May Basket Memories

May day2

A Little May Basket Skit

The scene: Nodaway, Iowa

The star: Miss Dorothy Stanton, 3rd and 4th grade teacher

The setting: Mr. and Mrs. Williams’ rooming house, situated across the street from the post office and the Pond gas station.

The date: May 1, 1953

The backstory:

Miss Stanton, who was about to complete her first year as a teacher at the local school, had been warned by her landlady that as May basketing was very popular in Nodaway, she should be prepared.

Action! On May 1st, Miss Stanton hurried home from school and quickly changed from her dress into slacks. (Lady teachers in those days weren’t allowed to wear slacks when they taught.)

She and the Williamses had their supper and then sat down to keep watch out the big bay window on the south side of the house. Very soon, the trio saw a little boy walking across the street, coming from the direction of the gas station and carrying a May basket. Miss Stanton sneaked out the east door and waited for the boy to set the May basket down. When he did, she ran around the corner of the house, and much to his surprise, caught him as he ran away and proceeded to give him a big smackeroo on his cheek before she let him escape.

A similar scene unrolled four more times, each time featuring a different little boy. But it didn’t stop there as the little guys came back again and again, one at a time, carrying all kinds of things as alternative May baskets, like boxes and empty oil cans.

After awhile, “I was surprised to discover it was a repeat of the same boys,” the former Miss Stanton remembered recently. “I was also amazed to find out later that a group of men who frequently went to the station after supper to loaf had been behind the repeat visits.  I heard that they’d never seen anything like what happened that evening: a teacher in slacks running after the kids!”

The men were the ones supplying the little guys with the “fake” May baskets and they were having just as much fun as the boys.

Epilogue: Miss Stanton, who soon after this became Mrs. Harlan Pond, didn’t tattle by telling the names of the men who were involved in her first May basketing experience in Nodaway. But the boys she caught included Bobby and Kent Dunn, Gayle Heard, Dennis Bartz, and Dennis Swartz.

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Spelling Villisca

Villisca town adj

By Linda Artlip Weinstein

When D. N. Smith of Burlington, Iowa, gave our town its name in the 1850s, he probably never stopped to consider the variety of ways in which the word “Villisca” would be spelled in the coming years.

An article in the Jan. 24, 1907 Review complained of spellings such as “Valisca” and “Vallisca”and like “Valiska” and “Valliska”. But this report certainly wasn’t the only newspaper article to detail the misspelling of the name of the town. An entire column in 1876 was devoted to all the variations the local Post Office had seen in the nearly 20 years the town had existed. The following are excerpts from that lament.

Villisca Orthographically [as it is spelled]

“A few ways of Spelling the Name of the “Beautiful View.” [Which is what Mr. Smith claimed the Native American word Villisca meant, although there are those who have since taken issue with that translation as well as the existence of any word even approaching Villisca in native languages.]

“We do not hesitate to affirm after duly examining into the various sources of information, that of all the towns along the B. & M. R. railroad the town in question—Villisca—is subject to the most frequent and most varied ORTHOGRAPHICAL OUTRAGES.

“We believe, as does the worthy postmaster of this place, that not more than one postal clerk, one clerk of a wholesale house, or one shipping clerk in 500, could direct his letters, packages, etc., to this place a dozen times and spell the name twice in the same manner. “

The column goes on to list amusing combinations of which eight letters are possible. Most of the spellings were taken from the addresses on letters received at the Villisca post office the previous winter:

Vallisca, VilisCa,
Valisca, Vilisca,
Valiska, Velisca,
Veylisqua, Williska,
Villiscia, Velliska,

The Review’s writer noted that the first two variations were the most common, but the most extreme spelling had been: VEYLISQUA!

Then there were mild misspellings, such as:

Villisk, VelisCa,
Vollsco, Villise,
Valliske, Villsca,
Volisen, Vallasca,

One addresser outdid himself with the succinct: VLISK.

