If you have ever driven down Reite or Mott avenues, or enrolled your child at Windsor Elementary School, or spent time at Colby Park to enjoy a concert or a movie and wondered how they got their names, then keep reading.
The assignment to report on the meaning behind the names of such entities, as well as others, proved to be a much more difficult task than we anticipated. Windsor Heights does not have a historical society like most of its neighboring communities do, and public and private resources for such information are scarce, to say the least. Calls made to residents and businesses that were thought to have the information that we were looking for came up empty or went unreturned. In short, we wondered if anyone was going to be able to provide us the information that we were seeking.
Enter George Hanusa, a longtime resident with a passion for history and president of the Windsor Heights Foundation who also serves as the town’s unofficial historian extraordinaire.
Hanusa, 80, has been steadfast in his work over the years to gather historical information about Windsor Heights. He has been busy of late trying to update the town’s history with the intent of one day publishing a book about it. The last time anything was published about the history of Windsor Heights that was barely big enough to sit on a bookshelf was in 1991 when a small booklet celebrating the town’s 50th anniversary was printed in limited numbers entitled, “Windsor Heights: 50th Anniversary History.”
“There is a lot of untold history in Windsor Heights. The trick is finding people who know something or finding old photographs,” Hanusa says.
The biggest name in Windsor Heights’ history, Hanusa says, is the Colby family. Streets and the town’s popular park are named after its members.
Long before Windsor Heights became home to about 5,000 people and more than 150 businesses, it was an area known for its coal mines. The Urbandale Coal Company Mine, Gibson Coal Mining Company Mine No. 5, the Keystone Coal Company Mine and Des Moines Ice and Fuel Company West Side Mine all operated in various stages from 1908 to 1942 in the area that is now known as Windsor Heights as coal miners and their families helped to settle the area.
A slow transformation began in 1915 when Charles H. Colby and his son, Charles I. Colby (the “I” stood for “Iowa”) bought 160 acres (reportedly at $300 per acre) that occupied two family farms in 1915. Two years later, they bought the West Side Coal Mine where the mouth of the mine’s shaft was located where Walmart and Sam’s Warehouse Club operate today.
“Papa got in the coal mining business in a rather strange way,” Charles I. Colby wrote for “Windsor Heights: 50th Anniversary History.” “A Des Moines real estate dealer named Harry Northrop for many years used to bring land deals to my father, and one spring day in 1914, I drove Papa and Mr. Northrop in our Allen automobile way out west on University Avenue, almost to Dallas County, to look at the Mott farm. As the paving stopped at 49th Street, we stopped there and put on the tire chains and plowed into the nearly impassable yellow clay mud road.”
The city’s founding family years later was instrumental for paving University Avenue, which Charles I. Colby described as having “very steep, high hills and deep valleys at the time.” They saw to it that the main gateway to the city was paved from 49th to 63rd streets, then to the West Side mine’s entrance neat 70th Street and University Avenue.
“It used to be called Colby Acres when we started dividing up the farm and selling lots, and then we incorporated and called the town Windsor Heights,” Clark A. Colby, the son of Charles I. Colby, told The Des Moines Register in 1991.
The Colby’s influence clearly can still be felt today. The family’s companies built several homes in the area, including many signature California-style ranch homes. Its name is also on commercial real estate projects like Sherwood Forest located on Hickman Road and the Apple Valley Shopping Center on University Avenue. The recently renovated Colby Park is home to the $1.5 million Windsor Heights Community and Events Center that opened in 2010, as well as a new baseball field, playground and pavilion where concerts and movies play during the summer months.
Colby and Reite avenues also are linked to the Colby family. Reite was the maiden Norwegian name of Charles I. Colby’s wife. The couple met when Charles was superintendent of schools in Portal, N.D., near the Canadian border.
Mott Avenue is named for the Mott family, either David or Carl Mott, says Hanusa. The family owned a farm in the area that Charles H. Colby purchased decades ago.
Del Matro Avenue, in case you were wondering, is named after a contractor’s mother.
“Les Troutman did a lot of building here, and his mother was Della May Troutman. The street is a combination of her names,” Hanusa says.
Other east- and west-bound streets in town were named for presidents Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, as well as one of the country’s founding fathers, Ben Franklin.
However, it is the Colby family that has left an indelible mark on Windsor Heights, says the town’s unofficial historian.
“Sherwood Forest and Apple Valley are two good examples of the Colby family’s influence,” Hanusa says. “In the early part of the 20th century, the Colby family owned land both north and south of University Avenue. Colby Interests, the family business, is now in at least its fourth generation.”
In 1991, Charles I. Colby wrote, “It’s a good little town that’s been good to us.”
The town itself took its name after it was incorporated in 1941 from the nearby Windsor Elementary School, which was named for early settler Henry Clay Windsor, whose family donated the land for the school years after settling near the school’s site in 1840. Henry and his wife, Sarah, donated the land in memory of their late son. Windsor Elementary School, 5912 University Ave., opened in 1918 as a two-room brick building serving 22 students.
“It would be hard to say at this point who first breathed the words ‘Windsor Heights,’ but I think it simply evolved out of our family discussion of the obvious facts,” wrote Ruth Plymat, who moved to the area in 1938, for “Windsor Heights: 50th Anniversary History.” “Mr. Plymat’s house was on Lot 15 in a plat called Webster Heights. We did not know the history of the Windsor Family, but that is, of course, the way places often get their names.
“At that time, a Des Moines ‘curb liner’ bus ran out University Avenue, past the Windsor School to the city limits. It stopped on the northwest corner of 63rd Street and University Avenue in front of the ‘Windsor Church.’ It stood for a while, then turned around and headed back downtown. From where the bus stopped, University Avenue sloped up and down over the hill. I remember saying that on the front of the bus it said, ‘Windsor,’ so this must be the name of the place. But just ‘Windsor’ didn’t seem sufficient. And names like ‘Windsorville,’ ‘WindsorGrove’ or ‘Windsor Terrace’ did not describe or sound classy enough! ‘Windsor Heights’ brought it all together! It came ‘out of the blue,’ so to speak. No one opposed it or offered a better suggestion, so Windsor Heights it was.”
Windsor Elementary School is not the only one linked to a local family. Cowles Elementary, which opened in 1958 and remains at 6401 College Ave., was named after Florence Call Cowles, wife of Gardner Cowles Sr. and mother of Gardner Cowles Jr., former owner of The Des Moines Register, Look magazine and KRNT radio and television stations.
This “good little town” has grown from a coal mining center to a town in its own right with its own ZIP code. Not bad for less than 100 years.