Street Surfaces in Des Moines

If you drove down 6th Avenue a couple of weeks ago while they were prepping to pave, you would’ve seen the red brick road that is normally hidden.  Des Moines has had many different types of surfaces over the years:

  • The first surfacing of macadam was applied to Des Moines streets in 1882.
  • Cedar blocks were used from 1882 to 1891.
  • Brick came in 1889, and in 1901 asphalt was applied to 21st St.
  • Concrete arrived on the streets in 1907 on 19th.

Source: Des Moines Register 5/12/1950

You may also be interested in The Origins of Des Moines Street Names.

Old Des Moines University

The area where Park Fair Mall now stands at Second and Euclid is the site of an interesting piece of Des Moines educational history. Highland Park College, Des Moines University, and the University of Lawsonomy once stood on this spot.

Highland Park College was established here in 1889 and operated under that name until 1918, when the Baptist church bought it and renamed it Des Moines University. The school had some 40,000 students and 1,000 pharmacy graduates in its first twenty-five years. Trouble began when a fundamentalist group known as the Baptist Bible Union of North America took over the school in 1927. The administration required all faculty members to agree to eighteen articles of faith. Many faculty members objected to this, and several of them left the university and joined Carl Weeks (later founder of the Armand Cosmetic Company) in forming Des Moines College of Pharmacy in downtown Des Moines. All but two of the pharmacy students at the university left to enroll in the new school.

At the same time that faculty were being required to agree to the articles of faith, students were also having many restrictions placed upon them. It is reported that three girls were disciplined for doing cartwheels during a vaudeville skit. General unhappiness spread, and things came to a head when board chairman Thomas T. Shields fired the entire faculty on May 11, 1929. A few hours later a riot broke out among the students. Angry students marched on the administration building in the afternoon, and that night 150 students attacked the building where the board of trustees was meeting. They threw eggs and rocks and attempted to break down the door to the room where the board members were hiding. Eventually police drove the students from the building, but not before they had wrecked the front office of the school administration building. The school closed in September 1929, and the buildings remained empty until the third, and even stranger, chapter of the area’s history began.

In 1943, Alfred W. Lawson of Detroit bought the property and founded the Des Moines University of Lawsonomy. Early in his career, Lawson was involved in the aviation industry. By the time he came to Des Moines, he was promoting Lawsonomy, sweepingly billed as “the study of everything.” It was said that students (men only) would be required to study for thirty years to achieve the degree of “Knowledgian.” Lawsonomy was based on forty-seven principles based on books written by Lawson, and the curriculum of the school consisted largely of memorizing Lawson’s books. Enrollment at the school was as much as 100 at one time, but dwindled gradually to fewer than twenty by the time the university closed in 1954. The property was sold to developer Frank A. DePuydt for $250, 000, and Lawson died two weeks later on November 29, 1954. DePuydt built the Park Fair Shopping Mall on the site, and a chapter of Des Moines educational history came to an end.

The Riot That Closed Des Moines U.,
Des Moines Tribune, May 11, 1979, p. 38.

First Railroad in Des Moines

On August 29, 1866, the Valley railroad entered Des Moines. The first train that entered left from Keokuk at 7:30 a.m. and arrived in Des Moines a few minutes before 3:00 p.m. with 300 passengers from many Iowa towns including Keokuk, Burlington, Fairfield, Ottumwa, and Oskaloosa. The passengers were greeted by a large crowd on the east side of Des Moines (there was no railroad bridge in Des Moines until 1869).

Brigham, Johnson. History of Des Moines and Polk County, Iowa. S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1911.

Long, Barbara Beving and Patrice K. Beam. Des Moines and Polk County: Flag on the Prairie. American Historic Press, 2003.

Younkers: An Iowa Icon Timeline

Younkers Building from Glimpses of Des Moines circa 1900?

1856 – Lytton, Samuel, and Marcus Younker establish the first Younker and Brothers Dry Goods Store in Keokuk, Iowa.

1874 – A younger brother, Herman, opens the Younker Dry Goods Store in Des Moines.

1879 – The Keokuk store closes and the Des Moines store becomes the headquarters for Younker Brothers.

1881 – Younker Brothers hires Mrs. Mary McCann, the first woman to be employed by any store in Des Moines.

1899 – The Des Moines store moves to its long-term location at Seventh and Walnut Streets, opening on November 9.

1912 – Younker Brothers purchases the Grand Department Store.

1913 – The original Tea Room opens.

1927 – The new Tea Room replaces the old.

1927 – The company merges with Harris-Emery Company, and becomes the largest department store chain in Iowa.

1928 – Younkers Brothers buys J. Mandlebaum and Sons.

1936 – Air-conditioning comes to the entire downtown store.

1939 – A modernization program includes the installation of the first “electric stairs” (escalators) in Iowa. Thousands turn out to try the new invention.

1943 – Younkers purchases the seven-story building across the street from the main store and opens the Store for Homes. A tunnel under the street connects the two stores.

1956 – Younkers negotiates to buy the site of St. Gabriel’s monastery on Merle Hay Road. This later becomes the site of Merle Hay Mall.

1959 – Younkers Merle Hay Mall store opens.

