About Main Street Lansing

Lansing , IA

One of the expressions in American culture with power to evoke images and memories and strong feelings are the words “Mississippi River Town”. The River, and often those two words are enough to single out the Mississippi, is so significant a part of the American story and American values and the American personality that living on the Mississippi confers a distinction to the fewer than 3% of the country’s population who can claim of their home towns, “……...that The River runs through it.”

Lansing’s history is beholden to The River. Settled in 1848 by William Garrison from Lansing, Michigan, whose affinity for his home town was strong enough to compel him to transfer its name to his new home on The River, Lansing, Iowa that same year attracted the Haneys and the Houghtons from Galena,Illinois. Then things started to happen.

 The little community got a Post Office the next year. Soon after that the town’s commercial potential began to ignite. Lansing Mills offered to buy local farmers’ grain for transport on river boats and while the farmers were in town local merchants sold them household goods and supplies.

 The Port of Lansing became a port of call for the products of the lumber mills, the clammers, button factories that delivered pearl buttons to the fashion industry out east, the fish hatchery that revitalized The River harvest when the clam beds were exhausted. Steamboats delivered mail and passengers. One Easterner who was so taken by the river bend and the bluffs, as the story goes, raced a young river boat pilot to the top of the bluff and named it for HERSELF: Harriet Hosmer. A noted sculptor from Watertown, Massachusetts, she bested the young man who raced her to the top of the bluff that is known as Mt. Hosmer.

 The railroad came to town in 1872 and the winter hibernation of river town life yielded to year round commerce and train noises so predictable you could set your timepiece. The two arterial lifelines of Lansing’s boom and commerce now literally flowed side-by-side.

 As Lansing grew and showed its stuff to the neighboring towns it was named the county seat of Allamakee County until the midnight raid of 1866. But that’s another story for another time.

 Iowa has more Main Streets than any other state on the prairie. The significance of these ‘Main Streets’ in the minds and hearts of main stream Americans is that they are the metaphor for the values and beliefs that many Americans are longing to reignite.

 As Lansing grew in prosperity and population (2300 at its peak in 1875, about 1000 today during winter and close to 1600 during the ‘season’) the town’s personality and architecture expressed its influence and affluence. Main Street rolled with a gentle curve from the town’s western edge and curved gently again as it ended at The River, making sure that nothing blocked the view. The town’s public and commercial architecture embraced the Italianate and Greek Revival styles that signaled prosperity and good taste as determined by the East coast tastemakers. Local limestone and brick were the preferred building materials with architecturally authentic details in window sills and keystones, doorways and porticos important and expected. Many of these Main Street buildings, well-maintained and true to their original architecture, un-tortured into some uncomfortable, inappropriate ‘update’, are an easy and remarkable visual reference for locals and visitors of what the town looked like ‘back in the day’. Other Main Street buildings like McGarrity’s Inn, and Kerndt Brothers Savings Bank Community Center have been beautifully restored and maintained in that same original ‘spirit of place’. At 148 years Lansing wears its age and its history comfortably, never losing that essential personality of a ‘Mississippi River town’. And it’s ‘the real thing’. No phony facades and re-creations to deliver that hollow impression of how things, maybe, might have been.

 Lansing is a comfortable place to live and to visit. Shopping has kept pace with shifts in the popular culture with one-of-a-kind boutiques and re-sale shops right next door to old time bins and buckets hardware stores and outdoor outfitters. The library has free wi-fi and comfortable reading nooks. And,of course, there’s Horsfall’s Variety Store, Lansing’s answer to Wall Drug, arguably better known than the town itself. Ten restaurants, snack shops, tea rooms, watering holes and sports bars, many with free wi-fi, offer a literal moveable feast.

 So, as Iowa owns the spirit and the meaning of America’s Heartland across the country and the world, we see our small piece of that image, our town, Lansing,Iowa, as an original and authentic example of Iowa’s and America’s Main Streets.

Written by Bill O’Connor.