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Wadena History

The town of Wadena was established in 1857, and incorporated in 1895. Prior to that, an Indian trading post was located near the site of the town, known as the Culver Post. Stones from the foundation of this trading post are still visible. The town was laid out by Horace and Elizabeth Countryman and David and Elizabeth Herriman. Major Herriman had selected the name of Wadena in honor of an Indian chief who was a close friend of his during his career as Indian agent for the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. Major Herriman had acquired a large amount of land, and in 1860 built a mansion for his wife and family. 


In 1883 the Herriman's son Jesse created an insurance company based in Des Moines known as Iowa Mutual Tornado Insurance, which has been recently renamed and is now known as Wadena Insurance. The Wadena post office opened in 1863, and the railroad came to Wadena in 1877, via Volga City, with the turnstile for the locomotive located on the west edge of town. The original two story brick schoolhouse in Wadena was built in 1898 with the addition completed in 1909, and the gymnasium in 1949. The school served grades 1-12 until 1958 when it consolidated with the school districts of Clermont and Elgin.

With the arrival of the railroad, the town of Wadena began to prosper. With agricultural ties to the area, the town served the needs of travelers and local farmers. Some early businesses in town were saloons, a boarding house, barrel shop, implement store, livery stable, sawmill, gristmill, barber shop, dry goods store, a locker and grocery store, a sorghum mill, a bank, a doctor's office, and even an opera house and bowling alley! Many of these early buildings are still in use. Historical photos and archives of the early days of Wadena are today housed in the Public Library.


Wadena gained national attention in 1970 when it hosted the rock festival, "Galena in Wadena" . An influx of over 30,000 visitors arrived to attend the concert, which was held over a 2 day period.


Today the town of Wadena, population 243, still thrives, nestled in one of Iowa's most beautiful valleys, along the meandering Volga River.

Memories of Wadena.
If you have a memory to share, please email it to

Karen (Corbin) French - Class of 1962 

Our family has a long history with Wadena and the school. I am sure most of the people in town can go back to at least 4-5 generations. My grandfather (Jess Corbin) helped put up the Cross on the hill with his 2 work horses. My aunts (Faye & Louise), Uncle Lyle and father, Clair all went to school in Wadena. As did my sisters (Diane & Colleen) and brothers (Dick, Ronnie, David & Dennis). And our children also went to the Wadena School. 


Francile (Moore) Cummings - Class of 1952 

My favorite 8th grade teacher was Miss Flanagan. She was the best! I used to visit her living in Wadena after my first daughter, Lynne was born. I was transplanted to St. Paul, MN for college years at Macalester College - there was when I met my dear husband of 61 years. Another wonderful teacher was Mrs. Zbornik who was our Home Ec Teacher, teaching us to cook and sew. Our band director, Leo Grether had so much patience with our little band, and we marched proudly in our purple and white band uniforms on Memorial Day parades. Our Community Club helped us raise money for those beautiful uniforms and also the Community Club Hall that was built for basketball games, dances and plays. Marge and LeAllen Knox were so supportive of our Town of Wadena! Marge gave me piano lessons and she could play a mean jazz on that piano! I think she also got our Library started. 


How many of our Class of 1952 are still alive, I wonder? We were a Class of 12 - 6 boys and 6 gals. Bob Ainsworth, Gary Jellings, Paul Oldfather, Eddie Gage, Jack Lane, Carl Cousins were the boys. JoAnn Davis, Mary Fennell, Katherine Winter, Corrine Kuhens, Rosaltha Humphrey and I were the girls. 


Susan (Jones) Yarrington- Class of 1968

I attended Wadena grade school until the 6th grade, when our class was moved to Elgin. Grades K-5, (1955-1960), that I spent in Wadena, have remained fondly in my memory. Some things I remember are: 


My teachers - Mrs. Westbrook, Mrs. McElree (loved her hair but I feared her), Miss Flanagan, Mrs. Oelberg, and Mr. Ott, the Principal. Thad Walters was the custodian and he lived across the street. The lunchroom, standing in line and filling our milk cups from a big dispenser. We sat at tables that resembled picnic tables and there was a framework under the tables where Randy Alderson would hide his sandwich if he didn’t like it. The hallway where the girls’ bathroom was located, the wall did not go all the way to the ceiling. What was that all about? That is where the boys did chin-ups. 


Falling asleep at my desk in 1st grade. I must have slept the afternoon away because I woke up in a puddle of drool, my teacher had put a pack of gum on my desk so when I woke up, I found it. 


Doing arithmetic problems on the blackboard in front of the class in 3rd grade. Arithmetic was not my strong suit and doing problems on the board in front of the class only illustrated that fact. 


The 4th and 5th grades were in the same room with Mrs. Oelberg alternating from one side of the room to the other to teach. We 4th graders learned twice as much that way. Mrs. Oelberg took us to her home one evening for a sledding party. We had chili and chocolate cake. I do not remember the logistics, of how we all got there or even where she lived, but I do remember it was the best party ever! 


