A century ago in Grinnell there was also construction everywhere, stimulating a March, 1917 article in the Des Moines Register, headlined "Grinnell Spends a Million in New Buildings." Of course, the word "million" does not have the same ring today that it had in 1917; translated into today's dollars, 1917 construction spending in Grinnell—for a town about half the size of today's Grinnell—amounted to almost $20 million of today's dollars, still only a fraction of the cost of construction now underway, but a big bump in early twentieth-century Grinnell all the same.
|Des Moines Register, March 11, 1917, p. 36|
Despite this overt similarity, however, 1917 was also different from today. A much smaller, less populous town then than now, 1917 Grinnell was connected to the larger world mainly by railroads and newspapers rather than by the interstate highways or the internet; even the radio was still on the horizon in 1917 (newspapers announced the first "wireless station" in town in February). Grinnell College was smaller and less prosperous than it is today, and the town was more overtly religious—and more protestant. Although a recent local referendum had favored women's suffrage, Grinnell women still awaited enfranchisement that the Nineteenth Amendment would provide, and consumption of alcohol was illegal—in 1917 Grinnell Prohibition was in full swing, Iowa having legislated it four years before the 1920 national law. Perhaps most jarring of all the differences was the World War into which the United States had only recently been thrust (the U.S. formally declared war on Germany April 6, 1917), and that far-away war not only brought news of the world regularly to Grinnell's doorstep but also brought uniforms and military training to town, and called forth increasingly strident patriotism.
***The Des Moines newspaper report, published early in 1917, included several projects whose genesis properly relates to the previous year. For example, the photograph used to highlight the article depicts the new Grinnell Herald building on Fifth Avenue, completed in 1916 by the Bailey-Marsh Company to the design of Proudfoot, Bird and Rawson. Its cost estimated at about $40,000, the newspaper's new home featured entirely new press machinery, said to be the fastest then available; an elevator with which to move heavy loads between floors; a two-story vault for the most valuable records; and a series of skylights that admitted ambient light from the roof all the way to the raised basement. Perhaps most interesting was the role played by D. N. Mallory, an "efficiency expert" who helped produce what the newspaper shamelessly bragged was "the handsomest and most commodious newspaper home in Iowa for a town of 5,000 people" (Grinnell Herald, March 13, 1917).
|Scarlet and Black, January 20, 1917, p. 1|
|Grinnell Register, August 30, 1917, p. 1|
|Early Stage of Construction of Grinnell's US Post Office, 1916, looking west (Digital Grinnell)|
Local government also joined the building boom: although many Grinnell streets had been paved by 1917, as the town expanded new streets opened and some streets were widened. For example, a January newspaper article reported that Park Street north of Tenth Avenue, originally platted too narrowly, was doubled north to the Country Club. Elsewhere, city government decided to make use of the ashes and cinders generated at the water works and heating plant to improve the surface of the Hazelwood Cemetery drive and First Avenue beyond the tannery (Ottumwa Semi-Weekly Courier, January 2, 1917).
Even bigger projects loomed, however. As many readers will know, today's Grinnell city government has embarked upon a very costly project of upgrading its waste water treatment plant. Coincidentally, in 1917 the city proudly opened its brand new sewage disposal plant. The Herald described the new facility as "the most comprehensive effort to handle sewage...in the state" (March 13, 1917). J. W. Turner Improvement Co. of Des Moines constructed the new facility southwest of town, and also had the contract to install a series of water mains in Grinnell.
|Grinnell Herald, March 13, 1917|
***Local industry also marked some important new construction in 1917. In October the newspaper announced that the new building of the Dodge Tool Company would soon be open. The two-story factory (70' x 90') on south Main was under the direction of W. S. Dodge, and was said to have engineered Billy Robinson's famous rotary engine. Evidently the firm did not prosper for long, however, as a 1920 Grinnell directory knows nothing about it.
The most costly and important industrial addition to town in 1917 was the new plant of the Iowa Light, Heat, and Power company, reported to have cost $250,000. At its official opening, May 14, 1917, Mayor White turned on a new, 500-horsepower Ball engine, which revolved "steadily and smoothly, like a happy giant at work." The mayor then started up its twin, and would have done the same to a third engine which had twice the power of the first two, but it was not yet fully operational. Guests then turned their attention to the big boilers and their automatic feed hoppers, all intended to increase and improve the provision of power to the town (Grinnell Herald, May 15, 1917).
