Like any other town in Iowa or in the nation, Waukee has a unique and interesting history, waiting for those who show interest to delve into it.
While many Waukee residents are relative newcomers to the area, there are those who were living in town before it even was a town. Their stories and memories are part of the building of a new community, founded in 1869 and incorporated as the city of Waukee in 1878. With those first families, their names and histories became a part of the town. All over Waukee, there are names of famous first settlers — like L.A. Grant — as well as other famous Iowans and others. Read on to learn a little bit about the people these landmarks, roads and buildings were named after.
When the Civil War came to an end in 1865, people were courted by the railroads and newspapers to come west and settle the bountiful land beyond the Mississippi. Des Moines and western Iowa were having growing pains. The railroads reached out to everyone, and the men already settled here tried their best to get the railroads to come in their direction.
In 1869, Iowa needed a route to Minnesota. The engineers were sent out to survey for the route, and the construction materials were shipped to Des Moines. The necessary money was raised, and the announcement was made that Des Moines Valley Railroad had placed 50 miles of their railroad under contract extending from Des Moines to Greene County.
On April 13, 1869, the proposed route was announced in the Iowa Daily State Register. Leaving Des Moines, it was to enter Dallas County, run through Walnut Township, and on into Greene County.
On April 30, 1869, General L.A. Grant and Major William Ragan, doing business as Grant, Ragan and Co., bought land around the railroad bed in Walnut Township, Section 33, from Cyrus W. Fisher, the land on which the town of Waukee would be built.
Gen. Grant and Major Ragan had named the town Shirley, but it didn’t keep that name for very long. When Gen. Reid of the Des Moines Valley Railroad heard about it, he said it should be changed. As reported in the Daily Register, “The proprietors named it Shirley in the first place, but the ‘powers that be’ in the railroad office down in Keokuk insisted that it should have an Indian appellation, and hence Waukee it had to be. What Waukee means, we don’t know. For that, you must ask Gen. Reid.”
There is no history of how long Major Ragan remained invested in the town, but there is recorded on March 18, 1871, a quit claim from William Ragan to all lots in the town of Waukee and its additions. Gen. Grant sold all his holdings in and around Waukee in July 1880 to O.W. Mead.
LA Grant Parkway is named after that same Lewis Addison Grant, who had a big part in establishing Waukee. He spent almost 20 years in Waukee until moving to Minneapolis. In 1890, Minnesota senators recommended him for assistant secretary of war. He served in this post under President Harrison from April 5, 1890, to Dec. 15, 1893. He died on March 20, 1918.
Other Waukee streets
Denny Dolmage, who grew up in Waukee and graduated from high school in 1964, remembers when the town was only about 400 people.
“I remember when, in 1959, George and Corene Gray came to Waukee and approached the city council and wanted to do a housing development,” he says.
Dolmage says the first lots were filled that up quickly. The city was so happy to have a builder come into the community because before that it wasn’t growing too quickly. He was welcomed with open arms, Dolmage says, and they gave him freedom to do what he liked, and they never asked him to put sidewalks in or bury the utilities.
“They didn’t want to put much pressure on him,” he says.
They kept building south, and the next street that was developed was Bel Air, then Waukee, and then Gray Avenue after the Grays. Gray was the first street where finally the city asked him to put in sidewalks and underground utilities. The next street was named Corene after Mrs. Gray, and then Christopher was named after a grandchild or another family member.
Other streets named after Waukee people include Florence by the Waukee school administration building. Ken and Florence Booth had a farm just south of Waukee located right on the west side of the new South Middle School. They sold the land where the school administration building now sits, so the street was named Florence after Mrs. Booth.
Alice of Alice’s Road
For those who have lived in Waukee for a long time, the name Alice conjures up only one person — Alice Nizzi, owner of the famous Waukee restaurant Alice’s Spaghetti Land, which she opened in 1947. Her nephew Jim Nizzi, who worked with her at the restaurant, took over running the restaurant full-time from her death in 1997 until 2004 when the restaurant closed.
Alice’s father was an Italian immigrant who moved to Missouri around the turn of the century. They came to Waukee to work in the mining community with other Italian immigrants, and it was there that Alice opened her restaurant.
“When she first started, she had worked for another restaurant in the community, and then she opened up her own, and the people she hired were all women from that coal mining community,” says her niece Marie Kayser. “It was like a women’s co-op business. She and her sister Anita worked together, and the other women worked there as well.”
Food has always been a part of the Nizzi family. