Destination Iowa: Buchanan County

Destination Iowa

INDEPENDENCE, Iowa — The town of Independence was founded along the banks of the Wapsipinicon Mill. It was built 100 feet tall from the top of the cupola to the river.

“It started out with wheat and oats and then wheat came to a demise because of the chinch bugs and so forth, so then they went to oats and corn,” said Leanne Harrison, president of the Buchanan County Historical Society. “In 1942 there was a restaurant that had buckwheat pancakes.”

The mill last produced livestock feed in the 50s and 60s. Over the years, it has been prone to rising river waters.

“Originally it was built as a floating floor which would float up when the river came up and then back down with the river,” said Harrison. “The theory is good, but when the river came back down, it would get hooked on the limestone and then create more problems.”

Independence had a flooding problem in the downtown, so city leaders took action.

“In the 1860s the river always flooded and so the city fathers went around to the different businesses and said ‘we are going to fill in Main Street and it’s going to be six feet higher,’” said Harrison.

Dirt was filled in, but the storefronts were left as they were underground. Each year the Historical Society holds an event called Independence Underground, where tours of the underground storefronts are given. It’s a fundraiser for the society. Photos taken show the storefronts in 2012 when the city redid its downtown sidewalks.

Just around nine miles to the southeast is Cedar Rock State Park. The Cedar Rock house was designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It was built by Agnes and Lowell Walter, who commissioned Wright to design it as their retirement home. The couple had no children, so upon Lowell Walter’s death in 1981, the home was given to the state by Agnes Walter. It’s now a state park.

“Earlier in Mr. Wright’s career, he was designing what he called the Prairie style. When you typically think of Frank Lloyd Wright, you think of those very low, long roofs, which is kind of captured with this home,” said Colin Lint, a tour guide at Cedar Rock. “At this point in Wright’s career, he was designing what he called Usonian homes. He thought we were relying too much on European influences at the time and wanted a home America truly called its own, hence the US own ‘Usonian’ title.”

Wright designed every detail in the home, including the plates and silverware.

“Frank Lloyd Wright was one of America’s most noteworthy architects at the time and Walters were one of Iowa’s wealthiest couples,” said Lint. “So they commissioned Frank Loyd Wright to design them this house here in 1945.”

Wright was known to drop in to see that his design standards were being maintained.

The home features a 900-square-foot “Garden Room” with a panoramic view of the Wapsipinicon River below. Wright also designed a boat house for Lowell to keep his fishing boat in. The boat house is also open as part of the tour.

“One thing about the bedrooms and the Garden Room here is that that’s where the space is designed for you to spend most of your time. Wright would tend to make his hallways and entry areas more dark and more cramped. He would actually call it more of an unlivable space,” said Lint. “He would want to bring you into those lighted bedrooms or the Garden Room to spend most of your time.”

For more information on Cedar Rock State Park, click here.

For more information on the Wapsipnicon Mill, click here.

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