Many people ask us "how was Ion Exchange created?" Where did the name come from?" Read this long narrative and you will find your answers.
Ion Exchange, Inc. and The Natural Gait History
I was brought up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in East Tennessee. My parents were raised by dirt farmers and they had a collective knowledge of native plants, which I absorbed by osmosis. I was forever impassioned with the thrill of native plants and the land. East Tennessee offered me one of the richest ecosystems in the world with extreme microclimates and major climatic differences. Vegetation diversity is enormous. Ranging from 49 inches of rainfall in the foothills to 150 inches in the Smoky Mountains, which made for a plant taxonomist’s dreamland.
After graduating from The University of Tennessee in 1970, I moved to Iowa City, Iowa and met Donna, the girl of my dreams and we got married in 1976. I started to work for the Soil Conservation Service in 1970 as a Soil Scientist and later became a District Conservationist helping landowners control erosion on the land in Iowa. Donna was working for the Extension Service and eventually became personnel manager of a major quarry operation. Our jobs were good and fulfilling but not enough so. Back in 1980 Donna and I started to question our lives of getting up and going to work everyday and spending usually about 10 hours apart doing our separate jobs in Burlington Iowa. We decided that we wanted a life where we made our own decisions without someone else looking over our shoulder. We both had “good jobs” and most people thought we were nuts to think about quitting “good jobs”. During this period of time, we decided that we wanted to live in the country and own a piece of land that had trees, water, hills and valleys, faced all directions, some cropland and some grassland. Well we kept these characteristics of land on our refrigerator and everyday we would see them. We started to actively look for a piece of land and made contact with realtors with our specified criteria. Now it wasn’t that easy to find a piece of land like we wanted so time went by and we grew more anxious to quit our jobs and create our own lives.
In 1984, we were on vacation at Clayton, Iowa on the Mississippi River. We were staying in an old river town house owned by Donna’s cousin. One day we were eating lunch after doing some fishing and Donna suddenly says…”here it is”. She had found an old newspaper on top of the refrigerator. It had a real estate ad which stated…”For sale 160 acres on the Yellow River, 50,000 pine trees”. Of course, my negative side immediately came out and I pointed out that the newspaper was 6 months old and the land probably had been sold. So, that very night we decided to go over to Macgregor, Iowa and just walk around on Main Street. As we walked along, we came upon an intriguing looking bar called “The River Queen”. We went in and ordered up a couple of beers. We were in luck. It was happy hour and we got 2 for 1, which cost us a total of $2.00. That was fortunate because that was all the money that we had on us. After we left the bar, we continued walking down the street and we came upon a bank storefront and in the window was the ad...”For sale 160 acres on the Yellow River, 50,000 pine trees”. We both looked at each and agreed to check it out. After breakfast the next morning, we called the realtor’s number. He said that it was his dad’s farm and he would be glad to show it to us. It was a hot August day as we rode with the realtor, Chuck Brooks, down Old Mission Drive. To our right was a steep hill with a pine forest and the Yellow River flowing clearly at its base. To our left was a 22-acre cornfield standing 10 feet tall and a vertical rock bluff loomed in the background. It was a beautiful place but the price was too high so regretfully we went back to Burlington. About a month passed and we were called by Chuck, the realtor. He said that his dad had lowered the price and wanted to know if we wanted to take another look. We said yes and packed up our 1975 Fiat Spider convertible. We headed north for the five-hour drive to “Little Switzerland” in Allamakee County.
We met Chuck in Mc Gregor after driving through sunlit fog that gave a surreal aura to the landscape. We followed him in his old station wagon. This time we came in on the south side of the farm. Two deer stared at us as we drove slowly down the lane. We got out and immediately entered a forest and walked down the slope. We separated ourselves from Chuck and kept walking down a steep slope toward the Yellow River. On the way down, I found a Ginseng plant. As we came upon the river, we stopped at the edge of the water. It was such a magical moment and Donna said, “What do you think?” I said, “I think this is it!” We walked back up toward the pines and found Chuck waiting for us in the pine forest. We said that we had decided that this was the place and we wanted to buy. Chuck said, “Now I wouldn’t get too hasty here. You know there is nothing of value on this farm. The timber has been logged and there are only 35 acres of cropland. You will have to make something for yourselves because there is no value left as a farming unit. If I were you, I would think about it first.” Well it wasn’t as if we hadn’t thought about it for years but we agreed and went over to Effigy Mounds and walked around for a couple of hours. There was no question. This was the place for us!
We went back to the bank where Chuck had his office, as he was also Vice President of the bank. We told him that our minds were made up. Little did he know that we had very little money. As he pulled his 1920 Corona typewriter out from under his desk and right beside the fishing lures that he made, he asked, “How do you folks want to make payments?” He delayed the down payment and told Donna she could keep the books and just send reports in showing the payments and balance. We bought the property!
It was as if we were in a dream world and I think we remained in shock for a year. We immediately liquidated all our assets and came up with the down payment. But we had another problem. We lived 5 hours from our property. We both decided to quit our jobs and move. This was a scary thought to say the least! I going on 18 years working for the Soil Conservation Service and Donna was still employed. What to do? Well, I asked my agency if I could take a demotion and move to Northeast Iowa. They said, “no because I couldn’t work under anyone else”. I thought that strange since I started work with them working under someone else. After a year went by, I picked up the phone and called my state office. I told them that I was going to quit and move to Northeast Iowa. They then said, “Would you consider a demotion?” I said sure but I would want to quit in 1 to 2 years. Donna quit her job and we made the move but we had no house or buildings on the property so we purchased and old store that had been converted to a house and lived there for 2 years but we were still 10 miles away from our land. In May of 1988, I turned in my resignation after serving 20 years with the Soil Conservation Service. This was really getting scary now. Donna had no job and I had no job.
We dreamt of having a log cabin on our property and in July of 1988 it was erected out of old telegraph poles that were salvaged from the railroad right of way between Galena Wisconsin and Prairie duChien Wisconsin. We finally moved to our property, “the Little Switzerland of Iowa”.
Now, with no income, we had to come up with a way to survive. My passion for native plants directed our actions. We formed a business collecting native plant seeds from remnant prairies and wetlands. We would spend days and days driving and collecting, by hand these natives that once occupied over 90% of Iowa’s land but now composed only ½ of 1% of the original ecosystem. The moldboard plow converted one of nature’s most complex and diverse ecosystems into cropland. The Tall Grass Prairie all but disappeared from the landscape. Our purpose became clear. We would provide people with the opportunity to bring back this natural world of beauty by purchasing our seeds and plants, which came from the last vestiges of this beautiful world of the “Inland Sea of Grasses”.
We next had to come up with a name for our business. Having been a soil scientist, I was familiar with ion exchange within the soil matrix. There was an old town that had gotten flooded and washed away in 1916 right next to our land. It was called Ion and we knew we wanted to share our knowledge and seeds with the world. We decided to call our new venture … Ion Exchange. And so, after 24 years, we still love this place. It is so beautiful! We are grateful that we could carve out a living here on the land utilizing Mother Nature’s own creations.
Howard Bright aka "Earthyman"
President, Ion Exchange, Inc.