A Photographic Record of Iowa Towns

Post Date: 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014
by William E. Whittaker, University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist

Project Background

Between 2007 and 2013, I took 7204 photographs of 213 towns in 59 counties in an attempt to document what is left of Iowa’s small towns before they disappear. These photos were recently archived on the University of Iowa’s Digital Library. This project is ongoing, and I have collected hundreds more since then, which will be added later this year.   

View the Full Collection Here


It Started with Spillville

Archaeologists’ work takes us far from the highways; we see the remains of dead crossroads hamlets, moribund third-tier towns in sparsely populated counties, and the occasional county seat were there is still some life downtown, sometimes in a shell of worn-down buildings. The fall of 2007 I began photographing towns haphazardly, one exception was the Old Stone Mill in Spillville, where I took about 40 photos of the inside and outside, because I knew the State Historical Society had provided a grant for the mill’s stabilization, and I wanted some “before” photos. My collection grew slowly in 2008 and 2009. I became more serious about the photos after a few of the buildings I had photographed, such as the Green Tambourine building in Keokuk and the old Brick Arch Post Office in West Branch, collapsed in 2009. A series of fires that destroyed whole blocks of a couple of small towns about this time also motivated me, because I knew that there probably were no photographs of them before the fires. Colfax, the first town I photographed in 2007, flooded in 2010.  
Spillville Mill Interior
Spillville Mill Exterior
Green Tambourine in Keokuk
West Branch Post Office
When the Spillville mill was demolished with no warning on June 23, 2011, I was shocked, not only at the loss, but also because the photos I took in 2007 were probably the only known ones of the interior or back of the mill. After this, I became a lot more systematic in my efforts, making lists of towns to photograph, planning my routes carefully so that I would hit an un-photographed town during my lunch break.  
Demolished Spillville Mill

The Documentation Process

I don’t claim to be a good photographer, if any of the photos I made are interesting, it is purely because of the sheer numbers of photos I made; some were bound to turn out better. 
Sometimes I do not have time to stop, especially if I have a truck full of crew members, and all I can do is stick my camera out the window and click away. You will find many photos of my antenna and hood, but a bad photo of a town is better than no photo. Other times I can be more deliberate, either because I am off the clock, or because a project was completed ahead of schedule. I can walk around downtowns, getting close-ups of architectural detail and photographing the sidewalk view, alleys, and the backs of storefronts
Drive-by, Maynard
Car hood, McGregor
Carved stone, Humboldt
Back of Decorah
Since 2009 I have been using a Canon Powershot D10, a waterproof, shock-proof, freeze-proof, point-and-shoot digital that produces decent 12 megapixel photos with a very limited focal range. The biggest problems with D10 are the wide-angle focal length, which tends to keystone buildings, making their upper stories appear to curve inward, and their very limited 3-X optical zoom. You will not see close-up photos of third-story bas-relief architectural detail in this collection. 
Keystone in Waterloo
You don’t see a lot of humans in these photos, either, for two reasons. First, there is almost never anyone walking around except for me. Second, I loathe awkward social interactions, so I usually wait for people to walk past before I take a picture. To be fair, the times I have spoken with residents have almost all been positive, they are curious about what I am doing and often eager to talk, even if I am not. I do not discriminate against the bigger cities, I have photographed Des Moines, Burlington, Sioux City, Council Bluffs, and Cedar Rapids; cities obviously take longer to photograph and their downtowns are usually not as endangered as most small towns. The biggest collection, not surprisingly, is my hometown of Iowa City, which makes up more than 10 percent of the collection; it was here that I tested out my homemade stereoscopic 3D camera.
A human in McGregor
Iowa City High stereophoto
Iowa City Depot stereophoto
I’ve grown to love these towns, especially the desolate, forgotten, little ones, and their puzzling idiosyncrasies. Why is the main street of Morning Sun one-way? Surely not for traffic control. Why does Wapello greet visitors to town with a poorly worded sign that implies that pedophilia is tolerated in some parts of town? Might Festina’s name be one of reasons the town has failed to thrive
Desolate Prairie City
Wrong way, Morning Sun
You've been warned, Wapello
I will admit that the best photos in this collection are often of haunting ruins- the half-collapsed building, the abandoned storefront. However, I try to photograph all of the old buildings in business districts, not just the photogenic ruins; if an old storefront is beautifully restored, I photographed it like that. Only a tiny fraction of my photos are of decaying ruins, a far more common state is worn neglect or forlorn emptiness. Unfortunately, for some of these small towns there is nothing but ruins to photograph.
St. James, Fort Atkinson
Festina storefront
Restored Sioux City
Worn neglect, Toeterville
Forlorn Morning Sun


I was very happy to receive the grant from Iowa Digital Humanities so I could have someone organize, catalog, and upload the collection. Jon Winet encouraged and facilitated the digitization program, as did Mark F. Anderson and the rest of the Digital Initiatives staff. Rebecca Sexton did a tremendous job determining the location of most of the photos creating photo catalogs. Dominique Alhambra helped shepherd this collection into a format that can be used by the Digital Archives. The staff of the OSA has graciously tolerated my odd compulsion, giving me free space on the server, and tolerating my frequent unexpected stops in tiny hamlets, especially John Doershuk, Steve Lensink, Melody Pope, and all the field technicians who have worked with me.  I have included about 10 photos taken by Adam Newman and Carrie Christman of Milo and Winterset, Iowa, since they were nice enough to take them on my behalf.