Sometimes an unexpected gift can change the whole identity of a town. That was the case with Jefferson, Iowa and the incredible story of their carillon bell tower.
When Dora Mahanay died in 1962 (she outlived her husband Fred, who died in 1947), the town discovered that they would be the recipients of hundreds of thousands of dollars to construct a carillon bell tower on the grounds of the Greene County Courthouse. As the website history suggests, the Mahanays loved bell towers and had enjoyed them in other cities as part of their travels. However, the reaction at first was mixed. Building the tower was not necessarily a universally popular idea at the time but if the town opted against receiving the financial gift and thus constructing the bell tower...then the money would instead go to distant surviving relatives.
Fast forward to present day and the Mahanay Memorial Bell Tower is a major part of the community's identity. Their annual community celebration is "The Bell Tower Festival" and with RAGBRAI rolling through town, their theme is "Highway to Bells".
On a recent Saturday, a couple of friends and I not only heard the tower's beautiful bells but also took the elevator to the top of the 168 feet and 2 inch structure to enjoy the breathtaking views. I would encourage you to read the "stats" about the tower as it is quite fascinating. There are 14 bells and at least fifty percent of the songs must be either patriotic or religious in nature.
As noted, the structure is on the on the southwest corner of the grounds of where the historic courthouse is located.
The outside of the tower has a sign that pays homage to the couple who made the structure happen.
During the summer months, the tower is open most every day and it has some weekend hours in the spring and fall. It would be best to check their website or Facebook page ahead of time to ensure it is open at the time you want to visit.
On the Saturday my friends and I visited, it opened at 10am and it was the first stop we made after having some coffee at Greene Bean Coffee.
For children, it's free to go to the top thanks to sponsorship by the local Hy-Vee. Otherwise, it was $3.00 per adult.
Once inside the base of the tower, you find a counter where a staff member will greet you. There is also souvenirs for sale and other information about the tower, the Mahanays, other Greene County hot spots.
There is a small elevator that will take you up to the observation deck.
Once you are up there, you find yourself in a small-ish room. The woman working that morning said they've had small weddings, engagements, small dinners, and other events up there. It can be rented by the hour, apparently.
There are beautiful views from just about any direction you look.
On the glass, they have put the names of other local towns you can see from various windows on days where it is clear enough.
Some of the buildings on the square have recently had art work put painted on their roof. The art work obviously cannot be seen from the ground but the observation deck of the bell tower offers some great views.
Back on the ground, there are some picnic tables where either visitors or community members can enjoy lunch or maybe a cup of coffee.
There's also a piano for those who are musically inclined and want to put on a show during the times that the bells in the tower are not playing.
Elsewhere on the grounds, there's a modern art installation as well as a statue of Abraham Lincoln. The courthouse is right along the historic Lincoln Highway, which is also the old Highway 30. The new Highway 30 is now on the north side of town.
The kind woman that took us to the top of the tower also opened the courthouse with her key and let us spend 5 minutes inside the century old county courthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Inside, it is just stunningly beautiful. There is a mosaic on the ground floor that is opposite of the the incredible rotunda. Looking up from the ground to the rotunda is a real treat.
When you are up in the bell tower, you can look down on the roof of the courthouse and see where the rotunda is.
There is other great art work in the courthouse, too.
There are other architectural elements that are a reminder that they don't build buildings like this anymore - at least not inexpensively.
There is a framed copy of the Gettysburg Address on the wall.
In the front vestibule, they have put in several elements that serve as a veterans' tribute.
I would sure love to have that beautiful mission oak bench.
There is a lot to see in and around Jefferson but I think you would be missing out if you don't get up to the top of the tower. I don't think there is anything else quite like this in rural Iowa. It's also a reminder that one couple's generous gift and investment in the city's future more than a 50 years ago is still paying dividends in the community today.
As always, I welcome your suggestions of places and to visit and profile whether in Greene County or any of the other 98 counties. If you have an idea or would like to host the Iowa Adventurer, please drop me a note through my website.