Exploring Webster County

Summer was still in full-effect when we got in the car for the three-hour drive to Fort Dodge, Iowa. Whenever Kat and I are presented with several hotel-chains to choose from (and you would be surprised how rare this actually is), we usually try to find an AmericInn to lodge. It’s a nice middle-ground between comfort and reasonable. And, just for the record, Forgotten Iowa is not sponsored by AmericInn or any of its subsidiaries; that hotel chain just happens to play a pretty important role in this project and I felt like it needed to be mentioned at one point or another. This is that time, I guess.

Fort Dodge is a really beautiful city. And it was bustling! We walked up and down the business district there marveling at all the amazing architecture. It seemed like this was a town built by competitive architects that were constantly trying to outdo one another. The further down the main district that you walk, the more impressive does the architecture become. Certainly felt deliberate.

Vincent, on the other hand, was completely desolate. The only visible signs of life from this little town were the small remains of a main street area and a row of baby pumpkins rotting on a table in the space between one empty building and a bar.

We drove around and discovered the skeleton of an old school, but we were bombarded by entire armies of flies and had to evacuate when a few of them bee-lined straight toward my mouth. I’d had enough at that point. Onward!

Badger was interesting because no fewer than three people stopped me to ask me what I was doing there with a camera. The owner of a nearby bar sparked our conversation by saying, “You aren’t scoping the place out to rob us, are you?” I had a very hard time deciding whether or not he was joking. As I type this now, I’m still unsure.

Clare was inasmuch the same kind of community that Vincent was. It was suspiciously quiet there, the lack of sound only amplified by the abandoned buildings that dotted its main street. I always get overly excited when I come across an abandoned building with enough broken windows that I can get a good look inside. This particular building was just beautiful, even as it sat in that sad state of disrepair. The ceilings were ornate, decorated tin that was equal parts shiny and rusted through. The walls looked like they hadn’t been touched by a single human-being since the late 1960’s; covered floor to ceiling in that ugly wood-paneling that swept the Midwest by fire around that time.

Moss had gathered along the floorboards and rot had consumed the place years before my eyes ever met it for the first and only time. I would be surprised if the building remained erect for even another year or two. It looked like it was swaying back and forth there, and we barely had a breeze going at all. As beautiful as it was, I don’t believe that there is much saving to be done with this one.

Barnum was strange just by its immediate presentation. The main street was set up along a T in the road and the buildings only existed one side of it. The other side looked to be a makeshift community junk yard. There was a truck there, for instance, that had license plates dating back to the mid-80’s. I know this for certain, not only because of the date on the lower-right hand side of the plate, but also because I think those navy blue plates are a million percent better than the ugly things we get now.

There were rows of rusted-out tractors and the skeletal remains of lawn-mowing equipment every which way. I was again blown away by the complete lack of sound (until a row of loud Harley Davidson motorcycles came careening down the T in the road, anyway).

I walked down the sidewalk until it abruptly ended at the post-office, and then I turned back toward the car.

We spent over thirty minutes trying to get to Tara, but I became convinced that it must have been bought by a nearby factory because there was absolutely no path to it.

Moorland was an adventure. From its surface, it just kind of looks like any other town in Iowa. But if you explore behind the city park a little bit, you will come across an abandoned baseball diamond. The spirit of that place was still buzzing (though admittedly, that could have been the swarms of bees that made a home there).

Coalville is the census-designated center of Webster County, which is generally bad news as far as finding things to photograph goes. This town was no exception. I had a very hard time finding anything there. I’m not sure why this is the case, by the way, but almost every census-designated town we’ve been to has been remarkably difficult to document.

Otho was a cute little place. There were four buildings on the corner of each block of their main street district. The pub here was my favorite of the four, with those odd palm-trees making it look less Iowan than Floridian. There was a car wash on the right side, and an antique shop on the left.

I have since heard pretty good things about this pub and really wish I could have gotten the chance to go inside and meet its owners.

I’m not exactly sure that Brushy is even a town. It sure looked a lot more like a boating dock than a town to me (I didn’t see a single home or business). I did, however, see no fewer than five fishermen and two older women riding horseback.

