Our program March 10: Historic old buildings do not scare Nick Sorensen

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

JEFFERSON, Iowa, March 4, 2019 — The phone calls and even visits from leaders of other small towns across Iowa come often now for officials of the city government and the Jefferson Matters Main Street program. They want to know how Jefferson is successfully saving and redeveloping the 100-plus-year-old buildings around its courthouse square.

Nick Sorensen, who is the City of Jefferson “building officer, zoning officer, code enforcer and special projects coordinator,” says part of the answer is the leadership of Peg Raney of the Main Street program. Part of it is the commitment by the city government, and finding funding from state and federal governments, too. A key factor, he says, “is a core group of volunteers willing to get in there and get after it.”

Nick Sorensen

My own observation is that a big reason the historic old buildings are being salvaged and re-purposed is that 38-year-old Nick Sorensen isn’t afraid of them.

He is going to talk us through all that in a Greene County Historical Society program about notable buildings and restorations around the square at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 10. While most historical society programs in Jefferson are held in the museum, Sorensen’s is being moved to the rotunda of the Greene County Courthouse.

“Two reasons for moving this program to the courthouse,” said Roger Aegerter, the society’s executive director. “First, since this program is about our historic buildings, it seemed appropriate to hold it in our beautiful courthouse. Second, we are getting ready to do reconstruction of the ceiling support system in our 102-year-old museum building, and the work may be started by March 10.”

Sorensen said a focus of his presentation will be about three restoration efforts underway now involving three to six buildings, depending on how you count them. Those are “City View on State” at the northeast corner of State Street and Chestnut Street; the “Harness Shop” at 205 N. Wilson Avenue, and “The Arcade,” or former Pizza Ranch, also on N. Wilson.

But he can discuss the possibilities with all the 40 or so buildings around the square and the 92 that are part of the Main Street District.

Sorensen has lived and worked in Jefferson since the fall of 2003, when he joined the Jefferson Police Department. In 13 years with the police, he became a sergeant “and loved being around the guys, the camaraderie, and being of service.” When the building inspector position opened in city government – along with his other duties – he felt a tug on his heart. “I went to Dave Morlan, who was my chief and my mentor, and told him about how interested I am in old buildings,” Sorensen said. ‘He said, ‘If this is something you really want to do, go for it!’ ”

He’s now been on the new job since June of 2015. He was very involved in the façade refurbishment of 13 buildings in 2016 and 2017 with a Community Development Block Grant, and several others since then.

Nick Sorensen says the successful renovation and re-development of the Sensibly Chic building by the Tuckers on the south side of the square in Jefferson shows what can be done with old buildings that have been in various stages of dilapidation.

What is it about old buildings for Sorensen?

“I grew up in Exira, and learned a lot about construction from my dad Larry Sorensen and my grandpa Charlie Sorensen,” Nick said. “They both were roads workers, but my dad was also a mason for several years, and I learned masonry from him. Grandpa Charlie retired from the Iowa DOT when I was in high school, and he saw that there weren’t a lot of jobs available for high school kids to earn some money. So he started up a little construction company to do roofing, painting, flooring, cleaning, changing light bulbs for grandmothers – whatever was needed – and he hired a bunch of us high school kids.

“We did a lot of work at rental properties that Judith Sutcliffe had around the area, and she was really big into historic preservation and renovation. Her sister had a downtown building we were working on in Audubon, and I remember when I walked into the big empty room on the second story, I thought, ‘Why is this great space not being used for something?’ And that always stuck with me.”

So, there’s no fear when he’s starting to work on saving buildings that, in some cases, previous owners have walked away from?

“No, when you jump in and start working on them, you get over that,” Sorensen said. “Digging into them, you gain so much knowledge. You see how well they were put together and how, with a little work, they can have years of good use, decades, or even longer. When you get the work done and you see businesses doing well in them again, it’s very satisfying knowing you’ve been part of it.”

Is he confident enough of the potential that he’d like to own one of the old buildings on the square and redevelopment it for himself?

“Absolutely, if I could afford it,” he said. “I’d put in some neat second-story apartments, recruit a business for the main floor, and then start trying to get the building next door. This downtown is coming alive.”

Just as for the historical society’s programs at the museum, there is no admission charge for this special program in the courthouse rotunda and there will be free refreshments, too.

Photos below here show the buildings in the business district that Sorensen says are now works in progress — and which he will be talking about during his March 10 program for the historical society.

“City View on State” at the northeast corner of State Street and Chestnut Street.

The “Harness Shop” at 205 N. Wilson Avenue.

“The Arcade,” or former Pizza Ranch, also on N. Wilson.

