Scranton’s “Varceis Club” headlines our program on the many women’s clubs
SCRANTON, Iowa, Oct. 27, 2019 — The Greene County Historical Society will dip into some real rural Iowa culture in its meeting and program on Friday, Nov. 1, at the Scranton United Methodist Church.
Journalist Chuck Offenburger, of rural Cooper, will share some details from a column he has written about the history and current status of women’s clubs in Greene County. Then he will introduce a skit by members of the almost-legendary “Varceis Club” of Scranton, who’ll act out some of the 70 years of club history.
You may know that the “Varceis” name comes from the initials of the first names of the club’s founding members. With a salad luncheon and their annual comedy skits, they’ve raised money to donate to local programs and activities.
Performing from the Varceis Club will be members Linda Hedges, Lanie Schermerhorn, Sue Holden and Susanne MacDonald. After their skit, they will be joined by the one remaining founding member of the club, Roberta Henning, to answer questions from the audience.
There will be lunch served at 12 noon, $8 for historical society members and $10 for others who want to enjoy the meal. Members should RSVP to their community contacts by Tuesday evening, Oct. 29, and non-members who want to come for the lunch should RSVP by calling program director Margaret Hamilton at (515) 386-4408.
The program at 12:45 p.m. is free and the public is invited.
A second “museum party” this Saturday welcomes another Lincoln Highway tour recalling 1919 convoy
JEFFERSON, Iowa, Sept. 3, 1010 — The Greene County Historical Society is hosting another “museum party” this Saturday, Sept. 7, to help welcome another group coming through Greene County as part of a motor tour across the nation on the historic Lincoln Highway.
The historical museum at 219 E. Lincoln Way will be open for its normal Saturday business hours from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. But it will remain open until 4 p.m. for the special “museum party” through the afternoon. Admission to the museum and refreshments are free, and local people are encouraged to come greet the travelers.
Two weeks ago, on Aug. 24, a tour of more than 50 restored military vehicles made a stop in Jefferson while on their drive across the nation. That tour was sponsored and organized by the Military Vehicle Preservation Association.
The one that will be here this Saturday is organized by the Lincoln Highway Association, and it is expected to bring more custom and antique cars.
Both tours are saluting a 1919 U.S. military convoy, which was led then by a young Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who later became president of the U.S. The troops were exploring how effective the Transcontinental Highway, as it was becoming known, would be for moving soldiers and equipment. That experience is said to have shaped Eisenhower’s thinking three decades later in directing the construction of the interstate highway system.
The people on this latest Lincoln Highway Association-organized tour left the Washington, D.C., area on Aug. 30. They’re traveling up to 200 miles per day en route to a Sept. 16 finish in San Francisco. Their total route of just more than 3,000 miles generally follows the historic Lincoln Highway.
They will be crossing Greene County this Saturday, arriving in Jefferson at about 1 p.m. for a stop of up to an hour. They’ll be parking near the museum. The entourage will be moving between overnight stays in Marshalltown on Friday and Council Bluffs later Saturday.
At the museum, Janice Harbaugh, of Raspberry Ridge Publishing here in Jefferson, will be displaying and selling her line of historical re-publications, which include vintage postcards and other early books that portray the settlement and development of this area. The Greene County postcards have been especially popular with visitors here. Refreshments are being donated by historical society members.
History comes alive at the Greene County Fair, Friday & Saturday July 12-13
JEFFERSON, Iowa, July 9, 2019 — The Greene County Historical Society will take part in the Greene County Fair later this week with its popular “history chats” for a fifth straight year, displays of early farm life and classic ag equipment, tours and explanations of a historic one-room schoolhouse, and a free ice cream social each afternoon.
The society’s exhibits building on the fairgrounds will be open Friday and Saturday, July 12 and 13, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The displays in that building – and the antique equipment around it — showcase the agriculture of Greene County in the early to mid 1900s
“How long since you strolled through our exhibits building to look at historical Greene County farming?” said Roger Aegerter, executive director of the historical society. “Have you ever been there to see the hand tools, tractors, and local farm inventions? This building was put up in 1975 and houses many of the historical society’s large agriculture artifacts. The walls of the building underwent a renovation about 10 years ago and the walls were lined with authentic barn boards with cattle and horse stalls. This might be, should be the year you discover Greene County’s agricultural past.”
