Saturday, October 15, 2011

Round-trip to Red Oak

Entrance tower of the vacant Thomas D. Murphy Art Calendar Co. plant.

Roberta and I had a great trip to Red Oak yesterday after sending the Dietleins on their way to Wisconsin, looking for more places related her family. Her grandparents, Elmer and Emma (Bertrand) Smith, moved to Red Oak immediately after their 1909 marriage in Chariton and other family members lived there as well before scattering across the West, including California.

We were able to find the street, perhaps even one of the houses, where her grandparents lived --- less than a block north of the vast (and empty) Thomas D. Murphy Art Calendar Co. plant where family members worked.

After circling the plant as best we could, we stopped first at the old Burlington Northern Depot (above), just to the south, built during 1903 along the same Chicago Burlington & Quincy tracks that pass through Chariton. The first trains arrived in Chariton during 1867 and two years later, in Red Oak.

We really couldn't tell what the old depot's purpose was (there is no permanent signage and the banner that apparently explained its purpose had been blown by Friday's high wind into a heap in the grass) and didn't stick around long after the curator snarled at us when we asked (tourists sometimes do not react well to perceived abuse; we fled as soon as her back was turned and photographed the building from a safe spot across the street).

As it turns out, the National Register-listed building was rededicated during 2003 as a World War II (and railroading) museum.Along with the Murphy plant, it forms Red Oak's Depot Hill historic district.

Red Oak is considered the birthplace of the art calendar and the Thomas D. Murphy factory in its heyday was the largest producer in the world, containing two acres of floorspace as well as a free-standing power plant to provide steam heat to the building. Members of the Murphy family also built some of the huge homes on "Heritage Hill," a major Red Oak attraction.

Much of the building remains, because of its size something of a preservation nightmare I'd guess (it was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008) and at least part of it seems to function sometimes as a museum.

In addition to production and distribution operations, the building also housed executive offices and a gallery where art purchased for reproduciton on calendars was framed and displayed.

Like the depot and Montgomery County's stunning courthouse, which I'll get around to another time, the plant was constructed in the Richardson Romanesque style, a fact reflected in the magnificent front door.

Once Red Oak's largest employer, the Murphy Co. was sold during 1985 to Jordan Industries and continued limited operations until 2002, when the operation closed entirely.

So this part of our visit to Red Oak was a kind of sad since in involved relics of another of Iowa's signature industries which, like Maytag at Newton and Sheaffer Pen at Fort Madison, have vanished from the landscape.

There's much more on more positive notes to see at Red Oak, however --- and I'm going to be stuck here blog-wise off and on for a few days.

We arrived back in Chariton at mid-afternoon, after a stop in Stanton, just in time for Roberta to head for the Des Moines airport and her flight back to LAX. While in Red Oak, she added two more Iowa experiences to her repertoire --- she got to wear her new parka (no, it wasn't that cold; it just seemed that way to a southern Californian) and lost a brand new glove.

Roberta Tuller (left) and Bob and Pat Dietlein in front of Chariton's Dual Gables House before we scattered Friday.


robertanne said...

I'm still upset about the glove. It was so wonderful it seems like a dream now.

William B. Smith said...


I have been reading your unique niche in historic news in your area; your name and your detailed
historic data will be apreciated
by people related to the Charitan
area. I was born in Red Oak, Iowa and enjoyed reading about it and seeing Roberta Tuller's photo in
your article. Roberta and I are
second cousins. Your article about
the repairing of the grave stone on Josiah and Sarah Smith's family
grave lot was very well done. I sent a copy of it to our children.
Also the photo of Elmer and Emma
Smith was new to me; Elmer was my
uncle and my fathers favorite brother. How I remember your hospitality when Hazel and I visited and talked with you.

Our email is Phone 206-567-4753. Address is 10800 sw 133rd st, Vashon, WA. Contact us anytime.

Bill Smith