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Out and About: Elkader, Iowa

posted on October 11, 2007 at 4:04 PM


  • Out and About Iowa - Elkader

    Out and About Iowa - Elkader Enlarge

  • Out and About Iowa - Elkader

    Out and About Iowa - Elkader Enlarge

  • Out and About Iowa - Elkader

    Out and About Iowa - Elkader Enlarge

Iowa is not the homogeneous state that outsiders think it is. In fact, it boasts a character and a history that can sometimes even surprise Iowans. The community of Elkader, Iowa, is a case in point. It was named for Abdal-Kader, an Algerian who resisted French colonialism in the mid 1800s. Dan Kaercher is our reporter for our regular Iowa journal feature that we call “Out and About Iowa.”

Kaercher: Elkader’s history is written in its building and structures. The people of Elkader treasure their past, but their history works for today and tomorrow too.

The 1860s courthouse is still the county courthouse. The keystone bridge still links it with the business side of town. Built in 1889, it's known as the longest of its type west of the Mississippi. The 1890 building that became home to a cinema in 1941 and closed in the 1990s is showing movies again and selling DVDs.

Still, the recently restored 1903 opera house is the jewel in the crown, home to the city's offices in the basement, and a wonderful theater above it. With just a piano, the Opera House Players rehearse some of their fall musical for us, “The Baker's Wife.” The ground floor level of this marvelous structure was a firehouse in one incarnation. But a combination of grants, donations, and a lot of volunteer sweat equity renovated it.

The new/old opera house opened in 2003 and is a regional center for the performing arts.

Chandler: The people who patronize it, the people who do things on stage being, the people who have helped restore it are really from a wide area.

Kaercher: Elkader is experiencing a sort of rejuvenation, and some of its new energy comes from outside the community.

In this old building, they make artistic lighting fixtures sold all over the world. Fire Farm, as it's called, was started by a native Californian who fell in love with the town.

Pollock: I’d never been here before. My wife's family is from this town, but she had never been here either. She came back and rediscovered it.

Kaercher: Actually, Pollock’s wife’s mother hadn't been here for about fifty years either, but three generations moved back.

Pollock: The first thing we did when we visited was go and look at the public school system. They still had band. They still had shop. They still had all the programs that had been cut out of the school system in California.

Kaercher: Treats Etc., a coffee shop and cafe, is it run by another native Californian who fell in love with the town when she visited her former neighbors.

As to that Algerian connection, well, it's been updated too. In 1984 Elkader became a sister city to a town in Algeria named Mascara, birthplace of Elkader’s namesake.

And in another old building on Main Street, an Algerian restaurant recently opened. We stopped by to try some authentic Algerian cuisine. The son of Algerian diplomat and a French mother, Frederique Boudouani discovered Elkader when he started researching the history of Islam in America after 9/11. His partner is from Iowa, and Frederique eventually found the Iowa town named for a Muslim leader.

Boudouani: It happened that the Muslim leader is from Algeria. He’s the George Washington of Algeria. It was a big revelation for me. We looked it up on the map, and the next time we were in Iowa, we made a visit and kept coming back and making friends and here we are.

Kaercher: The restaurant called Schera’s, short for Scherazade, and it also serves American food.

There are two historic buildings here that haven't joined the 21st century. They’re museums, like the George Maier Rural Heritage Center. This old sale barn houses an amazing collection of artifacts that trace the history of rural living in the Midwest. And all this is only about half the collection of one man, George Maier.

Built in the 1850s, the Carter House Museum is named for the two brothers who first owned it. A duplex, each brother's family lived on one side of the 18-room Greek revival mansion. Today the homes offers a look at life at the turn of the last century.

If history is your passion, then you'll want to check out of the Osborne Nature Center south of town this weekend. Run by the Clayton County Conservation Board, the area where the Pioneer Village stands will be the site of the Center's 33rd annual Osborne Heritage Days weekend.

Mundt: That segment is worth the price of admission, just discovering a new part of Iowa. Well, Dan is going to join us from time to time just to bring us up to date and to add to his report. Dan, what do you have for us?

Kaercher: Well, that Osborne Heritage Days is a wonderful celebration going on in Elkader this weekend. You can visit the 1880 pioneer village. You can see a great nature center and then join in a chili cook-off, buffalo chip throwing, storytelling, pumpkin contest, you know, a classic Iowa event. I did want to mention that “The Baker's Wife” will be performed at the opera house this weekend, and Schera’s will be open for Algerian food. And do check ahead first, but you can visit the two museums. We have a couple of events we're featuring on iptv.org, so check that out too in other parts of the state.

Mundt: And can you also go to traveliowa.com.

Kaercher: Absolutely.

Mundt: There's a full list of events there, so that's a good way to keep up. Dan, come back and talk with us again when you can stay a little bit longer.

Kaercher: You bet, Todd.

Tags: business Elkader history Iowa tourism travel


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