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FEATURE STORY: The abandoned towns of Winneshiek County--Part Two

Posted: Thu, Jan 7, 2021 1:49 PM

(by decorahnews.com's Paul Scott)

Last week we posted a feature story about "The Abandoned Towns of Winneshiek County," citing entries in the publication "Annals of Iowa."  Sure enough, no sooner had we posted the story than the e-mails started arriving.  It turns out that our readers are smarter than the "Annals of Iowa."

Decorah resident James Ronan e-mailed that "I have listed in my archives a town by the name of Navan in Jackson Township."  He's right--Navan was the name of a place with a post office just before the turn of the 20th century, located southwest of Jackson Junction.

Myrna Ingram emailed with a question: "Was Nordness considered a town?"  Yes and there are still a few buildings there today off of the Lincoln Highway south of Decorah.

But most of the e-mails came from people suggesting we had overlooked Conover.  William McBay emailed to point out, "Conover was once the railhead and was a bustling town with bars and graineries. There is still a sign and a couple of farms. It was between Calmar and Spillville."

Thanks, William--and Barb--and Vicky--and Brenda--for knowing what the "Annals of Iowa" did not--that Conover was quite a town in its day.  In fact, according to Wikipedia, the largest privately held company in America--Cargill--was born in Conover.  In 1865, William Wallace Cargill left Janesville, Wisconsin, and purchased a grain warehouse in Conover, at the end of the McGregor & Western Railroad line.  By 1866, according to Wikipedia, Conover had as many as 1,500 inhabitants.

What happened?  In 1868 Calmar became the eastern terminus and junction with the main line for the I & D branch of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad and by 1870, most of the lots in Conover had returned to cropland.

This photo taken in 1977 by Duane Fenstermann of Decorah shows a railroad maintenance building--one of the few remaining buildings in Conover at that time