Although the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County was initially established in 1934, it became inactive some years after that. In 1961 it was reactivated. The Society received its 501 (c) 3 status from the Internal Revenue Service in November of 1963. During the following decades its members focused community attention on a variety of projects.
During the early 1960s the Society spearheaded a successful drive to save the Grenville M. Dodge home, which has become a major part of Council Bluffs’ tourism industry.
The Society has restored and placed an informative stone marker at the Amelia Bloomer grave site. The sites of the 1836 Blockhouse and the Father DeSmet mission were marked with brass plaques on boulders on Pierce Street. The site of Pacific House, now a parking lot, was marked on the Wickham Building.
As a Bicentennial project, Charles Babbit’s “Early Days at Council Bluffs” was reprinted and sold.
Much of the Society’s energy has gone into the restoration and maintenance of the Historic Pottawattamie County Squirrel Cage Jail and making it available for visitors and tourists. The Jail was built in 1885 and was in continuous use until 1969. It was acquired by the Council Bluffs Park Board in 1971 for preservation, and was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 by the United States Government. The Historical Society led an effort in 1977 to save the jail, and today owns and operates the facility. The design and size of the Squirrel Cage Jail make it a one-of-a-kind structure. It was one of seventeen revolving jails built and the only three-story one ever built. The Society raised over $1,000,000 for a new tile roof and interior repairs. The current project is the stabilization of the building’s exterior.
In 1972, Henry Carsten, a long-time member of the Society, donated his 100-year-old farm, buildings, machinery, house, and furnishings to the Society. Although the farm was almost 30 miles from Council Bluffs and in very bad repair, the Society accepted the property and began its restoration. With help from the Good Neighbors Group of Shelby, the blacksmith shop, barns, machine sheds, and equipment were slowly restored. The members spent many years cleaning, painting, and refurbishing the home and its furnishings. Carsten Farm Days was an annual two-day celebration to showcase the farm and give demonstrations of historic farming and living styles. During the late 1990s the Society made the decision to sell the farm.
In 1984 the Society and the Greater Omaha Society of Model Railroad Engineers (GOSOME) joined forces with Council Bluffs to save one of the last remaining depots in Council Bluffs, the 1899 Chicago Rock Island and Pacific Passenger Depot. Again, this required prodigious effort. There was much rotted wood, much of the tile roof needed replacement, and a complete interior renovation was necessary. GOSOME relocated its extensive model railroad display from Omaha’s Western Heritage Museum, which was undergoing renovations of its own. Today the GOSOME display is located in the former freight section of the depot. With substantial help from the Union Pacific Railroad, the Dodge Park Railway Display was successfully relocated to the Depot site to enhance the rolling stock already on display there. Some of the cars have been restored but the upkeep and restoration of the remaining cars is a massive and on-going project.
Long-range goals of the Society include continued restoration of rail cars at the RailsWest Railroad Museum and expansion of its present work, including education programs about and promotion for the Squirrel Cage Jail and the Rails West Railroad Museum. The organization will also continue to fill requests from the Genealogical Society to assist those who are tracing family histories.
The organization is governed by a volunteer board of directors. An executive director oversees the daily operation of the jail and depot as well as develop educational programs, grant writing, and work toward increasing tourism and volunteerism at the properties. This has freed the elected board of directors to devote more quality time to formulating policy and fund raising.
Historical Society of
County Seat Council Bluffs, Iowa