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Take a "Walk into the Past" in Decorah
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Take a "Walk into the Past" in Decorah

Whether a history buff or not, people have been noticing the appearance of informative signs along the sidewalks of Decorah! And now you can find ALL of these signs with a new guide!!

Over the past several years, thanks to the research and efforts of two citizens-- Ed Epperly and Elizabeth Lorentzen, historic signs have been placed throughout Decorah’s Broadway-Phelps Park Historic District and along Water Street. This Interpretive Walking Trail just received the Loren Horton Community History Award from the State Historical Society of Iowa! By following the “trail” of these signs, looking at the historic photos preserved on them, and reading the accompanying text, both locals and visitors will become  acquainted with many stories, people, and events that make up Decorah’s history.  All of the planned signs are now complete and in place. Studying each sign allows the reader to get an idea of what structures were previously located on that site, how present buildings have changed and important historic events related to that location. Each sign contains a wealth of fascinating information about Decorah’s history, heritage and people. All of the signs include vintage photographs about that specific location, and as the saying goes, are worth “a thousand words”.

The Broadway-Phelps Park Historic District trail :

This trail consists of seven signs and is about a half mile in total length. Each of these signs displays a blue banner across the top. Information on these signs includes the arrival of white settlers and the establishment of government, churches, schools and homes in Decorah. Here are a few highlights of this trail:

  • Several of the signs on this trail are found on the sidewalks surrounding the imposing Winneshiek County Courthouse built in the Renaissance Revival style. 
  • The Italianate Tuscan Villa style house, built in 1876 and now known as  the  Porter House Museum is found one block away.

Continuing on this trail to the west takes one to part of the Historic District. Additional information on historic homes/buildings in this neighborhood can be  found at the Winneshiek County Convention and Visitors Bureau Visitor Center at 507 West Water St. in downtown Decorah. And walking along Upper Broadway St. will take you into beautiful Phelps Park, with great views of the Upper Iowa River and west Decorah. 

The Water Street Trail: 

This trail has 23 signs, four kiosks and is 2.1 miles in length. Each of these signs has a gold banner across the top. The information found on these signs explains the earliest residents, commerce changes, and influences of national events on the development of historic Decorah. Here is a little of what is included in this trail: 

  •  On this trail, you will learn a bit about the history of Luther College and the now restored, historic Hotel Winneshiek, a landmark in downtown Decorah.

The changing role of the main building of Vesterheim: The National Norwegian-American Museum and Heritage Center, is described at the west end of Water Street. 

As you head to the west side of Decorah, several signs highlight changing businesses and flood history of the area. A treat stop at The Whippy Dip might be in order.   

 The last sign on this trail describes 2 of Decorah’s nature-related sight-seeing spots, Dunning Spring and  the Ice Cave State Preserve.  

Besides the completion of the trail with the placement of all the signs, the other wonderful news is the publication of a POCKET MAP of the Water Street and Historic District Trails. This is a great companion and guide to the actual signs. The pocket guide includes a map of Decorah with the location of each sign labeled with its identifying number. In addition, there is an explanation of the overall purpose of the historic sign trail and brief descriptions of what is found on each sign. These pocket guide maps may be picked up at the Visitor Center in downtown Decorah. 

Tourists and residents alike are encouraged to travel all or part of the trails and, as stated in the guide: “Learn more about Decorah’s past and enjoy the legacy that remains”.

*Photo source: author

  1. Imagine Northeast Iowa Support
    Imagine Northeast Iowa Support
    Absolutely fantastic information and a great post to boot! Thanks so much Meg! We hope to see more from you soon!
    1. Meg1975
      Thanks for the vote of confidence.
  2. Katmarhan
    Sounds like a great way to learn more about the history of Deocrah! Thanks for the info!
    1. Meg1975
  3. Dan  Fisher
    Dan Fisher
    Many of us history buffs did not know this. Thanks, great article!
    1. Meg1975
      Thank you. The signs are wonderful and the map/guide is helpful.
  4. visitdecorah
    Wondering how many have stopped and looked at every sign?

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