The uncertain future of Lone Tree history

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The Lone Tree Historical Museum is simultaneously hard to find and impossible to mistake. Nestled between Elm Street and Wapsi Avenue, it is a modest, antique country home, bordered by bushes and with a red, white, and blue flag billowing before the white exterior.

Stepping inside, however, is like visiting another time.

I was given a tour by Dale Johnson, a director for the Lone Tree Historical Society that provides upkeep for the museum. He led me across the main floor, then upstairs and downstairs, across the decades that make up the legend that is Lone Tree.

Johnson grew up on a farm eight miles north of the city, and many of his school years took place there.

“I’ve always considered Lone Tree my hometown, although I’ve always had an Iowa City address,” he said. After being drafted in 1956, Johnson spent two years in the army before returning to Iowa. He worked at the Lone Tree post office until 1990.

Johnson’s tour took me across the decades. Different rooms within the museum contain different artifacts of past lives. There were scouting and football uniforms, nightgowns and wedding gowns, suits and hats and more, all donated by the people of Lone Tree. Many of the articles of clothing had outlived their owners.

I saw antique phones, and record players — even an organ donated from a church. Johnson told me a story about how a few women had visited the museum, and one told him she had played that exact same organ decades beforehand.

In one room, there was a collection of arrowheads found near the city; in another, the equipment of Lone Tree’s veterinarian, whose family owned the house before selling it to the historical society.

Another exhibit, in what was previously the veterinarian’s office, housed a sprawling wooden model of what early Lone Tree looked like, complete with miniature replicas of animals and vehicles.

The most fascinating parts of the tour were the flipbooks: Massive posters lined up like the pages of a book, each one plastered with photographs and documents ranging back to the 1800s. There were pages dedicated to the steelworks of the city, to the lone tree itself, and, in some of the photos, Johnson pointed out, nonchalantly, himself.

There he was, dancing with his wife on their wedding day. There he was, in a multitude of class pictures. It was humbling to see the boy or young man in those photos and think of him as the man beside me.

The Lone Tree Historical Society was founded in the 1990s by a friend of Johnson’s, Mary Lou Rife. Her sister helps run the society now, alongside Johnson.

“There’s really only two of us left running it, and by the end of the year, we’ll both be 87,” he said.

“When I retired, I didn’t want to get a job that involved me being there every day. If I wanted to do that, I’d have stayed where I was at!” he said.

Johnson said that the city council and other members of the Lone Tree community have done little to help with the upkeep of the museum. Mini-grants from the nearby Riverside Casino have helped with repairing the structure, “but other than that, we get no tax relief, no help with anybody, except for the renter upstairs,” he added.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to [the museum], unless somebody takes over.”

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