New Albin celebrating 150 years since it was first platted

View of New Albin from the top of Stone Quarry Hill taken around 1910. Photo courtesy of New Albin Savings Bank.

Highway 26 looking south from the city parking lot with Stone Quarry Hill in the background. Photo courtesy of New Albin Savings Bank.

by Susan Cantine-Maxson In 1995, New Albin celebrated its centennial of the first 100 years of existence. Calculations may leave some wondering how 150 years are now being celebrated, just 27 years later. The answer lies in when the countdown begins. The Centennial in 1995 commemorated the incorporation of the town of New Albin in 1895, but the upcoming 150th year celebration goes back to the origins of the town when it was first platted in 1872 as the railroad came to the area. This is only fitting since a lot of activity and building took place before the town became officially incorporated. The northernmost town in Iowa, New Albin, has evolved through several growth spurts. It once had a 20-bed hospital and an airport, plus numerous professional and retail establishments. THE PAST Before the town existed, the area was home to many Native American tribes including the Sac, Fox, Sioux and Winnebago. After the Black Hawk War, several indigenous people lived in a fort where the Iowa River and Lansing Road met. The area all around the current town is rich in Native American artifacts with the most famous called the “New Albin Tablet.” This pipestone tablet with pictures etched on both sides along with carved notches along the edge was found in 1915 during the excavation for a cellar. It was buried about three feet below the surface. In 1960, the tablet was donated to the Effigy Mounds National Monument. Pipestone was considered a spiritual rock by the Sioux. It was also used in trading and in ceremonies such as peace pipes. Although the tablet has not been specifically dated, it is assumed that it came from 1000 C.E to 1800 C.E. when that part of the state was home to the Oneota tribe. Another area called Fish Farm Mounds just south of the current town is also rich in Native American artifacts and burial mounds. The extensive area of sand and gravel under the current site of New Albin would have been ideal for the Native Americans to inhabit as they hunted and fished in the surrounding forests and waters. August 23, 1854, the United States sold the land which would become New Albin to John Ross, Samuel Kinne and JA Rhomberg & Graves. As civilization encroached upon the tribes, the railroad became an integral part of moving goods and people from place to place. In 1872, J.A. Rhomberg influenced the railroad to be completed to State Line, the name given to the settlement right on the state line between Iowa and Minnesota. The Chicago, Dubuque and Minnesota Railroad came to town, and the depot was built that year. Before this, the settlement of Jefferson, MN had begun along the Mississippi River as a place for the river traffic to load and unload grain and wares. When the railroad came through, the town of New Albin formed around the railroad and Jefferson slowly dissolved away as people moved to New Albin to be closer to the railroad and the businesses it attracted. The only remnant of Jefferson that remains is a grain elevator and warehouse. The residents of the town were so grateful for the addition of the train connection that they wanted to rename the town Rhomberg. Mr. Rhomberg instead requested that it be named “Albin” after his 10-year-old son who had recently died in a tragic accident in Dubuque where the family lived. Albin and his friends had found a keg of gunpowder. They filled their pockets with the gun powder and built a fire. They had great fun throwing handfuls of gunpowder into the flames and watching the explosions. Unfortunately, one of the explosions sparked the gunpowder in Albin’s trousers and ignited. The doctor who was called placed him in a tub of molasses to help the pain of his extensive burns, but he died a few days later. The town fathers agreed to Albin but discovered that there was already an Albion and an Albia in the state of Iowa. The post office requested a name that was not so similar, so they settled on New Albin. The town was platted in November of 1872. One of New Albin’s historic spots is the New Albin Iron Post, on the National Register of Historic Places, which is the marker of the state line between Iowa and Minnesota. As states were beginning to draw boundaries, often disagreements arose as to which land belonged with which state. Historians say that the Minnesotans wanted the boundary to be the Upper Iowa River. Iowans wanted the boundary to be the Root River. Congress settled the question in 1846 by setting the boundary on the parallel of forty degrees and thirty minutes north latitude. The exact border had to be determined by astronomical observation. In 1849, Captain Thomas J. Lee of the U.S. Topographical Engineers established the border marker by placing a seven-foot-high obelisk at the point marking that boundary. From that marker, the line was to follow the 43 degrees and 30 minutes latitude from the middle of the Mississippi River to the middle of the Big Sioux River on the opposite side of the state. In 1852, a crew of about 40 men set off across the state marking the boundary at regular intervals. A sod monument was to be erected every five miles with a large boulder set ever fifty miles. Before they