Watching classes on television in the big room at the head of the stairway. There was an Iowa history class with an artist that would tell a story and draw a picture as he was telling it and then at the end he would turn the picture upside down and it would be something entirely different! That was my favorite class for obvious reasons. 


Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance while facing the flag every morning and then singing “My County Tis of Thee”. I remember the beautiful portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln that hung in the classroom. George looked like a nice man and my grandfather was named George Washington Jones so I always felt like we had a bond. 


Drawing posters to commemorate Memorial Day. It was a big deal and the posters would be on display in town. There was a prize for the best poster which I never won but I think Cynthia did and it really helped us to learn about Memorial Day and appreciate its meaning. I still remember the phrase, “In Flanders Field where Poppies Grow”. 


Our Valentine boxes that we designed and labored over. Much thought and effort went into them along with the anticipation of that one special Valentine. 


Playing outside for recess no matter what the weather. Girls wore dresses no matter what the weather was as snow boots and snow pants were not invented yet. Our knees would be purple from the cold. We like to hunker down in the window wells to get out of the wind where the sun would warm us. Some of the best-laid plans were made in those window wells. The playground had teeter-totters where I split my chin open and a merry-go-round that the older boys could get going so fast I thought the thing would fly into orbit. There was also a fun piece of equipment where we hung onto little bars at the end of a chain suspended from a pole. We would run it around until it got spinning fast enough that our feet would leave the ground and we would just be hanging on for dear life screaming with our bodies horizontal and our shoes would fly off. That taught us about centrifugal force. It was terrifying and wonderful. The swings were the best though and the boys would compete to see who dared swing the highest and then jump out of the seat and go flying through the air. 


There was a small building on the playground where we played "Ante Over" and we played "Red Rover" sometimes and also we jumped rope. I like playing softball. We played "Workup" over the course of several recesses. I could stand out in left field and make dandelion chains and get a suntan and rarely was I ever required to make contact with the ball. We also played marbles out on the cement and traded marbles around among our friends. A big marble "shooter" was a source of envy. One time a man brought a trained bear to the gym. We got to see it perform tricks. 


I wrote ZORRO in chalk on the bricks of the school building. It was one of those ideas cooked up in the aforementioned window well with Dorothy Murphy. We thought it was a good idea at the time, but the school administration did not so much. No more recess for us for the rest of the year. 


Once I found 75 cents on the playground. I felt like I had won the lottery! But I took it to the office and turned it in and I was told if by the end of the year nobody had asked for it I could have it back. On the last day of school, I went to claim my booty but no one remembered it. Life lesson learned - get that kind of stuff in writing. 


Our Wadena School was a nurturing environment. We students helped each other. Our teachers made sure we had a solid educational foundation and our parents worked hard to provide a nice school for us to attend. For this I am grateful. 


Lillian (Livingston) MacTaggart- Class of 1949 

(The following is written by Lillian's daughter, Teresa Goedken. Lillian (Livingston) MacTaggart passed away on December 19, 2016.)

Mom attended the school in Wadena from 1st grade till she graduated in 1949. I do not think there was a kindergarten at that time. Mom spoke so fondly of her teachers, her classmates, and friends and always felt a strong tie to her hometown of Wadena. She looked forward to the reunions, I think she made it to most of them. If anyone from her class comes to the reunion, ask if they remember when the boys put a dead mouse in the teacher's desk drawer ... or the time the boys unwound the piano stool seat so low that when the music teacher (Mrs. Corkery?) plopped down at the piano, she ended up sprawled all over the floor. She demanded to know, "Who did this?" Every boy stood up, one after another, and confessed, "I did it!" How about the time the boys put tacks on the teacher's chair seat. But when she sat on the chair nothing happened. The teacher was wearing a corset so thick she could not feel a thing. 


It seems to me that mom told me that Wadena never had school the morning after Halloween because it took that long to move the haw wagons and "stuff' that had been hauled over, dragged in, and piled up in front of the school doors the night before. There was an initiation into high school, if I recall, and each one in the class had to dress a certain way (my mom had to make her outfit and wear a devil costume all week). One boy had to dress as a woman and there were giggles when one of his 2 oranges fell out of his top & rolled across the floor. At the end of the week, the class was taken barefoot and blindfolded to what they thought was a dangerous place and instructed to do all sorts of difficult/scary things while barefoot and blindfolded, like crawl under a barbwire fence. There really was no fence, but the class did not know that. Does anyone remember their Senior Prom snowstorm that caused all the guys and girls to spend the night at the Livingston's (Mom's home) because no one could get back home in the snow? I think my grandma had all 5 guys sleep on the living room floor and all 5 girls slept upstairs. I probably do not have all the facts exactly correct. 

Memories of Wadena.
If you have a memory to share, please email it to

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