Dickinson County Museum tells the tale of a rich history

Monday, June 22, 2015
(Photo by Brandon Hurley) The Dickinson County Museum, located in Spirit Lake, features history dating back to the Civil War era. Complete with a train depot display, which is actually part of the original museum, residents have a chance to learn about the county's early years. The museum is open Memorial Day through Labor Day.

The sound of train whistles is hard to come by these days in the Iowa Great Lakes.

But, up until 1974 the county was a bustling hub of activity for freight and passenger trains.

The area's rich rail history is recalled at the old Spirit Lake train depot. The 1883 depot became home to the Dickinson County Museum in the 1970s. Inside, guests will find several artifacts date back to the Civil War era.

Cindy Schubert has been museum director for the past 14 years.

"I think this depot is in excellent shape for when it was built," she said. "The train depot was the end of the line for the Chicago/Milwaukee route, this is as far north as the train came."

The depot was the north Iowa hub for passenger and freight trains. Passenger service continued until 1952, while freight trains brought goods to the Iowa Great Lakes until 1974. One of the cabooses used on the Chicago/Milwaukee line sits outside of the museum. Each caboose on a line had a specific color -- the Chicago/Milwaukee caboose was orange.

The train car, which still sits on a segment of original railroad track, was used as sleeping quarters and a cooking area. The caboose also served as a lookout point to see obstacles on the tracks ahead. Today's depot features the original ticket window, a conductors uniform and attire that passengers could usually be seen in.

"Unlike today, passengers liked to dress up when they traveled," Schubert said. "We also have many of the telegraph machines on display."

Further into the depot section of the museum, visitors can find an original wooden incubator, several pedal-operated items, tools used for the ice harvest and pieces from the original Okoboji bridge constructed in 1860. A bayonet from the Civil War also hangs on the wall. In addition, a covered wagon from one of the first settlers is displayed.

Schubert first became interested in Dickinson County's rich history early on in her professional career.

"I worked for the Spirit Lake Beacon for a number of years and it was always interesting to me to speak with a wide range of people and hear the stories they had to share," Schubert said. "I really started to become interested in the history of the county. Even though I'm not a native of here, I've really gotten to know the history."

(Photo by Brandon Hurley)

"I want to let people know that this museum is for all of Dickinson County, it doesn't just have items from Spirit Lake," Schubert said.

A vast majority of the items inside the museum are donated. In the early 90s, an addition was completed to grow the museum to more than just the depot.

"We even have the hand-written manuscript for 'A History of Dickinson County,' written by R.A. Smith in 1902," Schubert said. "That right there is one of the more unique things here -- it's the only copy in the world, obviously."

The expanded area houses many different clothing items, kitchenware, furniture, books, manuscripts and toys as well.

"This museum explains why people settled here, how the area grew and why it continued to grow," Schubert said. "If people understand the history of the county, I think they will come to like where they live even more. We have a lot of neat stuff here."

Other interesting items include an old Civil War drum and a late 1800s dentist chair.

"My favorite part of the museum would have to be the old train depot," Schubert said. "I also really like old barns; there's a whole lot of neat stuff from the county."

Schubert said visitors often walk through in a state of awe.

(Photo by Brandon Hurley)

"They really enjoy it, they don't realize what we have here," Schubert said. "They all come out learning something. We also get a lot of researchers who come through. It's fun; I like helping people figure things out."

Museum hours are 12-4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, open Memorial Day through Labor Day. The building is located at Keokuk Avenue and Highway 9/71. The museum still pulls in rare, donated items from time to time.

"I think, (for anyone who comes to the museum), they will be amazed with the collection we have," the museum director said. "It's not just a bunch of pictures. We have something from every community in the county. I encourage people to come -- I'm always so happy when locals come in and say they have never been here before. It's their history too."



The Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum is located inside the Welcome Center in Arnolds Park and offers a wide display of boating history, as well as a few items from the original Okoboji Store. The museum also is home to old amusement park rides and items from the fun house.


The Iowa RockNRoll Museum is located on Lake Street next to the Amusement Park in Arnolds Park. It showcases the members of the Iowa RockNRoll Hall of Fame from 1997 to the present, includes a recording studio, radio deejay studio and scores of vintage posters, photos, costumes and pieces of Iowa music history. It is open seven days a week at 11 a.m. during the summer with limited weekly hours during the winter months.


Heritage Square, located on West Main in Lake Park, offers visitors a chance to tour the old 1860 jail and the railroad depot. Patrons can also visit one an 1800s home built by settlers.


The Abbie Gardner is one of the county's most famous historical sites. The Spirit Lake Massacre took place in 1857, leaving 33 residents dead in the Lakes Region with two taken captive. The cabin, located in Arnolds Park, also features the family burial plot, memorials and a teepee.


The Higgins Museum, located along Sanborn Avenue in Okoboji, is the area's lone national bank note museum and one of the largest in the country. Opened in 1978, it is home to bank notes dating back to the early settlement years. Almost all of the state's 300 communities are represented in the museum which houses the largest post card collection in Iowa.


Okoboji Classic Cars, located in West Okoboji, is home to a large car museum and restoration shop. The car museum features a replica setting of the old Spencer and Arnolds Park downtowns. Tours are offered regularly for a look into the history of the automobile.

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