Stony Burke did this interview after Sjaak’s completion of 48 states.
Interview with Donna and Merrill Sterler
By Roger Rowlett
Apex to Zenith #62 – Third Quarter 2003
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.
Interview with Jean and Wayne Wuebbels — Owners of the Illinois Highpoint
By Roger Rowlett
Apex to Zenith #62 – Third Quarter 2003
Jean and Wayne Wuebbels, the first highpoint private property owners to attend and host a Highpointers convention, put on a memorable show that drew standing ovations in Illinois.
Just a few days before the convention started, they announced severe access restrictions to the summit in their front yard to just the first weekends of summer months because of problems with non-club members coming at all hours and stealing things.
Jean (the “talkative half” while she says Wayne is the silent “brainy half” of the couple) delivered the news at the Galena Convention Center along with a recommendation to vote Republican. She got playful boos along with hearty laughter.
The Wuebbels are only the third family to own the highpoint since President Polk made it a land grant in 1848 (Elijah Charles for whom the mound is named never actually owned it).
The Chicago accountants weren’t looking for owning a highpoint when they planned to move to the country in trendy, un-glacier flattened Jo Daviess County in 1994. They just wanted a place with a view and room to snowmobile.
Illinois didn’t want to buy one of the few hills in the state (a place where late-melting snow drifts cause the flowers bloom a week later than nearby Scales Mound) and the Wuebbels got a good price, built a home and got commanding views of Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. They jumped on the novelty of owning a highpoint and did away with earlier severe access restrictions (and gate fee) until the accumulating problems prompted the latest restrictions. Neighboring residents much preferred the Wuebbels to proposals for a revolving restaurant on the summit.
I personally had a wonderful evening talking to both Jean and Wayne during the convention banquet. Wayne is not nearly as quiet or reserved as he conveys in public. Below are answers to questions that I put to them (which arrived after the August 15 tax extension deadline).
What’s your background?
Wayne was born and bred in McLeansboro, Illinois, and Jean, in Dayton, Ohio. We have one son (Scott), who is lives with his wife and baby daughter in Freeport, Illinois. As of July 1, 2003, we will have been married 25 years.
Why did you move to the Charles Mound area?
We looked all over this part of Illinois, and thought Jo Daviess county was the most beautiful part of the state. It also gets a lot of snow, and we love to snowmobile!
How why and when did you buy the highpoint?
We bought the property nine years ago. We were looking for a small farm with a lot of privacy and with a good view and some woods. The farm turned out to be quite a bit bigger than what we were actually looking for. We had absolutely no interest in owning the Illinois highpoint and, in all honesty, did not realize that anyone really cared. Ouch!
I understand the previous owner Gladys Steifel died last year. Did she give you any advice on the highpoint?
We visited Gladys often while she was in the nursing home for the few years before her death. We talked a lot about the property- she was so very interested in the natural beauty of it, but never got the idea that the “high point” status was important to her. However, we have since talked with her daughter, who said it was very important to Gladys that Charles Mound be given due recognition for being Illinois’ highpoint. Gladys had at one time worked to try to get the state to purchase the property, but they were not interested.
She wanted the property to be an Illinois landmark- and always to be kept as a nature reserve. The children of Gladys did not care so much about the highpoint. The property was their home. They all grew up in the old farm house at the base of the mound, and it holds the same sentimental values to them as any of our homes might to us.
Charles Mound was named after Elijah Charles (from Pennsylvania) who settled there in 1827. He built a home on the south base of the mound, be he never owned the property. This land was not yet open for sale by the government.
In 1848 Charles Mound was given as a land grant by President Polk to Mr. Richard Magoon. He wasn’t particularly interested in Illinois, and the property was purchased in 1868 by Mr. and Mrs. Glanville. Glady’s Steifel was a descendent of Seth. The Glanville family owned the land for nearly 150 years. We purchased the property from the Glanville estate in 1994.
Did you get many people who are interested in the geology the region (the “Driftless Region”) and lead mines.
Do you get many people who think it’s an Indian burial ground?
You did away with the restrictions and fees for accessing the highpoint right away plus added chairs and signs making it a sort of part. What did you originally envision the highpoint and visitors to be?
We didn’t. We just didn’t know there was such an animal as a “Highpointer.” you know, we are not really the minority. Stop the average person on the street, and ask him what a Highpointer is. He will say “a high what??” stop anyone in downtown Chicago and ask him what Charles Mound is? They will think it is a candy bar!
