Main Street for the Ages


January, 23, 2018 | Main Spotlight | Main Street for the Ages: Engaging Youth and Seniors in Le Mars, Iowa | By Richard Ziettlow, Vice President, Main Street Le Mars |

Le Mars, Iowa

YoMS Banner Project on the historic Armory building in downtown Le Mars.

History and architecture play an active role in educating and immersing the next generation of preservationists in Le Mars. From museum visits, scavenger hunts, to "show and tell," involving the youth and senior communities is a priority for this Main Street.

In Le Mars, Iowa (population 9,826), Main Street and Historic Preservation programs are closely tied. In 2013, the Historic Preservation Commission members realized that everyone in the room was old enough to qualify for a listing in the National Register, which led to a discussion on how to engage the next generation of preservationists. The conversation soon incorporated the Main Street program team and a long-time dream quickly became reality—Youth on Main Street (YoMS). 

Co-sponsored by the Le Mars Main Street Program and Historic Preservation Commission, the general public and Catholic high schools were brought into the planning process. It was determined to offer the YoMS program to 11th grade students. Every year in March, a presentation is given to the 10th grade. Program information and application forms are provided for them to sign up for the upcoming school year. The 2017-2018 school year marks the fourth year of the program with 10 students enrolled. Participants of YoMS may receive course credit for completing the program or collect service hours for their time in the program. Students meet monthly throughout the academic year to learn the storied history of Le Mars, from its founding in 1869 to hearing first-hand accounts from long-time residents and business owners. 

Youth on Main Street member, Shannon Robins, sharing stories during a downtown architectural and historical walking tour.

YoMS member, Shannon Robins, shares stories during a downtown architectural and historical walking tour.

In addition to the history of Le Mars, the program includes a session on the architecture of the downtown buildings and how they have changed over the years. One of the “trivia” questions posed to the students during the application presentation is showing them a picture of one of Le Mars’ main downtown buildings and ask if any of them have been inside the impressive three-story building. Each year the result is the same—they believe they have not been inside the building until it is pointed out it is now the local Pizza Ranch. One of the favorite sessions is a tour of the second stories of various downtown buildings. Many businesses have been vacant for 50 or more years and still have their doors painted with the names of former businesses, which the students find fascinating. In some cases, they have been able to see the “before” and “after” of a building’s second floor during its renovation into apartments. We knew YoMS was resonating with the students, when one participant returned from a college visit and said they found themselves asking the recruiter about the history of the buildings on campus.

A key component of the YoMS program is for the students to identify at least one project that enhances the downtown district. The challenge is to reign in the group to focus on two to three projects that can be accomplished during the school year. Completed projects include: 1) large historical and public art banners on a downtown business wall; 2) vignettes added to an existing historical tour; 3) a walking tour brochure for Alley Art project; 4) a historical scavenger hunt involving 18 downtown businesses offered annually during Le Mars’ Ice Cream Days® celebration; 5) permanent displays featuring interesting characters from Le Mars’ history at the local museum; and 6) a reenactment of scenes from a play about the town’s founding. 

ICD_Scavenger_Hunt1.jpgSeniors on Main Street

As the community became more aware of YoMS and details of the subjects and speakers became known, requests to offer the course to a broader audience came to the Main Street Program and Historic Preservation Commission members. In response, Seniors on Main Street (SoMS), a new six-week series offered to adults 55 and older, was created, incorporating many topics from the YoMS curriculum. With the help of the local newspaper, radio station, social media, web sites, and word of mouth, SoMS was publicized to the community. The first session was held in September/October 2017 with 38 people in attendance. A second six-week session is planned for April/May 2018, with enough material to offer a completely new curriculum.

The first session was modeled after the Downtown Historical Scavenger Hunt created by the YoMS students. A favorite activity was a day at the museum, touring the displays with local experts who provided a personal history on each business. During the final session, the SoMS group was given the opportunity to share their personal history of Le Mars. Stories told were about everything from family genealogy to memorabilia of Le Mars’ events and businesses. Items and stories brought for “show and tell” were captured and added to the Historic Preservation Commission’s photo room at the local museum.

SoMS on the Downtown Historical Scavenger Hunt.

SoMS on the Downtown Historical Scavenger Hunt.

What’s Next?

In 2019, Le Mars will mark its 150th anniversary. The plans for celebration include speakers and activities from YoMS and SoMS and will focus on reminding attendees of Le Mars’ rich history. The upcoming sesquicentennial will hopefully inspire many to get involved in the planning process of celebration events.

All photos courtesy of Le Mars Main Street.

About the author:

Richard Ziettlow is the VP of Le Mars Main Street program and VP of the Le Mars Historic Preservation Commission. Learn more about their program at