Villisca’s Christmas Tree

Villisca treeHelping to make it a Merry Christmas for all, the businessmen in their various organizations decided to invest in an innovation, a “municipal Christmas tree.”  The Review didn’t specify where the tree was located, so 100 years later, we can only guess, but it was probably in the center of the intersection of Third Avenue and Fourth Street. (Chicago appears to have had the first-ever municipal Christmas tree the previous year, 1913, so Villisca certainly wasn’t far behind in that new trend.)

Villisca Review, December 19, 1914

Illuminate Tree Tonight

City’s First Municipal Christmas

Tree Will Sure Be a Thing of Beauty

Arc Lamp at Top of Tree

Will be Decorated Today and Gifts will be Given

to All Children Next Tuesday Night

Villisca’s first municipal Christmas tree stands in a prominent spot in the center of town, and will be illuminated for the first time tonight. The decorations were ordered from Chicago, and if these come they will be put on the tree today, so that they present a most striking appearance when “lit up” after dark.

 A thousand power nitrogen arc lamp, the biggest … electric light on the market, will surmount the top of the tree and will be visible for miles. Garland tinsel and numerous other decorations will add to the effect, and the tree will sure be a dazzling thing of beauty when completed. (Note: Unfortunately the decorations didn’t arrive, so the tree décor was a bit of a letdown, but still, it had the big light on top.)

Gifts to children Next Week

According to present plans, there will be a free distribution of gifts to little children, whether from the city or country, on Tuesday night of next week and all children and their parents are invited to attend. A real live Santa Claus will dispense the presents, which will consist of candy and nuts to the greater part, and a special production will be given under the supervision of Rev. W. J. Ewing, pastor of the Presbyterian church, who was selected by the business men of Villisca and the committee.

A municipal Christmas tree idea has been spreading, and quite a number of towns have adopted the idea although Villisca first championed it. But, Villisca is the only town in this section of the state where such a tree can be seen this year.

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Turkey Day was invented in Villisca

WKRP Turkey drop

For those of a certain age, an iconic television series, “WKRP in Cincinnati,” broadcast in 1978 one of the funniest Thanksgiving episodes in TV history. In the episode, entitled “Turkeys Away,” the fictional radio station—in a misguided attempt to gain market share—dropped from its weather helicopter live turkeys on unsuspecting people on the street below. For those of a certain age, an iconic television series, “WKRP in Cincinnati,” broadcast in 1978 one of the funniest Thanksgiving episodes in TV history.

In the episode, entitled “Turkeys Away,” the fictional radio station—in a misguided attempt to gain market share—dropped from its weather helicopter live turkeys on unsuspecting people on the street below.  That seemed like just a funny TV story line at the time. But according to the Review archives, the original “turkey drop” was invented right here in Villisca, Iowa, back in 1921. The Villisca Chamber didn’t call it turkeys away, but they dropped turkeys nevertheless. Well, maybe a better description would be they “tossed” turkeys!

Anyway, they combined “turkey day” with their Bargain Day events, reaching “far” out into the surrounding countryside to draw potential shoppers into Villisca. Admittedly, the Villisca Chamber of Commerce didn’t have a helicopter from which to drop turkeys, but they made do.

In retrospect, the actual Villisca event seems just as amusing as the 1978 fictional one. Back in those days of the early 20th century, it was considered in bad taste for businesses to advertise Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving was celebrated. (It’s too bad that changed!) But those smart businessmen of Villisca pushed the envelop just a bit by combining both holidays into a Thanksgiving event—come to Villisca to get a free turkey and while you’re here, do your Christmas shopping at our Bargain Days sales.  The story of the original turkey drop—right here, in Villisca, Iowa—as reported by The Villisca Review follows:

Offer Usual List of Articles of Merchandise at Attractive Prices andHave Good Trade”

The headlines on the front page of the Nov. 25, 1921 edition of the Review set the stage for what was the newspaper later claimed to be the first turkey day anywhere. The article makes clear that unlike the people in Cincinnati who were unsuspectingly bombarded by turkeys, the people of southwestern Iowa were all in favor of this event.

