As a young man, I can remember
seeing a large old building along Ingersoll avenue in Des Moines.
There was a raised concrete framework in the back that looked like an
auto overpass, in miniature. It was at one time a main trolley barn
for the city, but by the time I saw it was used to store buses. I
had no camera at the time. Even though I stopped and walked through
it, it was empty and ready to be torn down. Within a couple of
year it disappeared, replaced by a popular restaurant chain. I
moved on, and didn't give it another thought for many years. Over
30 years later, reading about the “old trolley barn” I recalled
it again, now sorry I didn't take some photos.
Very old buildings do not last
long in a modern, busy downtown area. Either they get torn down, or
re-purposed for some recreational use. Thus an old Masonic lodge
building becomes a restaurant and theater venue. Or an old,
decrepit hotel gets refurbished as a modern office. A few flagship
businesses get remodeled endlessly, and live on. Venerable hotel
chains downtown are one example.
To honor and celebrate the history
of an area seems a good idea. We can see what has come before, even
while planning for better uses of our resources for the times to
come. Pictures of what used to be in any one area can be
astounding. There are many parking lots downtown, where old
buildings stood. Everything from restaurants, to bus depots and even
railroad depots. They get torn down, the track is removed, new
pavement is laid. And memories of an era get lost or filed away.
Therefore it seems important to
save a few meaningful structures, if only to show what has gone
before. Before our age of convenience, when everything required
physical effort. Back then, when the air was dirty with coal soot,
and filled with the noise of clanking rail and trolley cars, an
easier way would seem welcome. Now here we are, when the air has
been cleaned up, and the clank and clang has been replaced by the
quiet whoosh of speedy automobiles. And we wonder at what has gone
before. We who live so much better than the average person could
have hoped to back then, we wonder what it looked like when they
struggled on. When they struggled to make a living, raise a family,
achieve some kind of career goal perhaps.
So there are historical home tours
in Sherman Hill and River Bend areas in Des Moines, and similar old
neighborhoods elsewhere. We can see the cuspidors and chamber pots,
the hand pumps and ice-boxes where real ice blocks went. In some
cases the locations of old privies are pointed out, before indoor
plumbing became common. Coal chutes and storage bins were common.
Old pot-bellied stoves or wood cookstoves, some with a chimney going
to an outer wall. All of the artifacts of another age, telling just
how difficult it was to live a life back in the “dark ages.”
They can be a real eye-opener, and a good education in just how far
we have come, even in the last 75 years or so.
But those hardy souls who lived
back then had only earlier times to measure their progress against.
They thought that they had it good, compared to even earlier times.
Old textbooks called it the “iron age”, and compared it against
earlier ages. Our iron and steel tools sure were better than the
stone tools of an earlier age, by golly. Our warm coal-heated houses
were sure better than those heated by logs. A horse-drawn
stagecoach is still easier and faster than walking on foot, and the
telegraph is a miracle compared to the pony express. Everything is
relative. But for those wonderful souls who had the foresight to put
aside containers, papers and journals, and other things for future
posterity, I have a big “Thank You!” Time always flows
forward. Some folks saved important materials for future reference,
and in so doing, preserved part of our history.
The State Historical museum is one
place that has made dioramas of earlier ways of life. All the way
from indigenous peoples hunting woolly mammoths, all the way up to
typical household items of the 1970's, you can walk through and see
it. County historical societies have done a good job saving
artifacts like clothing from the 1800's and so forth. It is not
difficult to get an idea of what life was like in earlier eras,
despite the onrush of modernity we see today.
Personal collections can be
fulfilling and enjoyable. From saving old copies of the newspaper,
to antique collecting and displaying. Some people fill their homes
with antique bottles, furniture, cookery, etc. A pastime that can
be as educational as it is entertaining.
But holding onto old mindsets in
the face of new discoveries can be a bit more dangerous. As much as
we would like to cling to comforting thought systems and beliefs, at
some point we have to acknowledge realities that make themselves
known. Old medical practices were long-ago discarded. So now we
don't believe in the imbalance of humours, or in bloodletting, or
demon-caused diseases. Instead we “believe in” bacteria and
viruses. And we have found better treatments, like vaccination, that
can eradicate diseases in whole populations. Likewise, in various
thought systems we have gradually liberalized. It is okay to give
prophylactics like condoms out, because on balance they could help
stop the transmission of HIV. Conservative, strident religious
beliefs tend to condemn this.
