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Thelma and D.E. Pidcock’s love stretches through time
By Jason W. Selby
Feb 20, 2017, 13:29

Below a photo of D.E. Pidcock with a Corsair fighter plane during World War II are four native artifacts he and wife Thelma found throughout the years. The top two are axe heads, with a handle built by Dale Clark. Below left is a celt found by Thelma near the South Chariton River. To the right is a five pound, 4 ounce game ball. Photo by Jason Selby
WORLD WAR II VET AND LATE WIFE—AFTER FINDING EACH OTHER—DISCOVER NATIVE ARTIFACTS AND HYMN OF SAINTS

Local archeologist D.E. Pidcock, at 99-years-old, continues his love affair with the native land and the people that once established a thriving civilization in what is now the United States. A World War II veteran born in Ringgold County in 1917, Pidcock took his late wife Thelma on dates across southcentral Iowa and northern Missouri, which consisted of artifact hunting for indigenous campsites. They marked each arrowhead and axe for posterity so their love for the past would last beyond the burial mound.

As a postal worker, Pidcock once kept sweets in his vehicle to distribute to any child who ran out to get the mail.

“I know a number of mail carriers that made a habit of giving kids candy,” Pidcock said. “Good deal, but only one accident would ruin it all. I quit that. [A family] lived on the north side of the street, and the mailbox was across on the south side. I put the mail in the box, and stepped on the gas as usual, and I thought 'oh, what was that on the front of the radiator?’ Here a kid got up—I had hit him just enough I had knocked him down. I just saw the top of his head, or I would’ve drove right over him.

“And I thought giving these kids candy or gum induces them to come out and be around the vehicle. And if I don’t have my mind on exactly what I’m doing, I could run over them and never know.”

Pidcock graduated from Beaconsfield High School in 1935. By 2010, the town had a total population of 15 people. During the Great Depression, Pidcock attended barber school in Des Moines. He then cut hair under the Corydon State Bank. It was a fortunate move, as he met Thelma Bettis in Wayne County and married her three months later.

ONE CENTURY

On Oct. 15, Pidcock will be 100-years-old.

“I have said umpteen times I wish somebody had shot me 50 years ago,” Pidcock said, drawing a laugh from the crowd in his house. “Nobody did, and I can’t get anybody to do it now.”

Pidcock’s mind is sharp, as is his wit. The arrowheads in a shadowbox on his wall could still pierce a deer’s hide as well. His apprentice Dale Clark made the shadowbox for his mentor.

Pidcock can no longer see to read, but his daughter Doris Moore dictated the Jan. 31 Times-Republican article about Clark twice at Pidcock’s request.

“Don’t you remember me bringing the first spearhead in here?” Clark asked.

“I do, but it doesn’t seem like 30 years ago,” Pidcock said. “Other kids say, ‘I want to hunt Indian relics.’ They’d find one or two projectile points and put them in a cigar box and that’d be the end of it—didn’t mean a thing.

“If it is marked, I know exactly where I discovered it. And you can’t help but wonder how the Indians used that relic. If you don’t have it marked and recorded with the State, you will forget where you picked it up.

“That was one of the things I told Dale. If you’re going to get into it, you do it right. You mark everything so you know where it came from, and catalogue it and study it—if you want to study the people who handled it.”

“Even if I’m not alive anymore,” Clark said, “or you’re not alive anymore, the record of where that came from didn’t die with you.”

WATER AND PLANES UNDER THE BRIDGE

Pidcock has trouble hearing from his time helping the American military prepare for World War II by building a Naval base thousands of miles from any ocean.

What was once a field of mud north of Ottumwa became the "Carrier on the Prairie," as described in E.M. Cofer’s 1996 nonfiction book. It is now the site of the Ottumwa Regional Airport.

On Pidcock’s wall is a photograph of him with a F4U Corsair.

“I worked with airplanes,” Pidcock said. “We were not ready for war. We could not keep anybody from invading us if they wanted to. We were going to have to build up bases and teach people to fly and fight if we wanted to have any chance of winning the War.”

Karl LeCompte, former owner and publisher of the Times-Republican and later a U.S. Congressman whose tenure lasted through World War II, helped convince the Navy to build bases in the Midwest, where they could not be as easily invaded—it had already happened at Pearl Harbor.

“We ended up with 300 airplanes on two mats,” Pidcock said. “We were desperate for pilots.

