Two years, 99 countiesDallmeyers collect photos of all county courthouses in Iowa
It wasn’t even good-looking. It was too modern.
As she stood facing the Cedar County Courthouse in Tipton, Helen Dallmeyer strongly considered whether she even wanted a picture of it. She had taken pictures of two other Iowa courthouses in Spencer and Hampton recently, but those had attractive architecture. She was about to take a pass when her friend Jo Ross spoke up.
“If you are doing courthouses, you have to get them all,” Ross said.
The group had been in Tipton to visit a mom-and-pop restaurant that was featured in a coupon book the Dallmeyers purchased from a popular Iowa magazine. They had wanted to try a restaurant in Tipton as part of their latest trip. Helen Dallmeyer said that she snapped the Cedar County Courthouse.
That was the start of a two-year trek that led Helen and her husband Carl Dallmeyer to all 99 counties in Iowa to photograph all 100 courthouses (Lee County has two). Helen Dallmeyer said she and her husband left the next day to further the collection. By the time they returned home, they had photos of 10 more courthouses to check off their list.
Helen Dallmeyer said that often, when they entered a new town, the couple wouldn’t know where to go. She said a trick they used was to look for a spire or a clock. She also said convenience stores are a good place to ask for directions.
To make it easier, the Dallmeyers would get the addresses from the Washington County Courthouse. Even then, sometimes the courthouses remained elusive unless they were located on one of the main streets.
As they were preparing for a trip, Helen Dallmeyer remembers with a chuckle, she said someone told her Pottawattamie County had two courthouses, one in Council Bluffs and one in Avoka. Dallmeyer maintained that it didn’t. On the trip, the couple learned that there was a closed courthouse in Avoka. She said that she took a picture of it anyway.
She said that Council Bluffs was one of the counties that gave the couple a problem in finding the courthouse. She said that while looking for it, they crossed a river and saw a sign welcoming them to Nebraska.
Coming through Cedar Rapids, they saw a domed building and thought it was the courthouse. They photographed the building. As it happened, the building wasn’t the courthouse and they had to make a second trip to Cedar Rapids.
“There are some courthouses that are copycats,” Helen Dallmeyer said. “One is in Onawa and Adair. They are alike except one has a tower. There are other ones that are built about the same time, and they resemble the courthouse from the county next door.”
She also said that Iowa has the habit of not having the county seat being the same name as the county. For example, she said, Keokuk is not even in Keokuk County. The situation is similar in Wapello, Des Moines and Waterloo counties.
The trips to multiple county seats didn’t leave much time for exploring the areas, Helen Dallmeyer said. She said many times the trips involved driving to the courthouse, taking a photo, and moving on to the next. The average trip lasted three days and two nights. On three of the trips, the Dallmeyers put over 900 miles on their Cadillac. Their record was 10 courthouses in one day.
The quest culminated earlier this month when they got the final seven courthouses from northern Iowa they needed for the complete collection, with the last courthouse being in Dubuque. It had taken 18 trips to get all 100 courthouses photographed. Helen Dallmeyer said that in all the trips, there had never been rain to keep them from taking a picture. As the couple drove back to their apartment at the UP Home, they first heard the newly repaired bell in the clock tower of the Washington County Courthouse ring the hour.
“I just thought that is a good end to our trips,” Helen Dallmeyer said.
Helen Dallmeyer has the IDOT state map, which the couple used to plan their trips to the various sites, sitting in a back room. The map is now dogeared and torn, as is the copy of the 1976 book containing all of the state courthouses. Helen Dallmeyer said with a smile that the map would not have lasted another trip.
“To prepare for the trip, I would go to the map and find the county and the county seat,” she said. “Later I got that book of courthouses. When I got that book of all the courthouses, I could look up and see what the town was.”
With the 100 photos in sleeves in the order in which they were taken, Helen Dallmeyer said that her next project will be alphabetizing them in a book in which she can write more facts about the courthouses in the margins.
“I still cannot believe we did two years of this,” Helen Dallmeyer said. “I still can’t believe we got this done.”