In addition, the “Bristol No. 7” country schoolhouse next door on the fairgrounds will be staffed Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to5 p.m. by Becki Cunningham, who will explain what rural education was once like in the county. Cunningham, a member of the historical society board from Paton, attended a country school in her student years.
The schoolhouse was built in 1874, restored by the historical society in 1967 and repaired again in the last three years by the organization. It is also known as the “Minnihan Schoolhouse,” after the family that owned surrounding land and donated the building for re-location to the fairgrounds.
In special programming inside the historical building, the historical society will sponsor “History Chats” for a fifth consecutive year. There will be six different chats on topics of local history, with moderators Chuck Offenburger of Cooper and Jerry Roberts of Jefferson, both retired journalists, asking questions of a small panel of people with expertise on each topic. Questions and stories from the audience will be encouraged, too.
“For each of these history chats, we hope people with some knowledge and stories about the topic will attend for these discussions, which will be more like conversations than interviews,” said Offenburger. “We’ll sit in a circle of chairs, Jerry and I will get the chat started, and we’ll do our best to draw stories out of the people there. One reason we like to do this is because we usually hear about historical moments or incidents we’ve never known before – and that sometimes leads us to full-blown programs later on for the historical society.”
Here are the days, times and topics for the history chats:
Friday, July 12
11 a.m. — Auction Barns of Greene County.
1 p.m. — Doug Rieder & Greene County Sports History.
3 p.m. — When Rock ‘n’ Roll Arrived in Greene County.
Saturday, July 13
11 a.m. — The Ku Klux Klan in Greene County.
1 p.m. — The 50-Year News Careers of Jerry Roberts & Chuck Offenburger (including the times they got fired), interviewed by Jefferson native Jack Lashier.
3 p.m. — The Future of Greene County.
And both days at 2 p.m. in our historical building, there’ll be free servings of “Hanaman’s Historic Homemade Ice Cream,” made by historical society board members Dale and Nancy Hanaman, of Rippey. Cookies, too.
Because of the activities at the fairgrounds on Saturday, July 13, the historical society’s museum in the business district will not be open that day.
Stories of the Mason House from the Fosters when our society meets Friday June 7
Nick and Annette Foster, owners for about a year now of the Mason House hotel in Jefferson, will share fascinating stories they’ve learned about their 130-year-old guest house when the Greene County Historical Society meets on Friday, June 7, at the First United Methodist Church in Jefferson.
Located at 502 E. Lincoln Way, the hotel opened in 1889 primarily to serve passengers on the north-south railroad coming through Jefferson.
Today, it’s still serving a lot of visitors — those who are arriving on bicycles on the Raccoon River Valley Trail, which now occupies the former railroad route, and others who are driving to the community.
The Fosters, who live in Jefferson and farm just outside town, bought the hotel from previous owners Dr. Jim and Nancy Teusch, also of Jefferson. The Teusches had called the hotel, which they renovated a decade ago, the Old Lincolnway Hotel, but the Fosters decided to restore usage of its original name, the Mason House hotel.
The Fosters are well-known among history buffs in the area, as they also host the annual Old-Fashioned Threshing Bee at their farm on a weekend in late July. And Nick Foster is on the board of directors of the historical society. Annette Foster and their daughter Nicole Timmons, both former public school teachers, are now co-directors of Natural Wonders Learning Center for early childhood education in Jefferson.
For the historical society event on June 7, there will be a lunch in the church hall at 12 noon, $8 for historical society members and $10 for others who are not members but would like to eat with the group. Historical society members should RSVP about lunch to their community contacts right away, and others who want to have lunch should RSVP to board member Margaret Hamilton at (515) 386-4408.
The program at 1 p.m. is free and open to the public.
Our historical society hosts “Iowa History 101” during Bell Tower Festival, plus the art show & spelling bee
JEFFERSON, Iowa, June 1, 2019 — The Greene County Historical Society is participating in the 40th Bell Tower Festival in Jefferson June 7-9 in three ways – hosting a special traveling display on state history on E. Lincoln Way adjacent to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Gardens, hosting the Bell Tower art show at the historical museum, and sponsoring the festival’s spelling bee at the Greene County Community Center.
