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The day the gavel fell
By Craig Moorhead
, Government/Sports Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2014 3:58 PM
Today, Quandahl features just a few buildings, trailers, and sheds. Most of the old structures are long gone, but some of their foundations can still be seen.
Only a few homes and buildings remain in Quandahl, Iowa. However, it was a booming community in the early 1900s. Its claim to fame was a 1966 auction where the entire town was auctioned off for $15,330. CRAIG MOORHEAD/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
A crumbling foundation is all that is left of a building in Quandahl. CRAIG MOORHEAD/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
Mist rose from the surface of nearby Bear Creek, and the song of a whippoorwill echoed from far down the valley as evening descended on Quandahl, Iowa. But there were no voices laughing in the dusk. Other than a tiny scattering of structures and a trailer or two, the once-thriving town had all but disappeared.
It wasn't always like this.
Historians say that at one time, Quandahl had it's own bank, school, post office, creamery, mill, and more. There was a blacksmith shop, and places to buy hardware, dry goods, and groceries.
Reports vary somewhat on when the bank closed, with one source stating it happened in 1928, and others the early 30's. What is known for certain is that with the loss of such anchors, the town eventually withered away. A last-ditch effort to find buyers to revive Quandahl was made in 1966. That's the year the town was auctioned off.
Over 1000 people turned out for the event, which made the front page of the Des Moines Register. The newspaper reported that the six houses which remained “standing in a line on Main Street” were all up for grabs. It was Sunday, October 2, and fall colors were beginning to brighten the hillsides.
It was the biggest crowd that Quandahl had ever seen. When the last gavel fell, and private negotiations had found a buyer for one parcel which didn't meet the minimum bid, the town had brought a total of $15,330.
Eric Sollien of Brooklyn, New York has written a detailed account of the auction. His great-grandfather settled near Quandahl on arrival from Norway.
“Ladies of Waterloo Ridge Church served refreshments,” he notes. “Ozzie (Osmund) Quandahl, one of the great-grandsons of village founder Nels Jacobsen Quandahl played the part of auctioneer, with three others, to sell off six houses and various structures that remained.
Ozzie was quoted in the papers: “We hated to see the places empty, and every owner wanted to sell, so we decided on this unique way of doing it,” he said. “We think persons interested in having a weekend place for fishing and hunting may want to buy these places.
The sale was covered in the Austin Daily Herald, the Waterloo Daily Courier, the Winona Daily News, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the Chicago Tribune... But it wasn't the first time that tiny Quandahl had been the focus of media attention.
Back in 1946, a La Crosse Tribune headline reported: “Industry puts Iowa Village Back on Feet.” Theodore Franklin of Brooklyn, New York, had moved his “lens factory” (Mansfield Industries) from that bustling city to Quandahl. That happened after he met, and eventually married, Miss Norma Quandahl in Chicago the previous year.
“The development of the industry will be watched with interest.” the story adds. “Quandahl is located in what the late Dr. Samuel Calvin, then state geologist, named the 'Switzerland of Iowa.' It is accessible only by cars or horse-drawn vehicles.”
“It is hoped the business will bring the town back to life,” the Decorah Journal noted.
The Tribune column also used the term “ghost town” to describe Quandahl. By the time a slew of other newspapers reporting on the camera-related business referred to the town with the same two words, residents may have grown somewhat tired of the notoriety.
The jobs appeared, but they didn't stay for long. In 1948 manufacturing of camera parts was moved to Spring Grove, although some assembly continued to be done in the old Quandahl store — at least for a while. At its peak, the business supported 15 workers.
The so-called “wilderness factory” had to utilize a generator, Eric Sollien told the Herald last week, since rural electrification came late to the valley. That couldn't have helped.
“I'm really into the history of the area,” Eric said. “Both sides of my family have roots there. The ancestral Sollien farm is just a mile or two north of Quandahl.
Sollien noted that at one time, people who lived in the valley needed to be able to locate most of life's necessities within a walk or a short horse ride. That kept small towns going all over the area.
“I think that a lot of people who are younger see the area now as being without a history,” he added. “The older folk talk about it but a lot of it's been erased as farms have been gobbled up to create larger operations. People don't realize the density that used to occur in the countryside, where you'd have several families living on each section. Now it's nothing like that.
Like nearby Spring Grove, Quandahl had a strong ethnic identity. At the time of the auction, Mrs. Knute Quandahl of Waukon told the Chicago Tribune that she had lived in Quandahl half a century earlier, teaching first through eighth grades in a one-room school.
“I was sick when they sold it that day and saw how the buildings had run down,” she said. “All the roads led to Quandahl years ago. It was a little bit of Norway.”
Eric's blog can be found at http://norwegianridge.com/2012/07/05/1966-ghost-town-of-quandahl-auctioned-for-15330/. For an even more detailed look at the history of the town, check out “Quondam Quandahl,” by Ruth Quandahl Vick, c1987, at the Spring Grove Public Library.
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