“Villisca’s “turkey day” on Tuesday, when twenty-five turkeys and as many geese were given away by the business and professional men of this city, proved to be a great attraction, indeed all that it had beenhoped it would be, and one of the largest crowds that have been here in many months, was here during the afternoon of that day.

vintage thanksgiving turkeys postcard

“The special bargains in merchandise offered by the stores of the city also were a big attraction, and the merchants here enjoyed a fine trade during the greater part of the day. The bargain day, which has been held regularly once each month on Wednesday for the last several months, was set for Tuesday this time, in connection with the special feature of distributing fifty turkeys and geese among the people of this community. People from as far south as Clarinda and Hawleyville, from several miles north of Grant and from considerable distances east and west of Villisca were here to take advantage of the merchandise bargains and to enjoy the fun of the afternoon.”

And now the report on the actual turkey drop!

“At 4:15 o’clock, as advertised, the first turkey was put to flight from the top of the Economy garage, and a roar of yells went up from the crowd which watched with delight as the bird soared off gracefully and lit in a tree near the high school building. But his liberty was not of long duration, for an agile youth soon scrambled up the tree and grabbed himaround the legs as the first prize of the afternoon’s event. One and sometimes two birds were turned loose at a time, and as soon as they were caught, others were released, “Some of the turkeys flew nearly a block from the roof of the garage, sailing out over the crowd which was standing in the street in front of the garage and in the north part of the city park, some lighting in the trees where they were soon captured or on the ground to be caught after a lively foot race. A few flew to the top of the armory and other near by buildings, and one kept on the wing until he reached the roof of the Cozy theatre[on the east side of the square], where he was caught only after a hot chase on the top of that building.”

The pre-Thanksgiving giveaway featured geese along with the traditional turkeys. Goose was much more popular as a holiday dish in those days than it is today. But apparently they weren’t as much fun to catch, sounding much more like WKRP’s turkeys than Villisca’s.

“The geese were unable to make much progress in the air and all fell to the pavement a short distance in front of the garage where they were picked up after some lively tussling, in several instances, by that part of the crowd which waited for them there. One argument as to which one of two men was entitled to a goose which both had a hold on was easily and quickly settled by tossing a coin, and there were few, if any, other arguments as to the owners of the geese and turkeys after they were captured. “All the birds were caught within about fifteen minutes after the first one was turned loose, although many of them were hard to get. But the most difficult feat was performed by a Mr. Owens of Hawleyville when he caught the last turkey set free by climbing a large tree and swinging himself on the end of one of its highest limbs to the limb of a tree near by in which was perched a turkey which was being pursued by several boys who were climbing the tree in which the turkey rested. It was a trick which required both headwork and nerve, and Mr. Owens got well deserved plaudits from the crowd. Earl Kreiger of Villisca got the first turkey which was released during the afternoon.”

Back in 1921, the populace was much more used to making do than it is today. They didn’t have a helicopter, so the club members had looked around for a tall building next to the park. The Review article didn’t say if the Economy Garage,which was located at the northeast corner of the square, came with an access door to the roof, or if Ernest L. Peckham,the good-natured garage owner, allowed a hole to be made there. But the event was only possible because the club members could get two stories above the crowd in order to toss the future entrees into the air.

“Before the opening of the event the turkeys and geese were taken to the second floor of the garage, and as they were needed on the top of the building they were passed through a hole in the roof. W. H. Piper was spokesman, announcing the conditions under which the birds were to be caught, and then were turned loose by Mr. Piper, C. G. English, Cyrus Underwood, Harry Taylor, Earl Newton and Arnold Moore.”

Apparently the people of 1921 didn’t follow directions any better than modern day folk do. Simple instructions, easy to comply with, and yet nearly twenty percent of the winners didn’t do what they were asked to do.

