You Can Go Home Again!
AYRSHIRE, Palo Alto Co., Iowa
In July 2005, we combined a ghost town tour with a genealogy trip through the ancestral stomping grounds of a couple of my grandparents through the northwestern counties of Iowa. We stopped in the wonderful little town of Ayrshire, visiting both the town and the family farm where one of my grandmothers was born. This was going to be a homecoming to a town I knew a lot about, and a family farm I’ve seen pictures of but never visited. This was the farm one of my four great-grandfathers established way back in the 1880s. This was going to be another chance to bring several generations of family from names on a page to reality. Family photos, family legends and family research are often the only avenues to touch the lives of these past relatives. What were they like? Where did they live? Can we bring those “dead names” back to life? Can we also bring life back to the places where they lived?
Coinshooters, relic hunters, ghost towners as well as treasure hunters of all persuasions savor touching the past and bringing it to life. We have and use the main tool, popularly called research. Research helps in our quest for treasure, be it monetarily rewarding or personally satisfying.
Yet none of this compared to the deep physical awe and mental exhilaration I felt when I saw the Palo Alto County sign as we drove north on State Highway (SH) 4. We just entered the county my Grandma was born and raised in. The county her father homesteaded in the 1880s. The county where I was about to truly touch my past. This journey really began in May 1997, when we visited Tingley, a nearly dead farm town in southern Iowa. There we found several graves with SPECK headstones. That profoundly touched my heart and I needed to know how I was related to those folks. Thus began my foray into genealogy.
This time it was different. I felt like I was about to come home. We were about to explore my mom’s mom’s family’s old stomping grounds. These faded, northwestern Iowa farm towns weren’t just some anonymous map dots visited at random. They had personal meaning because a hundred years ago, one fourth of my DNA walked these same streets, shopped in the now closed stores, worshiped in the old churches, was educated in the now crumbling schools and was laid to rest in the local marble orchard. I knew where to find the cemetery, the family farm, the churches, the schools.
After stopping for lunch in Emmetsburg, we swung west on US 18, then headed south on the former SH 314, taking aim at Ayrshire. This tiny, class D, incorporated agricultural city has faded greatly from the days when it was a bustling little farm town with a full complement of businesses. Ayrshire developed along the Des Moines & Fort Dodge Railroad when it pushed through here in October 1882 and was named after the town of the same name in Scotland. A depot was built in November, and the post office opened on December 14. Two general stores also opened at that time (P.H. Owens and Schoonmaker & Hall). In the summer of 1883, George Pendelburg’s hardware store was built, followed by numerous in-town houses, a lumber yard, coal yard and a hay & coal business. By 1884, the little town boasted a "whopping” 35 folks. However, that changed quickly, and in 1888 the little town had a blacksmith shop, two hotels, two livery stables, post office, the railroad depot and stores. During the boom period it is also said to have had a couple banks, two barbershops, two beer halls, two cafes, a creamery, four churches (1st Baptist, Sacred Heart Catholic, Zion Lutheran and Methodist), five filling stations, grain elevator, hardware store, lumberyard, pharmacy and others. It incorporated September 20, 1893 and by 1900 the population hit 329. It slowly increased until 1940, when it peaked at 391. Since then, it has pretty much declined at an average of 10% a year. In the 1980s the rail line had been abandoned and the rails removed. By 2010, only 143 folks called it home.
During our visit in July 2005, we drove through town and I noted that there were only a handful of remaining businesses, which included: an American Legion Hall, bank, bar, three churches, city hall, grain elevator, hair salon, post office, store (Ayrshire Quick Stop), telephone company office (includes internet and wireless services) and the Silver Lake Township Hall. According to the 2010 Census, inside the city limits, 75 of the 95 houses are occupied. The public school was built in 1920, and the last class left in June 1982. Sacred Heart Catholic School was a full K-12 school and the last class in the high school portion was in 1947. The grade school continued until 1968. At the time of our visit in 2005, Sacred Heart Catholic School was a roofless, three-story brick shell. I’ve heard it has since been demolished, and the aerial photos on GNIS show that it indeed has.
After exploring the town, we headed west for less than a mile to a cluster of trees. This was the cemetery that marked the final resting place for a handful of family members. Strolling the green grounds, we swept our eyes across stone monuments looking for familiar names. Then I saw it. A small stone marked “Mother - Anna M, 1863-1903.” My heart pounded. Only six feet away lay my biological great-grandmother, a lady who died just nine days after her 40th birthday. With pent-up emotions begging escape, I kneeled in front of the stone, traced my fingers along the letters and let the tears flow.
A mile further west, another cluster of trees marked THE farm. Settled over 100 years ago and passed down through three generations of family, this stereotypical Iowa farm has a nice distinction. It is one of Iowa’s “Century Farms,” a designation for farms that have remained in the same family for 100 years or more. My great-grandpa started it, and after he moved to California in the early 1900s, passed it to his son, who passed it to his son, my mom’s cousin.
As we pulled up in front of the fence, I spied an 80+ gentleman riding a tractor lawnmower across the front lawn. Dry mouth and all, we watched him a minute, then I pulled into the driveway and parked. I had seen this house before, in a 1932 photo. He looked a lot like a tow-headed little five-year old in that 1932 photo.
As I strolled across the lawn toward the lawnmower, he saw me and stepped off the mower and walked towards me. “Can I help you?”
“Are you Fred?”
“I’m Gary Speck, your cousin X’s son.”
An hour later the kitchen door banged shut behind us as we walked back across the weathered porch, into the front yard. My grandma was born and raised here. As I walked slowly across the yard taking pictures, I stopped and stared at the front lawn, where 73 years previously a gaggle of kids visiting the family farm posed for the family photographer. Three-quarters of a century of family history. Three-quarters of a century of treasured memories.
Boy would I love to go over that lawn with my detector! But I didn’t. Someday I hope to return and do just that. Maybe I will find a coin that once belonged to my Great-Grandpa, or was lost by my Grandma, or even by my Mom when they visited in 1932. As we headed towards our next destination I was at peace. I experienced a true communion between the past and present. Deep in my heart I realized that you CAN go home again, even if you’ve never been there before.
· SWC (Corner) Sec 14, SEC Sec 15, NEC Sec 22, NWC Sec 23, T95N, R34W, 5PM, Silver Lake Township.
· Latitude: 43.0391346 / 43° 02’ 21” N
· Longitude: -94.8327618 / 94° 49’ 58” W
Ayrshire is one of the Iowa towns featured in my new book, GHOST TOWNS: Yesterday & TodayTM.
This was our Ghost Town of the Month for October 2012
Visit Ghost Town USA’s Iowa Ghost Town Pages
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FIRST POSTED: October 05, 2012
LAST UPDATED: June 17, 2014
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