The author then listed ten spellings that must have resulted from what he considered a severely “DISORDERED IMAGINATION:”

Boliske, Velase,
Ralisca, Faliska,
Vieliscee, Nulisca,
Vullske, Belleska,
Palisca, Valeske.

Honestly. Who would know that those letters should be sent to Villisca? Amazing. But not as bad as the last five attempts, according to the column, “We now present a list of five attempts to [spell] our beautifully named town which separately and severally should win the writers undying fame”which he called “these SPELLICISMS, these terrible specimens of spellographic idiosyncrasies” were:

Vilisc, Verlirsky,
Pilluca, Waliska, and

The winner: WEILITYSKE!

Apparently things improved over the years although an 1907 column recounted an attempt earlier that year by a New Yorker to write to a Villisca businessman. The writer’s spelling of the town’s name on the envelope was so far out that the postal clerks gave up even trying to figure out what he meant and returned the letter to him. The writer tried again, and got closer when he crossed out his first attempt and tried again with “Valeskie.” That one was delivered.

Although the complaints from the postal clerks seemed to have merit, perhaps it wasn’t just the fault of writers who had never before heard of Villisca, Iowa. The post office itself, in issuing a commission to the first appointed Post Masterin 1863, spelled the name of the town to which the new post master was appointed as “Valliska.” And two years later in the Iowa State Gazeteer the name of our beautiful place was spelled Valeska.

Zip codes, computerization and spell check should have put an end to the problem. But in checking the archives of The Review, “Vallisca” shows up in a 1964 article. But not really. An ink smear near the first “I” in the name confused the algorithm which reported the town’s name as Vallisca. So if the name can trick a computer, what chance does a human being have?

But as we know today—whether you spell it Villisca, or Valliske, or Villisk, or Vallasca or even WEILITYSKE—there’s only one!

(Originally published in the Villisca Review and Stanton Viking on July 24, 2014)

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Fire and Water

By Linda Artlip Weinstein

Water tower 1902 Villisca_adjLooming over the homes and businesses of Villisca and standing above even the tree tops, the Villisca water tower has provided the city with water for decades. But providing its citizens with clean drinking water was not the reason the city fathers invested in what they called the city water tank. No. It was constructed to protect Villisca from fire. Anything else was secondary.

Villiscans had worried about fire from the very start of the community. As well they should as most of the earliest buildings, both businesses and residences, were constructed of wood. So Villisca needed more fire protection than water pumped from individual wells into wooden buckets and carried by willing hands could provide.

In 1876 the town organized a volunteer fire company and the city council not only purchased a fire engine, but it also built what was referred to as a “fine” water tank. Where that first water tank was located isn’t known for sure. It was later referred to as the city tank in the south part of town, so it was probably near the first engine house where it would be handy for those early firemen. A good guess might be that it was at the northwest corner of Third Aveue and 8th Street, just across the street from the first engine house. Today a round cement pad can be found on a small rise on that lot. But wherever it was, the tank no doubt was built like a barrel—wooden staves with metal rings holding it together. The town needed the water tank so they would have enough water to fill the tank on their hand-pumped fire engine which provided a pressurized stream with which to fight fires.

Finally in September 1884, the town approved a bond issue for the construction of an entire water works system. Because of the legalities involved in bonding, the newspaper carried the details of this one. The new 16 foot x 30 foot city tank to be made of Michigan pine slats, the Review reported, would be on the top of the hill at the head of Third Avenue and it would be elevated 16 feet above the ground. It would be roofed and finished something like a railroad tank, but “neater.” The city bought a lot north of North (High Street) Street for the new tank.

watertower sketchThe original water works project was a pretty simple proposition. They laid a 6-inch main down Third avenue, and connected it to the water tank. Charts showed how far the fire company’s hoses could run from the hydrants on the Third avenue main and how much pressure the water would be under. But still, they had to be alert to the ever-present danger of fire. For instance, in August 1890, Villisca was suffering from a drought, and the paper carried notices like this one: “It might be wise to be more saving of city water these dry times. We should not lose sight of the fact that the water works were put in for fire protection, specially and for private use incidentally.”

