By Kelly and Tammy Rundle
Villisca Review Publisher Carolyn Cole Gage passed away in September 2002. It's hard not to think of her and what she meant to her family, her friends, and the City of Villisca as the anniversary draws near. We formed a special bond with her over the ten years we knew her, and she was fond of saying, "mother's just looking out for you," after advising us on the best way to handle certain aspects of our documentary project,Villisca: Living with a Mystery.
Tammy and I met Carolyn during our first visit to Villisca in 1993. At the time, we were considering the 1912 Villisca axe murders as a topic for our first documentary feature film. We knew the story would make a fascinating project, but we wondered how people in town would feel about it. Would locals support a project that examined this sensitive and important episode in their history?
Historian Dr. Edgar Epperly had spoken about feeling a "low-level concern" for his personal safety when he visited Villisca in 1955 and began asking questions about the murders. With that thought planted firmly in our minds, we spent a restless night in the Circle J Motel.
During our meetings the next day at City Hall and at the Review office, we were relieved to find people cordial but reserved.
"You seem nice enough," we imagined they were thinking, "but you are from Los Angeles, and we'd prefer to reserve judgment until we've learned more about you and your intentions."
We began a correspondence with Carolyn after returning to the West Coast and spent a lot of time chatting with her on the telephone. Several months later we found that Villiscans were still cordial and guarded. We distilled our frustration into a letter to Carolyn letting her know that we intended to make the documentary, that it would be a historical treatment rather than an exploitive one, that we intended to examine the mystery as well as the effect the crime had on Villisca, and that we preferred to have the community's support. Either way, we were going to make the film.
Carolyn never responded directly to that letter, but not long afterward she encouraged the community to back our efforts through her editorial feature The Corner. She reminded readers of our Midwestern roots and the unsensational approach we intended to take. She became the first person in Villisca to publicly support our project.
Cliches are often true. We arrived in Villisca in 1994 on a "dark and stormy night" only to discover that the house we rented over the telephone at 100 East 6th Street was an architectural twin of the Moore murder house. For us, a good first night's sleep in Villisca was hard to come by.
On Wednesday, July 6th, we began setting up for an interview above the newspaper office, in Carolyn and husband Kenny's apartment. Our efforts to "dress the set" by moving large and small objects in and out of the camera's view amused her.
"Just tell me one thing," she said smiling easily. "Why did you move that peacock feather?"
"It adds color to the frame." Our reply generated a classic and hearty Carolyn cackle.
Bedecked in a brilliant blue-green dress, legs crossed, hands folded comfortably in her lap, she was finally seated before the camera. As we adjusted sound levels and checked our focus and framing one more time she watched quietly, and self-consciously fiddled with one of her earrings.
Carolyn's interview was taking place at a time when terrorism was something that happened in troubled countries overseas. At the moment, America was riveted to the Simpson murder preliminary hearings and some aspects of the brutal crime seemed to echo Villisca's past.
Kelly Rundle: I'm going to ask your name, occupation, and where you're from.
Tammy Rundle: Carolyn Cole Gage, take number one.
Carolyn Cole Gage: Carolyn Cole Gage, I'm a publisher, and I live at Villisca, Iowa.
KR: Now, you're not from here originally?
CG: No I'm not. I'm an import.
KR: How did you come to be here in Villisca and buy the paper?
CG: I'd inherited some money and the paper was for sale, and I was just like everybody else, "I can run the paper better than they can." I had an understanding banker, who had a sense of humor, because he never asked if I'd had any experience. I had none, absolutely none. I'd been in the office twice. But I had good mentors and they helped.
KR: How would you characterize the town of Villisca?
CG: I think it's terrific. I think it's a community of highly opinionated individuals. The way I characterize it is, you could never have a public lynching because we could never agree on whom to lynch. We've been very open to outsiders and I think this makes us unique. Because we are not defined by any particular ethnic group or any particular settlement or religion. It's just people who happened to land here.
KR: What has your involvement been in the planning of Heritage Days?
CG: Susie Enarson and I started it in '87. She was mayor at the time, and we were both concerned. It was the 75th anniversary of the Villisca axe murders and there were some rumblings of some unfortunate things that they were going to do, some sensational kind of activities. We were kind up melding it together so we could "recognize" this and observe it, but not promote it. And then we tied it in with other activities too.
KR: Was that first festival in any way a reaction or response to the Bowman book?
CG: It was not a "festival." Please, that's one thing we're very--it was an "observance." Yes, I suppose in a sense, but not particularly. Because I think Stephen Bowman's book is a lot like "Ragtime" [the novel by E. L. Doctorow]. You know, it's a docudrama. The biggest danger in all this is that people do not distinguish between fiction and truth. And they tend to assume that anything that's written about something that really happened is all truth.
KR: Has there been any negative reaction to the incorporation of commemorative events related to the axe murders in Heritage Days?
CG: Such as what, how do you mean that?
KR: I mean, does everyone in town think it's a good idea to incorporate that?
CG: No. Those first, those first few months [of planning the first Heritage Days] were pretty rugged. I got some unsigned letters to the editor. We made the "Star." There was a lot of negative [reaction] and some people feel badly. But, you can't change history. And the minute you alter it, then I think that's a disservice and I think that's almost a sin. It borders on sin when you try to clean up something that happened. And this is not this community's fault. And I think it's to the community's credit that they never found someone and tried to lynch them. This is the biggest thing people don't realize. If you find someone, and dispatch them, whether it's by legal or illegal means, then you get on with life. And this has always been an open-ended thing. So I give a lot a credit to the community at that particular time. Everybody got through it and the community started up again.
KR: Do you think there are any lingering effects in Villisca from 1912 and what are they?
CG: Oh yeah. Well, I think people think of it that way, it's like the Texas Book Depository. You'll always remember Dallas [President Kennedy's assassination]. And I think Dallas had this collective sense of guilt, even more probably than we did. But yes, I think it does. And I don't know if people feel as if they shouldn't live here because of that. I mean, that's a little peculiar. But I think this obscenity of this O. J. Simpson [murder] trial is the same thing. People are just hanging around on it, you know. There's always going to be that element. Am I talking too fast?
KR: No, you're doing fine.
CG: I can do a half-hour lecture in ten minutes!
Carolyn's interview for the documentary Villisca: Living with a Mystery will continue in Part Two with her comments on remembering and commemorating the tragedy, commercializing the axe murders, local folklore, her appreciation for small town life, and a special message for two California "outsiders."
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