Sometimes physical preservation of
historic properties can be a battle. Funds must be raised, public
interest aroused, to save a structure. There was this old gas
station, a one-story affair with a couple of pumps. It was a
“training station” for a major oil company back in the 1930s.
They needed to move it to make room for development, and instead of
demolishing it, let it be known it was for sale. So offers were
made, and finally a local church raised the needed funds to move it
over to their property, and install it. Even though it was a church,
they placed the structure on the opposite side of the building, where
it can be seen by any and all who drive through the neighborhood.
That was a victory for local preservationists, and a gift to the
There have been other battles
lost, alas. There was a larger, three-story schoolhouse in Luther,
Iowa that was used as a storage facility. It was a shame to see it
finally get torn down, and a new modular building go up in its place.
A very old commercial building sitting downtown had a fire. Then
it sat vacant, with no funds available to renovate it. Some efforts
were made, but the building was too big, too far gone. They finally
sold it, and it was razed to make way for a new office building.
Some structures just cannot be saved. The old Younkers building in
downtown Des Moines was scheduled to be renovated into apartments and
condos, and street-level shops. But there was a fire there. It
seemed like a total loss, but miraculously was not. Another company
has come in, cleaned it up, and resumed renovations. So that one,
instead of being a total loss, may end up being a partial success.
The old Tea Room restaurant might even be saved, resurrected. The
YMCA building that was constructed in 1957 had to be razed to the
ground. There was no way it could be re-purposed to some other use.
So that was lost. But a YMCA built earlier, in the 1920's, is still
in use as the headquarters for the Iowa Blind commission. Ironic but
true. And the new YMCA struggles for funding to finish their
In other towns there have been
successes. In Rock Island, Illinois an old train station has been
remade into a restaurant. Many small Iowa towns have re-purposed old
RR depots into comfort stations for bicyclists. Huge RR depots in
Omaha have been made into museums and shops. Some small churches
have been turned into businesses or even homes. One-room
schoolhouses have been made into museums, homes or businesses. Many
large mansions have seen new life as antique stores or Bed &
Breakfasts. There have even been entire downtown's dedicated to
antiquing and preservation. Walnut, Iowa has a brick-street
old-fashioned downtown. All that seems missing are a profusion of
horse-drawn wagons and buggies. If you go there, hang on to your
wallet or purse. Everything is for sale. Other towns have done
the same. Mt Horeb, Wisconsin has a historical museum reflecting on
their Nordic heritage, and a Swedish-Norwegian store. And there are
other antique and collectible shops scattered about. The old downtown's are trying to survive in the age of shopping malls, doing
everything they can to stand out.
In an ironic twist, many larger urban centers are building housing to get people living there again. Des
Moines in particular is in the midst of a condo building boom. The
young are gradually moving in, deciding to go car-less and live near
downtown attractions. So we are seeing people go full-circle once
again. Social activity will center around the city centers, with easy
access to transportation and entertainment. As some malls struggle
to survive, or even go dark, many city centers are seeing a
renaissance of activity. Light rail has been put in place in larger
cities. The old trolley system went to buses, and is now
interconnecting with or changing to electrified rail systems again.
So not only can one feel nostalgic, one can experience some of the
charm of the old days. Even while breathing cleaner air.
Some writers are even using
old-fashioned typewriters once again, enjoying the sensation of
pounding out their works one letter at a time. Not this one, though.
Thanks for reading.
As the winter winds on, we sit
(mostly) stuck inside wondering what to do. Here are a few ideas,
for the coming warmer months, to explore what our home state has to
Every state in the US has some
places of historical or scenic significance, and Iowa is no
exception. Even though we are an agricultural state, in some cases
because of that, we have our own local 'hot spots'. In every one of
the 99 counties there is at least one place of interest. I'm going
to point out some of them here, but there are likely many more that
can be found. Many of these interesting items spring from
creative, dedicated hands of local townspeople trying to improve the
places they live in.
I'll start in the central
counties. Polk, Jasper, Warren, Dallas and Madison. In Des Moines,
there are many places of interest. The Statehouse is a prominent
example, with its shining gold dome. One feels impressed by the
majesty when you enter the building, and see sate offices, or
assembly rooms. The Law Library is ornate and beautiful, with gold
and wrought-iron staircases throughout.
