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Out and About: Algona, Iowa

posted on December 20, 2007 at 10:04 AM


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It was first named Call’s Grove, for one of two brothers who founded it. One of their wives later named it Algona, from a word in the Indian language.

It eventually became the county seat for Kossuth County, which is the largest county geographically in Iowa. As "Out and About” correspondent Dan Kaercher reports, Algona is unique in more than its county’s size.

Kaercher: Where the Kossuth County courthouse stands today is where, in 1854, Asa Call told his brother Ambrose "this is the place for our city."

That was the beginning of Algona. Within a month other settlers joined them in the Des Moines River Valley. They and their descendants built what many others built around the state, a good place to live and work and grow.

On the business front, Algona is home to a Hormel plant, a regional health center and hospital, Pharmacists Mutual Companies, a Snap-on Tools facility, a Pioneer research station, one of three in the state, and all the necessary local businesses. On the recreational side, there’s a county historical museum located in a museum piece itself, the first school in town, an aquatic center that looks appealing even in cold weather, a new family YMCA and a whole host of community organizations.

In all these things, Algona is not unlike many other Iowa towns. But every seemingly typical town has its own unique history and Algona is no exception. Located on the highway running north of town, Pharmacists Mutual Companies began in Algona in 1909 as Druggists Mutual.

It’s home to a small but terrific in-house museum. And many of the museum items were donated by policy holders. Interestingly, this home grown company is the only insurer in the country that exclusively serves the professional, personal, and business insurance needs of pharmacists.

Downtown, this corner building is also rather unique. Algona is one of only 8 Midwestern towns to boast what were called a "jewel box bank" designed by world famous architect Louis Sullivan. Built in 1913 for a bank that never got a charter, it became a real estate office and for a while was the headquarters for Pharmacists’ Mutual.

After that, different businesses occupied the space. Over the years, the building was altered, and some of its key architectural details, including stained glass windows, were sold off. But then the building was acquired by the Sullivan Building Foundation which has restored or replicated much of the building’s original grace.

Johnson: Well, when we first started these 11 years ago the main street of Algona didn’t look like it looks now, and there were beginning to be empty buildings as just like many small towns. And we think that we started something when we started this project, because a few years ago the city put in all new streets and that prompted a lot of development downtown. It's been exciting.

Kaercher: Algona has another rather unique historical claim. During World War II, it was the site of a German prisoner of war base camp. There was another one in Clarinda. Ten thousand prisoners came through here. Most were dispersed to branch camps in four states. The Algona camp itself was home to about 3,200 prisoners.

You can learn much more about it all at this museum, which also features a tribute to the local men and women who served in the war. Those were unique times. People here lost sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers in Germany. But thanks in part to the Geneva Convention rules; prisoners were treated as human beings. It was more than that though.

Yocum: John McCain, the presidential candidate said it best, and he ought to know because he was a prisoner. The kind of people you are is told by the way you treat your prisoners. And I think that tells us what the people of Iowa were about.

Kaercher: That may be why, before they left, a group of prisoners created this one-half life size nativity scene for the community. Located in a separate building at the county fairgrounds, and open every year in December, it's a testament to what can happen when people, even enemies, are treated with respect.

Like many Iowa towns, Algona's past and present are interwoven. The fabric of life here just happens to have a few unique threads well worth exploring.

Yeager: Dan Kaercher is with us now. You've got a couple of things going on.

Kaercher: Well, Paul, just another reminder, at the county fairgrounds on the south side of town, you can see that nativity scene which was created by those grateful POWs. It's well worth the visit. All through the month of December, open to the public. Then another great idea for Christmas Eve in Southeast Iowa near Fort Madison is Christmas Eve at the Barn. It's in a Pennsylvania Dutch barn. They have lessons and carols. It's sponsored by Union Presbyterian Church, but actually the services are interdenominational. They start 3 p.m. Several services that day. You can get there in a horse-drawn wagon and have hot chocolate.

Tags: Algona business history Iowa tourism travel

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