Feb. 10 program explores sports photography thru the decades & into the future — capturing the drama, fun & excitement

JEFFERSON, Iowa, Feb. 4, 2019 — The Greene County Iowa Historical Society begins its 2019 programming with a special feature program on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 10, on “The Past, Present & Future of Sports Photography.”

Presenting will be two well-known newspaper photographers in west central Iowa – Jeff Storjohann of the Carroll Daily Times Herald and Brandon Hurley of the Jefferson Herald.

They will be discussing and sharing their work at the 2 p.m. free program at the historical museum at 219 E. Lincoln Way in Jefferson. (You can see some of their favorite sports photos at the bottom of this story.) The museum’s display of cameras used through the decades will be available, too.

Jeff Storjohann

Storjohann, 53, is in his 26th year as a photographer with the Carroll newspaper, and he is generally regarded as one of the best sports, news and feature photographers working in Iowa today.

He is a native of Gladbrook in east central Iowa, and he earned a photojournalism degree from Hawkeye Tech in Waterloo, where he was trained in news, sports, commercial, industrial and portrait photography. He served as a photo “stringer” for the Marshalltown Times Republican during his school years, and landed his first newspaper job in Postville in northeast area before moving to Carroll.

“My father Don Storjohann, who was an amateur photographer, is really the person that got me started down this path,” Jeff said. “We used to shoot black & white film, and set up a darkroom in the bathroom, which was the only one in our house. This was sometimes a hardship for a family of five at bedtime, when they had to wait for film to be loaded or prints to be made.”

Of course, there’s little use of black & white film today and even less darkroom work being done now, after all the advances in color technology and digital photography. There’s more emphasis than ever before on the quality of the pictures.

Storjohann said he began his sports photography career using a “Pentax K 1000” 35-millimeter camera, then shot Canon cameras for 35 years, “until last year when I made the switch to a Fuji mirrorless system.” He said “that’s just a teaser to get people to attend the program to learn why I prefer a mirrorless system and the lens collection that goes with it.”

He said he’s learned a lot over the years by closely observing several photographers for the Des Moines Register, most notably the retired Pulitzer Prize winner, David Peterson. “I consider one of the absolute best track & field photographers ever,” Storjohann said. “I think his strength was his knowledge of the sport, since he ran track at Kansas State University. I used to watch him at high school and Drake Relays events, just to see where or what location he would shoot from, and then try and visualize what he’d see in the viewfinder from that spot. That sort of taught me how to ‘see’ the world around me without looking through the lens.”

Hurley, 29, now closely watches the work of Storjohann – and other good shooters around the state – to help him improve his photography.

Brandon Hurley

He is a native of Ames who is a graduate of the University of Iowa Journalism School. He began his newspaper career as a staff writer with the Dickinson County News in Spirit Lake four years, worked for a time as sports editor of the Boone News-Republican and for the last 2 ½ years has been with Herald Publishing. He serves as sports editor of the Jefferson Herald and also contributes regularly to the Daily Times Herald in Carroll.

“When it comes to sports photography, I’m for the most part self-taught,” Hurley said. “It’s always been something that is expected of my job. I have really only been a sports photographer for four years, and it’s been pretty much on-the-job training since then. I pick Jeff’s brain on occasion, while other times it’s a lot of trial and error for me. I’m still learning how to find the best angles and proper lighting. For me, it’s a continual learning process.”

He generally uses a Canon 7D camera with a 70-to-200 millimeter telephoto lens.

Hurley says he enjoys sports photography more than news and feature photography “because there’s always action, always a chance for a new and interesting shot. You will always have something to capture – whether it’s the first tip of a game or a third-down catch midway through the last quarter. The opportunity for images always seems to be there, which is what makes it so fun. Plus, it’s not too bad a gig to be right down on the sidelines of some pretty cool sporting events.”

When Storjohann, the older pro, is asked if he likes sports photography more than news or features, he says “that answer is yes – and no.

“It’s ‘yes’ in the sense that I love the challenge of capturing that single, solitary ‘moment’ that defines most, but not all, sporting events,” he said. “The challenge comes from first determining when that ‘moment’ is happening and then having the skills to capture it. The truth is it takes some luck, too, but you can make your own luck in a game, or at least bring the odds in your favor.

“But it’s ‘no’ in the sense that you can have technically great photos from a game but you completely missed that ‘moment.’ ”

People are invited to bring their own cameras and photos to get tips about them from Storjohann and Hurley.

There will also be free refreshments.

