Pete Looney of Marion hasn’t lived in Cedar Rapids, but he’s worked there and played there plenty of times. And now he’s compiled a list of sites gone, some forgotten and others still around — all documented in his new book, “Lost Cedar Rapids.”
Part of the “Lost” series from The History Press, a division of Arcadia Publishing, the 192-page paperback volume chronicles the dance halls and ballrooms, theaters, bowling alleys, skating rinks, amusement parks, racetracks and sports teams; ethnic districts that gave Cedar Rapids its multicultural flavors; landmarks from train depots to the Sunshine Mission; and hotels, department stores and businesses that shaped the city.
He also touches on a few landmarks that remain, like May’s Island, the Masonic lodges and Shriners temples, and Brucemore mansion — all pieces of the past embraced in the present.
Now 65, Looney grew up south of Solon, immersed in history.
His mother, Maxine, who died in 2017, wrote about local history for the Solon Economist. “She also gave talks on fossils and other geological wonders,” Looney wrote in the first of his book’s acknowledgments. “I give her full credit for anything I write that might be interesting. For everything else, you can blame me.”
In the book’s preface, he talks about looking at old buildings during car rides with his parents and his five siblings; being fascinated by ghost towns; and driving his grandpa’s tractor to Sutliff, across the Cedar River bridge that today is open only to pedestrians and picnickers.
Likewise, his fascination with Cedar Rapids began in his youth, singing and playing guitar and a little bass in rock bands around Solon, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. While his interest in performing waned as he carved out a career in publishing and printing, his interest in the venues and their history cranked up in volume.
“I’m not one of the brilliant musicians — I’m adequate,” he said, noting that he still sometimes gets up onstage and jams.
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He eventually married and moved to Marion to work at the PennySaver, and turned his interest in the local rock scene into a side gig writing for The Gazette’s Hoopla entertainment section from 2008 to 2015, under former editor Carly Weber.
He began wondering about the showplaces of the past, jotting down dates and places, sometimes hearing conflicting reports about sites and their history.
“And so I started doing some research,” he said, discovering a treasure trove of information in the digital archives at the Cedar Rapids Public Library.
“I’m a wizard at going in there and going through the phone books, and reading old Gazettes,” he said. “I can find ads that verify what the phone books say, and so I know my information is accurate. And so then I tracked down the next place and the next place and the next place, and I had this really cool list of all the bars that have ever been in Cedar Rapids.
“And then, just so keep my bearings straight, I would track down other important businesses and landmarks and neighboring businesses, and all of a sudden, I’ve got thousands and thousands of businesses and the history of buildings tracked down in town. If I could, I’d go back in time to when it was bare ground — that was when I was really happy, when there was nothing there. I’m like, ‘I know everything that has been on that spot, but nobody else does. I’m the only guy.’
“I got ’em from all over town here and there’s holes in my lists and I’m sure there’s inaccuracies, but I don’t care, it’s a really good list. And so I started sharing it on a couple of local history pages.”
The History Press got wind of that and contacted him about compiling a book. He said yes — not to become a rich and famous writer, but to set the record straight, correcting the misinformation he was seeing online and in other writings.
It took about six or seven months to write, and another year and a half to track down the photos. The official release date was Aug. 24, and while he’s open to doing a book signing or reading locally, in this age of COVID-19, he’s not anxious to speak in an intimate, enclosed space like you find in so many bookstores.
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The initial run was 900 copies, available online at Arcadiapublishing.com, Amazon.com and other websites.
This might just be the first in a long list of “Losts” — lost restaurants, lost Marion, lost Linn County and lost Iowa City.
“If this works out well,” he said, “I could have a whole series.”
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At a glance
• What: “Lost Cedar Rapids”
• Author: Peter D. Looney of Marion
• Publisher: The History Press, Arcadia Publishing
• Details: Paperback, 192 pages
• To purchase: $21.99 at arcadiapublishing.com and other online booksellers