Keeping local history alive
Editor’s note: This feature first ran in a special publication called Hometown Pride, featuring people and organizations from Fort Dodge and the surrounding area who are working hard for their communities.
LAKE CITY — The extraordinary treasures housed in rural Iowa’s museums reflect remarkable chapters in the state’s history, but vintage photos, yellowed newspaper clippings and other artifacts are just part of the story. Behind each item are amazing tales and secrets to be revealed by curators like Dwight Morenz with Central School Preservation (CSP) in Lake City.
“There’s so much history here,” said Morenz, 83, a part-time CSP employee from Lake City who works at the museum from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. each week day. “This museum tells the story of the birth and growth of a small Iowa farming town.”
Morenz himself is rooted in rural Iowa, where he grew up with his eight brothers and sisters on a farm near Auburn.
“I was always watching and learning when it was time to fix equipment,” said Morenz, who learned to troubleshoot challenges and try to prevent problems before they start.
“A lot of it’s just common sense,” added Morenz, who uses these skills to help maintain the 135-year-old school building that houses CSP.
‘I have a purpose here’
Central School was a center of learning in Lake City from 1884 to 1980. Designed by architects Foster and Liebee of Des Moines, the brick school originally included four rooms. The west wing, built in 1897, added four more rooms to the school, which housed grades 1-12.
After Lake City High School was built on a separate campus in 1904, Central School served as a grade school until the building was closed in 1980. Local volunteers formed CSP in the early 1980s and helped get the school listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. CSP’s board and Morenz continue to operate the school as a museum and public meeting place for the community.
“I like working at Central School and feel I have a purpose here,” said Morenz, who gives tours of the building, helps organize the museum’s collections and assists people with historical research, such as tracking down obituaries in old issues of the Lake City Graphic.
Serving others and preserving local history are important to Morenz, a 1954 Auburn High School graduate. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, Morenz moved to Lake City, where he became a mechanic at Snyder Implement starting in 1959.
“When I started, the company was located by the northeast corner of the town square,” said Morenz, who noted this historic building now houses Dobson Pipe Organ Builders. “The shop was in the basement, but there was enough room to drive the two-cylinder tractors in there.”
During Morenz’ career, two-cylinder tractors were replaced by four-cylinder tractors and today’s modern machines. One thing that didn’t change? Morenz’ focus on continuous improvement.
“When I’d come home at the end of the day, I’d think about what I was working on and figure out ways I could tweak something with the equipment or make it better,” said Morenz, who became a service technician at Deere dealerships in Algona and Harcourt after Snyder Implement closed around 1985 during the farm crisis.
After Morenz retired from Deere in 2000, he was contacted by Rose Rosendahl, a former Central School third-grade teacher and CSP volunteer, who invited him to help with basic building maintenance at Central School. As he spent more time at Central School, he became a point of contact for visitors and others who reached out to the museum for information.
“I enjoy helping people and sharing the history of this building, which is an architectural gem,” said Morenz, who is also active in the Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Lake City, where he serves as congregational president.
For the Rev. Paul Ferderer, pastor of Pilgrim Lutheran Church, Philippians 2:4-7 comes to mind when he thinks of Morenz. “‘Let each look not only to his own interests, but to the interests of others.’ In humble faith, Dwight consistently offers his energy and talent to serve his community’s needs.”
CSP brings people together by providing a unique venue for class reunions, history lectures, civic groups and organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous that host meetings at the museum.
Morenz invites people to discover the treasures within CSP’s archives, including items from not only from Lake City (such as memorabilia from the Madden-Stillian Players, who provided circus acts and musical performances around Iowa), but keepsakes from Yetter, Lanesboro and Auburn. The collection also includes historic newspapers from Rockwell City, Lohrville and Churdan; and yearbooks from Lake City High School.
“It’s interesting that local students used to study Latin,” Morenz said.
Tours of Central School are available during the mornings when Morenz is on site, and by appointment.
“Dwight is a self-starter with a great work ethic and is always willing to help out wherever he’s needed,” said Linda Stotts, of Lake City, who has served on the CSP board for 25 years. “He’s a tremendous asset to Central School.”
Morenz appreciates the opportunity to help more people connect with Iowa history.
“I try to do the best I can. I’ll stay involved with Central School as long as I can be helpful.”