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Out and About: Corning, Iowa

posted on November 15, 2007 at 10:04 AM


Iowa has a number of Main Street Communities as designated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We visited one earlier this year when we stopped in Elkader.

Tonight we visit another... Corning.

Named for Erastus Corning, a prominent 19th century New York state capitalist who earned great wealth and political office, this town would make its namesake proud.

Out and About correspondent Dan Kaercher travels to Corning to see how a group of people can make a difference.


Corning is the county seat of Adams County, which, according to the 2000 census, it’s the smallest county in the state, with almost 4500 people. Corning is home to about 1700.

People work together here ... maybe because they know they have to ... and maybe because it’s in their history.

Back in 1852, in this area outside of town, some French settlers established an Icarian Colony. A utopian communal society ... the Corning settlement was the longest lived non-religious utopian community in American history – lasting 46 years.

Today, there are the beginnings of an extensive historical site – an 1860 school house and an 1878 dining hall. A work in progress, it will someday serve meals again and host gatherings. While in town there’s the National French Icarian Heritage Society and the Colony Foundation.

Downtown, itself, is a 21st century story about a community working together.

This is The Fickle Frog – a gift shop and espresso bar with a great sense of whimsy. Donna Hogan opened it downtown in 1991, after selling out of her garage for 10 years.

Hogan serves on three boards working on economic development and chairs two committees.

Donna Hogan: “It’s all about building a community where people want to live, work, play and visit --- in Corning and in all of Adams County.”

That community includes:

  • an industrial park just outside of town
  • a hospital that’s been renovated and expanded - -twice in about a dozen years
  • and runs a fitness center downtown
  • a 700 plus seat opera house that is being restored
  • a 400 acre CRP research and demonstration farm, the first in the state.

There’s a fairgrounds horse rack that became a NASCAR sanctioned speedway, several museums including the birthplace of Johnny Carson, and all sort of shops and specialty stores downtown.

At McMahon’s Drug Store, you can even get a genuine old-fashioned soda.

Dan Kaercher: “This area’s can-do spirit won Adams County the designation as one of Iowa’s Great Places under the state program. Corning has earned awards from the National Main Street program. Since 1990 over 4 million local dollars have been invested in downtown improvements.”

One of the unique things this rural town has created is the Corning Center for the Fine Arts. Offering juried works for sale, it even has an artist’s residency program.

Iowa jewelry artist Rachel Simms designed high end watches in Switzerland before she came to Corning.

Linda Shearer is President of the Corning Fine Arts Center.

Dan Kaercher: “Linda, what a phenomenal art center. What's it doing here in rural Iowa?”

Linda Shearer: “Well, we decided that we need to have a niche of our own, and we have a lot of other specialty stores up and down Main Street and decided an art center was doable.”

And do note, some of the money for this center does come from sales.

North of town, we encounter the area’s Icarian history again at Lake Icaria. This beautiful 1900 acre park offers plenty of ways to have fun -- water sports and fishing, camping and lodges.

And its name is a reminder of what can be done when people work together.


Tags: business Corning history Iowa politics tourism travel


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