set the boulders, a glass bottle was buried beneath which contained the mathematical computations of the surveying. But all the measuring began at the Iron Post. As the settlement grew, so did the need for government, utilities, schools, churches, newspapers and businesses. The town was incorporated in 1895. The town hall was built that year. The first mayor was William Coleman. The city budget for 1896 was $583 (approximately $18,000 in today’s money). The first water system was from artesian wells. The city well was drilled in 1902. Hand-lit streetlights illuminated the town in 1898. They were replaced with electric lights in 1918. In 1872, the first post office was established. The New Albin Fire Department was organized in 1917. SCHOOLS The first school was constructed in 1874 at a cost of $1800. The school had five rooms with one teacher instructing two grades in each room. The high school (a two-year school) was in one room. This school was destroyed by a tornado in 1895 and a new frame building was built in 1896 with an addition in 1901. The red brick school was built in 1916. When the district was first organized, it was for town children only. Children who lived in the country and wanted to go to town school were charged a tuition of $6-$8 (approximately $200 in today’s money) a year. A horse-drawn school bus (a large, covered wagon with benches) picked up the students. This type of bus was used from 1912-1934 when a real bus was purchased. Hot lunch was not served until 1956. Several students worked for their meals by washing dishes and cleaning up the kitchen. In 1960, New Albin consolidated school districts with Lansing to create the Eastern Allamakee Community School District with all high school students bussed to Lansing. All 7th and 8th grade students were bussed to New Albin. The busses met midway between and the drivers exchanged places and continued on to the school. Students in Kindergarten through 6th grade stayed in their hometowns. In 1962-1963 a new high school was built in Lansing. In 1968 a new one-story school building was constructed in New Albin. Eventually, elementary students through grade six attended in New Albin with the rest of the students bussed to Lansing. Regardless of where the schools were, baseball was played in New Albin on the Shooky Fink field. Fink, a janitor at the elementary school, loved baseball and coached the local boys throughout several decades, instilling in them the love of the game. His boys grew up to be members of championship baseball teams in high school. Harris “Shooky” Fink died in 1988. RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS Faith was important to many of the first settlers and a variety of congregations began in the late 1800s. The Catholic Church was constructed southwest of New Albin in 1867. It was dedicated as “Holy Cross”. This served the area until 1875 when it was replaced by a new church in town called “St. Joseph’s”. This church was eventually moved to the business district when a new brick church was built in 1910. The Methodists organized in 1874. The parsonage was built in 1902 but no date is listed for the building of the church. In 1913-1916, a new church was built. In 1885 a congregation had organized under the name “Deutsch Evengehsche St. Petri Gemiende.” The actual church was built in 1895. In 1918, the church services were held alternatively in English and German with Sunday School taught in English. In 1950, a new church was built. This church eventually merged with the United Church of Christ and was called St Peter’s United Church of Christ. NEWSPAPERS In April of 1873, the first newspaper was printed: The New Albin Gazette. It went through several editors and several names in the next 100 years such as The New Albin Herold, The New Albin Spectator, the New Albin Courier, the New Albin Globe and the New Albin News. Eventually, the news was sent to the Lansing Mirror. Visitors interested in the community’s history can go to the site of the first city hall which has been converted into a museum. Next to it is the community’s first fire engine garage, complete with the fire engine from 1917. The person to contact for admission is the New Albin City Clerk at 563-544-4260. BUSINESS Over the years, the history of New Albin is similar to many small towns. The town once boasted numerous businesses with professionals such as doctors, a veterinarian and dentists. Hotels, restaurants and bars offered respite for travelers. Farm implement dealers, warehouses, shoe stores and markets lined the streets. The 1880 newspaper listed 38 establishments and offices. The Philharmonic Hall at the Jefferson Hotel seated 500 people! In 1917, the Star Movie Theatre showed the first moving picture show in New Albin. In 1924, Articles of Incorporation were drawn up for the New Albin Hospital with 20 beds and an x-ray machine. The main surgeon had performed over 300 cases the previous year. In 1930, the new airport, complete with runway lights and a beacon light, was ready to receive airplanes. Lifestyles change. People move. Small towns begin to dwindle. The 2020 census listed 423 residents, down almost 100 people from the 2010 census. Once-thriving businesses have diminished because of the convenience of larger stores in bigger towns. Population decreases means that there is less demand for services and goods. Even so, there are businesses which have survived over 100 years