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State Historical Society of Iowa

Colfax Commercial District Added to National Register of Historic Places

Jan 4, 2019

DES MOINES – As Iowans look toward the New Year, a new addition to the National Register of Historic Places offers a glimpse into Iowa’s past.

In Colfax, the Spring City Downtown Historic District was recently added to the National Register for its agricultural and railroad history, mineral water and spa treatments, and an array of social and cultural activities.

"We're pleased Colfax’s downtown historic district has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, and we commend all the stakeholders who worked so hard on this successful nomination," Architectural Historian and Certified Local Government Program Coordinator Paula Mohr said. "This recognition marks an important milestone for Colfax as it continues to preserve the legacy of its past for future generations of Iowans to enjoy."

Near the western edge of Jasper County, the small community of about 2,000 residents was originally developed as a railroad and farm-to-market town in the 1860s.

Railroad pioneer Abel Kimball of Davenport purchased land at the point of the rail stop and, nearly simultaneously with the completion of the Newton-to-Colfax rail line, filed a plat for the Village of Colfax on July 22, 1867.

The first Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad trains ran from Newton into Colfax Station later that same month. A Davenport newspaper reported the news under the headline “Gratifying.”

In 1875, coal prospectors accidentally discovered mineral water in the area. The lucky find turned Colfax into a hot spot for mineral water baths and treatments for a host of diseases and maladies, such as rheumatism and other chronic complaints.

“Awash in mineral water, Colfax saw rapid expansion in hotels and a move toward brick construction, along with additional well drilling and the first dedicated bottling works within town limits,” according to the district’s National Register nomination. “Most hotels built during this era drilled wells to provide mineral water for drinking and therapeutic baths.”

In 1890, the Mason House created a park with a mineral water spring across the street from the hotel, adjoining the railroad depot. (Today this is called Mineral Springs Park.) By the turn of the 20th century, nearly 20 mineral water wells had been drilled, and hotels and sanitariums together boasted more than 1,000 rooms.

During the next couple of decades, mineral water baths brought visitors to the community, which prompted a building boom and a thriving tourism business.

Renowned architectural firms and contractors such as Proudfoot, Bird & Rawson; F. A. Harris; and Elmer Fitzgerald brought their expertise to Colfax. Many results of that building boom still exist, including:

  • The Colfax Telephone Exchange Building at 29 W. Howard (1911)
  • The Tudor Revival style Colfax Public Library (1912-1913)
  • The Methodist church (1914)
  • The Davis & Davis / Boss Meat Market double storefront (1915)
  • The Everett & Baker Ford Garage (1920) The First Presbyterian Church (1923)

In addition, many civic, fraternal, and religious organizations used the district’s commercial buildings for social and cultural activities, including the Masons, Knights of Pythias, Odd Fellows, Redmen, American Legion, Subscription Library Association, PEO and the Colfax Woman’s Club.

By the mid-20th century, their activities prompted building owners and developers to construct or remodel new meeting halls near the commercial district, which further shaped the history of Colfax, as it is known today.

The State Historic Preservation Office oversees the National Register of Historic Places program in Iowa in conjunction with the National Park Service. The State Historic Preservation Office is part of the State Historical Society of Iowa, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and its three divisions – the Iowa Arts Council, Produce Iowa - State Office of Media Production and the State Historical Society of Iowa – empower Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to the people, places and points of pride that define our state. The department’s work enables Iowa to be recognized as a state that fosters creativity and serves as a catalyst for innovation where the stories of Iowa are preserved and communicated to connect past, present and future generations.