A Jeff Storjohann photo of Greene County High School champion high jumper Megan Durbin celebrating a successful jump.
One of Storjohann’s photos from a Carroll High School football game. 
A Brandon Hurley photo of the Greene County High School Rams football team getting ready to take the field.  
A Hurley photo from a cross country meet.  
A Hurley portrait of MMA figher Dylan Forkner, a native of Paton in Greene County.

Mary Geisler, at 100, tells her life story (and favorite stories) in a video interview being televised this month

CHURDAN, Iowa, Jan. 9, 2019 — At 100 years old, Mary Geisler  has lived a whole lot of history here in Greene County. In the late 1920s, she watched in horror as Ku Klux Klansmen, wearing hoods and robes and carrying torches, walked west through the business district of Churdan, then lit on fire a huge cross erected near the railroad depot. She saw her farm community around St. Patrick-Cedar Catholic Church suffer through the hard times of the Great Depression. She taught country school for eight years, starting in 1938 at a salary of $45 per month.  She married, helped husband Ed Geisler run a successful farm, raised eight kids and a lot of chickens.  “I was called a rabble-rouser” a time or two when she was campaigning for one cause or another.  She was a star alto in the Greene County Farm Bureau Chorus, she wrote & recited poetry, and over her lifetime she checked out & read more than 5,000 books from the Churdan Public Library.  (For decades, she “averaged a book a day.”)

Mary Geisler

The story — and stories — of Mary Coan Connolly Geisler simply had to be preserved.

And now they have been.  For these next two weekends in January, Jefferson Telecom and the Greene County Iowa Historical Society are televising a recently-completed, hour-long video interview of Geisler. It will be televised four times on Jefferson Telecom’s cable television Channel 9 at 6 p.m. — on Friday, Jan. 11; Sunday, Jan. 13; Friday, Jan. 18, and Sunday, Jan. 20.

The interview will then be available on DVD at the Greene County Historical Museum.

Chuck Offenburger, retired journalist and a member of the historical society’s board of directors, conducted the interview this past Nov. 8 at Geisler’s farm home five miles west of Churdan, or just southwest of historic St. Patrick’s church.  Roger Aegerter, the historical society’s executive director, did the video recording.  It seems appropriate to add here that Mary Geisler is a past-president of the historical society, serving back when the museum was still located on the north side of the courthouse square in Jefferson.

The interview flows like a warm, friendly conversation, although she confides, “My kids think I talk too much.”

She gets upset now at her fading hearing and vision and “not being able to get out and do things like I always have.”  But generally, she feels good and looks terrific.

At one point, Offenburger tells Geisler that “even at 100 years old, you are still a quite attractive, fetching-looking woman.”  She responds, “Well, thank you!”  Then he asks, “Well, in your early 20s, were you kind of a hot catch?”  She answers with a smile, “Well, I dated a lot of guys.”

He also coaxes her into reciting her favorite passage of Shakespeare, from the famous “Speech to the Players” in “Hamlet.”

Geisler said she always intended to write her own life story in a book, and once “filled half a spiral notebook” with her stories and observations, but then got distracted and never returned to it.  She said she thought “it could have been titled ‘Mary’s Merry-Go-Round’ because my life has been a real merry-go-round.”

We’re honored to preserve at least some of those stories on the new video interview.

Mary in her childhood.

Mary in young adulthood and at her marriage to Ed Geisler in 1944.

The tally sheet on Mary Geisler’s family.

With a chalkboard used for lessons in her country school years.

 

Ces Brunow’s thoughts on the historical society as she steps down from seven years of leadership

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

JEFFERSON, Iowa, Jan. 4, 2019 — Celia “Ces” Brunow, of Jefferson, hasn’t been involved in the Greene County Iowa Historical Society as long as many other people have. But she has had a major impact in her eight years with us – seven of them as an officer and/or board member.

She started attending meetings and volunteering in the museum in 2011, months after moving back to her ol’ hometown. Then she served a year on the board of directors, a year as vice-president, two years as president, and the last three years as past-president.

She decided to leave the board at the end of 2018, primarily because she and her husband & business partner John Brunow have increased their travels in demonstrating and selling specialty bicycles in their All Ability Cycles business. They are especially marketing specially designed, imported bicycles that are easily adapted for riders with special physical challenges, including the elderly.

Ces Brunow

“I do plan on staying involved with the historical society,” Ces said. “I have volunteered to work on increasing membership, and I’m always going to be interested in helping at the museum. There may come a time when I’d like to go back on the board, too, but for now, it’s hard for me to commit to a regular schedule for meetings when we’re traveling like we are.”

Brunow brought a new level of museum experience and new ideas about museum operations home to Greene County with her.