The grounds around the statehouse
are full of memorabilia, including civil war cannons, monuments and
statues. A walk around the grounds during the summertime is an
enjoyable experience, and aside from parking doesn't cost a nickel.
Nearby is the State Historical
building, full of informative displays. There are special programs
held, and a restaurant is located on the top floor, with an outdoor
area. As you head west downtown, there are many outdoor features.
Cowles Commons has a big new sculpture, and water jets to wade
through to beat the summer heat. Further west is the Sculpture
Garden, a huge outdoor area to walk around and enjoy public art of
all kinds. The library, with its green roof, is located here, and
has watercourses running throughout the grounds. At the west end
of the garden, food trucks are setting up frequently, offering exotic
Further west along Grand Avenue is
the Art Center. Here you can enjoy a free walk through many styles
of art and sculpture. It is sited on a large park area, that can be
enjoyed in the spring, summer and fall. Another fun place to go is
Valley Junction, west of the Art Center just as you cross into West
Des Moines, on 5th street (again, just off Grand ave).
There are many collectible, antique and boutique emporiums. Valley
Junction has fairs, farmers markets and other special events during
the summer and fall.
But in any large metro area, it is
a given there will be things to do, places to go and see. What about
in outlying areas, one may ask.
There are things out there to see.
The town of Perry, northwest of Urbandale, has been busily
re-inventing itself. They have a new library, restaurants, and the
renovated Hotel Pattee. They have festivals and events, and roll out
the welcome mat to visitors. Perry joins many other small towns,
including Redfield and Adel, in converting old railroad depots into
refreshment stations along the huge Central Iowa trail system. This
is a series of recreational trails that go through many small towns.
The Milwaukee Road went through some of these towns, so the depots
feature their uniforms, and relics from passenger rail days gone by.
Adel, in Dallas county, is a
brick-covered downtown that holds a sweet corn festival every fall.
The bike/rec trail goes through here, as does the Raccoon river.
Canoeing events occur here, and the town is a delightful place to
cycle through on a summer ride. As one travels north, you run
into Panora, with Lake Panorama and its recreation offerings.
Further north, you arrive at Jefferson. In that typical small town,
a citizen bequeathed funds to erect a tall bell tower. You can take
an elevator ride to the top for a donation. Some folks have weddings
there. The RR depot here has also been restored, and the Raccoon
Valley bike trail goes from here all the way to Des Moines.
If one follows the bike trail, you
might end up going through Ankeny, and north through Baxter, then all
the way through Slater-Sheldahl, and on to Madrid. At Madrid is the
high trestle trail, a scenic former railroad bridge that goes
400-plus feet above the Des Moines river valley. All it takes is the
gas, or pedal power, to get there and you can ride across for free.
Stop and take pictures if you want, since there are pullover places
out of the main path, along the bridge. Infographics provide facts
about the bridge and area ecology. At night, the bridge is lit up by
blue light bars. Just another of those delightful surprises that
hides in our humble agricultural state.
Many small towns along the
recreational/bicycle trails have spruced up their main streets,
opened specialty shops, or comfort stations. Some of these, as
noted, are converted RR depots. Flower plantings, flagpoles, and
infofrmative signage is placed nearby. Of course, regular summer
wildflowers are easily seen along the trails. Thistle, black-eyed
Susans, phlox and other species brighten up the way as one pedals
along. The Central Iowa trail system is a real asset to town and
country both around the area.
While around north central Iowa,
the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad is a must-see. A train museum
is full of old artifacts, and once finished there, you can take a
ride on a steam trail or dinner train. (Boone was once a major
repair area for the Chicago Northwestern railroad.) Just walking
around the yard and looking at the old engines can be enjoyable.
Boone is also home to an area ski and hiking resort in the area
In Madrid, Iowa there is also
located a large Hindu temple and cultural center south of town. This
serves ethnic peoples settled here around central Iowa. One more
step towards cultural diversity and acceptance. If one travels
south to Fairfield Iowa, they can see Maharishi University, and a new
town constructed along Vedic Principles. Students there study
meditation and other subjects. They hold chess tournaments too.
Iowa has three major universities,
as well as some smaller colleges. In Ames (Iowa State), and Iowa
city (University of Iowa) there are many cultural opportunities and
sporting events. Art museums and world-class libraries, and
picturesque campuses beckon a casual visitor (or potential student).
