Local group wants to revitalize Elkader shelter house and preserve history

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A group of volunteers is spearheading efforts to revitalize the shelter house at Elkader City Park. The building has stood for over a century, undergoing work throughout the years to preserve its place in community history.

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


Originally built in 1899, the shelter house in Elkader City Park, just a stone’s throw away from the Rural Heritage Museum, has been through some history in its 125-year life span. Most notable is the fact it didn’t start as a shelter house at all, but a floral hall once deemed “one of the finest in the state” by the fair association of the time.


The building served as an exhibit hall, specifically during the fair which used to be held in the city park area, but has since been lost to time, much like the grandstand, cattle barn and recognizable horse track that existed beside it. 


In its early years, the building received high praise from visitors. A Decorah Republican correspondent reported the floral hall was a “particularly commodious and finely arranged” structure for exhibits, and the two-story hall became a central feature of the fair.


The floral hall underwent its first big change, in 1927, this one being a change of scenery. It was moved from its previous location to where it currently rests. The move was done to improve the appearance of the fairgrounds and add more space for the midway, concessions and exhibits, as well as to more efficiently handle the flow of traffic. 


Over the next 30 years, the floral hall was a centerpiece of a fair that flourished throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, when attendance started to dwindle. The floral hall underwent some changes as a result.


It was in the early 1940s that the floral hall was renovated, having a complete cement floor put in, as well as a fireplace, but the biggest change was transforming the building into a shelter house for picnickers. The upper floor served as rooms for the golf club. 


It was an early sign that times were changing, and in 1958, the last fair was held in the city park. Over 50 years later, the shelter house and what remains of the horse track are all that exist to remind Elkader of that past.


However, the past requires constant upkeep, and much like the Keystone Bridge, the shelter house has needed saving a few times over the decades. A local movement came to life in the mid-1990s to save the building, which was in “dire straits because of years of neglect and in danger of being torn down,” Elkader Historical Society member Jim Walch said. 


Walch was among a group of concerned citizens who wanted to save the building, and convinced the city council at the time to turn it over to a committee to do just that. They started with raising funds, like those donated by Central’s class of 1952, which was enough to “totally reconstruct” the roof. Other donations and grants helped pay for new siding, window repairs, painting and replacing the widow walk and flagpole. The bulk of the work relied on volunteer labor, but saving history, for Walch, was worth the effort.


“If we are to promote Elkader’s history as a reason to visit Elkader, it only stands to reason that we would want to preserve as much of it as possible,” Walch said.


But history finds a way of repeating itself, and the shelter house is once again in need of repair and revitalization. Once again, a group of concerned citizens is at the forefront of the effort. 


The latest effort began in earnest a little more than a few weeks ago, when the topic of the shelter house was discussed at a park board meeting. Out of that discussion formed an ad hoc committee which includes Frank Phippin, Roger Thomas, Bob Garms, David Beck, Christopher Schoen and Walch.


Much like Walch, Thomas and Phippin have similar reasons for wanting to save the building. Phippin called it part of the “fabric of the community.” It’s a place that’s held numerous events over the decades, including weddings, reunions and graduations, and it’s by the park and serves the campers. 


For Thomas, at the heart of his involvement is the preservation of history. While things may come and go, history lasts forever, but it often needs some assistance. There is a sense of poignancy to the effort, serving both nostalgia and the tragedy that has befallen the historical structure as it rests, seemingly overlooked in the modern hustle and bustle of other, more notable infrastructure projects that funnel funds and resources away.


None of that has deterred the latest volunteer group, which wants to restore some of the lost luster to a place that holds memories and stories waiting to be told and heard. Memories of the original Sweet Corn Days, which started in the shelter house, or the Relay for Life races, which used to take place in the city park, around the track, and utilized the old building.


“It’s our field of dreams. If we build it, people will come,” Phippin said.


As far as what needs to be built—or more specifically, fixed—the list is lengthy and costly, starting with the roof, which Walch deemed “paramount.” 


“It is the first line of defense against the elements. Once the roof is secured, the building can wait for additional work,” he added.


The work includes installing gutters around the entire building to stop the worsening of trenches around the building’s foundation from water runoff. The chimney is also in need of repair due to water damage and the existence of a crack, and needs some tuck-pointing, a chimney cap and a bird guard replaced. Currently, the roof project is estimated around $26,000 and Thomas is looking into grants to fund the cost.


The outside could use some new siding, at least along the bottom of the building, with discussions over adding gravel or a weed barrier around the foundation to protect the siding. The building could also use a fresh coat of paint, considering the last time it was painted was 2014. In an effort to cover this cost, the committee applied for a Keep Iowa Beautiful grant for 30 gallons of paint. They’re just waiting for an answer.


Add in fixing the doors, replacing or fixing to some degree all 28 windows, updating lighting and modernizing wiring to include more outlets, and the workload starts to expand—as does the budget. It’s one reason Thomas has taken initial steps to have the shelter house placed on the state and national registries of historic places, which would help secure grants and future funding, if approved. The group is also open to any and all local donations and contributions to the effort. Whatever is raised will be put back into the shelter house.


Outside the roof project, the group believes all work will be done by volunteers, one of them being Thomas, who anticipates installing the new lights and fixing doors once the weather gets warm, and possibly starting on the windows. The group is seeking more local volunteers, though, given the age of members like Phippin and Walch, who stated health reasons have limited his involvement, but he is there “in spirit.”


The long-term goal of the effort is to ensure the “longevity of the building,” Phippin said. The group is open to possibilities for its use, keeping it available for everyone who wants to use it, and perhaps even return it to some of its former glory as a centerpiece of the community. Like many of the historical buildings in Elkader, the shelter house is every bit as deserving of being recognized as a living, standing piece of history.


For Thomas, if nothing else, preservation of history is enough for him to wield the hammer and get the job done.


“Elkader is one of those communities that, if you can dream it, it can be done,” Thomas said.

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