Who made the signs you originally placed on the summit?
We had a professional sign painter from Plattville, Wisconsin make our signs.
What do you do with the log books?
We keep the originals in a book in our family room for friends and family to browse through. The ones on the high point are copies.(we do this because poeple have destroyed and stolen the pages we keep on the mound)
What’s the name of your dog and cats?
Our dog’s name is “Dixon”. Our cats names are “Friendly”,”Jason”, “Joni”,and “O.J.”(not for Simpson but for the Juice!). however, we don’t see our cats much anymore since Dixon moved in.
Do you have weather that is different from the surrounding area (e.g., more snow or lightening)?
Our weather is not really different.but we do have much higher winds. It is really something watching a front come in from the Mound. And we have much drifting of snow. All our plants and flowers are always at least a week behind Scales Mound!
What prompted you to gradually begin reducing access so that currently it is accessible only during the first weekend of June, July, August and September?
We were having so many problems. People were roaming around all times of the day and night. We had lost our “peace and quite”, as well as our “privacy”. We worry about the safety of our grandchild. We want her to be able to run around and play without worrying who she might be bumping into! We might add, that it is our firm belief that it wasn’t members of your club that were the problem. The real problem was the “tourist” and the occasional highpointer. We had two men in our office the other day, really rather obnoxious, demanding to go up there. I said it was too bad they weren’t here for the Highpointers convention. they asked me what the heck a Highpointer was? What else can I say??
Do you have unannounced visitors in the night?
What do your neighbors think of your owning the highpoint?
I think our neighbors would have loved to have the state buy the property. But since Illinois didn’t want it, they are happy with us. There was a buyer interested in the property that wanted to build a revolving restaurant on top- and, boy, they didn’t want that. Most of them are happy with the improvements we have made to the property.
How many highpoints have you visited?
None, other than Charles Mound.
Have you traveled in the vicinity of other highpoints?
We don’t travel very much. we own our own business, and getting away is difficult. and, honestly, Jean is afraid of heights!
What was your opinion of the convention?
We thought the convention was fabulous!! We just couldn’t get over how organized everything was. we were treated like royalty by all of those attending. We just never expected anything like that. we thought the ceremony at the summit for Jack was very moving. and it was a thrill to have Paul Zumwalt there!
Did your neighbors say anything about it?
Most of the folks in Scales Mound mentioned how courteous and friendly all those crazy Highpointers were!
What was money raised at the Lions Club Breakfast used for?
I am not sure, but be assured it will go to a worthwhile cause!
There was a sign by a latrine saying “Better than the Bush.” Does that reflect your politics?
Absolutely not! We are die-hard republicans, with a picture of G.W. hanging in our office!
Was the latrine there before?
The picnic tables?
No, we brought those in –borrowed from neighbors and the Lions club. The neighbors helped lug them in and out.
What are the pet causes you mentioned at the Highpointers banquet?
Please don’t smoke.
Please neuter your pets
Donate generously to your local hospices
Who painted the signs for the convention and came up with the names?
I wish i could say that my 6-year old granddaughter painted the signs- but since she is only 6-month old, I doubt I can get away with it! I (Jean) made the signs. Believe it or not, they were the best I could do. As I said at the convention, I am an accountant, not an artist! Wayne thought of “steep, steeper, steepest.”. He started last summer clearing three trails of different grades. He spent so many hours in the woods clearing trails, i was afraid we wouldn’t have any trees left!
You mentioned you were considering selling the property to provide for retirement and your heirs. Would you consider selling it to the State or Nature Conservancy?
I think I was misunderstood. we are not actively selling our property. but if the right price was offered, we would probably let it go. our son never lived there, so has no real interest in it. Many people would love to see the state own it. personally, we think that is what should happen.but the state is doesn’t have any money!
Has the state contacted you?
How big is the property?
210 acres- with about 50 acres of woods.
Can I ask the asking price?
You can ask.
If you can’t get your asking price, what alternatives are you considering?
We hold on to the property until we get what we feel is a just price. We are in no hurry. We love living at the top, and never tire of the beautiful views we get from every window in our home.
Is there anything the Highpointers Club or its members can do to help you?
Just please ask members to adhere to the rules. we are offering 8 days, where we guarantee to be there…all we ask is that you plan your trips accordingly. We have never allowed visitors at night, and we have never allowed pets. Pets are a big problem for us. We can’t seem to get people to leave their dogs at home.