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Out and About: Centerville, Iowa

posted on November 13, 2008 at 10:34 AM

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Many Iowa towns have a Carnegie library. Centerville, though, has the Drake Library. It was a gift from one of its notable citizens, General Francis Marion Drake -- lawyer, banker, businessman, railroad builder, philanthropist, Civil War general and governor of Iowa from 1896 to 1898.

Drake was one of many people who shaped Centerville or was shaped by it.

Correspondent Dan Kaercher finds out about some others as he goes Out and About in Centerville.

Centerville’s square is like most courthouse squares. There’s the courthouse itself and there are old buildings. What’s different is the size. This square is two city blocks on each side.

It also has 119 old buildings, including that courthouse, on the National Register of Historic Places, so it’s called the Historic Courthouse Square District.

But what’s maybe equally important is what you can still do here.

In this town of about 6,000, among other things, you can buy men’s clothes on the square, women’s clothes, in three stores, shoes, furniture... and there’s still that staple of small towns -- a Ben Franklin store.

A variety of events are held on the square throughout the year. And when the weather is good, you can enjoy concerts at this new band shell.

Like most Iowa towns, farming has always been important here. But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Centerville, in fact all of Appanoose County, was a major coal mining center. Those mines attracted all sorts of European immigrants and African Americans.

Locals proudly note that today, for a town their size, they have a very ethnically diverse population.

The area’s past is remembered at this museum, which documents the mining days, and at the restored historic Second Baptist Church. Iowa’s world-renowned opera singer Simon Estes sang in the choir in the 1940s at what was once called “the colored church.”

As proud as this town is of its heritage, it’s also looking to its future.

Centerville native Marsha Mitchell has been Mayor since January of 2008.

Mayor Marsha Mitchell, Centerville: “To me the uniqueness of Centerville comes from its people. They have a can-do attitude about everything. If a need is identified and the city or whoever cannot provide it, they get together and they make sure it gets done.”

City budget problems threatened to leave the town’s 1938 swimming pool dry this summer. So people stepped forward with money to keep it open.

In 2007, it was people working together that got Appanoose County named an Iowa Great Place. Linda Howard, Director of the Appanoose County Coalition for the Arts helped spearhead that effort.

Linda Howard, Appanoose County Coalition for the Arts: “And this Great Places was just the most wonderful way to bring us all together. We became knowledgeable about what each other was doing and since then we’re helping each other more and communicating so much better. “

We talked to Linda in front of the old Ritz Theater which will be restored and hopefully offering summer stock by 2009.

The idea is that the Ritz, along with Centerville’s shopping and festivals and events, will draw visitors from the new Honey Creek Resort at Rathbun Lake, just 15 or so miles away on the north side of the lake.

Centerville also has something else going for it .... a local boy who left and did very well in advertising. His name is Morgan Cline and his contributions can be seen all over town – creating businesses, helping with health care and restoring old buildings.

A farm boy from near Exline, Cline’s first big project in Centerville was the Continental Hotel. Rebuilt in 1893 after a fire, more than 100 years later it was in bad shape.

Today, some of its rooms are permanent residences for the well-elderly. But it still hosts travelers overnight, and anyone can enjoy a meal here. Bill Burch, Cline’s representative in town, says Cline is creating a model for rural revitalization.

Bill Burch: Morgan Cline Companies: “He wants us to, to ah, not just survive but to thrive, give us all the tools that we need so we’re not lacking anything. We’ll have everything we need to make our future work for us.”

Cline’s backing and Centerville’s can-do attitude promise to be a winning combination.

If you want an idea of just how resourceful folks are here – consider this: recently Centerville began issuing permits so people could drive golf carts on most city streets. It’s a great way to save on gas, and you don’t really need a car to get around even this big square

Additional Images: Appanoose County Historical Society, Appanoose County Great Place Committee


Tags: Centerville history Iowa


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