Explore the ghost towns of Hamilton County

Ghost towns evoke images of dusty streets, ramshackle buildings and tumbleweed. The definition of a ghost town varies between individuals. Popular debate, is that, should a ghost town have tangible remains of buildings or not? Plus, should a ghost town be completely deserted or contain a small population? The American author Lambert Florin’s preferred definition of a ghost town was simply “a shadowy semblance of a former self.”

Hamilton County does have its own ghost towns, silent witnesses to Iowa’s agricultural and transportation history. They also speak to the optimism of the state’s settlers, their aspirations, and the challenges they faced on the frontier. These lost communities are easy to miss while driving along gravel roads or Iowa’s highways, but with some basic detective work, they arise out of the landscape to tell their story.

Using his fascination with history and his recreational activity of photography, Presenter David Baker “initially started photographing old buildings, landmarks, and historic sites in 2009 with the goal of creating a coffee table book of the state. In 2015, he launched “The29thState” as a page on Facebook and in 2017, the website www.iowathe29thstate.com.”

We asked Baker what actually processed him to want to find all the forgotten communities and ghost towns in Hamilton County, as well as, the rest of the 99 counties in Iowa? “When I first started this project, it was in response to a college roommate from out of state whom claimed hyperbolically that there was ‘nothing to do in Iowa,'” he said. “Of course, as someone who enjoyed Iowa history, I could not let such a comment pass. What I realized is that many people are unaware of the interesting places all around them.

“One does not need to travel great distances to see a Civil War Battlefield (Yes, we have one … Croton), or the birthplace of a President. We have buildings that showcase the very best of American architecture, beautiful state parks, and excellent entertainment venues,” Baker noted.

“As I began taking pictures however, I realized that there was a lot more to Iowa than 947 incorporated communities (now 945 … Mt. Sterling and Center Junction have since disincorporated). We cannot tell the story of our ancestors, if we ignore places which they frequented that no longer are around … or are perhaps rapidly disappearing. That is when I began to include unincorporated communities, landmarks, and the ghost towns. Now, there are literally thousands of ghost towns in Iowa…many of which are completely erased. Some are marked with a sign, or a cemetery and even fewer have structures remaining.”

We also asked Baker why he thought preserving our history was important. “There are a lot of arguments for preservation … mostly that once things are lost, they are gone forever. We can’t just build a 19th century building. They come from a particular time and place, and are an extension of the people from that era,” he said.

It goes deeper than that however. As a country, we tend to generate a lot of waste. I want people to see an old building and envision what it might become. How can we use what has been given to us for growth without having to start again? Furthermore, preserving history is important because our shared past is something that links us together.”

Baker attended Central College in Pella where he studied business management and history. He received his Bachelor of Arts in 2010. Currently, he works for Iowa State University, as an accountant, mainly managing travel funding and travel related expenses.

Ghost towns, history and more will be the topic of his program June 9.

“We are going to talk about history but it is more than that. I am bringing to Webster City, not only a history of the communities and former communities but also how they impacted the state. Conversely, I will touch on a number of related topics including the Dragoon Trail, the American Indians, and the railroads. I have nearly 100 photographs that I will be sharing either in the presentation or on display, so there will be a lot of interesting things for people to see.

Afterwards, I hope people will stay around for discussion and also to reminiscence,” Baker said.

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