Main Street Festivals

Main streets ebb and flow through Iowa towns and through the daily lives of Iowans. Whether they're called Main Street, First Avenue, Central or affectionately known as "the main drag," main streets have been the places within communities where individuals come together to be part of a bigger family and to experience the historic, the ordinary and the festive moments of their lives.

Main Street Bustles with Celebrations

In the 1800s main street was a place to showcase a town. Memorials, fairs and art displays showed off citizens' talents. Ordinary life stood still when major shows came to town. By the 1850s, circus parades drew crowds on main streets throughout the Midwest. Iowans of all ages were eager to see elephants, tigers, acrobats and clowns. For a time main street became a jungle from an exotic land. When it was over, everyone had something to talk about.

Patriotic holidays brought communities together on main street. Memorial Day, first observed in 1868, was celebrated on main street as bands, military companies, veterans and citizens paraded to local cemeteries to decorate graves. On July 4, 1876, people across Iowa celebrated the 100th anniversary of the nation's independence from Britain. They jammed sidewalks along main streets for parades and fireworks.

Merchants Celebrate Sales

Main street merchants soon realized the attraction of store bargains. Seasonal festivals, holiday promotions and contests drew crowds while boosting sales. The April 18, 1912 Fort Dodge Messenger reported that railroad passenger cars were "filled to capacity" transporting shoppers to a citywide sale called "Bargain Day." Prices were so astoundingly low, according to one shopper, that it was worth traveling many miles. "I shall never miss Bargain Day as long as I live," she said.

Special celebrations honoring a town's heritage were held in many towns. In Lakota citizens roped off the town's two-block-long main street in preparation for Sauerkraut Day 1935. Concession stands, a ferris wheel, merry-go-round and dunk tank captured the attention of children and adults. It became a recurring event. Former residents regularly returned for Sauerkraut Day, reunions with old friends and a free meal of wieners and kraut.

National Events Trigger Small Town Celebrations

Key moments in national history were marked on main streets. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, people mourned together on main street. On April 14, 1945, church bells tolled, flags flew at half-staff and businesses closed on the day of his funeral.

Four months later, main streets throughout Iowa celebrated peace when Japan's surrender ended World War II. "Wild Celebration Welcomes Victory Announcement Here," read one of many bold headlines in the August 15, 1945 Fort Dodge Messenger. "Joyful crowds turn Central Avenue into Bedlam for many hours," the newspaper reported.

Communities also faced hard times together on main streets. When fires or tornadoes destroyed homes and businesses, people came together to rally support. When a coal strike in 1946 threatened the nation's power supply, people in Iowa towns turned out the lights to conserve energy—even when it meant holiday lights along main street would remain unlit.

A Long Tradition Survives

Main streets fostered community spirit and pride by bringing Iowans together to celebrate the good times and survive the bad ones. Main street in small towns and cities across Iowa was a gathering place. Many of the celebrations that are held in Iowa's towns today have had long traditions that began on main street. It's not unusual to see the main street of a small town blocked off in the summer for a local celebration.

Adapted from original article written by Millie K. Frese, The Goldfinch 18, No. 3 (Summer 1997). Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.
© State Historical Society of Iowa

 

 


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