Early Twentieth Century Iowa Librarian Moonlights as Journalist

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Courtesy Library of Congress

Charles City, Iowa in 1907.

The oldest blacksmith shop in Nashua

The largest private collection of geological specimens in America

An Iowa native who photographed glamorous stars

A Memorial Day parade in New York City

All topics of articles written by Belle Caldwell, Charles City librarian and part-time features writer. Earning a degree in library science from the University of Illinois in 1908, Caldwell, a native of Nashua, began an impressive career as a public librarian. Her feature articles carried in the Des Moines Register, Marble Rock Journal, Nashua Reporter and a national magazine, Musical America, brought Caldwell attention outside the library.

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In 1916 the Des Moines Register ran Caldwell’s feature story about a museum in Lithograph City, a tiny settlement northwest of Charles City. Clement L. Webster was owner of the 35-year-old “largest private collection of geological specimens in America.” Scientists from across the country traveled “way out here on the prairie” to see the 3,800 feet of wall, shelving and glass cases filled with specimens of soils, clays, sands and gravel. Of special interest to visitors was Webster’s collection of the Hackberry fossils, found nowhere outside Iowa. The Smithsonian Institution was “taking great interest in the museum.” It had provided Webster with blueprints as a guide to building his museum.

In 1922 Caldwell won a scholarship to attend journalism school at Columbia University in New York City. Funded by a trust established by a Des Moines woman, the award specified that the students who received the scholarship must return to Iowa to work for at least two years after completing their degree.

By 1924 Caldwell was back in Iowa writing in the Nashua Reporter about George C. Perkin’s blacksmith business in Nashua, the oldest business in town. Perkins admitted business had slowed in the “age of motor vehicles.” He showed Caldwell some old handmade tools he used in his trade and a shoe for oxen made by his dad in the 1850s.

Caldwell’s story about Edwin F. Townsend ran in the Des Moines Register in 1925. Townsend, a “Fifth Avenue Photographer Who Came From Main Street, Iowa,” started his career in a shop in Charles City, photographing weddings, graduations and family groups. In New York City, Townsend’s subjects were famous child actress, Miriam Battista, and body builder, Angelo Siciliano, among others.

Carnegie Libraries in Iowa Project (CLIP) School of Library and Information Science

Charles City Public Library, 1905.

When Caldwell spent time in New York City, she saw opportunities to send engaging articles back home to Iowa. She described unusual tulips with “jet black stamens,” dogtooth violets flown in by airplane from California and rare $500-iris from England at the International Flower Show in 1927. Her account of a Memorial Day parade in the Bronx in 1928 offered a vivid description of a fire that broke out when a tank burst into flames and recalled the grand marshal, an 80-year old man who had been a bugler in the Civil War. In 1931 Caldwell sent an article back to the Nashua Recorder reporting on the singing of the song “Little Brown Church in the Vale” at the largest Methodist church in the Bronx, where parishioners were surprised to learn the church actually existed.

In the 1930s and ‘40s Caldwell continued working as a librarian—in St. Louis and Kansas City. It’s unclear if she continued writing; but her intriguing topics had delighted readers back home in Iowa for at least a time.

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Sources

“Belle Caldwell Wins Award,” Nashua Reporter, June 8, 1922.

Caldwell, Belle. “Come From Almost Everywhere to See This Iowan’s Collection.” Des Moines Register, Sept. 17, 1916.

Caldwell, Belle. “Memorial Day in the Bronx.” Nashua Reporter, June 6, 1928.

Caldwell, Belle. “The Village Blacksmith.” Nashua Reporter, Oct. 1, 1924.

Caldwell, Belle. “Why Brunettes Seem Prettier.” Des Moines Register, July 12, 1925.

Caldwell, Belle. “Writes of N.Y. Flower Show.” Nashua Reporter, Apr. 6, 1927.

Email exchange with Kim Jones and Laura Hughes, Charles City Public Library

 

 

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