“Mr. Piper announced that all who caught turkeys or geese were to register at the office of the Review, and after the chase was over forty-one persons gave in their names, nine failing to report.” Those who caught turkeys are G. L. Higgins, Paul Taylor, E. T. Pratt, Orville Beard, Howard Andrew, Florence Wendling, C.E. Edwards, Will T. Lloyd, Virgil Smith, M.M. Wise, Rolland Bontrager, E. B. Westernburg, Clark Neal, Fred Ingersoll, M. E. Madden, Earl Kreiger, G. W. Playfair, James. D. Anderson. Those who caught geese are E. L. Dow, Keith Jump, Fred Thorson, Glen Jillson, A. C. Nelson, Joe S. Gourley, Joe N. Larson, Guy Umphress, Orville Rains, Clyde Pershing, John Rossander, Everett Glackemeyer, J.C. Ritnour, Manley Madden, Frank Parcher, Ronald McPherren, Robert Sander, V. W. Quillin, Chas. E. Moore, Henry Howard, Madison Ross, Tom Stallings, Fay Still.”

And finally, just like in the televised WKRP episode, there was a word from the event’s sponsors:

“The turkeys and geese which were given away were paid for by the business and professional men of Villisca. A list of the men who contributed to this fund was given in last week’s Review, but through an oversight a part of the list was omitted. These names are as follows: R.L. Maxey, T.E. Wallace, Dr. O.E. Phillips, Dr. R.B. Smith, P.D. Minick, C.M. Orr, Oliver &Brodrick, W. A. Lake, Maurice Foote, T.J. Marvick, W.O. Zaelke, Moore Bros., Wm. Burnside, Carl Taylor, T.P. Woodward, C.H. Frame and R.J. Swanson, Dr. J.C. Cooper, Dr. F.M. Kelsay, H.F. Elliott, J.T. Myers, Ernest Peckham, Albert Sandosky, F.L. Ingman, Chas. Schiveley.”

In the end, Villisca’s Turkey Day turned out much better than WKRP’s did. Unlike that hapless radio station staff, those clever Villisca businessmen had a lasting hit on their hands. For the next 20 years, they repeated Turkey Day, in one form or another, to draw business to their stores and prosperity to their community. And it worked. Huge crowds showed up, good spirits abounded, very few people fell out of trees or got into arguments over possession of the fowl prizes, and each year fifty to one hundred lucky families got to take home Thanksgiving on the wing!

Here’s wishing readers a Happy, Historical Turkey Day of their own!

(This story was written by Linda Artlip Weinstein for her column “In Review”, published in the 2014 Villisca Review.)

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VHSI Annual Membership Drive Underway

Villisca square 1900s
Villisca, Iowa square circa early 1900s. Photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films.

Join us and support the preservation of Villisca’s history!


Villisca Historical Society

Join now and get
15 months of membership for the price of 12 months
Annual individual membership $20
Annual family membership $35
Sustaining membership* $100

As a member you will receive the bi-annual digital newsletter;
be invited to attend special VHSI events; contribute to saving Villisca’s unique history!

Contribute today!

• Membership • Donations • Volunteering


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Nov 10-11 Marks Special Veteran’s Day Event at Armory

The Villisca Historical Society is co-sponsoring a Veterans’ Day two-day event at the Armory, 316 E 3rd St, Villisca, IA on Nov. 10 and 11 honoring veterans from the Villisca area, with a special focus on those who served in WWI. Join us for this special celebration!

The Armory will be open for two hours following the SWV Middle School program on Nov. 10, and from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Nov. 11.  A display will honor veterans from this area, with a special focus on those veterans who served in World War I. An Honor Roll listing all WWI veterans buried in the Villisca City Cemetery will be on display, as well as the historic WWII Honor Roll, and other local military mementos.

Loans of artifacts for the display are welcomed.

* * * * *

Support your local historical society


Villisca Historical Society

Join now
and get 15 months of membership
for the price of 12 months:
September 2017- December 2018.
Annual individual membership $20.
Annual family membership $35.
Sustaining membership* $100.


Help Save Villisca’s History
Contribute today!

