What’s in a Name: Tripoli

by Bryon Houlgrave

TRIPOLI – When Dan Kalkbrenner wants to ask Alexa about the weather forecast in town he has to be careful. Alexa doesn’t know Tripoli, Iowa. At least, not how the locals know it.

“Alexa doesn’t like ‘Tripola.’ She likes ‘Tripoli,’” Kalkbrenner, the mayor of the small Northeast Iowa town, said during an interview recently. 

“One day I just wanted to know what the weather was and I said ‘Tripola’ and she didn’t like that. I said ‘Tripoli’ and yes, then she answered me.”

The town is spelled like the capital of Libya or the US Navy warship, but here in Iowa it has a different pronunciation.

“The locals call it Tripola,” Kalkbrenner said.

The confusion dates back to the 1800s when the town was founded by Asa Martin, who moved to Iowa from New York. Martin wanted to name the town Martinsburg, but when applying for a post office he learned that there was already a Martinsburg. 

“The US Government sent a list of names and Tripoli was one of them, but they never specifically said how to pronounce that name, so that’s where some of the confusion came in,” Kalkbrenner said. 

There are varying theories how the town was named. One theory suggests Tripoli was named after Martin’s home town of Tripoli, New York. Another theory suggests that it was named after the Battle of Tripoli. The locals, about 1,200 of them per the 2020 census, may differ in how they believe their community came to be named, but they all agree that there is only one true pronunciation. 

Tripoli is in Bremer County, northeast of Waverly and sits near the Wapsipinicon River. When Kalkbrenner was a young man growing in town up he remembered a crowded Main Street, especially on a Saturday night. With its local grocery stores, auto dealers, clothing stores, a meat locker and beauty parlors, there was little reason to travel to nearby Waverly or Waterloo for anything.

“When I was a kid Main Street was always full,” Kalkbrenner said. “We could get everything here.”

Things began to change, however. Like many small Midwestern communities in the 1980s, a rough economy chipped business after business away from Tripoli’s once thriving Main Street. 

“Over the years it gradually lost businesses,” Kalkbrenner said. “The economy was tough.”

Kalkbrenner feels the town is on the rebound now. As more and more people are choosing small town living over the business of the bigger cities, towns like Tripoli, with its charm and recreation and close proximity to larger communities, are beginning to breathe new life. 

“We’re getting a lot of new people into town,” Kalkbrenner said. “We got some younger people getting involved in the community, so that helps keeps things running.”

Kalkbrenner said it’s been nice to see the new residents getting involved in the community.

“For a little town we got quite a bit to offer.”