It?s ironic that two of Van Buren County?s most famous men, Phil Stong and Voltaire Twombly, now have two things in common:
The Stong family and Twombly both owned the same building in Keosauqua which was named to the National Registry of Historic Places. And now Stong and Twombly will be memorialized on Van Buren County?s Freedom Rock.
Artist Ray ?Bubba? Sorensen II was in Stockport last week to paint Iowa?s 71st Freedom Rock.
History of Freedom Rock
The Freedom Rock was established in 1999 near Sorensen?s hometown of Greenfield, when he painted a large 60 ton, 12-foot tall boulder as a way to thank veterans and to honor their service to the country.
He was inspired by the movie ?Saving Private Ryan,? as well as wanting to give veterans a unique recognition on Memorial Day. He repaints the original Freedom Rock every year before Memorial Day and this will be his 20th painting.
During the winter months, Sorensen can be found painting indoor murals, and during the summer, he goes across the state of Iowa painting a Freedom Rock, one in each county.
Sorensen was asked to paint the Van Buren County Freedom Rock which found its home near the American Legion Hall in Stockport, and after donations were raised, it is now a reality.
The local sponsoring organization in each county works with Sorensen to decide what to depict. He encourages them to choose unique people or events.
?My big thing is I want a story that?s tied to your county, at least one, and then I?m willing to let them decide the rest,? Sorensen said.
Those organizing the Van Buren County Freedom Rock thought that the Van Buren County Courthouse, Iowa?s oldest, should be included. They couldn?t decide on the others.
Who to include?
Sorensen said it?s hard for American Legions to depict a single veteran.
?They are pretty unselfish,? Sorensen said. ?They don?t want to pick out one veteran over another because they are all important. I fully believe that. But this is a different project. This isn?t your standard, all five branches of the military equally represented memorial. This is ?What interesting specific veteran story do you have?? What interesting specific stories do you have of any Iowans or ties to Iowans??
Sorensen said he researches every county?s story and that, ?I cherry pick a story here and there. Then I bank it.?
?Then a week before I am going to that rock, I start gathering all of the ideas, looking at what the rock is,? he said. ?I can do a lot of that mentally now whereas before I had to directly sketch it on the rock. Now I put the puzzle together of what I have in mind and sketch it out to let them see what?s in my head. They have the option to say we would rather not do this person or that story.
?Stories need to be told again. These are small town Iowa guys and gals.?
It was only natural to focus on Voltaire Twombly, one of Van Buren County?s most important persons in the 19th century.
?Front feature side is Voltaire Twombly. He is the only Iowan to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor during the Civil War. I included his portrait and the medal he would have received then. It looks different from the ones of today.?
The main focus is what Twombly received the Medal of Honor for.
?And what he received the medal for was three previous color bearers were shot, and he picked up the colors at the battle of Fort Donelson and carried through that battle and many other battles,? Sorenson said. ?He survived and came back here to Van Buren County. He opened up a shop in a building that still stands today and is used as a museum. He was the Iowa state treasurer.?
By focusing on Van Buren County?s contribution to the Civil War, it reminds people ?even though we are so far past it, we still have a political struggle yet today and it?s important to keep that in mind.?
It was counties like Van Buren that led to the north?s victory in 1865.
Van Buren County, according to historians, sent the highest number, per capita, of men to battle in the state and the state of Iowa sent the highest number, per capita, of any state in the Union.
And it was the battles that Voltaire Twombly?s unit fought that gave the United States such iconic figures as Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, the Fall of Atlanta and Sherman?s March to the Sea. Battles included Corinth, Shiloh, Fort Donnelson, and Atlanta. Sherman?s success at Atlanta, due in large part to regiments like the 2nd Iowa Infantry, were directly responsible for the re-election of Abraham Lincoln.
Role of Iowa in Civil War
?I love doing the Civil War stuff because of the importance of Iowa to the preservation of the Union,? Sorensen said. ?I?m reading a book about Iowans in the Civil War and it points to the fact that they leaned so heavily on Iowans.
