Iowa's dark side means tourism dollars

VILLISCA — Most Iowa towns hoping to lure visitors and theirdollars would be pleased to see Charlotte Redman and Missy Morrisonarrive.

The best friends from West Des Moines are in the midst of aleisurely vacation road trip through parts of Iowa and Missouri –a meandering back-roads journey that led them into Villisca, asouthwest Iowa town of roughly 1,200 residents.

It is the promise of visitors like Redman and Morrison thatpushes Iowa’s local boosters to show off their communities’ bestside — sprucing up historic landmarks, touting even tenuous tiesto the famous and organizing festivals celebrating everything fromtulips to sauerkraut.

But it is Iowa’s historic dark side that coaxed Redman andMorrison off the beaten path.

“This is one of the places that we definitely wanted to see,”said Redman as the pair prepared to tour a small white frame housewhere eight people were killed with an ax on June 10, 1912. The nowinfamous Villisca ax murders may be Iowa’s most famous unsolvedcrime.

Today, the largely restored home is open for tours and hostsovernight guests nearly every weekend.

“We both love history,” Morrison said. “Every little town has tohave something, or people just bypass it. If it wasn’t for this,who would know of Villisca?”

Villisca continues to struggle with its historic identity. Butit is not the only Iowa community where tourists are drawn to theintersection of history and infamy.

Visitors have been touring the Abbie Gardner Cabin — on thesite of the 1857 “Spirit Lake massacre” — in Iowa’s Great Lakesregion for more than 100 years. Thirty-three settlers died in aclash with Dakota tribesmen.

The cabin draws about 15,000 visitors each year, according tosite manager Mike Koppert. It opened in 1891 and was among Iowa’sfirst tourist attractions.

“That’s the thing about history, if it wasn’t tragic, if youdidn’t have that bloody stuff, no one would care about it,” Koppertsaid.

Adair celebrates Jesse James Chuck Wagon Days every July. TheJames gang pulled off the first robbery of a moving train west ofthe Mississippi on July 21, 1873, just a stone’s throw fromtown.

In Stuart, community leaders are seeking a state grant for arevitalization project that includes a mural commemorating a bankrobbed by Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Visitors frequently stopto photograph the site of the April 16, 1934, heist, now the town’spolice station.

In Mason City, organizers are planning an event in Septembercommemorating a dramatic March 13, 1934, bank robbery perpetratedby John Dillinger and other Chicago gangsters.

“We have a real life historical thriller right here in MasonCity,” said Mary Sue Kislingbury, who is leading an effort to planthe event. “Nobody’s calling Dillinger a hero, but he does sparkthe public’s imagination.”

Bonnie and Clyde return

Marvelle Feller says he isn’t opposed to commemorating Bonnieand Clyde’s place in local history — even though he cameface-to-face with the dangerous duo in July 1933.

Less than a year before the Stuart bank robbery, Bonnie andClyde were nearly captured in a park between nearby Dexter andRedfield. Bonnie, Clyde and fellow gang member W.D. Jones escaped afierce shootout and emerged from a cornfield at Feller’s familyfarm.

Feller and his father were preparing to milk cows when thefamily’s German shepherd greeted the unwelcome visitors.

“Clyde hollered, ‘You pull him off or I’ll shoot him.’ If he’dshot that dog he just as well of shot me ’cause I raised that dog,”said Feller, now 93.

Feller, his father, mother, younger sister and an uncle wereheld for a time at gunpoint before Bonnie, Clyde and Jones took offin the family’s Plymouth.

“It was quite an ordeal,” said Feller, who now lives at theStuart Community Care Center.

In April 1934, the gang returned to rob the bank in Stuart, buttheir days were numbered. Bonnie and Clyde were gunned-down in anambush in Louisiana just more than a month later.

The planned mural in Stuart commemorating their bank job will bepaired with a small park in an adjacent vacant lot. Local leadersare still in negotiations with the state’s Vision Iowa Board tohammer out how much help the town will receive.

“You’ve got mixed emotions,” said Jerry Vitzthum, who sellsChevys at a dealership across the street. “You hate to bring gloryand fame to people like that. They don’t deserve it. And yet it’ssomething that people are interested in, so if it draws people toyour town, that’s good.”

Stuart Police Chief Robert Smith, who works in thecrime-scene-turned-police station, has no objections.

“It’s kind of neat that it’s now the cop shop,” Smith said. “Ithink it’s going to make the building stand out that much more andadd to the history of it.”

Desperadoes and smiley faces

Just a short drive west on the historic White Pole Road, alsoknown as old Highway 6, Adair has been celebrating Jesse JamesChuck Wagon Days for years.

