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Reimagining ghost towns

A look at Iowa’s past

-Messenger photo by Kriss Nelson
An old railroad crossing sign next to an abandoned elevator still stands in the ghost town of Slifer in southern eastern Webster County.

At one time, it was not uncommon for Iowa to have a town every five miles or less.

As time progressed several of those towns became practically uninhabited and eventually becoming ghost towns.

Dave Baker, historian, not only operates the Facebook page “The 29th State” but for several years has been presenting programs on Iowa’s ghost towns, their history, folklore and more.

Baker has given presentations throughout Webster County since 2017 and had a great line up planned for 2020 planned until the pandemic hit.

“I was excited for 2020,” he said. “I had been invited back to Webster County, then the pandemic hit and everything was cancelled.”

-Messenger photo by Kriss Nelson The school house in the ghost town of Evanston still stands. Some of the townás residents feature Evanston signs in their yards to help signify the town.

In addition to those Webster County programs and others he had planned, he has been anxious to get back to sharing his story.

“As we started getting into 2021, I started to think about what I can do from home to sort of get the ball rolling so I can do these programs safely,” he said. “I thought it would be a lot of fun to take one single ghost town instead of trying to profile several and just talk about that one.”

Baker’s first online event is planned for Friday, March 5 at 8 p.m. where he will be featuring Webster County’s ghost town of Tara. Baker said the program will be presented live on his Facebook page – The 29th State.

“I thought Tara was an interesting story,” he said. “It is a town that was 100% fueled by the railroad. That was what really brought the town to life and there were a number of factors that contributed to its demise, but the railroad being the biggest one when they stopped bringing trains through the Tara Junction area, as they called it west of town.”

Baker said the program will include the story about the town of Tara and some of the different people that lived there. Part of the program will be an examination of what exactly a ghost town is and what we can do with that kind of information.

“How do we use that to look at our own human nature and our own communities,” he said.

Baker said there will even be some discussion on some of the haunting tales that linger around the area of the old community of Tara.

Baker said even though evidence of hauntings are scant, he feels it is still important to include them.

“Those are also an important part of history – especially local history,” he said. “It’s a big part of the culture, be it a rite of passage, or a landmark – there’s these stories that swirl around and sometimes they’re completely preposterous, but they have taken on a life of their own.”

Some ghost stories, he said date back to the 1890s in the area of Tara.

“It is kind of interesting Tara would have only been about 20-25 years old at that time and there were already ghost stories about it,” he said.

Webster County ghost towns

Baker said there are several communities in Webster County that could be on the brink of making ghost town status as some of those small towns are beginning to lose their churches and more.

“When you lose the school, when you lose the post office, church or you’re not on the highway or a main transportation venue, that makes it very hard for these towns to be sustainable,” he said. “We look at what was it that led Tara to not being sustainable and how do we keep that from happening today?”

Baker hopes by sharing these stories people can draw some parallels from his programs and hopefully become better engaged within their own communities.

How it all started

Baker, a lifelong Iowan began a quest about 10 years ago to photograph old buildings throughout the state. That led to wanting to take photograph every community within the state of Iowa – all 945 official communities and those that are not incorporated or have been dis-incorporated.

“There were these different communities as I visited with people they started telling me about these old stories and these old communities and I found there is an untapped history that people don’t know and is not readily apparent,” he said.

Baker said he started his Facebook page, The 29th State in 2015 where he features photos, history and information about the 29th state, Iowa’s communities.

“I really try to get a new community — being an existing town or a ghost town profiled,” he said. “I do try to stay somewhat regular on that.”

Baker said he has received a lot of great feedback on his Facebook page from people even outside of the state of Iowa thanking him for featuring these communities they may have ties with.

“It reminds you this is just more than a name on a tombstone or a place in a book – this has relevance to people today,” he said.

Baker gave his first presentation on ghost towns in Marion County, as he was living in Pella at that time.

“Marion County has tons of ghost towns because they had mining camps,” he said. “In addition to that, there are six communities that were flooded when Red Rock was created.”

There was such a great response, he decided to feature Warren County and word kept spreading from there.

“I wanted to make sure people can enjoy pieces of history and in some cases, their own history and make it accessible to them,” he said.

How does Baker come to discover this history?

“Some of it is very easy, some is difficult,” he said. “The state of Iowa has done a remarkable job of documenting a lot of places.”

Ghost towns

Some ghost towns are simply a sign in a field, or a community with the only action is the church or the local cooperative.

“One ghost town in southern Iowa, it once had a number of businesses and it is only the church and cemetery,” said Baker. “Some ghost towns are still active communities, although the physical community is gone. There are other places where there really isn’t much of anything at all – just maybe a sign.”

Signage for these towns, Baker said range from a well-meaning farmer making a sign using everything from spray paint on a board to some very elaborate metal or marble signs.

Webster County has many ghost towns including Border Plains, Gypsum City, Slifer, Lanyon, Lena, Evanston, Brushy and Palm Grove – which actually, was originally Plum Grove, Baker said.

Baker has personal ties to a few ghost towns. His great-great-great-great-grandfather founded the community of Mingo in Jasper County on his land when the railroad came through and that ultimately choked off the town of Greencastle, which at one time was full of stores, a barber shop, dentist office and more. Today – it is only a cemetery.

Another ghost town Baker has ties to is, Fishville.

Baker had the opportunity to do some exploring in the area of where Fishville once stood.

“A friend of friend owned the property that it stands on and I got some permission to go back there and do some exploring,” he said. “There is not a single remnant of the town – nothing, not even back in the woods.”

All was not lost, however, as Baker said he did come upon a washed out garbage pile.

“The only reason I know the garbage pile had any tie to the community was because it was full of coal buckets and coal shovels,” he said.

In-person programming

Baker said he is hopeful to be able to be back to in-person programming.

In-person programming, however, means more to him than just sharing information. It is community and addressing the social structure of the ghost town and how it relates to today.

“You take the program in Callender was really good example. There was a group of 100 people in the library to listen to the program. They talk to each other, they visit with each other and reminisce about things – that is the important piece about this. It’s not about the ghost town, but the people that connect with each other through the history. To get people visiting with each other and in some cases, addressing things that might contribute to some of our good and bad situations today.”

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