?Being a soldier was very hard in the Civil War, because of the elements and the battles,? Sorensen said.
?Iowans were so used to that, because of the chores and the farm work back home. The other soldiers from far out east and the city boys weren?t as tough as the Iowa boys,? he added.
?Grant loved using the Iowa boys and Twombly here, he fought under Grant and Sherman and was involved in Sherman?s March to the Sea and a bunch of other battles like the battle of Corinth,? Sorensen said. ?It?s a testament to all of the Iowa men who served in the Civil War. I think the flag he carried is at the state historical building.?
?With these Freedom Rocks, not only did I want to salute veterans, but I also wanted to promote Iowa and the neat gems that we have that have been forgotten in our different counties and in our state,? he said. ?You see this and you kind of understand the story. You understand what these guys did in the Civil War, and then you can actually go see the flag that he carried in these battles. That?s awesome. I hope people appreciate that part of it,? he said.
?I am also doing the Van Buren County Courthouse, the oldest courthouse in the state. I love the old architecture here in southeast Iowa, it?s the oldest part of the state. You have a lot of Civil War era buildings that we don?t have in western Iowa,? he said.
The Van Buren Courthouse in Keosauqua is the oldest courthouse in Iowa which has remained in continuous use and the second oldest in the United States to hold that distinction. When finished in 1843, it was one of the largest buildings west of the Mississippi River. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
On the other side of the rock is Phil Stong, author of ?State Fair.?
?I did a little research and watched parts of all of the films,? Sorensen said. ?I like the song ?All I owe, Ioway? so I?m going to put that on the rock. I know it?s Rogers and Hammerstein making State Fair into the musical from one of Phil?s book, but I thought it ties all this together. Not only was Phil from here, but it was such a big book, they made it into a movie three or four times.?
Philip Duffield Stong attended his first Iowa State Fair in 1908 and got lost trying to find his parents? tent on the campgrounds.
He never got lost at the fair again, and 24 years later became famous for his novel ?State Fair.?
Stong was born at Pittsburg. His parents were Ada Evesta Duffield and Benton Stong, the operator of a general store.
?State Fair,? about a family?s adventures at the fair, was Stong?s 13th novel and the first to be published.
It was first made into a movie in 1933, and in 1945 became a movie musical with Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. In 1962, it was remade once more, but set in Texas. The 1945 version became a stage musical that toured the nation before opening on Broadway in 1996.
Phil?s niece, Norma Duffield Stong ?Duffy? Lyon was known for creating elaborate butter sculptures at the Iowa State Fair from 1960 until 2006.
Jo Stong, Phil?s younger brother, once owned the Twombly building in Keosauqua and donated it to the Van Buren Historical Society.
To complete the rock, Sorensen painted the American flag over the top.
?Some people say we have to put every single branch on and all eras. I say the flag represents all Americans ever, veteran, civilian. It?s all of us as a country.?
In addition to the 71 Iowa counties, Sorensen has done three in Missouri and one in Wisconsin.
?I?ll do one in Minnesota this summer and next year I have one in Washington State,? he added.
The original Freedom Rock near Greenfield used to be a graffiti rock; now it honors veterans.
After painting the Freedom Rock, he went to college, focused on graphic arts and became interested in painting and photography.
Now he does only the Freedom Rock and murals. His wife assists him by handling correspondence and other chores.
?Everything seemed to gravitate toward the Freedom Rock,? People would say, we want a Freedom Rock in our town and that?s how it started. I started that in 2013 and here we are.
?My wife handles the correspondence with the 98 counties that have a Freedom Rock or want to book one. Every other week I?m at a Freedom Rock except in May. This will be the last one until after I repaint the original Freedom Rock.?
He said he does about 10 to 15 county freedom rocks each year. Every county in Iowa has booked one, except for Henry County.