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Iowa's dark past coaxes tourists off beaten path

Iowa's local boosters show off their communities' best side — sprucing up historic landmarks, touting even tenuous ties to the famous and organizing festivals celebrating everything from tulips to sauerkraut. But it's Iowa's historic dark side that coaxes some tourists off the beaten path.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Most Iowa towns hoping to lure visitors and their dollars would be pleased to see Charlotte Redman and Missy Morrison arrive.

The best friends from West Des Moines are in the midst of leisurely vacation road trip through parts of Iowa and Missouri a meandering back-roads journey that led them into Villisca, a southwest Iowa town of roughly 1,200 residents.

It's the promise of visitors like Redman and Morrison that pushes Iowa's local boosters to show off their communities' best side — sprucing up historic landmarks, touting even tenuous ties to the famous and organizing festivals celebrating everything from tulips to sauerkraut.

But it's Iowa's historic dark side that coaxed Redman and Morrison off the beaten path.

"This is one of the places that we definitely wanted to see," said Redman as the pair prepared to tour a small white frame house where eight people were killed with an ax on June 10, 1912. The now infamous Villisca ax murders may be Iowa's most famous unsolved crime.

Today, the largely restored home is open for tours and hosts overnight guests nearly every weekend.

"We both love history," Morrison said. "Every little town has to have something, or people just bypass it. If it wasn't for this, who would know of Villisca?"

Villisca continues to struggle with its historic identity. But it's not the only Iowa community where tourists are drawn to the intersection of history and infamy.

Visitors have been touring the Abbie Gardner Cabin — on the site of the 1857 "Spirit Lake massacre" — in Iowa's Great Lakes region for more than 100 years. Thirty-three settlers died in a clash with native Dakota tribesmen.

The cabin draws about 15,000 visitors each year, according to site manager Mike Koppert. It opened in 1891 and was among Iowa's first tourist attractions.

"That's the thing about history, if it wasn't tragic, if you didn't have that bloody stuff, no one would care about it," Koppert said.

Adair celebrates Jesse James Chuck Wagon Days every July. The James gang pulled off the first robbery of a moving train west of the Mississippi on July 21, 1873, just a stone's throw from town.

In Stuart, community leaders are seeking a state grant for a revitalization project that includes a mural commemorating a bank robbed by Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Visitors frequently stop to photograph the site of the April 16, 1934, heist, which is now the town's police station.

In Mason City, organizers are planning an event in September commemorating a dramatic March 13, 1934, bank robbery perpetrated by John Dillinger and other Chicago gangsters.

"We have a real life historical thriller right here in Mason City," said Mary Sue Kislingbury, who is leading an effort to plan the event. "Nobody's calling Dillinger a hero, but he does spark the public's imagination."

Marvelle Feller says he isn't opposed to commemorating Bonnie and Clyde's place in local history even though he came face-to-face with the dangerous duo in July 1933.

Less than a year before the Stuart bank robbery, Bonnie and Clyde were nearly captured in a park between nearby Dexter and Redfield. Bonnie, Clyde and fellow gang member W.D. Jones escaped a fierce shootout and emerged from a cornfield at Feller's family farm.

Feller and his father were preparing to milk cows when the family's German shepherd greeted the unwelcome visitors.

"Clyde hollered, 'You pull him off or I'll shoot him.' If he'd shot that dog he just as well of shot me 'cause I raised that dog," said Feller, now 93.

Feller, his father, mother, younger sister and an uncle were held for a time at gunpoint before Bonnie, Clyde and Jones took off in the family's Plymouth.

"It was quite an ordeal," said Feller, who now lives at the Stuart Community Care Center.

In April, 1934, the gang returned to rob the bank in Stuart, but their days were numbered. Bonnie and Clyde were gunned-down in an ambush in Louisiana just more than a month later.

The planned mural in Stuart commemorating their bank job will be paired with a small park in an adjacent vacant lot. Local leaders are still in negotiations with the state's Vision Iowa Board to hammer out how much help the town will receive.

