MEET KEVIN MASON

Professor Kevin Mason

INTERVIEW BY DOUG KOEMPEL | DECEMBER 13, 2022

This past spring, I had created a website titled Recreational Trails In and Around West Union, Iowa. On that site I’d posted 18 YouTube videos of bike rides I’d taken this past spring and summer featuring trails and parks near my hometown of West Union, Iowa.

Two of the videos I’d posted included tours of West Union’s Echo Valley State Park, so recently my interest was immediately piqued by a YouTube video titled Echo Valley State Park – Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 28 by a Kevin Mason.

Being familiar with the challenges involved in recording and editing “nature videos,” I noted the impressive production values (including drone footage) and documentation of Mason’s video and had to find out more.

A little sleuthing led me to Kevin Mason’s website, Notes on Iowa, which consists of three areas: Iowa History Daily, Walk Across Iowa and State Park Series. This latter section features a series of videos showcasing state parks, preserves and public lands in Iowa.

As I continued perusing his site and videos, the question that kept coming to mind was, “Just who is this guy? Who has the ambition and energy to produce such an extensive body of work involving Iowa history??!!”

The second thought that popped into my head was, “I’ve got to share his videos and website with my newsletter subscribers!”

I emailed Kevin—or should I say Professor Kevin Mason, PhD (with a string of degrees that reach from Des Moines to Spirit Lake—but more on that later!) And he graciously agreed to do an interview for the newsletter.

So without further adieu, meet Kevin Mason . . .

Doug: Please tell me a little about your background.

Kevin: I was born in Forest City, Iowa and spent some of my childhood in Mason City, Iowa before spending grades 2-12 in Pella, Iowa.

I always found history interesting, and both Mason City and Pella helped nurture those interests in their own ways. In high school I played sports, participated in choir and took a wide variety of classes including graphic design, foods, design, languages and others to fill the time. I spent a lot of time focused on a band I started with a few friends, writing songs and playing shows in Iowa and Missouri.

I attended North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City, Iowa before heading to the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. There I earned a Bachelor of Science in Social & Behavioral Sciences degree—focused in history, geography, and political science.

I got a Master of Arts degree in history at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas before earning a second master’s degree in organizational leadership human resource development from Waldorf University (when I first started working there in the admissions office.)

Given the chance to adjunct as a history instructor for one course, I made the most of the opportunity. When offered the chance to move to full-time teaching on the condition I obtain a PhD, I enrolled at Iowa State in Ames and spent each day teaching in the morning before making the 200-mile round trip for afternoon and evening classes. I earned my PhD in rural & environmental history in 2020.

My research focused on life for the Dakota in Iowa, environmental change and the March 1857 events taking place at Spirit Lake (click). I was promoted to assistant professor in 2020, and associate professor with tenure in 2022.

I live in Mason City with my wife Marissa and our Scottish Terrier, Arthur Conan Doyle T. Dog.

(Although we typically call our dog Arthur or Artie. My uncle is the archivist in charge of the world’s largest Sherlock Holmes collection at the University of Minnesota; and thanks to him, I’ve always really loved the works of Scottish author Arthur Conan Doyle.)

Kevin and Marissa’s dog, Arthur Conan Doyle T. Dog (“Artie” for short)

Doug: What triggered your passion for history.

Kevin: When I went to college I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I studied biochemistry at first. Although capable, I hated the work. However, I took an American Indian History course during my sophomore year which really helped me understand how much I enjoyed learning about the past and sharing my understanding with others.

My parents always really encouraged reading and writing, and I think that paired with a naturally curious nature to provide me with an interest in who we’ve been, who we are and what that can tell us about who we might be.

Doug: When and why did you develop your Notes on Iowa website.

Kevin: Notes on Iowa started over a beer in a garage on the north side of Des Moines during the Iowa State Fair. A friend recommended I check out Albert Lea’s little book Notes on the Wisconsin Territory, particularly with reference to the Iowa District or Black Hawk Purchase.

