BY MEG WHITE
Stacy Webster and Annie Savage, with their children Milo and Iris, have brought new life to the historic McCollister Farmstead in Iowa City.
Stacy and Annie Savage-Webster, along with their two children, Milo and Iris, live in the McCollister Farmstead, the first farm in Johnson County. A significant Iowa City and Johnson County landmark, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Located in what is known as “old Iowa City” across from Napoleon Park, their home served as the first county seat. The acreage was formerly part of a Mesquakie Indian village believed to have had a population of around 1,000. In 1863, the property was purchased by Maryland native James McCollister, who built the house in 1864 and expanded it in 1880. At its zenith, the farmstead encompassed 750 acres.
The Savage-Websters now own the house along with four acres. While they undertake the long and arduous task of renovating the house, their dream of founding a school for folk music on the property is already happening. The FARM School—Folk Art Revival Music School—will host house concerts, a couple of yearly festivals, and, of course, offer lessons and master level classes.
As two of Iowa City’s most talented and popular musicians, Annie and Stacy are well suited to this task. Both are members of the Mayflies (formerly the Letterpress Opry), a band that plays a mixture of bluegrass, blues, and psychedelic rock, and whose energetic, spontaneous, and playful stage presence can at times belie the seriousness and proficiency of its members’ training and talent. Stacy grew up playing guitar with a musical father, and Annie studied harp and violin at the Preucil School, Interlochen School of the Arts, Oberlin College, and Boston Conservatory. Annie also plays with the all-female band The Awful Purdies and is the Director of Orchestras at McKinley Middle School in Cedar Rapids. Stacy is also a private guitar instructor and manager at New Pioneer Coop.
Meg White: How did you first become interested in buying the McCollister place?
Stacy: It’s a place in Iowa City we both had driven by and noticed for many years. When we saw a “For Sale” sign with the name of a realtor who was a friend of ours, we thought it would be a good chance to just see the place close up…and maybe the inside of it. Of course, once we got up there, the wheels started turning: “Hey! This would be the perfect place for our music school!” The land the house sits on is compelling. . . the views are beautiful, and the rich history of the place gives a person a lot to think about when you are sitting on the porch sipping tea!
So you already had plans for a folk school when you first looked at it?
Annie: The school was something we had talked about before. We both teach private lessons, had done some projects teaching group lessons together, and have led jams with beginning players. A school/performance venue such as Swallow Hill in Denver or Old Town School for Folk Music in Chicago were huge inspirations for us.
Have you hosted any concerts there yet?
Annie: Yes, and we have hosted some rather large private parties that have focused on presenting music on stage. Last spring, we even sponsored a master class with the most prominent fiddler in America, Mark O’Conner! We are already teaching private string lessons and offer violin, harp, and banjo lessons. FYI, we are currently taking students for our summer session!
In 1849, 14 people were indicted for trying to hang a man on this property. I believe this makes it the site of the largest murder indictment in Johnson County. What’s the story?
Stacy: Well, Philip Clark, the man who settled the property in 1837—which gave it the designation of the first farm in Johnson County—left for the California gold rush in the 1840s and was gone for about 8 years. When he returned he found his wife had laid claim to the property and was attempting to sell it with her brother’s assistance. Can’t blame her . . . Clark evidently was gone for 8 years without much word home. I understand this was common during the gold rush.
Anyhow, he moved back up to his place in an effort to reclaim his property, per advice from his lawyers. Philip’s wife and brother-in-law hired a thug named Wilkinson to run Clark off the property. It culminated with Wilkinson setting Clark’s barn on fire, killing his horses, and attacking and beating Clark. So Clark goes to his buddies in Iowa City for help in the matter. Clark was a prominent citizen, and had a lot of backers, so a mob formed to get Wilkinson. They found him on Clark’s property, tied him up, threw him in the back of a hayrack, and headed down to the river (where Napoleon Park currently is) to hang him from a tree. In an attempt to escape, Wilkinson jumped from the hayrack and fell into the Iowa River, where he drowned due to being tied up.
That’s quite a story. Ever get any sense that the place might be haunted?
Stacy: I think that the old house has needed some music, sun, and laughter for a long time. I think that the house respects us because we know that long after we’re gone the drama continues without us. I have a healthy respect for the past, and I think part of living in an old house is about knowing one’s place in time and knowing that life is beautiful and in some ways very short. Not that I don’t turn on the lights before I go downstairs at 3 a.m.!
Can you tell me about the renovations you are doing to the place?
