Cornell College graduate finishes project to photograph every town in Iowa

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Cornell College graduate Brian McMillin may just be the first person to visit and photograph every city in Iowa. All 974 of them.

McMillin, 26, of Ankeny, finished up his quest on Saturday in Onslow. He celebrated the culmination of the project by offering a free lunch to everyone in the community.

A digital researcher for a Des Moines firm, McMillin enjoys traveling. His original goal two and a half years ago was to visit at least one city in all of Iowa’s 99 counties. He started photographing cities in Wayne County and got carried away.

“That day I photographed 17 cities, and realized that I wanted to visit every city in the state. At that point it was important to define what a city was.”

In the end, McMillin settled on cities with post offices (875 of them) plus a few dozen unincorporated communities that also have post offices. That brought the total up to 974 cities, which differs from the Iowa League of Cities count (947).

A computer science and math major in college, McMillin is organized by nature. He put the whole project on a spreadsheet, keeping track of everything from distances between cities, to who was in the car with him, and how many cities that person has seen to date. He took pictures of interesting buildings in each town, like courthouses, post offices, old opera houses and newly finished community centers.

“When I look back at it, it’s hard to believe that I’ve been to all these towns,” he said.

By August 10, 2010, McMillin had thousands of photos of Iowa. He wanted a way to share the experience, so he began posting a new photo on his website, http://iowabackroads.com, each weekday. Historical information is included with the photo to add some context about the building or the community.

McMillin and the people who follow the website get a real kick out of seeing small- town Iowa as it is now.

“It’s a snapshot in time. It’s what small-town Iowa looks like in roughly 2010. And small-town Iowa has changed a lot. This website is a way to document those changes,” McMillin said. “Ten to 20 years from now, some of these towns may not even exist.”

The entire project was paid for out of pocket by McMillin. He enjoys relating stories about small-town Iowa.

“There’s so much character in all these towns. Maybe it’s not the fanciest building, but maybe it’s the story about how a town was founded or how an entire town came together to save their school from closing or built a community center together. That’s what I like about this state,” McMillin said.

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