Welcome to the celebration! You might not know it yet, but you are viewing something very special here on this page. This is Iowa: The 29th State. It is a state of 99 counties; filled with 945 unique incorporated communities, dozens of unincorporated villages, scores of ghosts towns, and countless depots, post offices, churches, cemeteries, and landmarks. They all deserve recognition, both the large and the small, and they get it here. This page is about the places we know and love, but it is also about us—present, past, and even future residents. We tell history here, share memories, honor ancestors, and learn how each community fits into the state and, more importantly, the country as a whole.
You see, Iowa is a microcosm of the United States. Its history is our history. As the pioneers moved west from colonial and mid-Atlantic establishments to homestead, they first relied on water for transportation. Trading ports were established at places including Dubuque, Burlington, and Ft. Madison. When bridges were built, stagecoaches crossed into the prairie and stopped in Fairfield and Marengo, among other places en route to the west. The railroad connected distant villages of the country and revolutionized transportation. It also gave birth to numerous communities that we still see today: Grand Junction, Gowrie, Atlantic, Coulter, Blairsburg, Parnell, and Marne to name a few. The Civil War crashed into Iowa briefly at the now mostly forgotten village of Croton; former slaves sought freedom via the Underground Railroad which included homes in Denmark, Rochester, and West Des Moines. When the immigrants came they brought fascinating cultural ties and created places like Moravia, the Amana Colonies, Pella, Leland, and Orange City. Forts Des Moines and Dodge helped keep peace between settlers and the indigenous. The Gilded Age mansions are found here among the innumerable farmsteads which survived depressions, world wars and progress. Highways came and some towns fared well, while others did not—as they did all over America. Those of us who live here–and whom have lived here are all part of this history as well.
My name is Dave Baker and I started The 29th State in April of 2009. At the time it was simply called the “picture project,” or the “Iowa Book.” Originally, my goal was to include one photograph from every community into a coffee table book. The inspiration came from a discussion with a friend while we were attending Central College. He said there was nothing to do in Iowa, and my response was nothing short of “well, I’ll show you!” He had never been to our beautiful capitol, or seen the Maquoketa Caves, or viewed the Grotto of the Redemption. How could you say there was nothing? What I quickly learned was that many people are not aware of the wonderful places that are so close to home. I also learned it is very difficult to sum up a town in one photograph. What is the most iconic thing in Ames? Is it Jack Trice Stadium? Beardshear Hall? The Campanile? Downtown? But, that was not the only question.
For every town that is still out there, there are two which are no more–the post offices are shuttered, the railroad tracks are empty or torn up, and the homes are left to decay. Perhaps–as in the case of Gosport, a lonely war memorial is the only sign that a thriving population ever lived there. In some places like Greencastle, only a cemetery remain. Unique–another rural community has disappeared except for a crossroad. Fishville has entirely reverted to its natural appearance. But these places too are part of the story. Our ancestors worked the coal mines, raised their children, and devoted energy to these places. What should I do with these places? Should they be photographed as well? I decided to include as many as possible. To photograph the location of every ghost town in Iowa is an exercise of insanity. Polk County alone has over fifty former communities–and there are places we still don’t really know much about. I have endeavored to photograph as many of these “ghost towns” as possible. After all, they have the greatest risk of disappearing entirely into the past.
But, The 29th State is not a site about abandoned buildings and dereliction. Plenty of websites and pages are devoted to collapsing schools, hollowed out legion halls and empty storefronts. While these may from time to time appear here, it is not the intention that this become a memorial. If anything, I would hope that this helps to rejuvenate some of our communities. We’re taking back roads here and you may find some place worth checking out. So, come in and join the fun; share a story; reconnect with old friends. Above all, support your communities!