A 28-year-old’s journey to all 947 towns in the Hawkeye State

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Ask Cody Weber why he feels so motivated to spend his savings, sleep in his car, and outrun stray dogs all in the name of exploring Iowa and he’ll say, “I am looking to broaden my connection to history.”

In an honest effort to make that connection, Cody, a commercial photographer in Fairfield, Iowa, began investigating his family ancestry. After doing a little digging, he found that wanderlust is hereditary. Cody began reading about his great-great-great-grandfather, a the fearless explorer who discovered a canyon range in Utah called Weber Canyon.

“Once I learned about him, I quickly became obsessed with looking deeper into my lineage. I followed my curiosity to Croton, Iowa, a town where there was a church my great-grandfather had built. I wanted to go touch those boards and feel linked to him. The experience was incredible. When it sunk in how I never knew about the small town, never mind that it existed a mere 40 miles from my hometown, I felt disconnected. I began walking around town wondering what else I had missed and that’s when inspiration hit.”

After returning home later that day, Cody slapped at state map of Iowa on his fridge and promised right then that Croton wasn’t going to be his last adventure in Iowa. So, he began small. He gassed up his 2006 Ford Taurus and visited all the surrounding towns within 50 miles, then he pushed 100 miles out. Hungry for more of a challenge, and to make his great-great-great-grandfather proud, he pushed farther out, committing to photograph and visit all 99 counties and all 947 towns in Iowa with hopes of capturing the soul and story of every one. He calls it Forgotten Iowa.

forgotten iowa blog
Photo by Cody Weber

Two years later, Cody is still out there, running down no-name roads, ignoring no- trespassing signs, and opening the door for others to follow along, or better yet, set out on their own adventures.

Don’t worry, he isn’t out there exploring alone. Cody’s girlfriend, Kat Kanan, navigates, drives, and serves as his logistics coordinator measuring hours and miles and budgeting lodging and meals. She also hunts for incorporated and unincorporated towns to visit in the area she and Cody are headed. While she does all that, Cody hits the books and social media to research as possible on the chosen town. Cody is also the photographer for the entire project.

cody weber and kat kanan
Cody Weber and Kat Kanan

“It’s simple. When there is enough money we walk over to the fridge map, I shut my eyes, and point. Wherever my finger lands is where Kat and I go. It doesn’t matter how far because away either because, well, we’ll make it there eventually. So far, we’ve photographed, explored, and enjoyed 440 towns! I think we’ll be done in four years.”

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Cody’s Fridge Map + 2006 Ford Taurus

If you’re reading this thinking all Iowa has to offer is cornfields and flat roads, stop it right now. Cody’s photos show off the tree-littered hills and deep ridges to the north, while the south shows off its prettiest prairies. Cody says the further east you go, the more history you’ll learn and the more older buildings you’ll find. Some pushing 200 years old!

forgotten iowa blog
Photo by Cody Weber

“Iowa landscapes are dotted and peppered with character. I’m trying to give a fuller picture and increase awareness about the Midwest and its towns. What I want to accomplish with this project is a sort of time travel that allows people to reflect on the size and soul of the state and the history it holds.”

Cody has clearly covered a lot of ground in two years, but one common thing that speaks to him through his lens is the story of the buildings he’s photographing.

Forgotten iowa blog
Photo by Cody Weber
iowa tourism
Photo by Cody Weber

“What completely breaks my heart with ghost towns is I can stand there and imagine what it once was. When I walk past an old building, I can see a busy restaurant with patrons reading the paper, and wives sitting in booths gossiping. When I stand in an abandoned park, I see a bench where someone had their first kiss. It’s an unfailing, reflective moment each time.”

Cody feels Forgotten Iowa will help the survival of all these small towns, establishing a web presence for them and attracting potential buyers and other explorers.

forgotten iowa blog
Photo by Cody Weber

“By capturing these photos and sharing the stories of the towns, I hope to ignite some curiosity in future tourists to come visit. One man from Iceland, in fact, contacted me about a photo I took and asked where it was. He actually got on a plane because he wanted to see it for himself! That’s the moment I knew that this entire process isn’t for nothing.”

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What Cheer, Iowa – Photo by Cody Weber

What’s been incredible to witness is the unwavering determination of some townies to stick around.

“There was this one town we came across called Quandahl. It’s not a town anymore. Only about 10 people remain – they’re the few who banded together when the town fell apart. The stubbornness they have about not leaving is the same way I would feel if you told me my hometown town was shutting down. You’d have to bury me there. I love their steadfast spirit. ”

The townspeople Cody and Kat have met along the way have been incredibly talkative and open. It’s no surprise to them though because Iowans are remarkably extroverted.

forgotten iowa blog
Photo by Cody Weber

“If I’m taking a photo of a building, people walk up and give me tour of it and tell me stories. These unpredicted interactions help me write my corresponding blogs and speak to my point all the more that unless you really spend time with the natives, you’ll never know what you’re missing. That’s why Kat and I have established a Go Fund Me page.