"You've got mixed emotions," said Jerry Vitzthum, who sells Chevys at a dealership across the street. "You hate to bring glory and fame to people like that. They don't deserve it. And yet it's something that people are interested in, so if it draws people to your town, that's good."

Stuart Police Chief Robert Smith, who works in the crime-scene-turned-police station, has no objections.

"It's kind of neat that it's now the cop shop," Smith said. "I think it's going to make the building stand out that much more and add to the history of it."

Just a short drive west on the historic White Pole Road, also known as old Highway 6, Adair has been celebrating Jesse James Chuck Wagon Days for years.

The James gang picked Adair because of its proximity to "Summit Cut," a high point where trains coming from either direction had to slow down. The train robbers tampered with track and forced the train to derail before making off with $3,000.

The engineer was killed and the fireman later died of his injuries. A bronze plaque along the White Pole Road southwest of town commemorates the robbery.

Ironically, the plaque itself was stolen. It turned up years later in Ohio, according to Brenda Wedemeyer, president of the Adair Chamber of Commerce, after it was uncovered in a house fire.

"Someone had stolen it, taken it to Ohio, their house burned down and the plaque came back. So it has a little history," Wedemeyer said.

There have been no local objections in recent years to commemorating James' historic crime. But there have been discussions about revising the annual tradition of crowning Little Miss Adair and Little Mr. Gunslinger. So far, however, tradition has prevailed.

"We've had discussion about that through the years, especially right after Columbine," Wedemeyer said, referring to the Colorado school shootings. "We don't give them a toy gun. They get a cowboy hat and you ride in the big parade the next day.

"You really can't take Jesse James real seriously in a town that has a smiley face water tower," she said.

Villisca's relationship to its grisly history has been a rocky one. Darwin Linn has been on both sides of the conflict.

As a young track runner for Villisca High School in the 1950s, Linn remembers taking flak from outsiders.

"At the Drake Relays there was a parade. We had our Villisca jackets on going down the streets of Des Moines just proud as heck," Linn said. "And all of the sudden I heard 'Ax murder town.' Boy, I couldn't figure out what in the world they were talking about. "But I soon found out," he said.

Now Linn owns the home where Josiah B. Moore, Sarah Moore, their four young children and two young houseguests were bludgeoned to death in their beds. Their murders were never solved.

After decades of bouncing between owners as both a home and a rental property, Linn bought the J.B. Moore house in 1994.

"We bought it for the historical part. I thought it would be a little niche to bring people to town," Linn said.

Linn concedes there is still plenty of discomfort in Villisca with the idea of capitalizing on the community's darkest hour. Former mayor Susie Enarson is among those with misgivings.

"There are definitely two sides. To be honest, some local people are just tired of it," said Enarson, who would like to put more emphasis on Villisca's railroad history and the town's proud record of military service. "The community has a whole lot more going for it than that."

Linn and his wife Martha have worked for a decade to restore the house to its original appearance, right down to a frayed kitchen calendar turned to June 1912. The home's eerie feel is enhanced by piercing photos of the doomed family that stare back at visitors from the parlor walls.

A tour, especially on a dark, rainy day, can be a fairly gloomy experience.

"They left the ax right here," Linn says, patting a spot on the wall at one point during the house tour.

But visitors come, as evidenced by broad boards in a nearby barn where dozens signed their names. Linn said many guests are psychics or paranormal investigators seeking to get in touch with spirits they're convinced still inhabit the house.

Others are simply curious, including high school kids eager for a good scare. Books and a recent documentary on the case have fueled even more interest.

But some overnight guests don't stick around until morning, Linn said. Once, two women form Minneapolis settled in at 10 p.m. and left the house around 10:30.

"They just got so spooked they couldn't stand it," Linn said.

Missy Morrison can't convince her friend, Charlotte Redman to stay the night.

"I 100 percent believe in ghosts," Redman said. "I'm too scared."