If the cyclists want to know what’s cool about Greene County, tell them these things


There’s nothing worse for a community than when 30,000 guests show up, representing all 50 states and 21 countries, and the girl behind the counter at Casey’s can’t think of anything to say when a dude from Switzerland in bike shorts asks what’s cool or interesting about your town.

It’s now just a matter of days until the good people of Jefferson and Greene County face that test.

RAGBRAI XLVI — that would be 46, for those of us who don’t speak Roman — will descend on Jefferson in a little more than two weeks from today.

For the fourth time in event history, Jefferson will serve as an overnight stop July 23 for the scores of bicyclists pedaling across the Hawkeye State.

But whether they’re coming from Minnesota or Malaysia, Utah or Uruguay, or from just Manilla, Panama or Persia (towns in Crawford, Shelby and Harrison counties, respectively), we’ve prepared some talking points to help everyone in Greene County respond to that most perplexing, that most head-scratching, of requests: “So, tell me a little bit about this place you’ve lived in your entire life.”

Here are 20 fascinating things that Wikipedia probably won’t be able to tell them about our great county of Greene.

1. The Mahanay Memorial
Carillon Tower

How do you not lead off with the county’s single-most identifiable landmark?

Riders previously camped here in 1976, 1989 and 2008, and the Mahanay Tower welcomed them all.

Completed in 1966, the view from the observation deck at 120 feet is fantastic. The benefactor’s (Floyd Mahanay) death mask in the lobby is kinda neat, too, even if it does bring to mind “The Haunted Mansion” at Disney World (sadly, though, his eyes don’t open and he doesn’t sing).

The tower’s architect (Ray Hueholt) was also responsible for the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden and Plymouth Place, a round, 12-story apartment building for seniors in Des Moines at 42nd and Ingersoll.

Mahanay, if you’re wondering, was a lifelong local guy who made his living as a traveling salesman of surgical supplies.

Originally, according to a 1964 editorial in The Jefferson Herald, residents viewed Mahanay’s bequest as a “bizarre gift with little, if any, public benefit.”

And for the first 50 years, it clung to a dirty secret: It wasn’t actually capable of playing music.

It was, in fact, a carillon in name only.

With only 14 bells, it technically was classified as a chime. Basically, with all due respect, the Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower was a glorified doorbell.

The music that emanated from the tower for a generation — chiming renditions of everything from hymns to “Penny Lane” — wasn’t real. They were recordings of bells, blasted out over town through speakers.

A carillon capable of playing music needs at least 23 bells.

But that all changed in 2017.

A campaign that started clear back in 1986 to add bells to the tower ended on a happy note with the unveiling of the current, four-octave, 47-bell carillon.

The Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower is at last a true carillon — one of only four in the state of Iowa, along with Iowa State University’s famous, 50-bell carillon, a 47-bell carillon at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls and a 25-bell carillon at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Des Moines.

2. AAI

“A small, hometown business that’s also the largest, most influential gymnastics equipment maker on Earth,” is how Bill Sorenson once described the company he co-founded in 1954 in the basement of a Jefferson hardware store.

Still based in Jefferson, American Athletic Inc. has been the official equipment supplier of USA Gymnastics since 1963 — meaning that every member of the U.S. National Team over the past 55 years has used AAI equipment.

You name them, and they’ve both trained and competed on gear made entirely in Jefferson, from balance beams to pommel horses.

Mary Lou Retton? Check.

Gabby Douglas? Check.

Bart Conner? Check.

Dominique Dawes? Check.

Cathy Rigby? Yep, Peter Pan, too.

Nastia Liukin, the all-around gold medalist at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, has her own line of AAI products.

AAI also was the official equipment supplier of the 1984 and 1996 Olympic Games.

And to think, it all could have started and ended with something called the Aqua-Tramp, AAI’s flop first product offering in the mid-’50s, which was a trampoline for swimming pools.

In 2004, Russell Brands bought AAI for $13 million, and also brought its Spalding Equipment line to Jefferson under the same roof.

Workers here make the AAI gymnastics products they’ve always made, but now also turn out basketball backstops in use across the NBA, in addition to Spalding-branded volleyball equipment.

3. George

In June 1939, 63 percent of Americans told the Gallup Poll it was indecent for women to wear shorts in public.

So all you lady cyclists out there would do well to put on a denim skirt.

Seriously, though, no pollster became more famous at revealing America to be a crazy-town of divided opinions than Jefferson’s own George H. Gallup, arguably our most well-known native son.

He was born right here in 1901, and grew up in an octagonal house on South Chestnut Street (the Gallup House) that has since been restored.

With a background in journalism, psychology and advertising — making him the 20th century equivalent of a witch doctor — Gallup founded the American Institute of Public Opinion (aka the Gallup Poll) in 1935 and set about taking the pulse of America on a range of topics.