It was all good though. The Review a year later noted that “since putting in this system our insurance rates have been reduced and all fear of a disastrous fire vanished.” As we know now, that sentiment was a bit premature. But still. Having a reliable water supply was a major step forward.

The mayor’s 1901 annual report claimed the city water works system had 5,200 feet of 6-inch water mains and 2,000 of 4-inch mains and 100 water takers. The capacity of the water tank was 3,500 barrels (about 125,000 gallons). The water works was nearing being financially self-supporting.

But by 1902 officials were admitting that the town’s fancy water tank wasn’t cutting it any longer and everyone knew that a new tank was needed. The water works kept expanding and the system needed more capacity. By 1904 the official water works committee was instructed to ascertain how much a new water tank and tower would cost and in November construction got under way.

An article in a Review in October 1906 reported that the city water tank in the south part of town had “bursted.” The water from that tank had been being used for street sprinkling as it wasn’t any good for drinking. In 1906 the streets were still unpaved—when they weren’t muddy, they were dusty! The tank, the Review said, had been built for some time and the rust on the hoops was the cause of the break. The city repaired the tank and kept using it. The city employee in charge of street sprinkling was M. P. Bible who was quoted in the July 25, 1907 paper as saying that the city water tank was full and as long as there was plenty of water he expected to keep the streets sprinkled as they should be.

Improvements were continually made to the system. In 1910, the town council decided that it needed to know how much water was in the tank on the hill at any given moment so installed a pressure gauge in the city clerk’s office. “It registers on a weekly dial in red ink the number of feet of water in the tank at any and every moment of the day.”

But by 1921 the wooden tank on the hill was shot and the Commercial Club began agitating for a new one.

“The old tank leaks through the bottom and also through the side and can be filled only to within four feet of the top.”

The tank which was constructed to hold 100,000 gallons was then limited to 65,000 gallons AND to make matters worse, in case of emergency the city no longer could connect its system directly to the river because after the Middle Nodaway had been straightened it was no longer close to the pumps south of town.

No one wanted to spend the money, but they didn’t have any choice. A bond issue vote was scheduled for March 24, 1922. The Review urged everyone to get out and vote, calling the $12,000 for bonds a reasonable amount for something so important as a sanitary tank. The Review’s support of the new tank was unequivocal:

“Of course, if you are satisfied to continue using in your cooking and on your table, water that is filtered through the feathers and carcasses of pigeons that have fallen into the present tank, it’s your right . . . but don’t blame anyone but yourself if you choke to death on the ribs of a dead squab.”

Although the bond issue passed, some technicality required the town to vote on it again and in the second election, the question passed by an even larger margin. That could have been due to the notice received from the state board of health prior to the second election that the current tank either had to be improved or condemned. And, it was pointed out, if the tank was allowed to be condemned, the city would be left without water for either fire fighting or personal use.

Construction of the new steel water tank began in September 1922, just east of where the old wooden tank had been and the new tank went into service in January 1923. There was a cement foundation for the steel tower and tank. The tower was 60 feet in height and the bowl was about 20 feet from top to bottom. Capacity was 100,000 gallons. When it was completed and the water started flowing, residents immediately noted a considerable increase in the water pressure, about 15 to 20 pounds stronger than what the old tank had provided.

And that water tower (the use of “water tower” took over from the phrase water tank around the 1940s) is the one that currently serves the people of Villisca. It’s undergone renovation after renovation—usually about every five years or so it gets scraped and painted; it had the name “Villisca” painted on two sides beginning in 1929 in order to aid in navigation for pilots; it’s too bad the Commercial Club turned down as too expensive the addition of “Welcome to” along with Villisca’s name. That would have added a nice friendly touch.