|Drawing of proposed new home for Iowa Light, Heat and Power (Grinnell Register, August 10, 1916)|
|Alumni Recitation Hall, 1917 (Scarlet and Black, September 24, 1917|
|Architect's Drawing, Men's Dormitories, Grinnell College, 1917|
The men's dormitories provided yet another significant signpost to the twentieth century—labor troubles. In late April newspapers across the state reported "Near Rioting at Grinnell" (Des Moines Register, April 24, 1917, p. 3; see also Quad-City Times, April 24, 1917, p. 2), the consequence of strikes carried out by workers for the several firms taking part in the construction project. Bailey Marsh Construction, who had won the bid as general contractor, held out longest against worker protests about hours, wages, and recognition of unions. In April the Minneapolis company brought to Grinnell from Des Moines twenty Mexicans whom they had hired to replace strikers. When the new laborers appeared, strikers refused to let them onto the worksite, and succeeded in persuading the Mexicans not to help Bailey Marsh break the strike. In early May the company tried again, this time importing volunteers from Milwaukee. Rather than allowing strikers to hassle or persuade the newcomers, the company arranged to train the recruits onto the work site, past the strikers, on a specially-laid railroad spur. Apparently the tactic worked, as a May 16 article in the Quad-City Times announced that the strike was over. Management had conceded a nine-hour work day at 35 cents/hour, but the firm refused to recognize the union as the strikers had long insisted, so that, overall, the laborers emerged the loser.
|Grinnell House, 1920s? (Digital Grinnell)|
|Scarlet and Black, December 8, 1917|
***Of course, the college was not the only local institution committed to new building plans. One of the oldest institutions in town, the Congregational Church, in early January announced plans for a thorough remodeling of the north end of the "Old Stone Church" (Scarlet and Black, January 10, 1917, p. 1). Initial plans called for "a comfortable parlor and rest room for ladies" as well as a "large club room for men and boys." A three-story addition was proposed to the east of the church, featuring a dining room and assembly hall on the first floor, classrooms on the second, and two large rooms "especially for the use of young people" on the third. But when bids came in higher than hoped, the church rejected all bidders and decided to reconsider the plan (Grinnell Herald, July 31, 1917). Elsewhere in town, however, it was full-speed ahead.
|Quad-City Times, February 5, 1917|
|Cornerstone at foot of stairs of Grinnell's Masonic Temple, 1917|
|New Plumbing Showroom of A. Stahl, Fifth Avenue (Grinnell Register, August 30, 1917)|
|Grinnell Register, May 10, 1917|
|White Star Filling Station, Fifth and Main, 1917 (Digital Grinnell)|
|J. H Skeels Building, 1917 (Grinnell Herald, September 14, 1917, p. 1)|
Just across the street and around the corner yet another brick building went up in 1917, and became home to J. H. Skeels and his blacksmithing business. To the rear of the first floor, and reachable also by a door opening onto Fifth Avenue, customers could enter a wood shop. Two apartments occupied the second floor, although living there might have required courage. According to the Herald (September 7, 1917), "Two power drills, roller disc sharpener, grinding machine and three forges" operated in the blacksmith's section, and similar machinery attached to the wood shop, all powered by electricity. A rectangular canopy almost the full length of the Main Street storefront hung by chains and covered the sidewalk.
|Strand Theatre, 1917 (Grinnell Register, January 25, 1917)|
Across Main Street two more new buildings took shape in 1916 and opened in 1917. The Strand Theater came from the design table of N. Wiltamuth & Son, architects who were also responsible for several Grinnell homes. The Grinnell Register (January 25, 1917, p. 2) thought the theater "attractive and imposing." Like other newly-built downtown businesses, the Strand sported a wire-cut brick face, but hollow clay tile and steel beams reinforced the structure. A mansard roof of green, glazed Spanish tile overlooked a canopy that was "bordered with panels of art glass set in white metal" and was suspended by chains over the entrance. Immediately to the north, Frank Harding opened the new building of Grinnell Granite and Marble Works. With a 25-foot front, the two-story building stretched 122 feet deep, the front displaying white enamel brick trimmed with red granite. The owner's name, cut out of red granite, served to identify the business. Most of the first floor was devoted to Harding's business, but a Goodyear Shoe Repair shop occupied one room there as well. As with Skeels's building, the second floor was divided into apartments—seven here—each with a built-in refrigerator, gas range, and "instantaneous water heater." Skylights helped brighten the interiors, all this making "the best monument building west of the Mississippi" (Grinnell Herald, September 7, 1917).
|Daily Iowan, October 20, 1917, p. 1|
|Scarlet and Black, April 21, 1917|
And yet there was in 1917, as in 2017, sufficient optimism and financial well-being to stimulate a surprisingly robust round of new construction—both public and private. Today many of the buildings newly erected a century ago remain in use, if sometimes remodeled and repurposed. We may hope, therefore, that the next century will prove equally hospitable to the structures whose construction is presently underway.