Stacy: Pretty much everything that can be done to a house! When we bought it, it was in terrible shape. The roof was in such disrepair that raccoons and owls were living in the attic. Many of the eaves were rotted and had to be replaced. That was the first major project . . . replace the entire roof, and much of the fancy wood trim around the roof. We are currently working on the interior—we get one major project and several smaller ones done each year. I have a feeling we’ll be doing this for years.
I know you two do not farm there. Is this something you could see yourselves doing anytime in the future?
Stacy: Maybe a garden, but we aren’t farmers. We are musicians . . . the two vocations keep drastically different hours! We have discussed hosting a community garden someday.
Annie: I think the name FARM really suits our philosophy: “We grow it here.” Meaning, you don’t have to live on the coast to create culture. In fact, everywhere you go in the world people are looking somewhere else for their inspiration, which I believe is kind of anti-art in some ways. I think we all have a personal and spiritual dialogue within ourselves that is more than enough material for a life of great art making.
The Mayflies have been playing out a lot. Can you tell me a little about how this is going and your plans and hopes for the group’s future?
Stacy: It has been going very well in the past year. We just released a new album, and we are seeing bigger and bigger crowds, in better and better venues. We actually have to turn down a fair number of requests for gigging opportunities, and we have still been averaging 10 to 12 shows a month since March. We’re working hard and having a blast. As far as our hopes for the future, we just want to continue becoming better players, and play more cool venues in interesting places. Our fans have really made this band an incredibly fun project to play in.
Annie, why the Awful Purdies? Did you feel you just had to have one more thing to do?
Annie: I did, actually! The one thing I realized I was missing out on was a social life with other strong women. Amy Finders and I sat down one day and realized that all of our most precious artistic endeavors were tainted by money and a desire to be a successful business. We wanted to form a project that was about the art itself to balance out these other issues. The Awful Purdies is actually a secret coven motivating for social change and a better world for all of us freaky female types.
But, really, we spend an awful lot of our time talking about being women, being artists, and balancing all of this with responsible parenthood and friendship. Oh, and we also play music. We hope to create a niche for ourselves as women who play music and play benefits especially for other organizations that cater to women and their partners and families.
Any signs of musical talent yet with Milo and Iris?
Stacy: Yes, definitely. They both have a great sense of rhythm—perhaps due to the fact that Annie was on stage with the band into her eighth month of pregnancy with both kids. Iris [three years old] is a fantastically creative dancer, and Milo likes to hum melodies from classical composers and film scores—and he does it accurately.
Who were your musical influences growing up? Did either of you consider other vocations?
Stacy: My Dad was a big influence for me, as he sings and strums for relaxation, and always had his buddies over on the weekends to pick and drink beer. So I grew up playing along on all these old, old country tunes with them.
Annie: I grew up playing music professionally with a 65-year-old man from Mount Pleasant named “Doc” Nau. He took me under his wing and, in true old-time fashion, taught me everything he had been taught by ear. We probably played every nursing home and VFW in Iowa. I also studied with Iowa City guru fiddler Al Murphy as I was growing up. And then every summer, it was down to Missouri to really get in touch with the old timers down there.
As a harpist, I began studying at MIU in Fairfield with a Los Angeles transplant named Signe Wilson. As a 15-year-old Mount Pleasant native, I found her place magical. I think I was more inspired by the crazy tapestries and pillows, the smell of homemade curry, and her hair that had grown well past her knees than the actual harping.I think I knew I was “home.” And then I went on to study at some top-flight music schools with other students and teachers whose abilities I am still trying to make sense of!
As a listener, I have been influenced by so many musicians: Gustav Mahler, Charles Mingus, Patsy Cline, I’m not afraid to say Janis Joplin, minimalist Steve Reich—both Stacy and I have a fondness for a strange mix of avant-garde along with a love and respect for country music. My current favorites are Casey Dreissen, a ridiculous Nashville session fiddler player who just released the very strange 3D; Devotchka and Sufjan Stevens; Alice Coltrane, John’s harp playing wife; and Joanna Newsom, an amazing avant-garde harpist and singer.
Lastly, it’s 15 years from now—give a clear and precise picture of the FARM school, the Mayflies, and your lives?
Stacy: I see the FARM School hosting small acoustic concerts once a month, a festival once a year, and having lessons and master classes all year. Perhaps a musical summer camp once a year, where people sign up for a few of weeks of intensive study while staying in an on-site dorm.
I see The Mayflies continuing to play, whether it’s in a venue or on a porch.
I see us having raised our two children in a positive creative environment, where they learned the value of personal relationships and creative power over that of material wealth. I see us with our graying hair spending summers picking at bluegrass festivals and on our porch, and looking back at a really fulfilling life.
To contact Stacy Webster or Annie Savage about music lessons or the FARM School, call (319) 351- 0270 firstname.lastname@example.org.