An Ax Made Villisca Famous. Now What?

Villisca, Iowa. You’ve probably heard of it, and I bet it’s not because of their fiber connectivity or strong military history. No, it’s the Ax Murder House and the legacy of the eight individuals who were bludgeoned to death there in June 1912.

For over 100 years, that June night has hung over the community. There’s been a quiet but strong dispute as to whether the community should embrace that horrific night or if it should turn its back on its strongest economic driver.

Tucked away on a quiet street, the Ax Murder House draws hundreds of people to the community each month and has been the focus of paranormal investigations and ghost hunting television shows. However, the success of the House has not translated into broader community prosperity.

Villisca Ax Murder House

While Villisca has strong name recognition thanks to the House, it faces similar challenges to other rural communities across the country: The population has consistently declined, the grocery store closed, daycare options are lacking, and there is not enough quality housing.

Downtown Villisca

In 2018, Villisca leaders recognized the need to take a more proactive approach to addressing these challenges. Leaders from the public and private sector joined with McClure to develop a placemaking action plan to spur a more vibrant future for the community of 1,171.

Public Space in Villisca

The strategy identifies key steps to addressing the grocery, daycare, and housing issues, lays out how the community can implement a wayfinding and beautification strategy, and outlines the vision for Axtober, a series of new community events to be held in October that will introduce more people to Villisca and boost its long-term prosperity.

Each of these initiatives will take some time to unfold, but the key for Villisca — and any community — is starting implementation immediately. The Villisca leadership team formed several committees to begin work on the priorities while our work was still in progress. They have brought in additional strategic partners like the Montgomery County Development Corporation, the Southwest Iowa Planning Council, and the Iowa Women’s Foundation and have set themselves up for success by limiting themselves to five focus areas. They understand that if everything is a priority nothing is a priority, and that will serve the community well in the coming months and years.

Villisca will always be known as the home of the Ax Murder House, but their new placemaking action plan positions them to broaden that story and bring more people and businesses — necessary ingredients for a thriving area — into the community.

To see the full Villisca action plan, visit