In July, a screenshot of a Facebook post was put on my desk.
The post, written in the group “You know you’re from Bluffton/Burr Oak/Northern Winneshiek If?” was notifying the members that someone had come into possession of several North Winn high school band uniforms, and was inquiring about the history of them. The post reads:
Hello all, I have a very random question but are these [band uniforms] of interest or value to anyone in this group, or do you know who I should contact? I live in Australia but I picked them up from a second hand store in Germany, who had a bunch of uniforms from when Germany was occupied by U.S. troops for a while after the war. This is a marching band outfit and they all have little labels sewn in with a date in 1966.
While posts like these are not out of the norm for that group–it serves as a grassroots historical society for artifacts, pictures, and moments from that area’s past–what was out of the ordinary was that this person,
Anna Gordon, was inquiring from her computer in Australia.
North Winn band uniforms, discovered in Germany now residing in Australia. How did this happen? Why were the band uniforms in Germany? These are questions that many people want answered–at the time of writing, the post has 23 comments from the group and 80 shares to elsewhere on Facebook.
I also set out to answer these questions, so I contacted Gordon directly.
Things were slow moving, at first. As it turns out, living on opposite sides of the globe makes communication a slow and steady process. I would send a message at 1:00 p.m., then I would receive a reply at 5:00 a.m. the next day. However, throughout the following weeks, Gordon and I chatted semi-regularly, both motivated to figure out the story of these traveling band uniforms.
Let’s start at the end
Presently, the band uniforms are under the ownership of Gordon, however she has said that she is sending them back to Iowa as they are “more meaningful” to the people of North Winn than they are to her.
Why does she have them?
Gordon is a musician. Her website describes her as a freelance saxophonist, with her current projects being the bands Ogopogo, Firetail, Sludge Party and Chaos Magnet. She told me in an interview that she studied social work in school, but really found her passion through her study and performance of music. She got her big break when she was discovered busking, or street performing for money, and was asked to join a band.
Later in her career, Gordon was a part of a band called Mangelwurzel (pronounced Mang-uhl-wur-tsel), a post-punk outfit that toured up until April 2016. It was as a part of this band that Gordon donned the North Winn band uniform, altering it with a piece of tape to create an “M” out of the emblazoned “N.”
How did we get here?
We know where the uniforms are now—at Gordon’s place in Melbourne—but we aren’t quite sure how they got there. That story begins back in 1966, at North Winn high school.
According to commenter Barbara McLain-Henderson, the band to which those uniforms originally belonged began when students were still going to separate small schools in the district. When the new, consolidated North Winneshiek school opened in 1964, the students got to vote on the school mascot (the mustangs), the band uniforms and the school song. The uniforms were in use until sometime in the late 80s, with another Facebook poster adding “I think they got new uniforms a year or two after I graduated in ’83.”
Now that we know the beginning and the end, it makes the middle of this story that much more confusing. After being retired in the mid-80s, where did the band uniforms go? Local historian Phil Richert informed us that they were likely sold in a school rummage sale that was held in 2004.
The missing link
Where the uniforms went from that rummage sale is uncertain, but we know that they ended up in a secondhand store in Hamburg, Germany. While in that secondhand store, Gordon discovered them as she was frequently traveling between Hamburg and Australia. Gordon, fortunately, still knows the area well, and she remembered the exact location of the shop that sold her the uniforms.
However, when Gordon and I tried to get in touch with the business, we found it to be completely removed from the internet—as if it didn’t exist. It was completely blurred out on the map, and was unable to be found by searching. (Don’t believe me? Look up “24 Markstrasse, Hamburg, Germany” on Google Maps).
However, Gordon was persistent. She emailed me an update on July 27 saying that she had gotten in contact with the theater school above the old secondhand shop—which, as it turns out, is now closed, resulting in its removal from the internet. However, there are other secondhand stores on that street, and the owner of a different shop knows the man who owned the shop from which Gordon got the uniforms. Confusing, right?
So, what now?
Where that leaves us now is hunting down the old owner of the secondhand store. All that is known about him is that he owned the store, and he had a penchant for buying old band uniforms. Apart from that, the trail has run cold. Gordon informed me that she is sending some of the uniforms back home to northern Iowa. She is giving one to Phil Richert, to add to his museum, as well as another unnamed person in the area.
If you have any information on these band uniforms and how they ended up become the globe-trotting pieces that they are, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or Driftless Multimedia at email@example.com, and tell us what you know.
I have to say, it does bother me that the middle of this journey is seemingly lost to history. All I know for certain is that these band uniforms have lived a life of travel that most of us can only aspire to. From North Winneshiek, to Hamburg, to Melbourne and back to North Winneshiek, this story should make you wonder what other artifacts from our area are world-traveled.