–The traveling display of state history is aboard a “Iowa History 101” mobile resource — a very big bus that the State Historical Society of Iowa now has visiting all 99 counties. It will be at the Bell Tower Festival on Saturday, June 8, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission to it is free.
“This exhibition shares some of the essential stories that every Iowan should know about who we are and what we’ve achieved since Iowa became a state more than 170 years ago,” State Historical Society of Iowa administrator Susan Kloewer said. “So we’re delighted to bring this traveling exhibition, and we encourage all Iowans to learn about our state’s rich heritage.”
Like a visit to your grandparents’ attic, the exhibition unpacks stories of Iowa’s past with nearly 50 artifacts, including:
• A battered hat from a coal miner in Marion County.
• A 1917 prototype of the state flag designed by Dixie Cornell Gebhardt of Knoxville.
• The pen Gov. William Harding used to sign the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote.
• A basketball jersey that superstar Lynne Lorenzen wore during her glory days at Ventura High School from the mid to late 1980s.
• An Olympic medal from sprinter Natasha Kaiser-Brown of Des Moines.
• A patch from a spacesuit worn by astronaut Peggy Whitson of Beaconsfield.
As a bonus, native Iowan Mike Wolfe, the creator and star of the hit television series “American Pickers,” lent his voice and video talents to the exhibition’s multimedia elements.
—The Bell Tower art show at the historical museum will showcase the work of local artists and pieces from the collections of local art lovers. There are no entrance fees, and the art is neither juried nor judged. “This is a show to showcase our local talents and also for people to share artwork that means something to them,” said Roger Aegerter, the chairperson of the show and the executive director of the historical society. Hours of the show at the museum will be Friday, June 7, from5to 8 p.m.; Saturday, June 8, from10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday, June 9, from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is free and people are welcome to browse the museum exhibits, too.
—The traditional spelling bee will be held at 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 8, at the community center. There will be competition for four different age groups – adults included – and there is no entry fee.
Pleasant Hill Church, with new life & spirit, is ready for May 26 Homecoming
By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
The annual Pleasant Hill Memorial Homecoming service & potluck dinner will be held on Sunday, May 26, at the 138-year-old pioneer church located about five miles southeast of Jefferson.
The event is presented by the Pleasant Hill Memorial Inc. committee, with support from the Greene County Iowa Historical Society.
Pleasant Hill Church has roots from 1873 when Methodist classes were started to serve the pioneers settling in the area. The church structure was started in 1881, and it has been kept in more-or-less good repair ever since, even though there hasn’t been an active congregation using the church for decades. The neighbors formed a non-profit organization to sustain it.
For 60 or 70 years, a service on Memorial Day weekend has been held.
Peg Semke, president of the Pleasant Hill Memorial board, notes the old church is in a renaissance.
“We’re really grateful for all that’s happened the last two years,” Semke said. “Due to personal donations of time, money, labor and supplies, and a Louis Dreyfus Company grant from the Greene County Board of Supervisors, the interior has been patched and repainted, the windows have been replaced and some refurbished, the basement walls have been repaired, and the original wood floor is very near completion of rehab.”
She said that “going hand in hand with this, we have had increased usage of the church building with weekly Sunday evening services last summer,” led by Central Christian Church from Jefferson. There have also been two Easter sunrise services, Christmas caroling, and a funeral.
“Pleasant Hill Memorial is very grateful to be existing not only as a memorial, but to once again becoming a living part of the community,” Semke said.
Activities at this year’s Homecoming next Sunday will begin at 9:30 a.m. with a revival-like service presented by Central Christian Church, and the public is welcome.
At 10 a.m, there will be coffee, juice and Marianne Carlson’s Iowa State Fair champion cinnamon rolls served in the church yard, with music by the Central Christian brass ensemble.