• Membership • Donations • Volunteering

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Celebrating 12 Years of Preserving Villisca History

Villisca square 30s
Photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films.

By Mary Hansen, VHSI President

It’s hard to believe, but the Villisca Historical Society, Inc. came into being more than a decade ago, in 2005. The mission statement of the new organization was, and still is: The Villisca Historical Society, Inc., shall collect, preserve, interpret, and display artifacts, photographs and documents to shed light on the natural, civil and political history of the City of Villisca, Iowa. It will develop programs and services to promote public awareness, scholarly research and appreciation of Villisca’s unique history.  This society will foster excellence in leadership and historical inquiry, believing that an understanding of the past illuminates the present and gives vision to the future.”

Thanks to the generosity of a large number of people, our society continues to fulfill many of those same goals. But just as importantly, the VHS Inc. has supported other organizations that share our aim of preserving and celebrating our joint history.

For instance, just a month after receiving our certificate of incorporation and our 501(3)C status, we were able to provide start up money to the Villisca Alumni Association to help get the 2005 All-School Reunion under way. We have continued that support ever since.

Ed & Susie ax
Former Villisca Mayor Susie Enarson and Ed Epperly
examine the Villisca weapon. Photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films.

We’ve also received many items of historical significance in the past 12 years. Perhaps the most important one came from Dr. Ed Epperly, who donated the ax from the infamous Villisca ax murders. As we have no secure place in which to safely store the murder implement, it has spent the past 12 years at the State Historical Society building in Des Moines. Nevertheless, it belongs to the Villisca Historical Society and through us to the town of Villisca. Because of our efforts, it has been protected.

John Rundles Rialto
Photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films.

During the past several years, we’ve also had the privilege of hosting the showing of several of Kelly and Tammy Rundles’ movies, like the preview of Lost Nation: The Ioway in 2007 during Villisca Heritage Days. The Rundles also helped create and maintain our website and are now developing a VHS Inc. blog for us which will make our work available to even wider audiences.

In addition, we’ve participated in studies of the National Guard Armory in the hope that venerable building could be restored and preserved in order to bring it back to serving as a community center.

Villisca Memories

We have been participants in history fairs at the local schools and reprinted Audrea Higgins’ “Villisca Memories,” her history prepared for the Bicentennial. For almost ten years, Dave Higgins produced fascinating newsletters that documented important events, people and memories from our town’s past. Recently, we created a Facebook page, Historic Villisca, which is reaching even more folks.

I have had the privilege of representing the Society in many events, like the celebration of the 150th anniversary of Iowa’s statehood in which I drew from Lorene and Dennis Neal’s book, Montgomery County Veterans of World War II.

VReview front page.jpg

We helped the Villisca Library pay for digitizing the Villisca Review’s archives through July 2011, which has made much of the town’s history accessible through the internet. Last year we co-sponsored Iowa History Day in Villisca with the Forgotten Iowa History Society, group of more than 35,000 Facebook members.

This year we also funded a brochure celebrating the 80th anniversary of Villisca’s City Hall and helped purchase shelves to display artifacts in the Armory where renovations are continuing.

We don’t know what we’ll be called upon to help with next, but with your participation, we’ll be ready. So please, join the Villisca Historical Society today and help preserve Villisca’s past for those who in the future wish to look back to understand their present.

If you are not a member of the Villisca Historical Society, we encourage  you to join us!  We are currently launching a funding drive to raise money to assist in our efforts to preserve, educate and inform about Villisca’s treasured past and its future! Thank you for your support.

Support your local historical society


Villisca Historical Society

Join now
and get 15 months of membership
for the price of 12 months:
September 2017- December 2018.
Annual individual membership $20.
Annual family membership $35.
Sustaining membership* $100.


Help Save Villisca’s History
Contribute today!

• Membership • Donations • Volunteering

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One of Villisca’s own receives long-delayed Silver Star

Bob Moore Jr.jpg
Photo courtesy Captain Robert Moore, Jr.

