THE ELBERT FILES: History of our history for $250
Friday, December 14, 2012 7:00 AM
The State Historical Society of Iowa is poised to begin a new chapter as it enters its 156th year in January.
Tonight, Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds are hosting a gala celebration to mark the 25th anniversary of the State Historical Building, which opened in 1987.
But the real focus is on the future and efforts to create new public-private partnerships that will make the building and Iowa culture more visitor-friendly, as the founders of the State Historical Society originally intended.
The society was created by the Iowa Legislature in 1857, the same year that Iowa’s second, and current, constitution was adopted.
Iowa’s first constitution was approved in 1846, the year Iowa became a state. It outlawed banking, a mistake that resulted in a flood of depreciated currencies from other states. A second convention was held 11 years later to fix that problem by legalizing banking corporations.
At the exact same time, Iowans began to demonstrate their deep, abiding interest in history. There is no clear reason for the connection, but it could stem from our well-known inferiority complex.
Iowa pioneers were, after all, disappointed when Congress in 1844 turned down their proposal to extend the northern border as far as today’s Twin Cities. And who would not be disheartened upon learning that on Dec. 28, 1846, the day that Iowa became a state, President James Polk wrote in his diary: “Nothing much happened today.”
In any case, our forebears recognized the need to recall and memorialize Iowans’ contribution to national and world events.
So in January and February of 1857, while 36 Iowans were drafting a new constitution in the Capitol at Iowa City, members of the Sixth General Assembly met a few doors down and approved legislation creating the State Historical Society.
Lawmakers gave the society an annual budget of $250, but didn’t get around to providing space or staff until some years later.
“The idea seems to have prevailed that the (historical) library and collection would somehow grow by voluntary contributions,” according to a history of the society written in 1907.
The 1857 law created an ambiguous connection with the University of Iowa, which provided space for historic collections and volunteers. But a power struggle erupted in 1866, prompting the society to lease space from a church and sever ties with the university.
A couple of decades later, the society followed state government to Des Moines, where it operated out of three ground-floor rooms in the southeast corner of the new Capitol until the first State Historical Building at East 12th Street and Grand Avenue was completed in 1900. Today, that building houses the State Library, and history is one of several activities located in the State Historical Building under the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.
Cultural Affairs Director Mary Cownie told me last week that she wants to create public-private partnerships, like the ones that helped drive the society 150 years ago.
Among other things, she wants to develop a new history curriculum for Iowa schools and work with Des Moines technology provider FreskLabs to create an interactive 99-county exhibit.
Food option - Jethro’s owner Bruce Gerleman has an option from developer Dennis Albaugh to locate a second restaurant next to the new Jethro’s BBQ n’ LakeHouse that opened in Ankeny’s Prairie Trail development this week.
Music note - On Dec. 19, 1957, “The Music Man” opened to rave reviews on Broadway. It won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The author was Iowa’s own music man, Mason-City-born composer Meredith Willson, who was 55 years old in 1957.
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