“It’s difficult for us to drop $180 a night on a hotel room, food, and gas out on the road. We’ve tried sleeping in the trusty Taurus to no avail. Wanting to linger for a few days and to explore properly in a more paramount way, we’ve reached the point where no county can be tackled without considerable financial investment. Having invested about $20,000 in this project already, we hope to raise $5,000 to purchase a barebones RV. It would make for the best Christmas present.”

Traveling across Iowa, meeting the locals, and hearing the history has been a soul-filling experience for Cody and given him more pride about his home state.

“I no longer feel like a spectator to a town, and that’s what Forgotten Iowa has done for me. The entire journey has been an individual effort with a collective result. I want to encourage people, no matter where they live, to have their own Forgotten Iowa adventure. Go wander and explore their surroundings, hop in their cars, detour off the interstate,and go wrap their arms around the unknown. Just don’t forget your camera!”

Help Cody and Kat with their mission HERE

Follow them on instagram: @forgotteniowa

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14 Comments

14 thoughts on “Forgotten Iowa: Rediscovering History Through the Lens”

  1. Sandra Seymour

    My husband grew up in Iowa in a small town of Adel. His father moved to Minburn. If you north out of Minburn toward the highway to Perry, there is a old Brick school house that is right by he road that I always thought it would be cool to photograph. It has bushes and trees growing thru it. Just a cool place. Got to see it!
    Thanks
    Sandy

  2. Shelly Barton

    Beautiful photos and great stories. Born and raised in Davenport. Moved a couple of times out of Iowa, but always came back. This is home. Xoxo

  3. Cynthia Griebel

    This is such a great idea. Love Iowa.. Lived in Minnesota during my growing up years. Our family would drive just over the boarder in Iowa n buy margarine. On the way home we would knead the bag n mix it up, then release the red button in the middle to release the red dye n mix that with the margarine. By the time we got back to Rochester, we had completed our job n the margarine was ready to use. Always a good family day.

  4. Florence Kelley Roessler

    My father Ralph Waldo Kelly was born in Ames, Iowa – My twin sister and I were born in Burlington Iowa. There is something magical about reading the story of Forgotten Iowa. I think now that I have been missing something – my family left Iowa for California due to the depression 1938 when I was eleven years old and I have never been back! An old lady now but I know that my genealogy includes people whose bones are still there. So glad that someone is writing about Iowa, the old days,

  5. Sandy Piccone

    To me, “Reflective” is the most significant word Cody and Kat used. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just sat, watched and listened at places most people speed past or disregard entirely. Been doing it since I was a kid, in the US and overseas. The past does speak to some of us. Keep doing what you do. It’s needed, and fun.

  6. Pingback: Documenting Rural Iowa – The Tromp Queen

  7. Mickey Torex

    My wife and I watch American Pickers all of the time. Just last night, we were watching when Mike Wolf remarked that his grandfather was killed in WWII aboard the USS Evans D552 off Okinawa. My father was a Chief Machinists Mate on the Evans and spoke of the very battle he was talking about. Very small world if you think about it. Those were America’s greatest. To Mike Wolf and his family, sorry for your loss, and I thank you for your grandfather’s sacrifice and service.

    Mickey Rorex
    CSO
    Cass County CSCD
    Linden, Texas 75563

  8. Donna TH

    What a lovely project! I find myself getting more and more interested in history. Blame my mother and my dad’s sister. We went on lots of drives to forgotten places as I was growing up. And in the odd quirks of life, my husband grew up in Fairfield, and I down the road in Van Buren County. Even though we’ve lived in Wisconsin over 30 years we still frequently visit southeastern Iowa. I might even be able to tell them of more “spots” that they haven’t found – places tied to my ancestry. Winchester. Kilbourne. Stringtown. Pansy Hill.
    Keep up the quest! It is indeed all fascinating.

  9. T. Graves

    Love Iowa!
    Worked there installing telephone equipment in 1969. People were very friendly to strangers. Used Google Earth to visit a few of the towns where i worked and see what they look like now.
    Hard to see the vacant store fronts and buildings in Griswold, Stanhope, Orient and a few other places.

  10. Kathy Kupet

    My Grandparents lived in Fairfield and all my extended family in that region…Richland, Keota. We transplanted to Texas in 1968. Don’t get “home” often, but love the state. One of the last times there we stopped at our Grandparents old home in Fairfield. The home owners were kind enough to let my mother go thru the house . Many special memories there!

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