Mount Vernon has historic structures that date from the 1840s to the present. The principle historical themes that best help us trace our past are related to the revolutions in transportation.
By 1842 the Military Road (Highway #1) was marked from the territorial capitol (Iowa City) to Dubuque. Lyman Dillon was paid by Congress to mark a trail that could be used by federal troops stationed at Ft. Snelling (St. Paul) to protect the legislature meeting in Iowa City. The quickest way for the troops to move was via the Mississippi to Dubuque and then overland to Iowa City. Dubuque was also the largest town in the Iowa Territory.
The trail was essentially a furrow plowed with a team of oxen. For whatever reason, Dillon chose to mark his trail over the hill. The top of the hill was a good place to stop and water the horses after a hard pull.
The town became an early service center for travelers and farmers settling around the hill. The early businesses were related to wagons, horses, and travel accommodations.
The small but growing number of settlers along the hilltop plotted the town in 1847. It was one block on either side of First Street, one block east and two block west of the Military Road. The town would not incorporate until 1868.
One feature of this early period is the large number of home-made brick buildings constructed as residences, stores, churches and schools. Local deposits of clay and sand together with several talented masons gave the town a distinctive architectural character.
We have several remaining brick stores from this period as well as two Cornell buildings and a number of homes. The first wooden homes and stores were replaced with brick structures rather quickly.
In 1858 the railroad arrived but the major economic impact would wait until after the Civil War when bridges were constructed across the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. By the time the railroad arrived the town was rather well established and Cornell College (1853) was showing signs of stability and growth.
The railroad and the great logging boom in Wisconsin and Minnesota brought cheap, elegant building materials and as American taste changed to the larger, asymmetrical Victorian homes, Mount Vernon joined the trend.
The railroad also brought students to Cornell from greater distances than the stage coach or wagon. The town was connected to the larger world with mail order catalogues and builder’s style manuals. There was a greater range of choices in styles and materials. One must also remember that with the exception of Bowman Hall (1885) Cornell did not build residences for students until the 1930s. Students lived with families in the town. One could build a large home and be assured that students would be available to help pay the mortgage.
The town prospered along with agriculture and experienced several building booms between 1890 and 1920. Fires in the central town also reshaped the area with new brick structures.
The automobile and internal combustion engine revolutionized the farms and the towns. The first marked highway across the nation was the Lincoln Highway in 1913. In Linn County it followed the old Tipton to Marion trail which was the first east-west road across the County.
When the Federal Government designed a national highway system and helped to pave roads, that portion of the Lincoln Highway through Mount Vernon became U.S. Highway 30 so the town remained as part of a major transcontinental paved route.
Again, Mount Vernon was a service town and students continued to come to Cornell from increasingly distant places. Merchants profited from the new travelers, many of the homes along First Street took in travelers for overnight stays and the old carriage barn became a garage. Homes were built with room for the car under the same roof as the family. The College continued to grow and played an even larger role in the economy of the community.
During World War II many citizens worked in Defense plants in Cedar Rapids and Mount Vernon was drawn more and more into the expanding metropolitan industrial magnet. Commuting has continued to be a way of life for many residence.
The Post-War boom brought slow but steady growth to Mount Vernon with new additions to the City reflecting the styles and plans of the suburbs around the nation’s major cities. The new highways by-passed small towns and “new #30” cut south of Mount Vernon in the late 1950s and again in 2020.
Through all these transitions and changes, Mount Vernon has retained structures from the past and tried to make them fit changing life styles. The charm and character of the town is largely due to these reminders of the past.
We are proud of the fact we are visually different than other small Iowa towns, but retaining that character requires treating our older structures with respect and ensuring their architectural integrity, even while making them comfortable for our times.
The above article was adapted for the web from:
“The City of Mount Vernon Design Guidelines Booklet: Rehabilitation and Preservation Do’s & Don’ts for Commercial and Residential Structures” which is available upon request at City Hall or by contacting the Mount Vernon Historic Preservation Commission.
The booklet is designed to help property owners appreciate Mount Vernon’s heritage and think seriously about how to care for older structures and how to repair or modify them without violating the spirit and integrity of the structure and its style.