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History Happenings: Coggon mainstreet one of a kind

Linn County city designates historic business district

The two-story Coggon Opera House was built in 1915. It hosted dramatic performances, community events, basketball games and movies. It is now a 250-seat theater that hosts performances. (Joe Coffey/The History Center)
The two-story Coggon Opera House was built in 1915. It hosted dramatic performances, community events, basketball games and movies. It is now a 250-seat theater that hosts performances. (Joe Coffey/The History Center)
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Coggon was growing like crazy 125 years ago.

The northern Linn County city was platted in December 1887 as the railroad came to town. Just a few dozen people lived there at the time. Early records from the period describe a mill, a blacksmith, a wagon shop, a church and a schoolhouse. Only a few buildings were on Main Street.

Within a year, daily passenger, freight and stock trains were running in and out of Coggon like clockwork. New avenues brought new commercial enterprises and financial success.

The railroad was promoted under the Cedar Rapids & Chicago Railroad banner but technically sponsored by the Illinois Central system. With Chicago to the east and Union Pacific rails to the west, Minneapolis to the north and St. Louis due south — all accessible via stops in Manchester and Cedar Rapids — railroads would checkerboard the state by the end of the century.

According to an 1893 article in the Coggon Monitor, one of two local newspapers at the time, Coggon’s population had grown to 700. By then, it had five general stores, two hardware stores, two state banks, two groceries, three farm implement dealers, two lumberyards, two brickyards, two meat shops, two hotels, two hat shops, three wagon shops, three blacksmiths, three churches, five fraternal orders, a drugstore, a shoe store, a cigar factory, two livery barns, two jewelers, a furniture store, two restaurants, a barbershop, a creamery, a feed mill, two doctors, two building contractors, two stone masons and an undertaker.

Big Little Town

Despite the excitement around the development of Main Street in Coggon, the small city’s business district was never expected to rival that of Cedar Rapids or Marion. Coggon had its own residents but also served as a hub for people who lived on nearby farms, something that continues today.

“This is the only home (for me),” Delores Pillard McAtee, 77, says. “But I’ve never lived in Coggon. ... I’ve only lived on farms in the area.”

McAtee and Coggon newcomer Marilyn Millard, 66, are active with the Coggon Community Historical Society. They catalog historical artifacts and help people learn about the city’s history. Millard jokes that her “newcomer” title is something she’ll never shake, despite having lived in Coggon for 41 years.

“There’s a personality to a small town, including Coggon,” Millard says. “It’s the salt of the earth, the values that you want your family and your kids to grow up with and in, and they’re here. ... I have my family but I also have my community family here.”

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Passenger rail service declined and then eventually stopped in the early 1940s as cars and better roads changed the way people and most freight moved across the state and the country.

Two blocks of the city’s Main Street recently were designated as the Coggon Commercial Historic District, and an application has been filed to have the area listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The designation could help the city and building owners get access to grants and matching funds for a range of restoration and community improvement funding.

Easy to Miss

About 650 people live in Coggon today.

The city is 17 miles north of Cedar Rapids, but it’s not unusual to run into a Cedar Rapidian who has no idea where Coggon is. Folks in Coggon have always enjoyed sharing stories about the confusion their city seems to cause everyone else.

The city itself is just over half a square mile. Buffalo Creek wraps itself around the west, north and east sides of the town.

Ironically, before it became farmland, the open prairieland beyond the Buffalo Creek timber belt was once thought to be unfarmable since trees didn’t grow on it. Early pioneers from east of the Mississippi settled some of the timberland near present day Coggon while the nearby prairies tended to attract European farmers who weren’t deterred by the lack of trees.

What’s In a Name?

The area had a few different names before 1887, including Jackson Township, Manhattan, Green’s Mills and Nugent’s Grove. Coggon became the name that stuck after it was discovered a new post office wouldn’t be granted since Iowa already had a Nugent. Coggon was suggested by the railroad superintendent who had recently received a letter from his cousin, William Coggon, of England. It is believed no other cities in the world are named Coggon.

Joe Coffey is a freelance writer and and content marketer in Cedar Rapids.

Comments: coffeygrande@gmail.com

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