Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The remarkable nature of Walnut

The Walnut Creek Historical Museum is housed in the former Masonic building at the north end of Walnut's business district. The bank building next door is the only Walnut building to date on the National Register of Historic Places.

The thing about Walnut that intrigues me is the fact it makes me happy just to drive through it, something I’ve done several times over the years. A small town of roughly 900 people just south of Interstate 80 in far northeast Pottawattamie County, if Walnut did not exist it would be necessary to create it just to evoke the spirit of the hundreds of similar small Iowa towns that once rose from the prairie undimmed by the economic and social revolutions that have since battered most into shadows of their former selves.

Some of that is an illusion, of course, but much of it isn’t. Tree-lined main street, now styled Antique City Drive, runs north to south between for the most part ranks of immaculately maintained homes and lawns, many of the old-fashioned small-town front-porch variety, past a fully intact K-12 school to the brick-paved business district where every storefront is occupied and there are no gaping holes. There are five churches (Lutheran, United Church of Christ, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Baptist), four of them newer buildings but all beautifully maintained and apparently active.

This is a town settled and still occupied for the most part by people of German descent (or as one guy I visited with Tuesday put it, “ the Germans and the Drakes”; he was a Drake, descendent of perhaps the most prominent English family to become part of the community’s fabric). But everyone, someone else told me, is at least partly German --- and that may help to explain the immaculate nature of things.

Some of the effect is illusion, however. Although the business district appears intact, there is no grocery store, hardware store or general mercantile establishment. For items once available in a viable small-town retail setting, Walnut residents have to drive elsewhere as do most of their counterparts in other towns of similar size.

The business district is filled instead with antique shops, at least 25 of them, some spilling into the residential neighborhood, and restaurants (at least three). The bank, a real estate office, a financial services center, a communications company and other service-oriented firms remain, however, and I’m really pleased to report that the hometown newspaper continues to publish. I knew the name of this newspaper, established at a time when newspaper editors and publishers still had senses of humor, long before I knew anything else about Walnut. It is called the “Walnut Bureau.”

The secret to Walnut’s continuing viability --- and actually it’s a fairly obvious secret with all those antique shops scattered around --- is that it recreated itself beginning in the 1980s as Iowa’s Antique City, a designation given official status in 1985 by then-Gov. Terry Branstad. Although other events are held during the year, the annual centerpiece is the Antique Walk sponsored every Fathers Day weekend for nearly 30 years by the local AMVETS post. That event draws approximately 300 antiques dealers from across the country to Walnut and crowds estimated at between 30,000 and 50,000 follow. How’s that for abruptly increasing the population of a small Iowa farm town?

Marilyn, Betty and I left Chariton before dawn Tuesday for the drive to Walnut for a meeting of the Small Museums Group of the Iowa Museum Association. Our destination was the museum of the Walnut Creek Historical Society, housed in a fascinating old building at the north end of Walnut’s business district that once was home to the community’s Masonic Lodge and its auxiliary organizations.

Jeane Burk and Sheri Sloan of the Greene County Historical Society report on progress at the society's museum in Jefferson.

The Small Museums Group holds two meetings a year, one in western Iowa and the other in eastern Iowa. Since the Lucas County Historical Society is located squarely in the middle, we feel free to attend both as bi-regional participants. There’s no elaborate agenda during these meetings --- the principal purpose is just to get together and share ideas, woes and strategies for meeting common challenges.

The most exciting and inspiring input this year came from David McFarland, director of the Montgomery County History Center at Red Oak. This center has quite recently just taken off and from the sound of things amazing things are being accomplished over there in far southwest Iowa. I’m anxious now to get there in person.

We gathered in a lovely meeting room, more like a living room, that once was the principal room of a small apartment created by a major benefactor of the Walnut Creek Museum as headquarters for herself during the months she spent in Walnut. It is now the principal gathering place in the museum. At the end of the morning session, we toured the three floors of the museum --- smaller displays in the foyer, a comprehensive photo gallery and, upstairs, the former lodge room filled with artifacts related to Walnut’s history. This interesting room is complete with a “golden dome” still equipped with its original lighting system that once was a part of Masonic rites.

I collect churches, so ran a couple of times a block north to try to separate the lovely old Presbyterian Church from the foliage surrounding it.

And how about this little house two doors north of the church? What an intriguing original expression in a tiny dwelling.

Here are a couple of other older homes along my route, evoking a time when far more time was spent on front porches in small towns than nowadays.

When all was said and done in Walnut, we headed home across country in the late afternoon of a beautiful fall day, making another stop along the way. But that’s a story for another day.

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