Mason City Then

One of the reasons that people first settled the area now called Mason City was the abundant water supply. The Winnebago River, then called Lime Creek, and Willow Creek have their confluence in present day East Park. The early name of the river still survives to this day in Lime Creek Nature Center, which is near the site of the early settlement. 1853 is considered the founding date of the city. It was in October of that year that John McMillan and James Jenkinson built a log cabin, which became the first permanent residence. While there is no exact description of where the cabin was, the 1883 history of the county comes closest by saying that McMillin and Jenkinson built the first log cabin “…on the town plat… (It was) on the bank of Lime Creek, in the timber near a spring half a mile northeast of Shiboleth” (the other settlement near what is now State and Federal). Another settlement called Masonic Grove was on the banks of the Winnebago River on the north side of the city. Within a year or so the two settlements had combined under the name “Masonville.” When the Post Office informed the residents that there already was a Masonville Iowa, they renamed the town Mason City. The earliest industry in Mason City was the sawmill that Elisha Randall built on the west side of the Winnebago in 1855. While the wooden structure is now gone, the foundation can still be seen. The mill became a popular subject for turn of the century photographers. The city built East Park, mentioned above, in 1909 and it is still Mason City’s most popular park. It contains flower gardens, a lily pool, playground equipment, picnic areas and even a fenced in area with deer.

Mason City is noted for its outstanding architecture. Mason City has over thirty buildings built in the Prairie Style, many list on the National Register of Historic Places, including three buildings designed by America’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. They are the City National Bank building and adjoining Park Inn Hotel (now completely restored as the Historic Park Inn) and the “Stockman House” built for Dr. George C. & Eleanor Stockman. All of the Wright buildings date prior to 1910. Mason City also has a unique Prairie School style residential development, Rock Crest/Rock Glen. Walter Burley Griffin, a contemporary and one time employee of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed it in 1911. Mason City was his last project in America before he left for Australia, after he had won an international competition to design that nation’s new capital city, Canberra.

Mason City’s position in the north central part of the state meant that from the beginning, it would play an important part in the area’s growth. Obviously, agriculture has always been a prime economic consideration for the city. While the early mills located here were vital for the initial settlement of the region, because of the valuable clay deposits, the first major industry in the city was brick and tile manufacturing. By 1912 Mason City was perhaps the largest producer of these products of any city of its size in the nation. The large local deposits of limestone were important in making quarrying a major early Mason City industry that continues today. Taking advantage of these natural resources, in 1908 Northwestern States Portland Cement Co. began operations and in 1911 Lehigh Portland Cement Co. opened. Although the brick and tile industry has gone, Lehigh Cement remains in operation. Northwestern States was renamed Holcim and mothballed in 2009. In 1917, The American Beet Sugar plant began operations. The Colby Car Company originated in Mason City and manufactured automobiles from 1910 to 1915. One of their cars is now on display at the Kinney Pioneer Museum. Mason City was also the center of a large meat processing plant. Jacob Decker bought the Richard’s Packing Plant in 1899 and started his own operation. In the 1930’s, it became part of the Armour Packing Co. but continued under the name of Decker and was Mason City’s largest employer for many years. The plant was located between Federal Ave. and the Winnebago River north of 14th Street and the residential area eventually was built around it. The plant was closed and torn down in the 1970s. This business continues today, in a different location, although on a much smaller scale.


People are of course the most important part of any community. The earliest people that lived in this area were the various American Indian groups. Artifacts from nearby sites show that people were here at least 6,000 years ago. When the Euro-American pioneers arrived, they reported hunting camps in the region. While there were sporadic clashes between the groups, for the most part, the original Indian inhabitants got along with the newcomers and developed trading relationships. The early non-Indian settlers were primarily of northern and western European ancestry; English, German and Irish were the predominant nationalities. Scandinavian settlers arrived after the Civil War. When the brick, tile, and cement manufacturing began, Mason City started to attract the eastern European immigrants that came to the United States during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The Greek immigrants were particularly important in influencing the city’s personality. They constituted the largest of the immigrant groups of the period and through their yearly festival, they recall their heritage and share it with the rest of the community. The Hispanic immigrants that arrived later brought not only their labor but also their cuisine, language and traditions to the local culture.

