be climbing on something and so we decided against it.  We trust that all highpointers in the future will continue to be considerate.

How far can you see?
At night you can see the lights of a radio tower in Sioux Falls [South Dakota] which is 50 miles away.  During the day you can see the Ocheyedan Elevator about 11 miles away although you can't see the mound.

Is the weather different on the highpoint from the surrounding area?
I don't know if it's different.  We get lots of snow and wind and sometimes hail.  We've never had any problems with lightening even though we have thought about it.

We were going to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary last year on March 10th and there was a huge snow storm on the 9th.  Just as we were going out to get into our pick up.  There was a couple from California that arrived in a Lexis.  It was white out conditions and they thought it was really neat.

How cold does it get?
It gets pretty cold.  We got a call from somebody from Kansas City who wanted to come up and try out a new tent.  It was 18 below zero.  We told him to come up and he came up in a Subaru with no heat and camped out.  We invited him in for breakfast.  He was cold.

Have you had any problems with visitors?
Not a single problem.  Most of the people who visit are "in the business."  They know where the highpoint is from the guidebooks or the internet.  So when they stop, they come to the door and ask if it is o.k. to visit.  They don't need to be shown where to go.  Since they put the signs up, there have been a few more casual visitors.

With cell phones we've been getting a lot more phone calls.

Do you have email?
No.  Our son drops off articles now and then.

Any problem with thefts?
Never.  We have thought about it. I suppose of somebody took something from up there they probably would need it more than we did.  

What happened to the postcards?
The Bank in Sibley gave us the aerial picture and postcards.  We've run out of them now and a lot of the buildings are different.  We would like to do it again but haven't found the right picture.

Is there anything the Highpointers Club can do (like pay for the marker, etc.)?
If anything we should make a contribution to the Club.  We appreciate the magazine.  It's really our responsibility to provide the marker.

Merrill and Donna Sterler on the Iowa Highpoint.

Apex to Zenith 3rd Quarter 2003