In Cedar Falls resides the third, UNI. Even here there are special
events, cultural offerings, and area recreational trails. Ames
features Reiman Gardens, itself a big draw from around central Iowa.
They have a large indoor butterfly collection, arboretums and outdoor
plantings. They seem to add more every year. Iowa City recently
finished the River Landing at Coralville, a large new complex of
shops, clinics and a hotel. There are many restaurants in the area,
and Kinnick Stadium is a short drive from Coralville into Iowa city.
Carver-hawkeye arena is nearby, too.
On a smaller scale, Grandview
University, Drake University and Grinnell college all offer cultural
programs of one kind or another. Grandview and Drake (located in
Des Moines) both offer live theater productions with their students,
for a reasonable price. There are many sporting events taking place
throughout the year. Notably, Drake hosts the world-famous Drake
Relays. This event attracts runners from around the globe, and
features a marathon coursing through town.
As one fans out into smaller
outlying areas, there are a lot of small towns that may hold
something unique. Stuart has a bank that was robbed by Bonnie and
Clyde, and some interesting signage. Adair has the signature
smiley-faced tower. As you proceed further west, many wind turbines
can be seen. This is a recent change, and one not universally
liked. Nevertheless, the future has arrived to the sound of
whup-whup-whup and alternative energy. Even the rest stop on I-80
west has part of a turbine blade as ornamental artwork. A nice
thing about the new rest stops, by the way – each features a
different aspect of local history. The one near Iowa City has
excerpts of writings, relating to the Writers Workshop in Iowa city.
Another one further east has lanterns and brick décor. The
western one has a turbine blade. The first rest stop on I-35 coming
into Iowa from Missouri features quaint trails and décor. An
extra touch of interest for weary travelers to take their mind off of
The town of Walnut, Iowa is an
antiquers paradise, just south of I-80 on hwy 83. The streets are
all brick, and the antique shops are legion. Even on a Sunday later
afternoon a few are open. One can enjoy looking at the storefronts
themselves, and then go in and make your best deals. The town of Elk
Horn (North of I-80 on hwy 173) has a strong Danish heritage, and
features a museum and windmill. Then there is the town of Pella,
south of Des Moines on hwy 163. So Dutch they have re-constructed
downtown with a giant windmill, and a canal. The Tulip Festival
draws many thousands each year, to enjoy the flowers, and snack on
Dutch letters. They would be happy if you spent some money in their
trinket shops, too, I'm sure.
Hopping around some more, if you
go to Northwest Iowa, there are many gorgeous spots to enjoy.
Decorah has great scenery and fishing opportunities. There is a
Norwegian museum there too. Strawberry Point has the “worlds
largest strawberry” and themed motels, shops, restaurants. Near
there is a large state park (Backbone) to enjoy. The Laura Ingalls
Wilder museum is sited nearby as well.
There are scenic drives along the
Mississippi, with bluffs and wildflowers to take in. Many parks dot
this area. Dubuque, Iowa is itself located on several tall bluffs
around the river. There are lots of stately old homes to see
overlooking the river. And some antique shops to check out, of
course. There is a short, uphill tram ride one can take. Nearby,
across the river, is Galena, Illinois with all of its offerings – a
whole flock of antebellum homes. Dubuque is one of the oldest towns
in Iowa, with some homes dating back to the 1840's. There were lead
mines and a gunpowder factory in the area, among other industries.
All the way southward along the
eastern border is Keokuk. This area is home to the nearby Geode
state park, and also the longest electrical dam station in the state,
constructed in 1912. There are many outdoor places of interest, and
pedestrian trails. North of there is the town of Burlington. Here
you have Snake Alley, the most twisty ally there is. There are
also river views, galleries and shops, and parks. Driving along
the Mississippi, there are many chances for a good view or a picnic,
all the way back northward.
Thanks to the Mississippi and
Missouri rivers, Iowa has some great recreational opportunities and
views. But there are many small towns in the state that have
re-imagined themselves, cleaned up their “act” so to speak. And
in doing so, added a lot of tourism and scenery capital to our state.
So next spring and summer (or even this winter in some cases)
feel free to drive and experience the major areas, like state parks
and rivers. But don't overlook the many small towns, and their
museums, shops and other venues they have created from 'whole cloth.'
They will welcome you graciously in most cases, and you will be
amazed at what they have accomplished. Thanks for visiting, and
thanks for reading.