Ames through the years: City celebrates sesquicentennial during Fourth of July weekend


Courtesy of Ames Historical Society

Ames Main Street in 1907.

Bill Dyke

The city of Ames has a long history — 150 years worth to be exact.

Ames began as a small railroad town with the nation’s first land grant college and grew into a large city full of students and families with the state’s largest university.

It has been a long road for the city of Ames to get to this point. After growing almost exponentially, countless advancements and recovering from numerous incidents like flooding and riots, it is now time for the city to celebrate.

The city of Ames will be celebrating its 150th anniversary, or sesquicentennial, over the Fourth of July weekend. To commemorate Ames’ history, organizations have pitched in to plan events for citizens to celebrate their community.

As the city prepares for the sesquicentennial, Mayor Ann Campbell praised the sesquicentennial committee that has been working with Ames City Hall to host the event.

“The sesquicentennial gives [us] the opportunity to look back at where we’ve been and project what the next 150 years are going to be for Ames,” Campbell said.

The Ames celebration will have various musical performances, cookouts, festivals and historical presentations from July 3 to 5.

The city, however, is not the only one helping to put on the event. The Ames Historical Society is also working to inform, present and celebrate the history of the city, from its primal roots as a railroad center to a modern university town.

City History

For Dennis Wendell, curator of the Ames Historical Society, this year is the organization’s time to shine.

The Ames Historical Society plans to host a series of presentations and local history programs throughout the Fourth of July as well as assist with the Chautauqua tent — historical education and entertainment — on July 5.

“Throughout the year, but particularly on the fourth and fifth of July we’ll be providing historic items to various organizations.” Wendell said.

Part of the Ames Historical Society’s mission has been to archive and present the influences that led to the the development of the city of Ames as well as engage and educate the public.

“We don’t really duplicate what University Archives is doing,” Wendell said. “We focus on the influence that the university has had on Ames and its growth.”

According to Wendell, Ames began with only 100 people. The entire region was — and still is — either swampland or a floodplain. As Wendell put it, this was “the most illogical place to put a town.”

Eventually the transcontinental railroad was established and Iowa Agricultural College began to grow. Around that time, Ames became a major train depot and business center in Iowa.

“By intention, they put Iowa Agricultural College away from our future railroad station,” Wendell said, explaining how the college chose to adopt the British pattern of a freestanding academic institution.

The only connections between the college and the budding railroad town were a dirt road that suffered from weather and a small train known as the Dinkey. Eventually, under ISU President William Beardshear, the university became more connected to the town, allowing faculty and students to live off campus and regularly commute between the two.

From 1890 to 1915, Ames expanded by a large amount with the establishment of a power plant, a city hall, sewer services, water control, hotels and other features. Following World War II, returning soldiers who took advantage of the GI Bill further increased the growth of the university and town.

In the years following, Ames and Iowa State developed into the community that we know and celebrate today.

Ames Historical Society History

Much like the city itself, the Ames Historical Society began with humble roots. Wendell said the Ames Historical Society has gone through drastic changes to become the organization it is today.

“We started from scratch,” Wendell said. “There was no archive in the early days.”

The historical society was formed very late in 1980 as the Ames Heritage Association. Initially, the organization’s sole mission was to save the Hoggatt one-room schoolhouse, Ames’ first schoolhouse.

Following its success in saving the schoolhouse, the association still lacked a proper headquarters or workspace. All the records of the society were contained within a single carrying case that would be handed from person to person.

“It was very primitive,” Wendell said. “For many years people were just vaguely aware of us.”

The historical society eventually established itself in the cultural district of Ames, next to the Octagon Center for the Arts and the library. The historical society has since strived to preserve the history of Ames and both provide tours and educate audiences.

The organization has also faced challenges with space as many of its artifacts remain in storage units and other buildings’ basements. After celebrating the sesquicentennial, one of the historical society’s primary goals includes the establishment of a “permanent history center” for Ames.

Katherine Svec, co-president of the historical society, also felt that it was important for the historical society to promote the connections between the university and city, calling it a “model relationship.”

Svec said that it was helpful to understand what decisions and contributions were made to make the city into what it is today, from its start as a railroad town and eventual growth and focus on the older university.

The historical society will also provide several 3-month exhibits at the Octagon Center for the Arts. The exhibits will include a “Signs of the Times” exhibit that features the businesses that helped build Ames, as well as a number of other large exhibits.

Both Svec and Wendell stressed the importance of the society as a tool for maintaining and preserving Ames’ history.

“If you don’t remember your past, you will stumble in the future,” Svec said.