What Cheer water tower

What's in a Name: What Cheer

by Bryon Houlgrave

WHAT CHEER – If you’re an optimist, there’s a town in Iowa just for you; a little town with a happy name. Even if you’re not an optimist, you can’t help but smile each time you pass by exit 201 along the Interstate 80 freeway, the exit to Belle Plaine and What Cheer.

What Cheer is a pretty uncommon name for a town, and that’s exactly what the city founders were going for back in the late 19th century when they named it. 

“What Cheer is a greeting from the east coast,” said Margie Thomas, a historian in What Cheer. 

Thomas said the town was plotted out by Peter Britton in 1865, when it was discovered that the area was rich in coal deposits. The community was originally named Petersburg, after Britton, but when the growing berg applied for a post office they learned there was already a Petersburg in Iowa. There can only be one Petersburg, however, and today a tiny neighborhood in Delaware County claims it. It’s a small community close enough to Dyersville to throw a baseball from the historic Saints Peter and Paul Church and reach home plate at the Field of Dreams. 

Peter Britton was determined to keep the town named after him, so some local problem solvers got together to decide on solutions. They’d keep the name of the town Petersburg, but they’d come up with a second name just for the post office. Joseph Andrews, a Union Army major and Civil War veteran, proposed What Cheer, a friendly greeting used often in New England. The idea stuck.

“Andrews, who had moved here from the east coast, wanted something unique, something that wouldn’t be copied or had been used previously,” Thomas said.

“He decided to call it What Cheer, and that is a greeting like hello, how are you.”

The official greeting, what cheer you, is an English nicety dating as far back as the 15th century. 

It became a town with two names and stayed that way until 1879 when, much to Peter Britton’s chagrin, there were some rumblings that maybe the town and post office should have the same name.

“Peter Britton was adamant that it stay Petersburg, but eventually the town voted to be What Cheer.”

Britton’s foul mood aside, there was much to be cheerful about in the community. They were in the midst of an economic boon. As more coal deposits were discovered, the town grew exponentially. 

In 1880 the population of What Cheer was 200, according to Thomas. 

“By the end of that decade it was over 5,000,” she said.

Like most young cities, the town built some entertainment venues. The What Cheer Opera House, which is still in operation today, was built to attract music and theater entertainment to the miners and their families. The newly installed railroad made it easier for performers to come and go.

The saying about all good things was true for What Cheer, however, and the cheery-named young city mined its last lump of coal (an actual unit of measurement, by the way) in the late 1800s. 

“The mining communities moved on, and the population was down to about 900 again,” Thomas said. “There just was not much here.”

While many buildings from the town’s heyday currently sit empty, the Opera House has been able to stave off demolition efforts in recent years, though just barely. Decades ago it hosted acts like Guy Lombardo and Hank Williams. On March 26, 1906, John Philip Sousa directed a concert on the stage. A plaque hangs on the wall to commemorate the event. Today, the very floor where legends once played to a packed house now supports the tapping toes of younger musical acts, many of which are tribute bands. 

The town today has a couple businesses, some lovely parks and beautiful old buildings that tell the stories of a more flourishing time. For the roaming historians, the What Cheer Brick School Museum offers multiple rooms of local history and artifacts. 

“A lot of people who visit say ‘Oh, I saw your sign,’” Thomas said, referring to the exit sign on the freeway 20 or so miles north of town on Highway 21.

If you plan a visit, the Opera House and Museum are must-see destinations.