Reading the observations of the 1st United States Dragoons as they headed across Iowa in 1835 made me start considering how much Iowa changed in the American era. From 1835 to the present, Iowa changed more than perhaps anywhere else on Earth as the onset of agriculture reshaped 98% of Iowa’s lands. At the time, my scholarly work at Iowa State demanded my attention; so I tucked the idea away.

The United States Army’s Dragoons served as a forerunner to eventual cavalry units. Dating back to 17th century Italy, Dragoons as a type of evolutionary infantry soldier who would sometimes find themselves mounted on horseback to move more quickly during battle.

Dragoons enter American history early: in early 1777 George Washington raised four regiments of Dragoons. The regiments disbanded following prominent roles in many of the most prominent battles of the American Revolution. By the War of 1812, a regiment of light Dragoons joined the United States military structure, and a second regiment came into brief existence during the conflict before consolidating into the Corps of Artillery in June of 1815.

Congress voted to form the 1st United States Dragoons on March 2, 1833, eventually sending them to what would become Iowa to keep peace on the frontier between Indigenous peoples and Americans entering the area, as well as to explore on expeditions like the one that took place in 1835.

Fast forward to 2020. With my PhD work at Iowa State done, I started to consider what to focus on next; and I circled back to Lea’s book (Notes on the Wisconsin Territory.) If my wife told the story, she would say I started joking about walking along the route of the Dragoons sometime in the fall— but by spring 2021 I was no longer joking.

Although I excelled at academic work, I wanted to start working to engage a broader audience. I thought I would work on creating things which might prove more accessible than an academic paper or monograph, and I knew I would need to develop new skills to do so. So, I started making plans to chase the Dragoons across Iowa. I needed a name for the website and other digital platforms, so I decided an ode to Albert Lea’s “Notes” made sense.

Doug: What is Talk of Iowa? And how have you been involved?

Kevin: Talk of Iowa with Charity Nebbe airs weekdays at 10:00 a.m. on Iowa Public Radio. Someone at the show caught wind of my proposed walk when I mentioned it at the tail end of Q&A during early 2021 following a talk for the State Historical Society of Iowa.

The producer called to ask if I would be interested in doing a segment to discuss my plans which actually kind of kicked everything into high gear. To prepare for the show, I needed to get the website live and the various social media accounts set up, as well as have a clear idea of the actual plan. So I figured it out.

After the initial appearance, the show checked back in with me a couple of times during and after the walk for segments, and did what they call a ‘digital buildout’ story after I finished.

Doug: Much information is included in the Walk Across Iowa section on your website; but for those subscribers of mine who want to “cut to the chase,” please give my readers a Cliff’s Notes account of what your 371-mile trek was all about and what motivated it.

Kevin: Since the marches of the 1st United States Dragoons in 1835, Iowa changed more than perhaps anywhere else on planet Earth. As eager pioneers plowed the prairies, 98% of Iowa’s land surface changed. In 2021 I set out on foot to retrace the march of the Dragoons. By walking 371 miles from First Fort Des Moines at Montrose on the Mississippi River, up the Des Moines River and over to Spirit Lake, I hoped to better understand the past of the place I call home.

I decided to make a series of short videos and photo-essays detailing the journey as the summer unfolded, but I didn’t even have a camera. So, I started to research what I might need to capture the journey. Aside from a camera set-up, I also got interested in bringing along a drone, which proved a larger learning experience than I initially bargained for.

Over the summer I learned a lot about Iowa and got better at many things, so I decided to continue to develop the project in new ways to keep building my knowledge of Iowa and my skills related to communicating what I learn to other people.

Doug: When you refer to “the project,” what exactly is the project?

Kevin: Thus, ‘the project.’ From the earliest interviews or even the first video I’ve struggled to explain exactly what I’m trying to do with ‘Notes on Iowa’. As a historian people expect me to write, which I do enjoy doing. However, I started ‘Notes on Iowa’ to break out of the traditional academic world of writing technical articles very few people read. When I chose ‘Notes on Iowa’ as a name, I intentionally left myself enough room to expand beyond the Dragoons and 1835.