1950s-1960s – Younkers opens several more Des Moines stores as well as branches in Sioux City, Iowa City, Oskaloosa, Ottumwa, Omaha, Nebraska, and Austin, Minnesota.

1978 – Tragedy strikes when the Merle Hay store is destroyed by a fire which kills ten employees.

1979 – Equitable of Iowa purchases Younker Brothers for $72.2 million and makes the retailer a subsidiary officially named Younkers.

1985 – The downtown Store for Homes closes.

1986 – Younkers purchases major competitor Brandeis & Sons, which has eleven department stores in Iowa and Nebraska.

1992 – Younkers purchases the department store division of H.C. Prange Co., a privately owned chain with twenty-five stores.

1994 – Milwaukee-based retailer Carson Pirie Scott & Co. makes an unsolicited bid for Younkers, but the Younkers board votes not to sell.

1995 – Younkers accepts a bid for the company of $216 million from Proffitt’s, Inc., a Tennessee chain,

1998 – Proffitt’s buys Saks Fifth Avenue and makes Younkers a division of Saks.

2005 – The flagship downtown store closes on August 12, ending more than 100 years of retailing on the same site. A store-closing sale brings thousands of people downtown to purchase memorabilia ranging from teacups from the fabled Younkers Tea Room to the “Electric Stairs” sign which had hung over the escalators since 1939. It was the end of an era for downtown retailing in Des Moines.

2006- Bon-Ton Stores acquires from Saks all the shares of its Northern Department Stores Group, and becomes the new corporate parent of Younkers.


I moved to Iowa eight years ago and admit that I knew nothing about RAGBRAI.  I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce it!  Interestingly enough, when I was researching this post, I found a book, RAGBRAI: Everyone Pronounces It Wrong, by John and Ann Karras.  Their book  says it “should be pronounced RAGBRAY and no other way.”   I highly recommend this humorous book about the humble beginnings of this now hugely popular event.

RAGBRAI began in 1973 when Register writers John Karras and Don Kaul decided to ride their bikes across Iowa and write about it.  They began in Sioux City with about 300 riders and ended in Davenport.   In the Karrases’ book, John states that he and Kaul thought it would be a one time deal.  They planned the route out on a map, didn’t think about bridges being out or roads being closed, both of which were, and had no plans for medical emergencies or bike repair.  Most people rode in cutoffs and only the Karrasses and Kaul had helmets.  Oh, how it has changed.

Now, it is a well-organized event.  Participants include families with small children, costumed teams with gear buses, and international and sometimes famous participants.   People have high-grade bikes, helmets, cycling clothing, and shoe clips.

Have you ridden RAGBRAI?  When did you ride? Tell us about it!

Past RAGBRAI routes

GeoBike Factoids – distance and climbing grades by segments.

Check out these books on RAGBRAI from DMPL!

Reposted from last year with updates.

Pre-1947 Des Moines Baseball Teams & Names

Baseball in Des Moines existed long before 1947.   Some earlier teams included:

1887 – The Des Moines Baseball Club played their home games at Athletic Park on the old Polk County Fairgrounds at Seventh Street and the Raccoon River.

1890s – The teams were known as the Colts, and then became the Prohibitionists.

1901-1903- The Des Moines Midgets of 1901 and 1902 became the Des Moines Undertakers in 1903, a very unusual name which reflected the off-season profession of the team’s manager.

1904- The club had three names in this year, the Prohibitionists, the Water Cures, and the Politicians and Legislators.

1905-1907- Reflecting Des Moines’ new role as an insurance center, the team became the Underwriters. After winning the pennant that year, the name changed to the Champs in 1906 and, after another win, to Champs II in 1907.

1908-1924 – The team began a long stretch during which it was called the Des Moines Boosters.

1925-1937 – Another long-standing name, the Des Moines Demons, began in 1925 and lasted until 1937. At this point, baseball disappeared in Des Moines until the start of the Des Moines Cubs in 1947.

Des Moines Register, April 15, 1997
Des Moines Tribune, June 27, 1980
Iowa Cubs Yearbook, 1994
Iowa Cubs web site,

Sixth Avenue Bridge Collapse, 1965

Recent discussions of the country’s failing infrastructure might lead some long-time Des Moines residents to remember April 17, 1965, the day the Sixth Avenue bridge over the Des Moines River collapsed. Shortly after 3 P.M. that Saturday, three cars were on the bridge when the middle section, about 100 feet long and over half the width of the bridge, fell into the river.

All three drivers were able to turn around and get off the bridge safely, but telephone service was disrupted when an estimated 10,000 telephone customers lost service. Four temporary pay phones were installed, two at Second and Euclid and two at Sixth and Hickman, until phone service could be restored. The bridge had been buffeted by flood waters for about two weeks, leading to speculation that this was the cause of the collapse.

The city had previously scheduled repair work on this bridge and several others and subsequently rebuilt the Sixth Avenue, University Avenue, and Walnut Street bridges as well as the Seventh Street Viaduct. All four bridges reopened on Friday, October 14, 1966, after many months of
re-routing inconvenience for citizens.

Des Moines Sunday Register, April 18, 1965, page 1

Republished from the Des Moines Public Library website.

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