In 1954, for example, 70 percent of Americans told Gallup that comic books were to blame in some way for “teenage crime.”

Oh, if only things were still that simple.

4. The Sierra Community Theatre

The building that is home to our single-screen movie theater has been in continuous use as an entertainment venue since 1884.

Originally an opera house, it became a movie theater in 1916 with the local premiere of “The Birth of a Nation” accompanied by an 11-piece orchestra. Over the next two days, at a time when a new Model T cost $440, that one movie made $1,543.50.

The theater has gone by such names as the Iowa Theatre, the Strand Theatre and the Majestic Theatre.

5. Loren Shriver

One homegrown farm boy quite literally went farther than anyone else in Greene County history.

Retired Air Force Col. Loren Shriver, still the only astronaut from Paton (pop. 236), was commander of the space shuttle mission in 1990 that carried the Hubble Telescope into orbit.

A 2008 inductee of the Astronaut Hall of Fame, Shriver piloted space shuttle Discovery for the first time in 1985. That mission — officially known as STS-51C — was the first shuttle mission for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Discovery’s launch weight for the mission is listed at 250,891 pounds, but its landing weight remains classified all these years later.

6. Power Lift

More than 25 of the NFL’s 32 teams work out on weight equipment manufactured in Jefferson.

Founded right here in 1999, Power Lift also counts among its customers Division I college football programs, the Navy SEALS and Triple H, the professional wrestler — basically, a who’s who of badasses.

7. Doreen Wilber

In 2011, Jefferson Olympic Plaza was unveiled at the corner of Lincoln Way and Vine Street.

The bronze statue (and the bronze target across the street) honors late Olympic archer Doreen Wilber, a 1948 graduate of Jefferson High School and the first Iowa woman to win Olympic gold.

Wilber also set two world records in the process at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.

8. Scranton’s water tower

OK, so it might not sound like much, but Scranton’s steel water tower is a major source of pride.

Erected in 1897, it’s the oldest working water tower in Iowa, and it’s believed to be one of the 10 oldest in the nation.

9. Jim Doran and Bryce Paup

Remember when the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns would regularly duke it out for the NFL title?

Uh. Yeeeaaaa-no.

It was a different game back in the 1950s, when the Lions regularly threw down against the Browns for the NFL title. (The Super Bowl didn’t debut until 1967.)

A wide receiver from nearby Beaver (pop. 48), Jim Doran played in four championship games with the Lions and was MVP of the Lions’ 1952 NFL championship team.

On Dec. 27, 1953, with the Browns up 16-10, Doran caught a 33-yard pass to win the title game.

He later became the first Pro Bowl selection in Dallas Cowboys history in 1960.

His real love, however, was farming.

Doran bought the family farm north of Paton in 1958 near the end of his nine seasons with the Lions.

A generation later, Bryce Paup became a second Pro Bowl selection with Greene County ties.

A 1986 graduate of Scranton High School, the linebacker  put the hurt on some of the all-time greats, including Dan Marino.

In the 164-year history of Greene County, Paup is still the only one of us to have had an action figure made in his likeness.

Whether it actually looked like him is debatable, but the 1996 “Starting Lineup” figure  of Paup in his Sunday finest as a member of the Buffalo Bills was produced by no less than Kenner, makers of the legendary original line of “Star Wars” action figures.

10. Scranton Manufacturing

Scranton Manufacturing’s New Way subsidiary got a huge publicity boost a few years ago when a video went viral showing one of its Cobra Magnum garbage trucks compacting a fully intact Pontiac Grand Am with little difficulty.

Garbage trucks made in Scranton are in use across the world.

And just for something different (but sticking with the venomous serpent theme), Scranton Manufacturing also produces the Hurricane 427 Roadster, a kit car based on the Shelby Cobra.

11. Museum of telephone history

What began in 1957 as a local family’s semi-odd collection of old telephones and telephony equipment is being transformed into a first-rate exploration of a technology we simply can’t live without. (Go ahead and check your phone real quick for any messages. We’ll wait right here.)

Jefferson Telecom’s in-house museum of phone history is open by appointment only, but it’s worth the call.

The highlight of the museum is its three walls of phones through the years, including a primitive example of a hands-free device (circa 1880s) and a surviving example of Mitsubishi’s videophone, the VisiTel, that looks like a prop from “Blade Runner.”

There’s also a secure phone used in the White House between 1963 and 1977.

Naturally, it’s red.

It’s as close to the Batphone as you’ll ever get.

12. New Deal post office mural

The price of a stamp is 47 cents more, but for 80 years, Jefferson residents have conducted business at the local post office under a mural painted by a protege of Grant Wood.

Fort Dodge artist Tom Savage got the mural commission in 1938 as part of a New Deal effort to boost the morale of destitute Americans during the Depression.