“This was the spring of the year when we got started. The Des Moines River was frozen over during the whole winter. These students flying, most of them were typical kids—trying everything.

“There was a bridge upstream somewhere. One of the things these kids liked to do was fly under the bridge and above the ice.

“When it warmed up, the ice started melting and this one kid, he came around the bend and was going to go under the bridge. Too much water—not room for a plane to go under there. So he [tried] to go over, and he got over except tail wheels caught in a cable across the top of the bridge—flipped him over into the middle of the Des Moines River, which was over the banks, ice cakes floating down.

“Of course these were open cockpit planes. He had on a heavy flight suit and parachute. But he made it to the bank and got out.

“Well, it was along toward summertime when they fished the plane out and brought it back to base on a flatbed truck.”

After Ottumwa, Pidcock was sent to Chicago, then San Diego, before landing in Pearl Harbor. His wife stayed behind in San Diego and worked in an aircraft factory. They were married in April of 1940, before American involvement in World War II.

After the conflict ended, Pidcock landed in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day of 1945.

“Sixteen million people all wanting to go home,” Pidcock said. “I got home in three months.”

INLAND SEA

“I was always fascinated with Indian stories,” Pidcock said. “My dad had picked up a spear point. The head archeology office out of Iowa City had a few professional people associated with that type of work.”

The Iowa Archeological Society is located at the University of Iowa.

“Anytime the government was going to build a road or a lake or whatever and spend tax money, they were destroying these Indian village sites wholesale,” Pidcock said. “There were not near enough so-called officials to go out and look the area over and see what they could find.

“And so they set up different places, and one of them was Mount Ayr. Then the head office in Iowa City would send you literature. They had a fellow that knew about Indian relics. He knew where to hunt for projectile points.

“He said, ‘If you want to, let’s get together someday and I’ll show you how to pick a place where probably you could find something.’ I got to where I could look at an area and say it should be an Indian camp.”

Pidcock registered each find with the State office—over 150 native campsites in all, and one burial mound in Wayne County.

An example of his documentation is an axe head with the number 13DT59. When America had 48 states, alphabetically Iowa was number 13. DT is short for Decatur County—Wayne is WE. The number 59 denotes the campsite in order of its discovery. In this way archeologists map progress.

“Thelma and I worked together, and we hunted these things.”

Pidcock showed off a stone celt meant to be hit with another tool—most likely to split logs—which his wife helped him find on the south bank of the South Chariton River north of Promise City.

“It looked like it had to be a campsite,” Pidcock said. “So we parked a half mile away and walked through the mud to this campsite. The mud was ankle deep. Thelma got out there and she said, ‘Pid, I don’t feel real good. I’ll just stand here and watch you hunt.’

“So I went ahead looking for relics, and pretty soon she said, ‘hey, there’s something right here by my foot!’”

“Doesn’t that look just exactly like our wedges we’ve got today?” Clark pointed out, heaving the celt. “Isn’t that amazing?”

It required both of Clark’s hands to carry another of Pidcock’s spectacular finds, that of a stone ball used in sport. It feels like a shot put and weighs 5 pounds, 4 ounces.

“That’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen,” Clark said.

“The Indians were gamblers,” Pidcock said. “One of the players would roll the ball, and everyone along the side would jab their spear in the ground where they thought the ball was going to end. The one that was closest won whatever the bet was. Supposedly they bet everything, including their wives. But a lot of those stories may just be stories.”

Pidcock actually started out hunting for antique bottles. That was when he found a seedpod from a shallow ocean spread over the Midwest hundreds of millions of years ago. Where he once helped build the Carrier on the Prairie, there was once actually sea. The seedpod is now solid as one of the native’s game balls, and sits in a case at Prairie Trails Museum of Wayne County in Corydon.

SAINTS

As Pidcock and his wife got older and their health failed, they were no longer able to take the long trips in search of spear points and grinding stones.

“Mother Nature and Father Time took a toll,” Pidcock said. His wife could not make the hikes for native artifacts. “Without Thelma, I was kind of lost on hunting these things. It just wasn’t as interesting to go out by myself.”

Pidcock’s interests turned to a different path of history, the Mormon Trail.

“The big campsite for the Mormons as they were crossing southern Iowa was at Garden Grove,” Pidcock said. “Ahead of this, the Missouri military group, headed by the Missouri governor, drove the Mormons out of Missouri.”