Mason City residents have contributed to the national history in virtually all forms of endeavor including business, politics, the arts and athletics. Hanford MacNider, whose parents were early settlers, was a famous soldier but also an Assistant Secretary of War, a Minister to Canada, a businessperson and industrialist. Iowa entrepreneur John Pappajohn is the son of Greek immigrants who came to Mason City early in the century. Dixie Willson was a prolific writer in the 1920s and 1930s. At the time, she was no doubt as well known in literature, as her famous younger brother Meredith Willson, author of the MUSIC MAN, would later be in music. Publisher Tom Yoselof and his brother, Martin, who was the author of over a dozen novels and short stories, were the children of immigrants. They both lived in Mason City as children and called it their hometown. Bill Baird, the internationally known puppeteer, always thought of Mason City as home and he donated many of his puppets to the MacNider Museum. His puppets are probably best known for their role in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. George Baird, the younger brother of Bill, was a gold medal winner in the 1928 Olympics. Joe Lillard was a 1927 Mason City High School graduate who was once referred to as the “greatest all round athlete” Mason City had. He played college and later, NFL football for the Chicago Cardinals during the 1930s. He also played on the original Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. The individuals mentioned above are probably the best known but are only a few of the Mason Cityans who have contributed to the national and international wellbeing. The community can say that it has always shared its best and brightest residents with the nation and the world.


adapted from an article by Terry Harrison of the Mason City Public Library Archives and History Dept.

Current information on Mason City and its community, business and industry


Some Highlights of the History of Mason City

1846 Iowa became the 29th state of the union
1853 John Long, George Brentner, and Joseph Hewitt plat the town
1858 Mason City was named as county seat
1869 The first train arrived in Mason City, the McGregor and Missouri River Railway Company
1870 Population was 1,183
1870 Mason City was incorporated as a town
1874 Central Park was established in the center of downtown
1880 Population was 2,510
1893 The Iowa Central Railroad came to town
1902 Robert Meredith Willson was born
1908 Frank Lloyd Wright's Stockman House was built
1909 The Mason City Police Department officially became an organized department

​1910 Frank Lloyd Wright's Park Inn Hotel and City National Bank opened in downtown Mason City across from Central Park

1910 William Drummond's G. Curtis Yelland House was built in Rock Crest

1911 Walter Burley Griffin designs Rock Crest/Rock Glen

1912 Walter Burley Griffin's Harry Page House was built in Rock Glen

1912 Walter Burley Griffin's J.G. Melson House was built in Rock Crest

1912 Walter Burley Griffin's Arthur Rule House was built in Rock Glen

1913 Walter Burley Griffin's J.E. Blythe House was built in Rock Glen

1915 F. Barry Byrne's Hugh Gilmore House was built in Rock Glen

1915 F. Barry Byrne's Sam Schneider House was built in Rock Glen

1915 Mercy Hospital opened

​1916 Einar Broaten's Samuel David Drake House was built in Rock Crest

1916 Population was 17,172

​1917 F. Barry Byrne's E.V. Franke House was built in Rock Crest​

1920 Population was 20,065, 11th largest city in Iowa
1927 Charles Lindbergh attended the dedication of the Mason City Airport
1934 John Dillinger and his gang robbed the First National Bank in Mason City
1936 The North Iowa Band Festival became annual event
1937 KGLO became the first radio station in Mason City
1954 KGLO television went on the air

1959 Curtis Besinger's Tom MacNider House was built
1959 Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper, and pilot Roger Peterson take off from the Mason City Municipal Airport in a small airplane and crash just north of Clear Lake with no survivors
1962 The Palace Theater in Mason City featured the premiere of  “The Music Man” written by Mason City native Meredith Willson
1964 The last railroad passenger train in Mason City
1966 The Charles H. MacNider Museum opened to the public as an arts center
1967 Jet service from the Mason City Airport was inaugurated by Ozark Airlines
1970 The municipal swimming pool opened
1984 Robert Meredith Willson Mason City’s Music Man, was laid to rest. He was an American composer, songwriter, conductor and playwright, best known for writing the book, music and lyrics for the hit Broadway musical The Music Man. He wrote three other Broadway musicals, composed symphonies and popular songs, and his film scores were twice nominated for Academy Awards.
1985 Southbridge Mall held its grand opening
1989 The Stockman House was moved to its present location adjacent to Rock Glen
1992 The Stockman House was restored and open to the public
2000 The population of Mason City is 29,172
2003 Mason City celebrated its Sesquicentennial (150th birthday)
2003 Mason City’s new Aquatic Center opened
2006 Renovation of Central Park in downtown completed
2008 Mason City was ranked as the #10 least expensive urban area to live, according to the ACCRA Cost of Living Index
2010 The renovation of the Mason City Public Library was completed
2011 The only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright hotel, the Historic Park Inn Hotel, reopened to guests following a multi-million dollar renovation
2011 The Mason City Architectural Interpretive Center was opened 

Information in part courtesy of Mason City Public Library Historical Collection





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