In the mid-‘20s the grounds around the water tower served as free camp grounds for tourists, with running water and sanitary facilities provided, as well as picnic tables. In 1930 the tank started carrying water from a new filtration plant. The tank got a flood light on top and a 24-hour guard during World War II to thwart potential evil-doers; later a new walkway and ladder system were added to protect workers as they scurry up and around the tank.

New wells west of town were dug over the years to ensure a continuous flow of pure water to the tower.  In 1963 fluoridated water began to flow from the tank to the water company customers of Villisca. Since 1983 the water tower has been supplied with water pumped from a 500,000-gallon underground water reservoir tank that was built just west of Old Highway 71. The water tower on north Third Avenue, north of High Street, however, remains the distribution point for the town’s water.

For a water tank that is 91 years old, Villisca’s vintage water tower is looking, and apparently performing, pretty darn well. Let’s drink to its continued well-being—with city water, of course.


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New Year’s Resolutions— Make ‘em and break ‘em

Babylonian Chaos God and Sun God (Wikipedia).

New Year’s resolutions have been made by people around the world and throughout history. For instance, it’s said that the Babylonians at the beginning of each year promised their gods that they would return borrowed objects and money and apparently Romans made similar promises to their god Janus as each year began.

Happy-New-Year-Images-2018-HD-1-1Modern day New Year’s resolutions are more likely made to one’s self rather than a deity. While about a quarter of American adults were making New Year’s resolutions at the end of the Great Depression (the one in the 1930s, that is), by 2000 that number had grown to about 40 percent. The studies don’t say how many kept those increased numbers of resolutions that are flying around on New Year’s Eve, but we could probably all make a pretty good guess!

Villiscans, like other Americans, have played around with making resolutions often enough that reports on some of them have made it into the columns of the Review over the years. There were also jokes about NOT keeping those resolutions, like this early one:

January 6, 1881—“It is nearly late enough in the new year to break New Year’s resolutions.”

Similarly, groups and organizations used the first of the new year as an opportunity to resolve to improve their ways:

January 2, 1896  The Chautauqua Circle gave an open session at the home of Mrs. Platter, Monday evening. A literary program, consisting of recitations, essays and new year’s resolutions was given and the material wants were supplied by a choice selection of good eatables.

January 5, 1899  Hereafter the rules and regulations of the Fire Company will be strictly adhered to in regard to all fines and expulsions. This is a good resolution, and it is to be hoped that it will outlive most New Years resolutions.

Strictly practical advice sometimes came in the form of a New Year’s resolution like this one found in a “canned” column in the Review:

2-0118--JD-B-or-C-Spreader jpg
February 17, 1910 Agricultural Column
—There are many farmers who could have or carry out no more practical New Year’s resolution than the purchase and use of a good manure spreader. It will not only mean fewer blisters and callouses on the hands through freedom from forking the stuff off the wagon, but will likewise mean a great many dollars more in pocket as a result of a more economical handling of the farm fertilizers and from realizing a larger percent of their value in increased crop returns.
And then, of course, there were the purely social gatherings that revolved around New Year’s and its traditions:

January 5, 1911 IN SOCIAL CIRCLES
Miss New Year’s Eve was the guest of honor at a pleasant social affair given by Miss Ethelda Armstrong last Saturday night, December 31, 1910. Many games were played, after which a taffy-pull was indulged in. The usual watch for the new year was engaged in by all and when it came the guests departed, all satisfied that no new year’s resolution had as yet been broken.

Important issues were covered by the Review and early organizations weren’t above elaborate public relations ploys to draw attention to their issues any less than modern groups are. This one was based on New Year’s resolutions.

