History of Des Moines: Funny facts and interesting tidbits

History of Des Moines Central Library

Today’s Central Library is a thing of great beauty. In 1938, the Des Moines public library director not only secured a place in the history of Des Moines, but also in the history of U.S. public libraries.

DealChicken loves rooting out the best daily deals in and around Des Moines, and along the way, he’s managed to unearth some things that might surprise you. How far back does the history of Des Moines go? What famous celebrity made a media raucous in 1982? Go ahead and test your knowledge against everyone’s favorite yellow-bellied bird to see how your local-history know-how stacks up.

The city of Des Moines got its name from a military fort that Capt. James Allen built at the crossing of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers. If he’d had his way, modern-day Des Moines might be called “Raccoon”—that’s what he wanted to name the fort. Unfortunately for him, the U.S. War Department insisted on “Fort Des Moines” instead. Maybe Fort Raccoon didn’t sound tough enough for the military.


No bones about it, there’s a whole other world just waiting to be discovered in Des Moines—literally. The history of Des Moines goes way back. In December 2010, construction of a new wastewater treatment facility led to the discovery of a prehistoric site that might be 7,000 years old, one of the oldest of its kind in the state. In addition to human remains, archaeologists uncovered evidence of tools, weapons, houses and even what might have been a prehistoric clam bake. Those prehistoric people knew how to party!


Ever feel like you’re walking on air? In Des Moines, that’s not surprising. The city’s skywalk system is one of the most extensive of its kind in the nation, with four miles of elevated pathways connecting buildings together. Not only does this let pedestrians cross the street without stopping traffic, but the American Heart Association's Start! Walking Path within the skywalk system also helps residents get in their recommended daily 21 minutes of activity.


In the 19th century, a progressive movement established settlement houses across the country to fill diverse needs within communities. The Roadside Settlement House in Des Moines was the first of its kind west of the Mississippi. It served at different times as a library, a kindergarten, a public bath house and much more. It also provided employment during the Great Depression. Women tended to be leaders in the movement, and it was no different in Des Moines, where the Roadside Settlement House was founded by a group of church women. You go, girls!


Wish you had more chances to stop and smell the flowers? Well, in Des Moines you do. Thanks to the city’s innovative neighborhood flower beautification program, nonprofit organizations and community groups can request flowers from the city to help spruce up public spaces. The program has earned Des Moines the National League of Cities’ James C. Howland Silver Award for Municipal Enrichment.


The Des Moines Public Library has always given residents access to literature, but it’s given libraries across the nation something, too. Forrest Spaulding was director of the Des Moines Public Library from 1927 to 1952, and he was an outspoken opponent of bigotry and censorship. In 1938, he penned the Library Bill of Rights to ensure diversity in library collections and combat censorship. A year later, the American Library Association adopted the Library Bill of Rights and still uses it today.


Thanks to native Iowan Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, Des Moines is the home of the World Food Prize headquarters. Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for creating a new variety of wheat that was resistant to disease and easily adaptable to a range of environments. It was his idea to create a prize dedicated to those who make significant contributions to the world’s food supply. The old Des Moines Public Library building serves as the location of the award’s Hall of Laureates.


No doubt about it, the women of Des Moines are army strong. In 1864, Des Moines women signed a petition pledging to work men’s jobs so that the men were free to fight in the Civil War. Later, during World War II, Des Moines became the site of the first Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) training center. The WAAC took Pallas Athene, the Greek goddess of victory and virtue, as its symbol. Talk about girl power!


Ozzy Osbourne’s infamous run-in with a certain flying mammal is the stuff of rock-and-roll legend, but did you know the event happened in Des Moines at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium? The animal was dead before Ozzy’s chomp, so that’s good news for anyone concerned about the poor critter. Ozzy, on the other hand, was rushed to a medical center after the show for rabies shots. How’s that for batty?


James C. Jordan was a Des Moines settler who helped the state—and the country, for that matter—keep chugging toward the future. Before the civil war, Jordan’s house was a designated post on the Underground Railroad. In fact, he was known as the operation’s “chief conductor” in Polk County. Later, Jordan helped bring a literal railroad to Iowa when he raised $70,000 to establish a railhead in West Des Moines. Today, his house is preserved as a museum by the Des Moines Historical Society.

Did you already know about the history of Des Moines? Find out more about state history in Iowa City.