At the time, Missouri was a State in the Union where it was legal to own slaves, making its persecution of this new religious sect scurrilous.

“Some of the older and sick people were not doing well traveling every day with an oxen-drawn cart,” Pidcock said. “They had stayed in Garden Grove for the winter. In the spring, the healthy ones moved on. But the older and not so healthy people stayed in Garden Grove.

“Here they were without much income. Hadn’t reached crop yet. They weren’t doing too well.

“But not everyone in Missouri was against the Mormons. The Mercer or Putnam County authorities needed a new jail built. Somehow the compact was made with these people that stayed in Garden Grove. The Mormons would build their new jail, and they would pay them $500 in cash, and the other part in bacon, grain and things of that nature.

“And so people from Garden Grove were traveling to Missouri to build a jail.”
1996 marked the 150th anniversary of the State of Iowa as well as the Pioneer Trail.

“The State’s historian was holding some meetings in southern Iowa,” Pidcock said. “They were also doing some work with the Mormon Trail. They didn’t know anything, but they would ask people and hope to get some feedback as to where it went.”

Pidcock decided to find the path of the Mormon Trail, and in his research he discovered there was more than one—both a northern road and a southern road through Wayne County. There was also a path worn by Mormons going back-and-forth from Garden Grove to Missouri to build the jail.

“I found different campsites,” Pidcock explained.

With the question of the trails put to rest, the next puzzle to be solved was where Mormon poet William Clayton composed the famous hymn, “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” Mormon historians knew it was written in Wayne County in 1846.

The hierarchy of the Church of Latter Day Saints sent a delegation in the late 1920s that was supposed to know where to look.

Much later, a more professional effort was launched to find the exact site of composition of “Come, Come Ye Saints.”

“The ones most interested knew this song was big as far as the Mormons were concerned,” Pidcock said. “So they sent a fellow, he was a professor of history out of Southern Illinois University. He studied it for a couple of years.

“He finally said, ‘I don’t know where the song was written. I do know it was written in southern Wayne County. So go ahead and put the display in the museum in Corydon.’”

Eventually Pidcock and the professor, Dr. Stanley Kimball, got together for a meeting of the minds.

“I thought I knew where it was written,” Pidcock said.

As a mail carrier, Pidcock had become familiar with every ditch and stream along his route. When he read the Mormons’ notes, he realized they had made a mistake. They had left out the middle fork of Locust Creek. That was why they could not find the exact site.

Pidcock first made the reverse Mormon Trail journey back to Nauvoo, Ill. to lend his expertise to the Mormon authorities. They were skeptical Pidcock could find the exact location. They gave him a list of telephone numbers in Salt Lake City. That led him right back to Kimball, who represented the Church in historic matters.

“Stanley was a good guy to work with, but he was also kind of bullheaded,” Pidcock said, chuckling. “But who am I to talk?”

Pidcock was certain Clayton wrote his hymn where Tharp Cemetery now sits three miles west of Seymour.

“[Kimball] said where the song was written, there was a beautiful timber to the east,” Pidcock said of that moment they both stood in the graveyard. “A beautiful timber to the south. And to the north, it looked like it was upgrade all the way. I said, take a look.

“‘It does fit, doesn’t it?’

“‘That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you for three years.’

That evening, Thelma fixed supper for her husband and the history professor, and they searched their documents and argued until 11 o’clock at night.

D.E. Pidcock at Tharp Cemetery west of Seymour, where in 1846 William Clayton wrote the Mormon hymn, “Come, Come Ye Saints.”
“Finally he said, ‘Pidcock, you’ve got to be right, let’s just shut our books and go to bed.’

“And so, Stanley Kimball the historian spent the night with us after we decided where the song was written.”

Eventually, the Church of Latter Day Saints was persuaded to send a marker, which now stands in Tharp Cemetery to honor the site of composition of Clayton’s hymn of encouragement to the Saints.

KEYES-ORR AWARD

In 1992, the Iowa Archeological Society awarded D.E. and Thelma Pidcock with its highest honor, the Keyes-Orr Award for Distinguished Service.

“He has gone so much further than I ever have,” Pidcock said of his student Clark. “I only struck the first match.”

Clark’s reproduction of native pottery is on display at Corydon State Bank this February. Over half a century before that, Pidcock’s barbershop sat in the bank’s basement on the northwest side of the square. It is where D.E. and Thelma’s love story began, which stretches both forward and backward in time.

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