764px-National_Women's_Suffrage_AssociationJanuary 8, 1916  SUFFRAGE RESOLUTION
“Resolved,—That Iowa must be the twelfth state in the union to grant full suffrage to women. (New Year resolution of Iowa suffragists.) New Year resolutions of Iowa women will be filled with such words as “suffrage,”  “victory,”  “big majority” if pre-New Year rumors can be trusted. The first of January will usher in what promises to be the most auspicious period in the history of Iowa women—the period of their political enfranchisement. Suffrage New Year resolutions would tend to show that the women are awake to the work that lies before them.

“Resolved,—That I will work harder than ever for suffrage,” is the New Year resolution of the state president, Miss Flora Dunlap. This means that the president will leave no stone unturned to bring victory to Iowa.

“Resolved,—That I will work harder than ever for suffrage,” that I will work to put Iowa on the suffrage map, June 5, 1916, and stop future generations from the wasteful expenditure of vital energy to get what four million women of other states already use with credit to themselves and benefit to others,” is the New Year resolution of Mrs. Pleasant J. Mills, auditor of the state suffrage association.

Miss Elizabeth Perkins, state board member and well known suffrage speaker, has suggested the following resolution for all men of Iowa:

“Resolved,—That I will cast my ballot next June for Equal Suffrage. My wife says if I don’t vote for Equal Suffrage that I don’t believe in a democratic country. She says she will feel she can hold her head up higher before our boys and girls if, when she is talking to them about being good citizens, she has the right to do so because she herself is a citizen’ she says, well she says she wants me to vote for Equal Suffrage in Iowa next June, so I am going to do it.”

It was a good attempt, but Iowa’s women did not get the right to state-wide suffrage until 1919, and then they had to wait for full suffrage for a couple of more years.

Written by Linda Artlip Weinstein’s 2014 New Year Column in the Villisca Review.

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Christmas Lights Come to Villisca

christmas-ad-christmas-bulbs_1930sWritten by Linda Artlip Weinstein for the “Villisca Review” in December 2015.

It’s not clear if Edward H. Johnson, a colleague of Thomas Edison, knew what he was starting in 1882 when he dreamed up a new way to decorate his family’s Christmas tree. Mr. Johnson handmade the world’s first string of electric Christmas lights  from strands of electrical wire connecting eight walnut-sized light bulbs of alternating red, white and blue. He wrapped his creation around his family’s Christmas tree near a window that looked out on Fifth Avenue in New York.

Not everyone who saw the lights in the window of the Johnson family mansion was impressed with Mr. Johnson’s ground-breaking efforts. The New York Times and other city newspapers, for instance, refused to run a story on the innovation, judging the whole thing a shabby public relations ploy. But a Detroit newspaper was interested enough to publish an article on Mr. Johnson’s invention and the rest, as they say, is history.

President_Grover_Cleveland_Restored.jpgPresident Grover Cleveland is often credited for spurring acceptance of indoor electric Christmas lights when in 1895 he had the White House family tree lit with hundreds of colored bulbs. It was a first for what has become a beloved tradition.

But it wasn’t until 1903 that General Electric Co. of Harrison, New Jersey, began to sell pre-assembled sets of Christmas lights. Prior to that auspicious moment, you had to be an electrician—or wealthy enough to hire one—in order to have electric Christmas lights. You couldn’t just run down to K-Mart to pick up a few strands—no K-Mart, no lights.

It’s been estimated that trimming an average Christmas tree with electric lights before GE inventedl ight sets would have cost the equivalent of $2,000 in 2015 dollars. That alone probably convinced a few folks to stick to dangerous candles on their trees. Nevertheless, the idea of electric Christmas lights spread over the country with growing enthusiasm, although only for indoor trees.

It wasn’t until the Del Coronado Hotel in San Diego first strung outdoor Christmas lights in 1903, followed by the town of Appleton, Wisconsin in 1909, and finally New York City in 1912 that electric Christmas lights were installed out of doors. With these cities leading the way, could Villisca be far behind? Of course not. Even though electrical service in the city was problematic because of on-going power struggles with the local electric company.