At 11 a.m., the official Homecoming service will be held back in the church with congregational hymn singing; a special musical salute to veteran and service members led by Mark and Rita Rasmussen; an invocation and benediction by Rev. Dale Hanaman of the historical society, and brief messages from three guest speakers:
–Melissa Bosshart Frederick, 28, who now lives near the southern border of Greene County, grew up a mile north of Pleasant Hill, graduated from Jefferson-Scranton High School in 2009 and the University of Iowa in 2013. She was a candidate for Greene County supervisor last fall. Melissa and her husband Bill Frederick are raising baby daughter Leah on their farm in southern Greenbrier Township. She continues her strong personal ties to Pleasant Hill Church. “My mom and dad got married there, we’ve always been good friends with the Semkes and they got married there, the funeral luncheon for my great-grandpa was in the church, and my husband Bill and I got married there,” she said. “It’s always been a special place in my life.”
–Rep. Phil Thompson, of Jefferson, also 28 and a Jefferson-Scranton High School classmate of Melissa Frederick, was in the Army for eight years, deployed to Iraq, attended West Point for two years, and got out as a staff sergeant. He now represents his home area in the Iowa House of Representatives. “Pleasant Hill has always been a special church for my family,” Thompson said. “We attended the Pleasant Hill Memorial service and potluck every year. As a boy, the service stood out as one of my earliest, most vivid memories. I look back on those services and remember feeling so inspired by the church choir filling up the room and the 21-gun salute. It was probably the first community tradition that I fully understood and had deep reverence for. It helped shape my character and desire to serve.”
–And Wallace Teagarden, 96, a native of the Pleasant Hill area who now lives in Ames, says he intends to be back for his traditional patriotic oration. “I’m really blessed in my health, I feel good and I plan to be there as usual,” Teagarden said, then adding his annual caveat: “But at my age, you never know.” He learned his stirring address as a junior high student in Grand Junction, and has been doing it from memory ever since – including at every Pleasant Hill Homecoming since 1960. How does he do it? “Well, I practice it when Memorial Day is coming around,” he said. “And I do my voice exercises every day all year. When you get older and are living alone, your voice can get weak. So twice a day, I count to 100 in a good loud voice. I’ve probably done that for 50 years or longer. If I don’t exercise it daily, I find it gets kind of screechy and scratchy.”
At 12 noon Sunday, after the service, there will be a 21-gun salute outdoors by the Kinkead Martin American Legion Post of Rippey and “Taps” by Sam Bassett on trumpet.
Then there will be the traditional Pleasant Hill Homecoming chicken potluck dinner. The chicken will be provided, but all are asked to bring a favorite side dish and their tableware.
A freewill offering will be accepted to help with the costs of the celebration and the ongoing work on the church facilities.
Also, high-quality prints of an oil painting of Pleasant Hill Church, done during the Memorial Homecoming celebration in 2017 by noted Iowa artist Zack Jones, will be sold for $50 in a fundraiser for the historical society.
Following the dinner, the board members of Pleasant Hill Memorial Inc. will have their annual meeting in the church.
Marianne Carlson will have her Iowa State Fair champion cinnamon rolls available between the services at Pleasant Hill Church, just as she did in this photo from a year ago.
The fried chicken potluck dinner is a grand tradition at Pleasant Hill Church on Memorial Day weekend. Here, Nancy and Dale Hanaman, of rural Rippey, were enjoying the dinner at the 2018 Homecoming.
Roger Aegerter, the executive director of the Greene County Iowa Historical Society, had the prints of artist Zack Jones’ oil painting of Pleasant Hill Church available at last year’s Homecoming, and he’ll offer them again at this weekend’s event.
The author Chuck Offenburger, of rural Cooper, is a member of the board of directors of the historical society. You can reach him by email atchuck@Offenburger.com.
Churdan High ’49 graduate “Gus” Gustafson’s business career was the talk of the Twin Cities and Las Vegas – while it lasted
CHURDAN, Iowa, April 29, 2019 — Deil O. (“Gus”) Gustafson, who graduated from old Churdan High School in 1949, may have been one of the biggest business success stories ever to come out of Greene County. In the 1960s, he was a lawyer, college professor, and the owner of banks and other businesses in Minnesota. In the 1970s, he was owner-operator of the famous or infamous Tropicana casino & resort in Las Vegas. In the 1980s, it all unraveled and collapsed around him, and he served three-plus years in prison. In 1999 back in Minnesota, he died of a massive heart attack at the age of 67.
