CEDAR RAPIDS — If you’ve never encountered a stopped train in downtown Cedar Rapids, you might consider yourself lucky.
Cedar Rapids-native Mark Stoffer Hunter, however, attributes the infamous train to helping him find his lifelong career.
The 51-year-old research historian — also known as “Mr. History” or the city’s “walking archive” — at The History Center in Cedar Rapids remembers being trapped in a car at the center of town as a train crawled by. He was 12 at the time, in December 1977, watching from the window as the Taft Hotel on Second Avenue was torn down.
He remembers thinking “what a shame” — it seemed like a nice building, he couldn’t understand why it should be torn down.
It wasn’t the first or last historic building to see a wrecking ball, either. At the time, old buildings all over the city were being replaced with new, modern ones, he said.
“History was being lost,” he said. “I felt it should at least be recorded or remembered somehow.”
With a Kodak pocket camera, Stoffer Hunter began documenting the city’s historic buildings before they were demolished. Now, after almost 35 years, he believes he may be the only person with photographs of some of the city’s lost treasures.
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Stoffer Hunter began to earn a reputation as the guy who always showed up at demolitions. At 19-years-old, he started attending Linn County Historical Society meetings and became increasingly active in historical preservation. In 1991, he enrolled at University of Iowa in the art history program and began leading history tours.
He was hired by The History Center in 2000, graduating with a bachelor’s degree a year later. It was his “dream come true,” he said, to be paid to do what he loved.
He also used to write regular history-related columns in The Gazette, co-authored three books on Cedar Rapids history, contributed to a dozen other books as an historian, consultant and proofreader and has many more books in the works, including a “definitive Cedar Rapids history” textbook for use in local schools.
He continues to lead walking tours, a popular History Center program in which attendees stroll with Hunter around the city while he recounts stories of the past by memory — he hasn’t needed notes for the past 25 years, he said.
The History Center recently started another program, called “Bite of History,” in which Hunter feeds groups history presentations over a meal. The program was announced earlier this year and already has sold out.
Stoffer Hunter, who also is board member of Save CR Heritage — a not-for-profit that works to preserve historic buildings in Cedar Rapids — said he’s proud to see preservation in the city improve. In the past decade, the city has become more “wise and careful in choosing what to tear down,” he said.
He believes it has a lot to do with himself and others working hard to be the voice for historic buildings. But people also are beginning to realize that historic preservation aids economic development, he added.
“People love the vibe that comes from unique history,” he said. “If all the historic buildings were torn down, what would motivate you to come here? It would be like anywhere, USA.”
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Although Stoffer Hunter doesn’t envision retirement any time soon, he will be relocating from his beloved hometown to the Quad Cities this summer as his wife, Jan, transitions from her former role as the director of education at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library to her new position as the director of operations and administration at the Butterworth Center historic home in Moline, Ill.
Stoffer Hunter will commute to Cedar Rapids to continue working with The History Center, especially as it moves into its new home in the Douglas Mansion on Second Avenue SE, he said.
Meet Mr. History
Put on your walking shoes and listening ears. Research historian Mark Stoffer Hunter leads group tours around the city and recites stories of the city’s past from memory. Find the schedule here.
When: 6 p.m., every Tuesday
Where: Various meetup locations around the city
Cost: $7 for general public, $5 for members for individual tours, or “History Hopper” punch card from The History Center worth 10 tours for $60 for non-members, $45 for members.
Bite of History
Mark Stoffer Hunter serves up historical stories while guests sample delicious food at local eateries. The event already is sold out this spring, but keep an eye out for future events here.
When: 6 p.m., Thursdays
Where: Various local restaurants
Cost: $15 for general public, $12 for History Center members, includes complimentary beverage and appetizer. Advanced ticket purchase is strongly encouraged as seating is limited to 30 patrons per event.