Nevertheless, Villisca’s first municipal Christmas tree, which was kind of a bust because of delays in receiving the decorations ordered from Chicago, did feature a thousand-candle power nitrogen arc lamp on top of the tree, although no light strands. The Review noted that the top light was visible for miles—kind of like the Star of Bethlehem, it would seem. But times were a-changing and The Light Shop’s ad on December 23, 1914 offered Villiscans the ability to purchase Christmas tree light sets.

The ad said: “Christmas tree lights make a happy Christmas for the kiddies. Have a tree and have it lighted with one of our lighting sets and be safe from fire. They are good every year.”

J. S. Honeyman had apparently “bit” on this new fashion and had earlier purchased some strands because the Review reported on “Some Unique Decorations” in its December 12th edition.

“One of the neatest and prettiest decorated business houses in Villisca is that of J. S. Honeyman, who besides the usual decorations has several clusters of small colored electric lights about the large Christmas bells in the store, at night these present a pretty appearance.”

That’s all fine and dandy, but you have to have electricity first and also feel you can afford to use it for decorations. The delay in using colored electrical lights for Christmas in Villisca is a bit puzzling as the city had stretched a cable bearing 150 various colored lights over Third Avenue to the southwest corner of the square in August of 1907.

Illuminated in celebration of the Old Veterans of Cass and Montgomery Counties reunion, the lights presented a beautiful spectacle after dark, according to the Review. But apparently no one thought to do the same for the Christmas season. It wouldn’t be until 1936 that Villisca got its municipal electricity generating plant up and going, but it had stopped battling with its electricity providers in the teens enough so the town was reliably electrified. Electricity remained a bit suspect for several years though, and for sure, it was considered expensive. So it took awhile for electric current to be considered a reasonably priced necessity.

However, by the Christmas season of 1928, the town got into the swing of electrical Christmas lights enough that the commercial club ordered colored lights to be installed in the street light fixtures in the business district.

In addition, the club had ordered dozens of small Christmas trees, oneto be installed in front of each business place.

“Some of these have been trimmed with small electric lights, with current supplied from the interior of the buildings in front of which they stand, and give an especially pleasing effect,” according to the Review’s report.

Villisca was about to enter a new, glowing electrified age. When the municipal Christmas tree of 1930 arrived, the Review proudly proclaimed that it would be decorated with among other things 100 brightly colored electric lights. In addition, the 60 smaller trees erected in front of the businesses along the four sides of the public square and on lower Third avenue were to be festooned with electric lights too.

A special light wire was strung along the street so that all the merchants might light their trees with colored Christmas lights. The Commercial Club’s colored light bulbs purchased in 1928 were also installed in the downtown street light stanchions, adding to the festive look of Villisca’s business district.

In 1936, with the electricity wars over, the municipal light plant supplied free of charge the electrical current needed for Christmas decorations in the business district. That must have seemed like a good idea, but led to misunderstandings and bad feelings the next year.

In 1937, for the first time, the Chamber of Commerce sponsored a contest for the best electrically decorated homes. The front page of the December 9 Review explained that contrary to the public’s belief, the light plant had never intended to provide free current to residential customers, even those involved in the contest.

“Officials of the Villisca Municipal Power Plant say the impression appears to be rather prevalent among Villisca residents that the power plant will furnish free electric current for all Christmas lights in the business and residential districts of the city, but that takes in more territory than the plant can cover gratis.”

The article explained that the plant would in addition supply free current for the four double floodlights installed on buildings around the square in order to light up the park during the holidays. (The floods had been brought up from the football field and park for the Christmas season.) It pointed out that the floods used lots of current, nearly half as much as required to light all of the street lamps in the city in fact.

“But please remember, there is no free current for Christmas lights at residences.”

Seems a bit Scrooge-like. Free electricity would have added to the Christmas spirit, for sure. But the residents’ time to shine had arrived, even if they had to pay for it.

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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

Posted in Villisca History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment