Flax Palace
A compiled history and pictures of this long-gone landmark.

Flax Palace illustration from 'A Hand Book of Iowa', 1893

The Flax Palace in Forest City
compiled by S. Ferrall

Flax had been introduced to Winnebago county with great financial success by settlers from Illinois and soon the area surrounding Forest City was the leading flax producing region west of the Mississippi river. The principal purpose of the Flax Palace was to advertise the flax grown in Winnebago county and to bring visitors, investors and income to the area. This crop was favored at the time, as one growing best on virgin soil and for preparing the ground for other crops. The first Flax Palace was built at the county fairgrounds in Forest City, and opened in 1890.

The 1892 biography of Jasper Thompson states: "..it was he who conceived the idea and caused to be erected the flax palace at Forest City." In 1890, Mr. Thompson wrote this news release about the Flax Palace ....

"The north central and northwestern parts of Iowa, and especially Winnebago and Hancock counties, have been for years known to be the most productive section of country on earth, and the soil particularly well adapted to the production of all the small grains, corn, wheat, oats, rye, barley and flax, the latter being a crop that can be planted from March to July and harvested from July to October, producing quicker returns to the laborer than any other known agricultural production.

Forest City, thus located as it is in the very center of the greatest flax producing section of country in the world, has determined to better make known its vast agricultural resources in the production of this particular crop, [and] has arranged in connection with the county agricultural fair, to build, decorate and exhibit to the public a magnificent flax palace, which shall, in beauty of decoration and nicety of design, out vie even its elaborate contemporaries, though it should fail in producing a structure equal in size.

The promoters of this scheme are fully aware that flax is not the principal crop raised in this section of country, nor is the building of a flax palace intended to over shadow the fact that here we raise as fine crops of corn, oats, wheat, rye, barley and potatoes as are raised in any country in the same latitude; but for beauty of color flax straw surpasses almost every other of the straw producing grains.

The flax palace therefore will not be restricted to flax straw and flax seed decorations alone, but every grain and grass raised in this section of country will be employed in its decoration. The structure will be of artistic design and ample capacity, and in its architecture various turrets, towers, balconies and lookouts will be employed, all gorgeously thatched and decorated with the various colored growth of flax and other grains and grasses, pressed leaves, ferns and flowers; and when fully completed will be "a thing of beauty" indeed.

The interior of the structure will be divided into booths for the display of the various arts and sciences, and for agricultural, mechanical and other displays, and will all be beautifully decorated with landscapes and other artistic designs.

During the entire time the exposition and fair is open, the different railroads running into Forest City will run regular excursions, and the flax palace management will give a continuous series of entertainments, consisting of discourses by eminent divines, orations, fetes, races, ball games and other attractions which alone will be worth witnessing. The flax palace itself will be one of the beautiful, unique wonders of the nineteenth century. One of the many wonders which will be exhibited will be the great aeolite or meteor which fell in this county on May 2d, 1890.

J.F. Thompson, Secretary Flax Palace Management

The 1893 'Handbook of Iowa' describes the conception of the Flax Palace: "It's stirring business men united their energies and capital for the erection of a Flax Palace. That important farm product being susceptible of use in beautiful ornamentation in the hands of persons of suitable taste. The city named and the people of the region surrounding it may not equal in wealth the larger and older palace cities of Iowa, but they energetically took hold of the project and the Flax Palace with an exhibit of the superior farm products of northern Iowa favorably advertised through the medium of visiting thousands the superior advantages of that beautiful region, abounding in natural advantages, and won thereto a large immigration and rapid development."

Special Telegram to the Evening Gazette - Forest City, Iowa, Sept. 15 - Our Flax Palace is completed and will be opened tomorrow. It is a beautiful structure and elegantly decorated inside and out, and far surpasses the most sanguine anticipations of the managers. Hon. James Wilson will be present and deliver the opening address on Tuesday, the 16th, and Gov. Boies will address the people here probably on the 18 inst.

Flax Palace ca1891 -  'Iowa Pathways', Iowa Public Television photo
Flax Palace, ca1891

The 1890 building was 158 feet long with three towers. Machines wired strands of flax into small bundles and then wove them into yard-long panels. The Flax Palace was rebuilt in 1891, and re-covered in 1892 and 1893. This building consisted of a main building, 136 feet long, with an octagonal building on each side, forming a continuous structure three stories high, and with 7,500 feet of floor space. Volunteers gathered grain, grasses, wild flowers, vines, and foliage for decoration of the interior. Window trim was of sugar cane and grasses of various kinds. Twelve weaving machines were brought from Chicago to weave flax stems to serve as the covering of the palace; only the seed heads were visible. After the first two years, when professional decorators were used, the third year local residents took over. Mr. Pitkin had charge of exterior decorating and Mrs. Babbitt directed the interior work. The interior of the building was decorated with wild flowers and cattails, and mural decorations were painted throughout the interior. An admission of 35 cents was charged to enter the building. In one day more than $3,900 was taken in at the door. In one of the early years of the palace the association bought and used 10 acres of tall flax from Peter Lewis which was used in the decorations. Exhibits were large in number and most everyone felt it almost a duty to enter something in order to help make the fair a success. Mary Lundberg was one of the many citizens who won blue ribbons. Her home-made bread was made from wheat raised, threshed and ground into flour by her brother. Entertainment and music was provided by bands traveling to Forest City from other towns. Horse racing was a big feature and entries came from local and out of town. During the nineties balloon ascension was a popular attraction

The Forest City Board of Trade sought to capitalize on the popularity of the Flax Palace exhibition. They announced that they would issue a monthly paper called 'Flax Palace Facts'. The first number was to be published in April 1891 promising to be "brimful of everything pertaining to northern Iowa."

At least one person was injured during construction of the Flax Palace in August 1891:

"The director and assistant on the Forest City flax palace narrowly escaped death by falling from a scaffolding one hundred feet high, from which the braces had been taken."

In April of 1893 a miniature flax palace was sent by Forest City for exhibition at the World's fair in Chicago. The miniature was eight feet long and five feet high and was decorated as was the original with flax heads. The miniature required 10 days of decoration and was a faithful reproduction of the original.

Forest City, April 11 —A miniature of the Northern Iowa Flax palace of this city is being constructed and which will become one of the prominent exhibits at the World's Fair in Chicago. It is estimated to cost nearly $1,000. It will be very artistically designed and decorated and will be a very beautiful exhibit.

Also in 1893, Dr. P. O. Koto of Forest City ran a campaign advertisement in which he took much credit for the Flax Palace:

"[He was] the promoter and first secretary of the county fair association, giving much attention to the good of the organization, and held the office for several years. He was secretary at the time the Flax Palace was in it's glory, and its grand success was due to his untiring and ceaseless energy and work."

The Flax Palace continued to be an attraction at the Winnebago county fair for a number of years, but gradually interest waned and the buildings started to deteroriate. A news blurb ran in 1930 noting that "the buildings, which have been vacant for four or five years, are in need of some repair and a general clean up." Most of the Flax Palace was torn down to make way for a new highway in 1933, and by 1941 only the south wing of the octagonal building remained. It too was gone within a few years.

negative of the Flax Palace -Carol J. Whiteis collection of Elder Studio
Negative photo of the Flax Palace from the Carol J. Whiteis collection of Elder Studio photos.

Forest City, April 17, 1933 —One of the outstanding historic landmarks of Forest city is being torn down in the wrecking of the old Flax palace on the former Winnebago county fair grounds to clear the right of way for highway 15 which is passing Forest City on the east side of the town. The old flax palace was built in 1890 for use in connection with the Winnebago county fair which was then called the Flax palace exposition. The structure, after it was finished, looked much as it has in recent years, except that there was a circular addition on the south side, which had two wings from 12 to 15 feet in height running east and south for about 100 feet each. A platform was constructed from the M&St. L. railroad station to the west entrance of the hall. That railroad ran special excursion trains to Forest City from Fort Dodge and Albert Lea and allowed passes and free transportation to the officials of the palace to be used in advertising the attraction. The Rock Island line also ran special trains to Forest City from Iowa Falls for the exposition.

Photo credits:
- The illustration of the Flax Palace at the top of the page, is from 'A Hand Book of Iowa', 1893
- Mid-page photo of the Flax Palace, ca 1891 is from 'Iowa Pathways', Iowa Public Television website
- The negative image of the Flax Palace is from the Carol J. Whiteis collection of Elder Studio negatives, generously shared with the Winnebago co. IAGenWeb by Carol

History - compiled by S. Ferrall for Winnebago co. IAGenWeb from the following sources:
-'Iowa: A Guide to the Hawkeye State'; By Federal Writers' Project; Fourth edition; published by US History Publishers, 1949; pg 386 (also the drawing of the Flax Palace)
-Forest City Summit, October 23, 2007
-Biography of Jasper Thompson, History of Winnebago and Hancock Counties, Iowa, 1917
-'A Hand Book of Iowa', by the Iowa Columbian Commission, Committee on Archaeological, Historical and Statistical Information, Iowa; Charles Ashton, James O. Crosby & J.W. Jarnagin; 1893; pgs 65 & 117
-'Iowa Historical Moment' Fact Sheet; a project of KDSM-TV, KCRG-TV, State Historical Soc. of Iowa & the Iowa Dept of Economic Development; 1990
-The Flax Palace by Betty Baldwin, published in 'The Iowan', Fall issue, 1965
-'The Homestead'; Des Moines, Iowa; Sept. 12, 1890, page 3
-'Evening Gazette', Cedar Rapids, Sept 15, 1890, page 1
-'Oelwein Gazette', Oelwein, April 9, 1891, page 2
-'Evening Gazette', Cedar Rapids, August 15, 1891, page 2
-'Evening Gazette', Cedar Rapids, April 11, 1893, page 2
-'Buffalo Center Tribune', Buffalo Center, June 12, 1930, page 3
-'Mason City Globe-Gazette, Mason City, April 17, 1933
-Forest City Summit, July 28, 1955

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