New 100-page book on the history of Harlan’s downtown is available
HARLAN - The making of the 2023 historic downtown Harlan history book had been on Alan Mores’ mind since 2020 when he delved again into the history of the 51 buildings that surround the downtown square.
The original 2002 downtown guide was based on the work of historical consultant, the late Leah D. Rogers’ whose expertise and writings created Harlan’s National Historic Registry application in 1994.
Mores took that first draf, and in 2014 ,expanded it into a 32-page rendition, printing 3,500 books that were given away in less than two years.
The 2023 100-page version provides more anecdotal stories of the building owners and/or the mysteries surrounding these buildings, as well as over 400 photos and illustrations.
The book is being sold at the Harlan Newspapers and Shelby County Chamber for $20 each, with proceeds going to fund tourism projects funded by the Hotel & Motel Tax.
“Having lived here most of my life, I didn’t realize the historical oddities behind these 150-year-old buildings and the individuals behind their construction and heritage opened up some fascinating new twists to the City’s history,” Mores commented.
The 100-page color book with over 400 photos was supported by the Shelby Co. Chamber of Commerce & Industry, the Shelby County Hotel & Motel Tax Committee and his own personal investment.
“The Committee remained very patient over the past three years. I’d make regular appearances about how progress was proceeding, but the historical ‘rabbit holes’ just kept popping up which delayed its printing to May 2023,” he said.
Chamber director Todd Valline said, “The downtown square of Harlan is the heartbeat of the city, and the County. “A Historical Tour of Downtown Harlan” does a fantastic job of capturing the history and stories of those who made “the square” the place to be.”
Re-taking photos of all the buildings, Mores had the opportunity to talk to many of the building owners and each building’s historical rumors.
“The research does become daunting, as few 1880s-1960s businesses ever advertised their locations, if they did at all it was what side of the square or how near they were to another prominent downtown building.
“So you have to backtrack with other historical records such as phone books, obituaries and Harlan Newspaper articles.”
Also invaluable was assistance from the Harlan Library and Shelby Co. Historical Museum.
“Building construction stories in the 1890s to 1910s were seldom front page news, and the name of the builder, if mentioned, may not have included their first name, or owners were given a nickname (such as ‘Uncle Jimmy” for James Long), who platted where Harlan now stands,” Mores said.
Acknowledge book’s downtown efforts
Downtown entrepreneurs Marty Burchett, the former Fourth Generation and Sharon Lucke, Harlan Theatre, were longtime supporters of the book.
Burchett said, “The Historical Tour of Downtown Harlan memorializes the founders, the risk takers, who built the Square one brick at a time. It tells what life was like by the goods and services provided during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The land-marking plaques along the walking tour are a snapshot in time of the first permanent buildings and the various businesses that occupied them. Collecting the historical facts in the book was no easy task and was begun many years ago by volunteers and completed by Alan Mores. Harlan is a unique county seat town that is fortunate to have such a document.”
Lucked added, “Harlan is a town filled with history, treasures and secrets, and “A Historical Tour of Downtown Harlan” captures all of these in this beautiful 2023 Edition. After reading this, it really makes one appreciate our downtown even more.”
From a suicide (or murder?), the tragic mishandling of two patients’ over-the-counter medications which resulted in their tragic deaths, a tie to Omaha’s Warren Buffett family, theater stages tucked in the back of buildings and learning that sports legends Babe Ruth and Minnesota Fats had ties to one downtown business owner - all add to the historical intrigue.
“For example, an 1898 two-story brick bank was lifted and moved into the adjoining building lot, and Frank Lloyd Wright designed the glass prisms for one building -- and from this, a picture started to materialize of how vibrant and historically rich the downtown remains,” he said.
“I found myself looking up, instead of down when I was walking around the square, seeing new architectural and building design quirks which would lead me down another path.”
Community Development Block grants also enhanced historic renovations of multiple buildings which greatly enhanced downtown Harlan.
“Until you’ve visited downtowns across Iowa you don’t realize how lucky we are that so many owners have invested in their historic properties,” he said.
While researching one building, facts about another building or its owner would pop up.
“Both of Harlan’s original City platters have fascinating stories, as one simply disappeared from Iowa (Dr A.T. Ault), while James Long, owner/builder of four prominent downtown buildings and a church died in California and his body, when returned to Harlan in 1889, was buried in an unmarked grave,” he said.
A building’s name
A building’s name often varies throughout history. It could be named by the person who paid for its construction, someone who rented the property for multiple years (e.g. Reyelt building built by W.H. Carl), or the building was built and the owner left town or died shortly thereafter and the name of the new owner or renter took over the iconic property’s name.
Several brick buildings remain conflicted as to their origin, such as the Book Bldg. (1010 6th, 1898), Brick or Parmley Block (1893, Market), Happe Bldg. (1885-86, Court, who left town after his meat market sold tainted meat, and sold either his building or the land to Harmon Baughn) or the Holdefer & Ramsey Brick (1879, north side, possibly 618 Market, built left town in 1880).
Tinsley Jewelry is an example of a businesses’ movement as it was in six different locations and had six different name variations during its 104-year tenure.
Also the random nature of a news item or ad that would appear in one newspaper and not another created research problems. It often came down to that newspaper’s and the business owner’s political persuasions or personal ties as to which newspaper ran a story on the property.
Mores, former co-owner of the Harlan Newspapers, began his historical research as a high school student when he dug into the history of Harlan Community’s athletic and coaching successes, in 1979 he penned the 100-page newspaper Harlan Centennial edition and designed/authored numerous special newspaper editions and publications. He continues working on Okoboji’s Jones Beach history and the possibility of a Shelby Co. postcard book looms on the horizon.
Looking ahead as more pre-1915 Harlan newspapers are archived, the historical doors open up even more he said.