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Mason City History

Read about the early history of Mason City, IA

mason city 1History Of Mason City: The Early Years

First Settlers

The first settlers came to the area in the spring of 1853. By the following autumn, the town had been platted and several families established residence here.  Although first known as Shibboleth, the city also went by the names Masonic Grove and Masonville before finally becoming known as Mason City.

Abundant Waters

One of the reasons that people first settled the area now called Mason City is the abundant water supply.  The Winnebago River, then called Lime Creek, and Willow Creek have their confluence in present day East Park. Among the first areas settled was a spot mason city 2on the banks of the Winnebago River on the north side of the city.  The early name of the river survives to this day in Lime Creek Nature Center, which is near the site of the settlement. The earliest industry in Mason City was the sawmill that Elisha Randall built on the west side of the Winnebago in 1855.  While the wooden structure is now gone, the foundation can still be seen.  The mill became a popular subject for turn of the century photographers.  East Park, mentioned above, was started in 1909 and is still Mason City's most popular park.  It contains flower gardens, a lily pool, playground equipment, picnic areas and even a fenced in area with deer.

Famous Architecture

For people interested in architecture, Mason City has three buildings designed by America's most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.  They are the City National Bank building, the adjoining Park Inn Hotel, and the Stockman House built for Dr. George Stockman. mason city 3  All of the buildings date prior to 1910. Mason City also has a unique Prairie School style residential development, Rock Crest / Rock Glen. Walter Burley Griffin, a contemporary and one time employee of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed it in 1911.  Mason City was his last project in America before he left for Australia to design that nations new capital city, Canberra.

Important Industry

Mason City position in the north central part of the state meant that from the beginning, it would play an important part in the area's growth.  Obviously, agriculture has always been a prime economic consideration for the city. While the early mills located here were vital for the initial settlement of the region, because of the valuable clay deposits the first major industry in the city was brick and tile manufacturing.  By 1912 Mason City was among the largest producers of these products in the nation. The large local deposits of limestone were important in making quarrying a major early Mason City.  Taking advantage of these natural mason city 4resources, in 1908 Northwestern States Portland Cement Co. (now owned by the Holcim Company) began operations and in 1911 Lehigh Portland Cement Co. opened.  Although the brick and tile industry has gone, the two cement factories continue.  In 1917, The American Beet Sugar plant began operations.  The Colby Car Company originated in Mason City and manufactured automobiles from 1910 to 1915.  One of their cars is now on display at theKinney Pioneer Museum.  Mason City was also the center of a large meat processing plant.  Jacob Decker bought the old Richard's Packing Plant in 1899 and started his own operation.  In the 1930's, it became part of the Armour Packing Co. but continued under the name of Decker and was Mason City's largest employer for many years.  The plant was located between Federal Avenue and the Winnebago River north of 14th Street, and a residential area eventually was built around it.  The plant was closed and torn down in the 1970's. This business continues today in a different location, although on a much smaller scale.

Community HeritageHandford MacNider

People are of course the most important part of any community.  The earliest people who lived in this area were the various American Indian groups.  Artifacts from nearby sites show that people were here at least 6,000 years ago.  When the Euro-American pioneers arrived, they reported hunting camps in the region. While there were sporadic clashes between the groups, for the most part the original Indian inhabitants got along with the newcomers and developed trading relationships.  The early non-Indian settlers were primarily of northern and western European ancestry; English, German and Irish were the predominant nationalities.  Scandinavian settlers arrived after the Civil War. When the brick, tile, and cement manufacturing began, Mason City started to attract immigrants from many different countries.  The Greek immigrants were particularly important in influencing the city's personality.  They constituted the largest of the immigrant groups of the period and through their yearly festival, they recall their heritage and share it with the rest of the community.  The Hispanic immigrants that arrived later brought not only their labor but also their cuisine, language and traditions to the local culture.

Prominent Residents

Mason City residents have contributed to the national history in virtually all forms of endeavor including business, politics, the arts and athletics.  Hanford MacNider, whose parents were early settlers, was a famous soldier but also an Assistant Secretary of War, a Minister to Canada, a businessperson and industrialist.  Iowa entrepreneur John Pappajohn is the son of Greek immigrants who came to Mason City early in the Dixie Wilsoncentury. Dixie Willson was a prolific writer in the 1920's and 1930's.  At the time, she was no doubt as well known in literature as her famous younger brother Meredith Willson, author of THE MUSIC MAN, would later be in music.  Publisher Tom Yoseloff and his brother, Martin, who was the author of over a dozen novels and short stories, were the children of immigrants.  They both lived in Mason City as children and called it their hometown.  Bil Baird, the internationally known puppeteer, always thought of Mason City as home and he donated many of his puppets to the MacNider Museum.  His puppets are probably best known for their role in THE SOUND OF MUSIC.  Joe Lillard was a 1927 Mason City High School graduate who was once referred to as the greatest all round athlete Mason City had.  He played college and later, NFL football for the Chicago Cardinals during the 1930's.  He also played on the original Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.  George Baird, the younger brother of Bil, was a gold medal winner in the 1928 Olympics.  The individuals mentioned above are probably the best known but are only a few of the Mason Cityans who have contributed to the national and international well being.  The community can say that it has always shared its best and brightest residents with the nation and the world. 

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