Between 1934 and 1943, the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture commissioned about 50 murals for post offices in Iowa — of which fewer than 35 remain.

Savage earned a princely $560 to paint the mural, “The New Calf.”

Savage was a product of Wood’s Stone City Art Colony in eastern Iowa in the early ’30s, a time when artists were painting the rural Midwest the way Monet once glorified the Seine.

When Wood (“American Gothic”) was appointed director of Public Works of Art projects in Iowa, based at the University of Iowa, Savage was among the artists he saw fit to hire.

At the preview for a 1934 exhibit of PWA work in Washington, D.C., President and Mrs. Roosevelt picked a 1933 sketch by Savage, “Butchering in Iowa,” for display in the White House.

Savage was among the artists handpicked to help paint what would be Wood’s largest murals, at Iowa State University’s library.

13. Ranger Rick

You know the names Walt Disney, Stan Lee and Bob Kane.

You certainly know their creations — Mickey Mouse, Spider-Man and Batman, respectively.

But most people don’t know Ub Iwerks, Steve Ditko or Bill Finger.

They’re the co-creators.

Gordon Elliott might be our very own Bill Finger, a Jefferson native who may (or may not) have outright created Ranger Rick, the anthropomorphic raccoon and the namesake of a beloved nature magazine for kids.

Elliott graduated from Jefferson High School in 1931 and studied art under Grant Wood at the University of Iowa.

While still a student at Iowa, Elliott and a friend made the life mask of Floyd Mahanay (see item No. 1) now on display inside Mahanay’s namesake Bell Tower.

According to legend, Mahanay nearly suffocated beneath the plaster of paris the two local boys poured onto his face.

In the end, though, Mahanay escaped with his life — just not his eyebrows. Reportedly, they’re still inside the mask.

Elliott later enjoyed a career in magazine publishing, creating Modern Maturity in 1958 for AARP. (Today, that mag is known simply as AARP The Magazine.)

Several men are credited with creating Ranger Rick.

The National Wildlife Federation, which publishes Ranger Rick, today says that Elliott played a “key part” in conceptualizing and launching what was initially called Ranger Rick’s Nature Magazine.

Elliott was listed in early issues of the magazine as an editorial adviser.

14. Come on, Barbie, let’s go party!

Back in the olden days, county historical museums held some pretty strange stuff — many owned variations of the so-called Feejee Mermaid, an oddity made famous by P.T. Barnum and cleverly constructed by stitching the upper half of a monkey onto the back part of a fish.

That tradition is alive and well at the Greene County Historical Society Museum, which has a weirdly comprehensive Barbie collection.

Ask yourself, is Barbie any less unnatural than the Feejee Mermaid?

The museum took ownership in 2003 of a local woman’s roughly 300-piece Barbie collection (about 50 are currently on view). That woman, Arlene Klatt, collected the dolls for a good 20 years beginning in 1960.

It’s worth a look, and you’ll also want to get a photo standing inside the museum’s giant, walk-in Barbie doll box (constructed at one time for the high school prom).

“What’s there not to like about Barbie?” Arlene, 82 at the time, once asked us. “Yeah, she was well-proportioned, but what difference does that make? I found no fault with her.”

There IS a little-known local connection to Barbie.

A Jefferson native, Nancy Oatts, spent 20 years in the toy industry as a designer. She gave the world Bead Blast Barbie in 1997.

According to Mattel, the company that introduced Barbie in 1959, a Barbie doll is sold somewhere every three seconds.

The museum, 219 E. Lincoln Way in Jefferson, will be open from 3 to 8 p.m. July 23. In honor of RAGBRAI, they’ll also have antique bikes on display and information about the history of cycling in Greene County.

15. Moss Corner Markers

It was big-time news in 1913 when it was announced the Lincoln Highway would pass through Grand Junction, Jefferson and Scranton in Greene County.

Today, Greene County has the longest remaining stretch of the original Lincoln Highway.

The nation’s first coast-to-coast highway is, like Route 66 to the south and west, lined with landmarks that often go unnoticed in today’s fast-moving world.

One such landmark are the Moss Corner Markers — two concrete monuments along the highway just north of Scranton topped by busts of Abraham Lincoln, the road’s namesake.

They were put up in 1924 by James Moss, a Civil War veteran who’d lost his leg in the war between the states, in tribute to his former commander-in-chief.

The Moss Corner Markers were restored in 2001 after having been vandalized in the 1950s — one of the missing Lincoln heads was found in 1993 in Charles City, 150 miles away.

Also of interest: the Iowa Lincoln Highway Association museum in downtown Grand Junction.

16. Beam us up

Jefferson, Iowa: Officially part of “Star Trek” canon since stardate 71254.1.

Er, last October.