This Friday, May 3, the Greene County Historical Society will remember and explore Gustafson’s story in a meeting and program at the Public Library in his old hometown of Churdan.
Paul White, of Churdan, a member of the historical society board of directors, was a half-dozen years behind Gustafson in school and has always been fascinated by his life. The past year, he’s been compiling information about the man, contacting Gustafson’s high school classmates for their help, and working with another historical board member Chuck Offenburger, of Cooper, a retired journalist.
Their research has included a long telephone interview with Gustafson’s daughter Kristina Gustafson, about 55, who is an equestrian, a ranch owner and a realtor in Florida.
“My dad was a true entrepreneur,” Kristina said. “He had hotels, banks, farms, housing, casinos, you name it. He was working on projects like desalination of water, to make it potable, and also on building electric-powered cars, way back in the 1960s and ’70s. He was always a man ahead of his times, usually at least 10 years ahead. And he was great at taking over white elephants and figuring out a way to turn them around and make money on them. Yes, he became famous, but it was never about the fame for him. He just loved to deal.”
Did he talk much in later life about his high school years in Churdan?
“He was always bringing it up,” Kristina said.
Gus Gustafson was a major newsmaker during his career, both in the Twin Cities and in Las Vegas. By 1974, he was profiled on page one of the Wall Street Journal, and most other prominent business publications also featured him. One of them nicknamed him “The Grand Acquisitor.” At one point, the value of his various holdings were estimated at $200 million, and his personal net worth was said to be more than $20 million – and that was more than a fortune back then in the ’70s.
Eventually, he was overextended financially, had to take on partners, and that opened the door to his empire being infiltrated by “the Kansas City mob,” as newspaper stories back then referred to it. Gustafson served 40 months in prison, and he also became a witness for additional federal prosecution of Kansas City crime figures.
In an exchange with Offenburger, longtime Las Vegas newspaper columnist John L. Smith recalled the Gustafson era at the Tropicana and said, “I was frankly a little surprised he wasn’t murdered by some of his business associates.”
Gustafson wound up back in Minnesota, overseeing a farming operation in the Cannon Falls area.
On Friday, White and Offenburger will moderate a panel discussion that will include Gustafson’s high school classmates Rosemary Fay Cassell, of Churdan, and Doug Tucker, of Jefferson. Added to the panel, for his special knowledge of Churdan community history in the 1940s and ’50s, is Cecil “Cy” Hoyle, who graduated from Churdan High in 1946.
Audience members will also asked to share stories and memories of Gus Gustafson and his family, who lived in Churdan from about 1946 to the early 1950s. His father Otto Gustafson was co-partner in a John Deere farm implement business in the community, his mother Britta was active in Churdan church and social life. They had a daughter Jeanette Gustafson, four years older than Gus.
Note that Gustafson’s real first name was “Deil.” In his high school yearbook photos, you’ll see it spelled “Dale.” He dealt with a lifetime of confusion about that, tracing to when his name was recorded at birth. His Swedish-born mother told the nurses she was naming her new boy “Dale,” but with her accent, the nurses somehow heard “Deil” and that’s what was recorded. Most people, throughout his life, just called him “Gus.”
On Friday, there will be a catered lunch in the library’s community room at 12 noon, $8 for historical society members and $10 for others who are not members but would like to eat with us. Historical society members should RSVP about lunch to their community contacts by Tuesday evening, April 30, and others who want to have lunch should RSVP to board member Margaret Hamilton at (515) 386-4408.
The program at 1 p.m. in the library’s community room is free and open to the public.
We’ve re-scheduled our program in Cooper, from April 5 to April 12
COOPER, Iowa, April 2, 2019 — Due to a death and funeral in a family that has long been active in the Greene County Historical Society, the organization’s lunch and program that had been scheduled for this Friday, April 5, in Cooper has been re-scheduled one week later – on Friday, April 12.
The historical program will feature Cooper native and actor Dennis Peer, now of Iowa Falls, portraying Isaac Cooper, the pioneer Des Moines business leader after whom the Greene County town is named.