in New Albin, such as the City Meat Market and New Albin Savings Bank, which have lasted and thrived, adapting to the needs of the 21st century. Several businesses have endured, such as the sawmill and Valley Ag and the High Chaparral. Businesses such as Frawley’s Variety have modified to incorporate internet sales. THE PRESENT Although the last 50 years have seen the town decrease in population, people nowadays seem to be looking for escape from city life to a simpler way of life, and New Albin offers that. Yet, New Albin looks to the future with projects like the community center, the Porch, the gazebo, and the new state-of-the-art algae wheel sewage treatment plant. Ray Whalen was raised in the area which was known as Jefferson just north of what became New Albin. After he went to college, he was offered a job at the New Albin Savings Bank. In the last 50 years, a lot of businesses have dissolved. He has seen the community through many growing pains and helped with many of the projects as the local banker. Whalen said, “Probably one of the biggest achievements in the last 50 years was the building of the community center. A whole row of buildings had to be removed along the highway so that we could build a spot where the community could meet. The Townhouse fills that function as well. We needed a spot to hold funerals for people who wanted to have their funeral in the town where they lived. Now it’s used for reunions, showers, graduation parties and all kinds of events. We are a town filled with people who support each other.” Deb Stantic, New Albin City Clerk, added, “The Porch was built by the city. We needed more storage, and we wanted a building with more character than a storage building. So, we made the city porch in front where people can have a farmers’ market or eat lunch. The rest of the building is storage. The porch adds more interest to that spot. A local artist, Angela Blair, researched the historical colors and we carried that pallet through with the community center, the design of the porch and the gazebo. The gazebo is decorated for holidays and is yet another way to show our pride in our community.” The New Albin Improvement League (NAIL) started with the parents of young kids who wanted to create activities for their kids to do. They do something almost every week, and they raise money for projects to better the town. They have been a strong supporter of creating events for families, leading projects such as the new splash pad and playground. Stantic extolled the advantages of living in New Albin: “The cost of living is exceptional and very reasonable. Real estate is getting higher, though, because people have discovered us. Nature is out our back door. People like to go out Army Road for fishing and hunting on a beautiful wildlife preserve.” Whalen added, “A lot of residents work in La Crosse (WI) or Rochester (MN), but they want the advantage of small-town living. We don’t have much room to expand because of the bluff on one side and the river on the other side. They like the small charm and the safety of the small town. There’s not a lot of class distinction. Anyone who needs help, people are there to help. The Way Station is a good example of people helping people. They have donated items that they sell and then help people out with that money. They have a food bank there, too.” THE FUTURE Stantic credits a lot of the progressive projects to the mayor and city council. “They are looking to the future,” she said. “Trees Forever and Alliant Energy have funded 60 boulevard trees. The New Albin Cemetery has been cleaned and refurbished. We are just starting a $4 million sewer plant which is state of the art. We will have a large algae wheel, and a lot of it was funded through grants and loans. During the planning stage they discovered seven indigenous burial grounds out there so the area had to be reconfigured. We’re trying to be very respectful. We do not want this area to be disturbed, and want it to be protected. Over 30 tribes had to sign approval that we could do this. The city council, mayor, superintendent of public works - everyone has done their best to make this project work. One of our council people, George Blair, proposed this type of system because it is environmentally superior to other types of systems. The Fehr-Graham Engineering Firm and Allamakee County Economic Development have guided us through the process. We didn’t want to put some big, heavy, chemical sewer plant in this beautiful spot, so we wanted it to be safe for our environment, especially the river. The City is being very aware of what is under the streets for pipes and the well. We are very aware of our responsibilities to the environment.” As Stantic concluded: “New Albin is a town full of pride and charm, a town that works together to achieve its goals, a town that looks to the future, nestled in the northern-most corner of the state. We are full of pride and hope; we haven’t grown in size much, but we are a town landlocked by beauty.” Mayor Alberto Whitlatch summed it up best: “New Albin is a great town full of civically-minded individuals. When an opportunity to improve New Albin arises, community members step up and get to work. I enjoy living in New Albin because I like the sense of community. Because the people who live here care about the city and its future, I am confident New Albin will be an even better place to live in the next 150 years.”