The town of Duncombe was dwarfed by these immense silos that loomed over them like a school bully. The gas station was full of people and there were kids riding their bikes outside. But I couldn’t get over how dystopian it felt to be sitting in the shadows of those giants. I am sure Duncombe is a beautiful place to live, don’t get me wrong. It just felt strange, that’s all.

We accidentally discovered Evanston, a town that no map or online resource officially recognizes. The only evidence of it being a real community at all was a small sign that boasted its humble populace in the front yard of somebody’s home.

If it is a real town, then it is officially the least-populated one we’ve been to yet. If it’s not, and this is more likely, then it’s just another case of me being obsessive about documenting these things. Either way, it made for some good photography.

Lehigh was definitely my favorite town of the day. There was just something about it. Maybe it was the way that sat on a bluff overlooking a mighty river. Maybe it was the odd placement of quarters along the tracks of the bridge to it ($4.75 in total). Maybe it was just the fact that it was littered in local history and maybe it was a culmination of all these things happening simultaneously.

I really, really loved Lehigh. These are the kinds of towns that remind me of my hometown of Keokuk and give me an instant connection with the people that choose to live there.

It was about lunchtime though, and Kat and I hadn’t seen a single place to grab a bite to eat since leaving Fort Dodge.

Burnside wasn’t home to any restaurants or gas stations, so our hunger would have to persist for a while. It made me wonder what people did when they wanted to go out, though. Do they really make that long drive to Fort Dodge every time they want a quick burger or a nice meal? Then I remembered that Kat and I often drive all the way to Iowa City to do the same and realized it probably wasn’t as bad as it sounded in theory.

A few moments after I shot this photo in Stratford, I was approached by two men outside of a green pick-up truck with Michigan plates. They were curious about whether or not I’d gotten a photo of one of them relieving himself about two feet from the left edge of this photograph.

I didn’t, obviously, and I honestly didn’t even see the two guys standing there until they made themselves known. It’s strange how I don’t usually get nervous around abandoned buildings that could literally cave in and collapse in on top of me but am, at the same exact time, completely apprehensive about human beings in any capacity. They weren’t even mildly threatening, but I wanted out of that situation more than I can even describe.

So I hit the car with some pep in my step and off we were.

They were gearing up for a rodeo in Dayton, and it seemed like nearly all of the town’s inhabitants were lined up to get inside. After the experience thirty minutes prior, I wasn’t really into the idea of being around a huge group of people, so we passed hard on that. Instead, I walked around and marveled at the murals.

Harcourt had an abandoned school and, admittedly, not a whole lot else.

Though Lehigh was my favorite town of the day, the small incorporated town of Lanyon was the home of my favorite photo. There are times where I don’t even have to look at the screen on my camera to know that I’ve just taken the best photo I will take that day.

I was certain that this was the one and I wasn’t wrong.

Gowrie was a town surrounded by windmills. I always love seeing those things and wish there were more in Southeast Iowa. The town itself wasn’t especially noteworthy to me (mostly because it seemed like the town favored new construction over restoring the old), but there were certainly a few gems.

Like this little brick building across the street from a brand new gas station. The juxtaposition of those two when look at together was strange. You usually don’t get both in Iowa. The town is either brand new or totally worn. Gowrie had both.

Farnhamville won the award for the funniest town name of the day. There’s just no way to pronounce that name beautifully. It just sounds hilarious in all of its forms, like the town couldn’t decide between being named Farn and Hamville and compromised by just mashing them together instead.

Callender was once two separate communities (the other was called Kesho, and that’s damn shame because that is a really nice name that doesn’t exist in Iowa anymore). Given its minuscule stature, it was honestly quite hard to imagine it as two separate communities.

Slifer was only home to a handful of residences, and none of them really caught my eye much. There was this random railroad tie at the edge of a cornfield that did, though.

Roelyn was the last stop of our Webster County trip. It was defined by some sort of industry that was peppered in and out of it in its entirely.

Later that night, I met up with Fort Dodge local Roger Feldhans and interviewed him about his experience there. You can read that here.

And to see more of the towns written about in this article, make sure to check out Forgotten Iowa.

We’re making a lot of progress, but it’s always hard to decide which county we should do next. What do you think?

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