Planning Iowa's Towns

Although Iowa towns come in different shapes and sizes, all serve common purposes. In towns people live, work, exchange goods and ideas and come together for day-to-day interaction and important events.

Early Towns

In the Iowa Territory, sometimes people planned towns, and sometimes towns just happened. When settlers moved from "back East," they often tried to build towns like the ones they had left.

In other places Iowans clustered together near water, timber and transportation routes. Anywhere people gathered, general stores quickly sprang up and a community's business district began. Craftsmen built mills, blacksmith shops and other businesses. Houses doubled as churches, taverns and post offices.

More Planning

Later, Iowans planned their towns more carefully. Representatives from eastern land companies and entrepreneurs platted towns, laying out streets to look like a grid of 90-degree angles. They built general stores, hotels, drugstores and other businesses around a central square. The grid system of towns was similar to how the government organized townships and counties.

Town builders often made the town's main street wider than other streets because a community's main thoroughfare had to accommodate traffic and parking—including hitching posts—the heavy flow of shoppers, parades, social events and political rallies. Main street property was often the most expensive in town and people built fancy, expensive buildings here.

Main street in many towns was often photographed and made into postcards. Visitors and residents mailed these postcards to friends and family across Iowa and the country. Now these cards are considered valuable collector's items. The State Historical Society of Iowa houses a collection of postcards from hundreds of towns.

County Seats

Main streets in county seat towns were often laid out around a square that held the courthouse. The county seat was sometimes located in the middle of the county so farm families could travel back and forth from the courthouse in one day. Iowa towns competed for the county seat because of the prosperity it would bring.

After the Civil War (1861-1865), railroad companies developed towns along their lines to attract more customers to the rails. They usually laid out towns along a main street lined with stores and businesses. The depot, lumberyard, grain elevator and hotel were at one end of the street, across the tracks. Houses and schools were at the other end.

At the turn of the 19th century, small-town Iowa began to grow less isolated. Advances in communication and transportation took Iowans further away from the main street of their communities to larger towns. Many country schools closed and kids rode buses to schools miles from home.

Many Iowans live in small towns all across the state. Iowa is still a state made up of hundreds of small towns where area families go to shop, attend school events and celebrate holidays.


  • Bridgett Williams-Searle & John Williams-Searle, “Planning Iowa's Towns,” The Goldfinch 18, no. 3 (Summer 1997): 4.