The Preservation Stars of Madison County, Iowa

John Wayne says, “This Place Matters.” (Julie Feirer, photographer)

Written by Paula Mohr, State Architectural Historian

This post is part of a week-long series from the State Historic Preservation Office of Iowa in honor of #Preservation50, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act.

Madison County, and the town of Winterset its county seat, are well-known as the birthplace of legendary film star John Wayne and as the bucolic setting for the book and movie The Bridges of Madison County.

Today, a constellation of bright preservation stars is hard at work to preserve the history of this remarkable community. The seven-member Madison County Historic Preservation Commission (a Certified Local Government since 1989) is currently headed up by chair Brenda Hollingsworth. Brenda and the other commission members enjoy the strong support of county and Winterset city officials. They are bringing energy, enthusiasm and determination to preserve not only the historic resources within the county but also the stories that make it a special place.

One of the most important stories is Madison County’s role in the Underground Railroad which was particularly active in southwest and central Iowa. Through exhaustive research, historian Linda Smith and other members of the commission have identified more than 60 individuals who were working to aid freedom seekers in the late 1850s and early 1860s. The commission is also researching the Underground Railroad routes taken through the county and plans to prepare a nomination for the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom program.

The county historic preservation commission has also completed an intensive survey of the commercial area around courthouse square and in December 2015, this district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The commission members are continuing their outreach to property owners within the district offering one-on-one assistance and answering questions about the historic tax credit programs and rehabilitation techniques.

Madison County Courthouse (Chris Gourley, photographer)

Five of Madison County’s iconic covered bridges are listed on the National Register but other bridge types are also being actively preserved. The commission has embarked on their first Section 106 consultation which is for a Pratt through truss bridge damaged by a flood in 2010. Working with FEMA and Madison County Secondary Roads, the commission has developed a plan to relocate the bridge where it will become part of a recreational trail.

In June 2015, in partnership with the State Historic Preservation Office, the Madison County Historic Preservation Commission hosted the Preserve Iowa Summit the statewide historic preservation conference. Our largest state preservation conference to date, this event attracted approximately 350 preservationists from across the state who came to learn about cemeteries, historic plaster, financial incentives, and masonry rehabilitation. Attendees networked during a wonderful evening reception that took place on one of the county’s covered bridges!

Finally, in keeping with our star theme: Winterset is also the home and workplace of Marianne Fons, co-star of the popular public television show “Fons & Porter’s Love of Quilting.” Marianne is the president of the Iowa Quilt Museum board of directors which will open the Iowa Quilt Museum later this year. Housed in the historic J.C. Penney Company building on the courthouse square, this project promises to be a successful adaptive use. Marianne and her daughter Rebecca have also purchased the Iowa Theater which they are in the process of rehabilitating. When finished, this old theater will be a place for live performances and perhaps for showing some of the movies that made Winterset famous.

To visit or learn more about these historic spots and more download the #iowaculture app from Apple or GooglePlay store today.

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