Historical society president David John made the decision to postpone the program this week because many members of the society want to attend the funeral of Rev. Dr. Steven Harberts, 72, of Jefferson, who died Monday. Harberts is a son-in-law in the Coon family, longtime leaders in the historical group. His memorial service is scheduled this Friday, April 5, at 11 a.m. at the First Presbyterian Church in Jefferson.
The historical society’s gathering in Cooper now shifts to Friday, April 12.
Lunch will be at 12 noon in the basement of the Cooper United Methodist Church, with Peer’s presentation as Isaac Cooper at 1 p.m. in the church sanctuary. Lunch is $8 for historical society members and $10 for others who are not members. Members should RSVP about lunch to their community contacts by Tuesday evening, April 9, and others who want to have lunch should RSVP to board member Nancy Hanaman at (515) 436-7684. The program is free.
Historical Society meets in Cooper on Friday, April 12, with some special guests!
By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
COOPER, Iowa, April 1, 2019 — The Greene County Iowa Historical Society has its regular April meeting on Friday, April 12, at the United Methodist Church in the town of Cooper, and there will be a special guest presenting the program — “Isaac Cooper,” the pioneer Iowa businessman after whom the town was named.
Actually, Isaac Cooper died in 1902, so his visit will be a historical portrayal, performed by actor Dennis Peer, of Iowa Falls, a talented native son of the town of Cooper.
This event was originally scheduled for Friday, April 5, but postponed to April 12 because of a funeral.
There will be other special guests, too.
Cooper Hubbell, 35, of Des Moines, the great-great-great-grandson of Isaac Cooper, is planning to attend, as is his father Mike Hubbell, also of Des Moines, great-great-grandson of Isaac Cooper.
Peer, who will be performing as Isaac Cooper, was one of the best athletes at Cooper High School, where he had completed his junior year when the school closed in 1959. And he had his first theatrical experience at Cooper High, too,, playing the lead role of “Mr. Latherby,” who under hypnosis thinks he’s a rabbit, in the school play, a farce titled “The Perfect Idiot.”
He went on to graduate from Jefferson High School the following year. He earned his bachelor and master’s degrees in theater from the University of South Dakota, where he met his wife Becky when both were performing in the cast of “Music Man.” They also performed in summer stock theater in the Black Hills for several years, too.
In Iowa Falls, Dennis taught theater at Ellsworth Community College for 38 years before retiring, and Becky did the choreography for most of the plays Dennis directed. She also operated a dance studio for 25 years, then opened a pre-school. They have a daughter Shawna Meyer and son Shannon Peer, both living in the Des Moines area.
The town of Cooper was founded in 1881 as a stop on a new railroad being built from Des Moines to the Iowa Great Lakes. One of the railroad’s developers was legendary Des Moines business leader Frederick M. Hubbell, and he named the new town in southern Greene County after his father-in-law Isaac Cooper.
It will be the second time Peer has portrayed Isaac Cooper, the first being when the town celebrated its quasquicentennial in 2006.
Cooper, the man, “was among the early settlers of the Des Moines area, and he did pretty well in business,” Peer said. “He’s probably most known for being the nephew of James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote ‘The Last of the Mohicans,’ and for his daughter Frances marrying into the Hubbell family. While our town of Cooper was named after him, I don’t think there’s any indication that he ever visited it.”
He said that in his portrayal, he’ll tell as much as he’s learned about Isaac Cooper, and “then I’ll also include some observations about the history and the people of the town, too. I’ll probably even include a blurb on the Peer family.”
Dennis is the only child of Don Peer, who had a 20-year career in the U.S. Navy, and Martha Peer, who served for years as “postmistress” at Cooper’s U.S. Post Office.
The 1 p.m. program in the church sanctuary is free and open to the public.
On April 12, there will be a lunch in the Cooper church basement at 12 noon, $8 for historical society members and $10 for others who are not members. Historical society members should RSVP about lunch to their community contacts by Tuesday evening, April 9, and others who want to have lunch should RSVP to board member Nancy Hanaman at (515) 436-7684.
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.”
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.
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How many courthouse structures have been built on the site of the current Greene County Courthouse?
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.”