For the previous 15 years, she had worked at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., as site director of their infant-toddler and later their pre-school program.

“Basically we were the child-care program for employees of the Smithsonian museums and for a few other federal agencies that were nearby,” she said. “What was really unusual about it was that we were located right in the museums, and we used their full resources with the children. In fact, we had a written curriculum we used called ‘Museum Magic,’ and it was a state-of-the-art program for early learning.”

That helped shape her belief that “a museum should always be educational, a place of learning. A museum should never be thought of as a boring place where you just go look at old things. And it may be even more important to emphasize educational role of museums in small towns than in bigger places.”

Why?

“Your local history is not really going to be offered in bigger museums elsewhere,” she said. “If we don’t preserve it right here, present it in programs and teach it, it’ll be forgotten.”

In her time with us so far, Brunow has joined with friends Janet Durlam, Dianne Piepel, Mary Weaver and others in several innovative new programs and exhibits.

They helped add several special Sunday afternoon feature programs, covering a wide range of topics, to attract new audiences to the museum – people who because of job normally can’t attend the historical society’s monthly Friday midday programs. They went through the museum archives and storage, acquainting themselves with the artifacts we have and using them in new displays. They put a new emphasis on personal histories of people in Greene County, even having them tell their own stories in video or audio interviews. They initiated a real change in making the museum much more of a “hands-on” place instead of a “do not touch place,” especially for children. And they’ve helped with several special exhibits and programs in support of major events in the community – like the 100th anniversary of the courthouse, the 50th anniversary of the Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower, the Iowa Bicycle Festivals held in Jefferson, and the traveling Smithsonian Institution “Hometown Teams” exhibit about sports in our culture, which was displayed at the museum last summer and early fall.

Brunow pointed to that Smithsonian exhibit, which was co-sponsored here by the Jefferson Matters Main Street program and the historical society, as an example of how new programs or exhibits will attract new people – not only in the audiences but as volunteers.

“Like most volunteer organizations, we need to be adding new people all the time,” she said. “it was interesting that with the ‘Hometown Teams’ exhibit, we had about 40 docents signed up who welcomed people to the museum, guided visitors through, answered questions, that sort of thing. Many of those 40 people had never been in our museum before. I think they enjoyed it. Now we need to get back in touch with those people, thank them with a reception, and tell them how they can be involved with us in the future.”

She says attracting more members and volunteers is one of three big challenges she sees for the historical society in the near future.

A second one is “trying to find a way to continue one of the sweetest things about our Greene County historical society, and that’s our tradition of having the monthly meetings move around to the smaller towns in the county,” she said. As population has aged and declined, it’s increasingly hard for the small communities to find enough volunteers to provide lunches and help with hosting. The society works hard at not only meeting in as many of the towns as possible, but also presenting programs there about their local history.

A third challenge, she said, is “maintaining and improving the buildings we have now.” Those are the museum in the business district, as well as the historical building and one-room country schoolhouse at the county fairgrounds.

Ces Melson Brunow graduated from Jefferson High School in 1967. She and John Brunow, a native of Centerville in southern Iowa, met at the University of Iowa. After graduating in 1971 and marrying, they settled in Centerville, where in 1972 John was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives and served three terms. The Brunows also owned and operated the Moravia Union and Moulton Tribune newspapers in Appanoose County.

Later when John was selling insurance, they moved to New England for eight years, and then on to the Washington, D.C., area. When Ces was working at the Smithsonian, John realized a long dream of owning and operating a bicycle shop, in Vienna, Va. They decided to move back home to Iowa, to be here whenever their retirement begins, and picked Ces’ hometown of Jefferson, partially because of its location on the Raccoon River Valley Trail and John’s desire to open a bicycle shop here.

They have three grown children, all artists. Jessica is an art teacher in Bellevue, Wash.; Jacob, a sculptor and now a craft beer specialist, works with a distributor in Richmond, Va., and Sara, who graduated in musical theater, is now director of community engagement for a theater in Houston, Tex. They have six grandchildren, with a seventh on the way.

The author of this story, Chuck Offenburger, of Cooper, is a member of the board of directors of the Greene County Iowa Historical Society. You can write him at chuck@Offenburger.com.

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    There have been three courthouses built where the Greene County Courthouse stands today.  Ground was broken on the current courthouse in November of 1915, the cornerstone was set in May 1916 and the new building was dedicated in October of 1917. The centennial celebration of the courthouse is already underway, with events being planned by the “Courthouse 100” committee, with support from the Greene County Historical Society.  You can learn more about the courthouse history and the celebration plans on the Facebook page “Courthouse 100: Greene County, Iowa.”

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