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Out and About: Red Oak, Iowa

posted on May 8, 2008 at 9:00 PM


As we’ve often noted on our Out and About segment, a community’s past informs and shapes its present and future – in all sorts of ways.

It takes lots of people to make a community work. And some towns are lucky enough to also have generous benefactors. Red Oak is one.

The third generation of the Wilson family, whose family founded the Wilson concrete company, has been investing in the town’s future.

After a short historical detour, our correspondent Dan Kaercher takes a look at some community projects in Red Oak that have been helped by the Wilson’s commitment to their hometown.

Red Oak was first settled in the 1850s, but the town site grew slowly.

Then, in 1869, the Chicago, Burlington and Pacific arrived and a town named Red Oak Junction was officially organized.

Red Oak became a center of commerce for the region and boasted a meat packing plant, a brewery, a cannery, flour mills and a brick and tile works.

In 1889, the world’s first art calendar was created here. The Murphy Calendar Co. would be in business for 100 more years.

You can learn all about the area’s past at the new Montgomery County Historical Society Museum which opened in 2006.

And you can find tributes to the past all over town. There’s the Montgomery County Courthouse – a magnificent 1890 structure.

We admired the grand turn-of-the last century homes on the Heritage Hill tour.

Then there’s the 1903 Burlington Northern depot. It’s now home to a distinctive and tragic piece of the area’s history – the loss of so many of it’s young men in World War II.

Jacky Adams, Save Our Depot: “It was a tremendous sacrifice ... that this tiny little county of 13,000 peope lost a third of their young men it was an impact that is so significant that it needs to be told.”

Red Oak’s economic foundation is agriculture, of course, but as it did in the past, the town also has quite a few jobs in business and industry. It lost some of those jobs a few years back when a couple of companies left for Mexico and China.

But the town and the county have continued to invest in the future.

The new Montgomery County Family YMCA includes the Carder Indoor Tennis Center – four indoor courts. They draw people from other communities, and in Feb. 2008, the USTA held an indoor junior open here.

It’s unusual for a town of this size, but Red Oak has been steeped in tennis for decades.

At the high school the awards fill more than one display case. The winning record goes back to 1931 when Red Oak had the doubles champions at state. The High School’s current coach, Dan Martinez, has won numerous awards.

And going up nearby is another structure intended to enhance the town’s amenities.

The Performing Arts and Education Association of Southwest Iowa, which encompasses seven counties and the eastern side of Pottawattamie, is building a performing arts and education center.

Larry Brandstetter, PAEA Board Chair: “Regions of the state of Iowa have to begin working together and by working together we’re going to be able to make life a lot better for everybody than individual communities working in isolation.”

The association, formed in 2003, isn’t waiting for the building. For example, it’s offering string lessons since December, 2003.

Education is an important part of the Association’s mission. A few students gathered for us while we were in town. Helping them rehearse for a spring concert is their teacher, Rebecca Kia Vanderholm. A full-time violinist with the Omaha Symphony, she plays with Mannheim Steamroller and other symphonies.

From the arts, to sports to history – to an impressive new motel and more, Red Oak is looking to attract people with its quality of life.

George Maher, Red Oak Industrial Foundation & Montgomery County Development Corp.: “A lot of people realize they can come here and have advantages and amenities that I mention and still not live and suffer through, I shouldn’t use the word, but, big cities. “

It’s the best of both worlds, small town living with bigger city opportunities.


Red Oak World War II exhibit: Save Our Depot, Inc. 712-623-6340

Tags: Iowa Red Oak


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