Take a Nostalgic Trip to 'River City'

By Travel Writers

March 4, 2018 6 min read

By Steve Bergsman

At the turn of the 20th century, Mason City was a powerful commercial center and fast-growing Iowa city. The surrounding agriculture was thriving, industry was expanding and the five banks in town were on the hunt for more business. Then two men who would change Mason City and America in general entered the picture. The first was Frank Lloyd Wright, 43, a Wisconsin native and the foremost enthusiast for a modern architecture called the Prairie School. Wright was asked to design a commercial complex/hotel in downtown Mason City. The building, first opened in 1910, still stands and is the last remaining hotel designed by Wright that is still in operation. Most cities would be happy to boast one of his buildings, but Mason City has two. The other is the Stockman House, which is open to the public although during the winter months tours must be arranged online.

The second individual, Meredith Willson, was born in Mason City in 1902. Willson was the successful songwriter and composer who wrote the music for three Broadway plays, the most famous of which, "The Music Man," was a celebration of his hometown.

The show opened in 1957, ran for 1,375 performances and won five Tony Awards. The movie version of the show was nominated for numerous Academy Awards, including best picture, and won for best musical score. The signature song from the show was "76 Trombones." The more romantic "Till There Was You" was later recorded by the Beatles. Even with all that, probably the most famous Willson song is the holiday favorite "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas."

Two others who briefly visited Mason City also had such a hold on the mythology of the town that they are celebrated to this day. On March 13, 1934, John Dillinger, probably the most notorious bank robber of the 1930s, drove into town with a hodge-podge gang that included another well-known, if not violent, miscreant, the machine-gun-toting Baby Face Nelson. They robbed the First National Bank, and the event has come down in lore because of the dramatic way the bank robbers escaped, with more than 20 local citizens as hostage. The day is celebrated annually as the city's Great River City Festival, where locals usually re-enact what is known as the Dillinger Bank Robbery.

With all that history, there's still more to see in Mason City. The original commercial complex designed by Wright, which has been restored after many years of neglect, is now the Historic Park Inn. As beautiful as it is now, it's hard to imagine that the building was for many years nothing more than a flophouse. The commercial area had almost been completely destroyed, chopped up into cheap shop space. Now the Historic Park Inn has been lovingly restored, with many of the original windows, walls, doors and fretwork having been found and reincorporated into the renovation. The building boasts beautiful light.

Tours of the property are free. My wife and I took the grand ramble with a docent named Teri Elsbury, who was excellent. It seems that right in the middle of the project the notorious Wright took off for Europe with his girlfriend, scandalizing the town fathers. The European jaunt caused such a tumult that he was disinvited from the city and never saw the finished development. Apparently time heals all wounds - today there is a statue of Wright across from the hotel fondly looking at the Historic Park Inn.

As for Willson, he left a mountain of memorabilia from his decades in the music business. When he was 19 he joined the John Philip Sousa Band, and he didn't stop making music until he died in 1984. He wrote the music for Charlie Chaplin's "Great Dictator" and "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," which originally ran on Broadway before being turned into a successful film musical starring Debbie Reynolds. For that role she received an Academy Award nomination for best actress.

He also wrote "You and I," a No. 1 hit in 1941, and the popular "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You" from 1950.

Behind Willson's boyhood home, which is still standing, private and public monies funded the development of the vast Music Man Square, re-creating indoors the streetscape from the movie. Besides showcasing Willson and his music, the building is a concert and events venue, conservatory and musical instrument museum. In the summer months the facility attracts more than 30,000 people annually.

When I was in town, the local paper reported that Music Man Square has fallen on hard financial times in recent years. Maybe the demographic that is nostalgic for the music and the time is dropping off and causing this "trouble in River City." It's a shame because this area is a charmer and an homage to small-town life.


For more information: www.visitmasoncityiowa.com

 Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Stockman House in Mason City, Iowa. Photo courtesy of Steve Bergsman.
Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Stockman House in Mason City, Iowa. Photo courtesy of Steve Bergsman.

Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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