Forty years after the fact, former Army Capt. Robert Moore, Jr., a 1963 graduate of Villisca High School, received the Silver Star for his actions during the Vietnam War.

In a ceremony in Marietta, Georgia, at the Joint Forces Headquarters, Major Gen. Jim Butterworth presented Moore with the Army’s third highest honor.

“It is an incredible story. Forty-three years ago, a deserving military member performed gallantly on the field of battle,” Butterworth said.

Butterworth’s words were a testament to the personal courage Moore showed on July 13, 1969.

In Vietnam, Moore served with the 101st Airborne Division. He received One of Villisca’s own receives long-delayed Silver Star the medal for “performing with courage and discipline under fire.”

The records report Moore’s actions this way: After an enemy land mine exploded and sent shrapnel tearing through one of his knees, Moore, continued to command his unit and refused medical treatment until the other wounded first received help.

Georgia Congressman Phil Gingrey said, “He is the epitome of a hero. He is the embodiment of what makes this nation the greatest on Earth.”

Moore said after the ceremony that he is full of pride, but also feels guilt. He feels guilty and doesn’t understand why he was awarded a Silver Star in lieu of the other brave soldiers in his unit.

“I don’t know why I was awarded,” said Moore with tears in his eyes, “but I do know that I will wear my medal with pride and that I wear it for each one of my men. Thank you.”

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100 Years Ago–Villisca’s boys came home from the Mexican border, only to be ordered to prepare for WWI

Parade Susie E
Photo courtesy Susie Enarson.

The sixty-five men and three officers of Company F of Villisca left on June 25, 1916, for Camp Dodge on their way to the Mexican border. They arrived in Texas on July 26, and by the time September rolled around the Company had been on the line for all of six minutes! They returned home on February 20, 1917 to a huge red, white and blue welcome, with banners, dinners and speeches.

But, just three months later, the Company that had returned in joy from what was  essentially a phony war was ordered to recruit men to attain war strength. America had declared war on Germany on April 6 and needed all of her fighting men. This one was
going to be a real war and western Iowa’s troops were needed.

The unit was mustered into federal service on July 25, 1917, assigned to the Rainbow Division. When Col. Douglas MacArthur had been ordered to form a division of 42,000 men by selecting crack regiments from practically every state. He responded that it would be “a division that will represent every state, to cover the country like a rainbow.”

Our boys, part of the 3,600 Iowans in the 168th Infantry division, departed for Camp Mills, Hempstead, Long Island, New York on September 10. They boarded a  transport ship, arriving in France in December 1917.  By March they were in the trenches fighting the “Hun.” Before it was all over, our men—no longer boys now—would see service on six different fronts.

Battles at Champagne Marne, Aisne, Marne, St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne took some of our men’s lives and injured others. The war made heroes of our men, although not all of them received medals for their bravery. Some would die from disease or suffer for the rest of their lives from the effects of mustard gas. Tiny little camps such as Ker-AVor would imprint themselves on the consciouness of the men from Villisca.

But at 11 o’clock of the 11th day of the 11th month, it was over. The men from Villisca had helped win the war to end all wars. They came home on the transport Leviathon, which landed at Hoboken, NJ, on a May evening in 1919.

The division was sent to Camp Upton, New York, for a short period.

The people of Villisca couldn’t wait! The screaming headline in the May 2, 1919 Villisca Review said it all: “They’re Coming Home!”

A joint celebration with Clarinda was planned, with Villisca honoring the company first.

The Herald summed it up: “The boys are on their way home and plans are under way here and in Villisca to give them the greeting and welcome that they have justly earned
and deserve. Just when the boys of Co. F will be here is not yet known, but it is a positve fact that when they do arrive they will be welcomed back to us with the spirit of tried and true heroes who have fought and bled for home and country.”

Co. F arrived in Villisca on Train No. 9 on May 17 and were met by a large, exuberant crowd. The official celebration was held May 20.

Villisca heaved a huge sigh of relief: “Our boys are back!”


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