Adventures in Iowa’s Rural Historical Sites

Store Counter at the High Amana General Store (pic: Kathleen Shaughnessy)

My role thus far in writing about forty of Iowa’s rural historic sites for the Iowa Valley RC&D’s Scenic Byway Tour has been an evolving amalgamation of journalist, historian, and tourist. Drives between my home in Iowa City and the various rural sites are long and scenic, winding around cornfields and pastures. Many of the fields that I have driven past are still flooded—potentially a “loss year”, as someone called it in Marengo, talking about how and where the rivers meet, the spring rains, and the ways in which local people are likely to be impacted. This ongoing concern flowed into and out of the conversation we were having about the history of the area on our way to a historic cemetery that contains the grave of Frank Lloyd Wright’s half-sister overlooking a valley with cows and tended farmland on the edge of a small community. History here is ever-evolving and sewn into the community’s present–the Pioneer Heritage Museum contains preserved uniforms from the Spanish-American War a room away from the recent obituaries, wedding anniversaries, and landmark birthdays of the townspeople, all faithfully maintained.

Exterior of the Tama County Historical Museum (pic: Kathleen Shaughnessy)

In Toledo, I visited the Wieting Theatre and Opera House that is in the process of renovating prior to an upcoming production of Our Town. I was able to witness the years-long project that melded past and present in everything from the restored historic ceiling decoration to the exterior bricklaying, a building that showed superhero movies onscreen on the same stage that holds an antique stage curtain. In the same weekend, I drove to Haven to visit the one-room Haven Schoolhouse maintained by the Tama County Historical Society (whose own museum contained surprising local history like a soap box derby car, an old funeral home’s equipment, and a next-door preserved 19th century Czech immigrant family’s wooden cabin).

Close-up of an aisle seat in the Wieting Theatre and Opera House (pic: Kathleen Shaughnessy)

Earlier this week, I visited the Amana Colonies. Although our office is located just off of the main street in Amana and I had spent a day wandering the shops as a tourist in March, this was my first experience getting to know the people and their history. The community is tightly-knit and in constant contact and connection with their history, which is an important aspect of the practicing religion that brought the 19th century German founders here in search of freedom from persecution in their homeland. The Amana people document their own history while tracing back and preserving the memories of their families and the history of their home. Although Amana has historical sites, restaurants, and shops that indicate and acknowledge the strong tourism industry here, this comes across as simply a part of life for its residents, and the Amana Colonies gave me the impression of an active and thriving community. In the midst of learning the history of rural Iowa, I have found myself coming to understand each town through the local pride of the people I have met there, small communities with carefully and lovingly tended histories that are excited to share their stories, past and present, with this visitor.