September 29, 2019
Little Denison, Iowa is known for two things: it is the county seat of Crawford County, Iowa; and it is the hometown of Donna Reed, famous American actress of the mid-twentieth century. Reed (born Donna Belle Mullenger) was best known for her portrayal of Mary Hatch Bailey, wife to George Bailey in Frank Capra’s classic Christmas film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The town beams pride at its famous daughter and her famous role. “It’s a Wonderful Life” emblems are printed on city vehicles, including police cars. At 6:00 in the evening local church bells ring “Auld Lang Syne” in an homage to the movie’s triumphant final scene.
They say it’s a wonderful life here; let’s see.
The Donna Reed Performing Arts Center is the town’s center. When I dropped by the curator asked me to come inside and review the memorabilia, which is exactly what you’d expect for a museum in small-town America.
The Center also produces plays from time to time and the street in front of the museum is lined with handprints of various actors. I recognized Bonnie Franklin and Mike Farrell. A replica of Donna Reed’s Hollywood Boulevard star is its most prominent fixture.
Classic scenes from “It’s a Wonderful Life” are posted on street lights near the museum. They say that Seneca Falls, New York, was the inspiration for the fictional town of Bedford Falls, but Denison, Iowa wants to make its own claim.
Denison has a population of 8,298 as of the 2010 Census. It’s a pretty typical American small town.
Although Conner’s Corner no longer operates as a B&B, you could try another B&B right next door, called The Providence Inn.
Nearby the Crawford County Courthouse was completed in 1905 in the Beaux-Arts style. Young Miss Mullenger would have known this building as the center of her little town. She would have known well the Civil War statue in front (Iowa was a proud Union state).
Inside the courthouse the walls are marble, railings are carved wood and wrought iron. Paintings on the wall depict scenes from the county’s pioneer history. One such painting was done in the “painting of light” style highlighting storefronts along Broadway in Denison.
Finally, Donna Reed actually grew up in a farm near Denison, not in the town itself. Here are some photos of fall cornfields ready for harvest in the undulating terrain of western Iowa.
All photos taken by the author in June 2005, Septtember 2011, or March, 2017.
A list of all photo posts from the American County Seats series in TimManBlog can be found here.