From there, I’ve kind of let the project become what it will. When trying to think of how I could celebrate Iowa History Month in March, I decided I would put out an On-This-Day in Iowa History post each day. Within a few days I realized the ritual of starting my day researching and writing four paragraphs about an Iowa history topic helped build my personal knowledge while allowing me to connect with an incredibly wide audience.

When March ended, I decided I would just keep on going. As we approach the year mark of Iowa History Daily, I’m unsure where it will go, but I’m glad for the things I’ve learned about and from Iowans.

The State Park Series grew out of another interesting statistic: Iowa stands 49th in the country in federal, state and local public lands. Compared to the other states in the Union, all but one have more total acreage of lands held by the public, either at the federal, state, or local level. Parklands and preserves are the most commonly-known public lands, but surface water, roads/ditches, and some other types also go into the calculation. Along the walk I encountered beautiful pieces of public land in places like Lacey-Keosauqua State Park of the Boneyard Hollow at Dolliver Memorial, and I started to look into how many parks we have. I couldn’t find a good number and decided I would just start filming places currently or formerly in the state park system.

As you likely know from Echo Valley and Brush Creek Canyon, many former parks now either stand as preserves or county-maintained lands, but I find those stories as fascinating and important to the overall narrative of Iowa’s public lands.

Doug: How many state parks have you filmed?

Kevin: Over the course of 2022, I filmed 62 of Iowa state parks, preserves or forests. I inadvertently visited 91 of the 99 counties along the way and really pushed my skills regarding the drone and still-camera filming. Starting near the end of last May, I made a video each week with a Sunday release date.

Echo Valley represented the 29th consecutive week ‘Notes on Iowa’ released a video on a different park or preserve. Going into the summer, I wanted to shoot 52; so I could run all winter, but like many things in life, I just kept going once I shot past the goal.

I currently have enough parks filmed to run the series through July 2023 and plan to film more next summer. In the editing process, I feel like I learn a lot about filming and flying; and it has been fun to feel the improvements in each skill working together to improve the videos. I’ve got plans to film around 40 next summer, and I look forward to applying the things I’ve learned in editing this winter to how I film next summer.

Doug: Tell me more about the upcoming PBS feature on “the project.”

Kevin: Charity Nebbe from Talk of Iowa has a new show on Iowa PBS called ‘Greetings from Iowa.’ They started out working on a segment about the walk part of ‘Notes on Iowa,’ but after our initial interview they pivoted to profiling the project as a whole. I was grateful for the opportunity to drag some of their actual professionals out to a state park and pick their brains about how I shot stuff, and felt like I learned a lot from them. I am unsure on the release date other than Spring 2023.

Doug: For those interested in Iowa history, where would you suggest one begins exploring your extensive website?

Kevin: Aside from my need to redesign the website given where the project has gone (I haven’t really changed it since before starting Iowa History Daily or the State Park Series, and it functioned better when it was just focused on the walk), I would recommend starting under ‘About’ where there is a slightly-outdated ‘Notes on Iowa 101’ as well as several of the outside media pieces related to the project.

Otherwise, I would suggest diving into whatever you might be interested in. If you think the walk sounds interesting and want to watch videos about it or read about it, click ‘Walk Across Iowa’ and select your medium of choice. If state parks are more your thing, you can find all the episodes (including Echo Valley, Brush Creek Canyon, and Volga River) under ‘State Park Series.’

Doug: In closing, talk a little about your upcoming book. Do you have a working title?

Kevin: I’m currently in the third draft of a book tentatively titled “Across Iowa: An Environmental Journey in Time, 1835-2021.” I naturally want to rush it, but writing a general-audience friendly environmental history of Iowa takes a lot of time. I plan to finish the current draft with my students in my Methods of History course (they write 20 pages about whatever they want related to any historical topic, and I work on whatever project I have going as an example…and to show them everyone struggles through the process). With a draft in hand by summer 2023, I hope to finalize publication details.