The Oct. 15 episode of “Star Trek: Discovery” on CBS All Access gave a shout-out to Jefferson.

As a result, Jefferson, Iowa, now has its own entry in the official StarTrek.com database — an online encyclopedia of characters, aliens, places, ships and more — as “a town on the planet Earth.”

Executive producer Aaron Harberts, who served as showrunner for the series’ first season, has family connections to Jefferson. His parents, Denise and Steven Harberts, are local residents.

Harberts picked Jefferson, Iowa, as the location of a classified Starfleet production facility that built (or, rather, will build, in the mid-23rd century) organic-propulsion units for starships.

It’s unclear how many jobs the facility will create or if the state of Iowa will be giving tax incentives to Starfleet Command to locate here.

17. Yankee’s last stop

A tall, pinkish monument in the center lot of the Jefferson Cemetery marks the final stop of famed circus showman Yankee Robinson.

It’s still the only marker in the local cemetery that bears the name of the Ringling Bros.

They, along with the Sells Bros., erected Yankee’s grave marker in 1890, but had their own names etched into the stone above even his.

That’s showbiz for ya.

Born Fayette Lodawick Robinson in 1818 in Livingston County, N.Y., Yankee had the misfortune to die in Jefferson on Sept. 4, 1884.

His legacy is that he not only gave the Ringling brothers their start, but died in the process.

Long before they had the “Greatest Show on Earth,” the Ringlings first ventured out of Baraboo as the Yankee Robinson and Ringling Bros. Great Double Shows, Circus and Caravan.

In 1884, nobody knew the five Ringling brothers. Yankee, on the other hand, boasted an identifiable brand-name.

It was the only time the Ringlings would ever give top billing to someone else — even when they arranged for a tombstone in Jefferson for their old mentor.

At the circus’ premiere in Baraboo, Wis., Yankee proclaimed that the Ringlings “were destined to become the greatest circus in the world.”

While traveling around Iowa with them, the tired old showman took sick and died.

Yankee is now among a handful of notable figures from county history to be celebrated around Jefferson’s Square on bronze plaques, each of which features a QR code for additional info.

Another entertainer with a plaque is Eva Leonard, a Grand Junction native and Ziegfeld girl who died in New York under mysterious circumstances.

18. ‘Flavors You’ll Favor!’

Retro sodas in glass bottles have made a comeback, but we’re still waiting for Raaz’s to be revived.

It was a soda original to Jefferson.

Raaz was the name of a local family — and you thought Barq’s was the strangest-looking name in soft-drink history.

Up until the early ’50s, the Jefferson Bottling Co. also bottled O-So, Orange Kist, Spur, Hi-Spot, Mason’s Root Beer and others.

19. What’s in a name?

In 1973, artist David Williamson, a 1966 graduate of Jefferson Community High School, unveiled the sculpture that adorns the exterior of the Jefferson Public Library.

But, do you know the name of it?

The full title of the sculpture is — brace yourself — “Amid a Tassel Star and the Midnight Rainbow/Costume Feathered Friends Have Rendezvoused to Ride: Twin Moons on the Tongue, A Songbird’s on the Rise, Dancing Bears Announce the Wind and the Egg’s Been Left for Surprise.”

In 2014, the library received another Williamson sculpture — an 11-foot-tall, 500-pound canoe paddle made from recycled river trash titled “Fair Catch” — inside the entrance to the children’s department.

20. Beware the rabbit punch!

He was a giant of a local farmer whose signature move was his rabbit punch, in which he turned his palm downward, made a fist and then punched his opponent in the back of the neck to great, crowd-pleasing effect.

Alas, the late Earl Wampler is one of those guys from professional wrestling’s golden age who has slipped through the cracks of time.

Wampler was an honest-to-goodness farmer south of Scranton who, in the ’30s, ’40s and early ’50s, helped make professional wrestling what it is today.

Wampler was a mentor to WWE hall of famer Lou Thesz, a major star of televised wrestling in the ’50s who went on to rule the NWA, clashing often with “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers.

One of Thesz’s signature moves in the ring was the Thesz Press, a move later adopted by “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.

Locally and abroad, Wampler’s opponents included the likes of Bronko Nagurski and Emil Dusek, both hall of famers.

In July 1933, in a match at Riverview Park in Des Moines — a Coney Island-esque amusement park on the city’s north side — Wampler managed to so enrage the fans in attendance they were incited to violence.

Sick and tired of “Wampler’s repeated low blows,” the Des Moines Register reported, fans intervened, jumping by the dozens into the ring, all while the referee “lay groaning outside the ropes.”

Wampler was able to flee to the safety of his dressing room.

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Jefferson Bee & Herald
Address: 200 N. Wilson St.
Jefferson, IA 50129

Phone:(515) 386-4161