Whatever I'm Thinking

The Little Norse Town of Decorah, Iowa

Water Street business district, Decorah, Iowa

August 31, 2019

I didn’t realize what treasures were in store for me when I arrived in Decorah, an otherwise un-notable black dot on the map of northeastern Iowa. Arriving at 4:15, I was just in time to find the Winneshiek County Courthouse and get inside before it closed at 4:30.

The courthouse was built in 1905, features three stories, a tall central cupola/clocktower, and a Union Civil War memorial dominating the front lawn. Brownstone blocks were used for the first floor while the second and third stories were built with Indiana Bedford limestone.

Winneshiek County Courthouse, Decorah, Iowa
Winneshiek County Courthouse, front entrance
Winneshiek County in the state of Iowa

Once inside I quietly wandered around the ornate hallways of the old courthouse, hoping that I could avoid any security guards chasing away occupants before closing up. The interior walls of the courthouse are lined with brown granite. Glass designs adorned the underside of the courthouse cupola; gold leaf designs accented wall decorations.

Winneshiek County Courthouse, interior hallway
Winneshiek County Courthouse, underside of the cupola
Perhaps referring to the local Civil War regiment?

Despite all the glitz and glamor I found on the upper floors, this photo of 1949 courthouse personnel quickly became my favorite. The difference in fashion between then and now is striking. The photo was taken 4 years after the end of World War II. One can only imagine the thoughts behind the smiling faces: relief, sadness at loss, and a return to normalcy and the good life.

I was out of the building by 4:45, but it being the month of August I still had plenty of daylight to walk around town. West Broadway runs just behind the courthouse and is lined with magnificent houses considered part of the Decorah Historic District. I spent 30 to 40 minutes walking up and down the street photographing classic old mansions and posting the photos on Facebook. Several dozen of my Facebook friends enjoyed the tour along with me, giving the gallery likes and good comments. Some of these houses have been converted to bed and breakfasts (look them up if you like! link is here), while others are private homes.

“Bed and Breakfast on Broadway”
Home on West Broadway, Decorah, Iowa

The most famous mansion was an Italianate villa called the Porter House Museum. The owner was not a railroad magnate (rather a dry goods merchant) but such was the prosperity among northern states after the Civil War that riches came to many.

Porter House Museum

No fine American block would be complete without stately churches. The first church below is Lutheran, the next is Episcopalian.

First Lutheran Church
Grace Episcopal Church, Decorah, Iowa

Many of these houses displayed Norwegian flags. Norwegian immigrants came to Decorah starting in the 1850s, prospering smartly.

A few blocks below Broadway, Water Street is the business district in Decorah. The street is full of 19th-century architecture and reminders of the town’s Norwegian heritage. The royal blue flags lining the street say “Norse” and are probably a reference to Decorah’s Nordic Fest, held annually the last weekend of July, often drawing crowds of 50,000 or more.

Water Street business district

Here are some more photos up and down Water Street. Some of the buildings and detail are just magnificent:

Detail on corner of building shown above
Water Street view with cliffs in the distance.
Water Street with Hotel Winneshiek (on the left)

The classic Hotel Winneshiek offers a fine dining restaurant on the ground floor and rooms for about $100 (when I last checked). I didn’t stay there because I already had reservations elsewhere, but it looks like a great place so I’m including a link to the Hotel Winneshiek & Opera House.

Several reminders of Decorah’s Norwegian roots appear around town:

Westerheim Norwegian-American Museum
Decorah wall mural featuring Norwegian singers
Home on West Broadway with both Norwegian and American flags
Old Painter-Bernatz Mill, listed on the National Register of Historic Places

Decorah lies in the valley of the Upper Iowa River in the “driftless” region of northeastern Iowa, meaning that the landscape was never leveled by glaciers during the Ice Ages. As a result, the area landscape features old limestone cliffs and ravines forming natural caves and viewpoints. One of these is known as Pulpit Rock, which I visited the next morning and climbed for the view:

Pulpit Rock, Decorah, Iowa
View from Pulpit Rock

I really couldn’t get enough of this town. I overheard others walking by me saying it was the “cutest town they’d ever seen.” It’s my new favorite Iowa town and deserves a place on your bucket list.

A link to the town’s Wikipedia page is here. Visitor’s info is here.

All photos taken by the author between August 29-30, 2017.

A list of all photo posts from the American County Seats series in TimManBlog can be found here.

I’m trying to travel to all of America’s county courthouses, and each month a post about my visit to the most interesting county seats. It’s only a hobby — but donations are greatly appreciated to help defer my costs.


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