The James gang picked Adair because of its proximity to “SummitCut,” a high point where trains coming form either direction had toslow down. The train robbers tampered with track and forced thetrain to derail before making off with $3,000.

The engineer was killed and the fireman later died of hisinjuries. A bronze plaque along the White Pole Road southwest oftown commemorates the robbery.

Ironically, the plaque itself was stolen. It turned up yearslater in Ohio, according to Brenda Wedemeyer, president of theAdair Chamber of Commerce, after it was uncovered in a housefire.

“Someone had stolen it, taken it to Ohio, their house burneddown and the plaque came back. So it has a little history,”Wedemeyer said.

There have been no local objections in recent years tocommemorating the James’ historic crime. But there have beendiscussions about revising the annual tradition of crowning LittleMiss Adair and Little Mr. Gunslinger. So far, however, traditionhas prevailed.

“We’ve had discussion about that through the years, especiallyright after Columbine,” Wedemeyer said, referring to the Coloradoschool shootings. “We don’t give them a toy gun. They get a cowboyhat and you ride in the big parade the next day.

“You really can’t take Jesse James real seriously in a town thathas a smiley face water tower,” she said.

Ax murder still haunts

Villisca’s relationship to its grisly history has been a rockyone. Darwin Linn has been on both sides of the conflict.

As a young track runner for Villisca High School in the 1950s,Linn remembers taking flak from outsiders.

“At the Drake Relays there was a parade. We had our Villiscajackets on going down the streets of Des Moines just proud asheck,” Linn said. “And all of the sudden I heard ‘ax murder town.’Boy, I couldn’t figure out what in the world they were talkingabout.

“But I soon found out,” he said.

Now Linn owns the home where Josiah B. Moore, Sarah Moore, theirfour young children and two young houseguests were bludgeoned todeath in their beds. Their murders were never solved.

After decades of bouncing between owners as both a home and arental property, Linn bought the J.B. Moore house in 1994.

“We bought it for the historical part. I thought it would be alittle niche to bring people to town,” Linn said.

Linn concedes there is still plenty of discomfort in Villiscawith the idea of capitalizing on the community’s darkest hour.Former mayor Susie Enarson is among those with misgivings.

“There are definitely two sides. To be honest, some local peopleare just tired of it,” said Enarson, who would like to put moreemphasis on Villisca’s railroad history and the town’s proud recordof military service. “The community has a whole lot more going forit than that.”

Linn and his wife, Martha, have worked for a decade to restorethe house to its original appearance, right down to a frayedkitchen calendar turned to June 1912. The home’s eerie feel isenhanced by piercing photos of the doomed family that stare back atvisitors from the parlor walls.

A tour, especially on a dark, rainy day, can be a fairly gloomyexperience.

“They left the ax right here,” Linn says, patting a spot on thewall at one point during the house tour.

But visitors come, as evidenced by broad boards in a nearby barnwhere dozens signed their names. Linn said many guests are psychicsor paranormal investigators seeking to get in touch with spiritsthey’re convinced still inhabit the house.

Others are simply curious, including high school kids eager fora good scare. Books and a recent documentary on the case havefueled even more interest.

But some overnight guests don’t stick around until morning, Linnsaid. Once, two women from Minneapolis settled in at 10 p.m. andleft the house around 10:30.

“They just got so spooked they couldn’t stand it,” Linnsaid.

Missy Morrison can’t convince her friend, Charlotte Redman tostay the night.

“I 100 percent believe in ghosts,” Redman said. “I’m tooscared.”

Dillinger debate

Mary Sue Kislingbury, who is organizing the Dillinger observancein Mason City, sees the event as a chance to remember the city’shistory. It is especially important to do it now, she argues, whilesome eyewitnesses to that history are still alive.

“Ordinary citizens turned into heroes,” Kislingbury said of thebank robbery. “Police officers were brave, and nobody was killedwhen the gang came here.”

She also contends it is important for young people to know theircommunity has an interesting history.

“A lot of people are leaving the state, and part of that ismaybe because we’re not giving them a sense of roots and a pride inour town,” Kislingbury said. “We have a lot to be proud ofhere.”

Still, not everyone thinks commemorating Dillinger is a goodidea.

“I respect very much where they’re coming from,” Kislingburysaid. “We don’t want to glorify criminals. But we also don’t wantto deny our history.”

To encourage broader community involvement, organizers areasking residents for their ideas on what to name the festival.They’re also still in talks with a Dillinger relative over legalissues concerning the use of the family’s famous name.

The Dillinger event is scheduled for Sept. 15.

Contact Todd Dorman at (515) 243-0138 or at

Iowa's dark side means tourism dollars

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