Iola to unveil historical marker on Depot Street
By Greg Loescher
The seventh in an ongoing series of Historic Iola markers will be unveiled by the Iola Historical Society at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 19.
The new marker will commemorate Spud Alley on Depot Street.
The unveiling ceremony will include members of the Wright family, whose ancestors were part of the Spud Alley era, running one of the potato warehouse operations.
The first Historic Iola marker was placed at the chalet entrance at the Iola Winter Sports complex on Feb. 1, 2010, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of ski jumping in Iola.
Subsequent markers have been placed recalling the 1999 Father’s Day Fire, the birthplace of Numismatic News, the birthplace of the Iola Old Car Show, Iola’s Early History, and Iola’s Dr. Loope, a central member of the University of Wisconsin’s first football team.
The Spud Alley marker will eventually be installed either on a pole or on one of the buildings on Depot Street.
Only two of the original potato warehouses remain. One is at 165 Depot Street, now occupied by Grayhill, a manufacturer providing precision molded plastic components to global human interface assembly operations.
Originally built in the 1890s as a dairy processing building to serve the Iola Creamery Association, it passed to Simon M. Myhre in the 1910s, who converted it into a potato warehouse.
It was subsequently similarly occupied by the RB Wright Company until 1958, when it was acquired by Adam Horle, who fitted it out to serve as an IGA grocery store until sold to Grayhill in 1980.
Commercial activity on Depot Street, from the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th century, was dominated by the potato.
Potato warehouses lined the street and the Green Bay & Western Railroad (Iola & Northern) right-of-way from North Main Street past Summit Street to the west. The street became popularly known and referenced in print as “Spud Alley” for much of that time.
Potatoes were one of the drivers of the local economy. Handling them provided jobs for the citizens of Iola.
For those plying the dairy farming trade in the countryside, their cash crop were the potatoes destined to the markets of Midwestern cities.
For much of that time at least eight to 10 warehouses located along the corridor were generally devoted to potato storage, grading and packing of the annual crops. During peak years, the basements of homes were sometimes even pressed into service for late fall and winter storage.
Peak months during the harvesting season in the early years found more than 100 freight cars being loaded and shipped out; during good years, freight car loadings for the season number in excess of 400, with the typical car holding 1,000 bushels.
A report published in the Oct. 4, 1900, edition of the Iola Herald indicated that in the year that ended on June 30, 259 cars of potatoes had been shipped to Chicago, along with 65 to other points, the freight weight of those 324 cars being 10,450,150 pounds.
The Iola grown potato crop came to be preferred by consumers throughout the Midwest, typically commanding a three- to five-cent premium per hundredweight, at a time when potatoes by the bushel typically sold in the 30- to 40-cent range per bushel.
The potato growing and shipping business became increasingly important and large in Iola until the late 1920s, with annual volumes dropping off dramatically in the early 1930s.
By 1935, the Green Bay & Western Railroad was petitioning the Interstate Commerce Commission for abandonment of its Iola & Northern spur “because it does not pay and has not for several years.”
Go to www.iolahistoricalsociety.org for more information on the Iola Historical Society.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story had the incorrect date for the dedication of the marker.