Iowa was fashioned as a state of small towns. Unlike many Midwestern states, Iowa had no large urban center that dominated its culture and politics. Minnesota has Minneapolis/St. Paul. Over 60 percent of Missouri residents live in either Kansas City or St. Louis. Chicago strongly influences the Illinois economy and political scene. In Iowa, however, the capital and largest city, Des Moines, is small by comparison. Polk County (which includes Des Moines and surrounding suburbs) included only about one out of every eight Iowans in 2004. Small towns, not cities, have shaped the character of Iowa.
Settlement Along the Rivers and the Land in the Middle
From the earliest pioneer settlement, Iowans spread across the landscape on farms and in small towns. The first towns were settled along the rivers that provided the easiest ways to transport supplies. Cities along the Mississippi River became entry points for settlers heading inland. Dubuque, Clinton, Davenport, Muscatine, Burlington and Ft. Madison all grew rapidly before the Civil War. In the west Council Bluffs and Sioux City on the Missouri River provided supplies to people heading across the Great Plains or into the Dakotas.
Between the two great rivers, small towns sprang up as the prairie soil was turned into farmland. The state was divided into 99 counties. The goal was that farmers in the far corner of the county could get to the court house and back home in a day’s travel. As these counties were formed, towns near the center of the county vied to become the county seat. They wanted the county courthouse and government business. The county seat usually grew into the largest town in the county. It was surrounded by smaller communities that supplied goods and services to nearby farmers.
The Importance of Railroads
In the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s, Iowa was gripped by a fever for building railroads. Every town wanted to be included on a railroad line. In fact, it was so important to be on a railroad that, if the new line did not come to an existing town, towns sometimes “moved” to the railroad. Local residents moved their homes and stores a few miles to the rail line.
Railroads themselves often created their own towns. In the 1850s the government gave land to four railroad companies to help them build lines from the Mississippi to the Missouri Rivers. In western Iowa where there were few settlers when lines were being built, the railroads created small towns every seven to ten miles. Railroad stations provided fuel and water to passing trains. Town merchants could gather crops and livestock from area farmers for shipping east. They would also order supplies to sell to the farmers. Railroad officials surveyed streets on the land they owned and sold lots for homes and businesses to new arrivals. By 1900 when most of the railroad and town building was completed, it was said that no one in Iowa lived more than ten miles from the nearest railroad.
Small Town Provide Necessities
The most important function of the small town was providing goods and services to area farm families. Stores were usually the first businesses to open. The first was often the general store that tried to stock everything a family needed. It sold food staples like flour, sugar and spices. Farm wives traded butter and eggs in exchange for credit toward their purchases. At the general store they could buy cloth and clothing, household items, medicines, tools and, as a treat for the children, candy. When farmers had no money, the general store owner could offer them credit until they sold their crops or livestock. As towns grew, stores came to specialize in particular items like shoes or hardware, but in the early days, the general store carried them all.
The blacksmith shop was another essential service. Horses needed shoes, and plow blades needed to be sharpened. The blacksmith sometimes also operated a livery stable that fed, sheltered and rented out horses. When automobiles appeared, some blacksmiths converted into car dealers and auto repair shops.
Other businesses followed. A hotel was essential. Hotel owners often met passenger trains at the depot and offered a free ride to potential customers. Most small towns soon had one, or even two, newspapers. Political parties often sponsored their own newspapers to promote their candidates and issues. Banks lent money to farmers who needed credit to buy land and livestock. Lawyers handled disputes in court, made wills and often assisted in the purchase and sale of land. Doctors made house calls on sick patients and stayed with mothers delivering babies. Ministers and priests provided spiritual guidance and comfort to their congregations. Most small towns had several Christian churches reflecting the diverse religious beliefs of early settlers.
Every town also had a few specialty stores and occupations. Watchmakers, photographers, music instrument makers, broom makers, potters and carpenters all found their way into early Iowa small towns.
Most women worked in the home. Some women owned their own businesses or worked for wages. They were usually single women who had never married or widows whose husbands had died. The milliner made hats. Making hats and selling gloves, lace and fancy goods for women’s clothing was one of the few occupations open to women. Many young women taught school for a few years before they married. Town schools paid higher wages and offered better places to live than country schools. Other young women were hired by families to cook, clean and care for children. In Iowa they were usually called “hired girls’" rather than servants.
Before automobiles, radio, motion pictures and television were common, towns were centers of entertainment for Iowans. Local baseball and football teams played teams from neighboring towns. School events like concerts and plays drew large crowds. Churches sponsored potluck suppers and ice cream socials. Local merchants sometimes sponsored a town band to give concerts to attract shoppers to their stores. Many towns built fancy theaters called opera houses and sold tickets to concerts, plays and lectures.
Saturday night was the special time of the week. Farm families finished chores early and came to town to do their weekly shopping. They left their orders with local merchants and then strolled outside to talk with friends and make other purchases. Some people recall how families sometimes even left sleeping children with friendly storekeepers and picked them up later. Stores stayed open until midnight (or even later) when the last of the shoppers picked up their orders and started for home.
A Time of Change
With the coming of the automobile after 1909, families could drive from town to town more easily. Farm families discovered that they could drive to larger towns or nearby cities to do their shopping in stores that offered more goods and services. The smallest towns lost business and soon began losing their population as well. Through the 20th century, there were fewer and fewer farm families. Farm machinery helped farms grow larger, and the farm population fell. That meant fewer people who needed the services of the small town. Some moved out of the state, but others found jobs in nearby towns or cities.
In the 1950s the government began building the interstate highways. These roads and other major highways made it even easier to drive from small towns to larger cities. Many people began commuting into city jobs in the day and driving home to farms or small towns at night. No longer did all small town people live and work in the same community.
Small towns have shaped Iowa. Town residents relate to their neighbors in many ways. They often share memories from school. They buy and sell goods and services to each other. They read the same newspapers. They watch out for each others’ children. They often know several generations of each others’ families, and sometimes their children marry someone from the same town. In small towns neighbors are connected to each other. They know that they are connected in many ways.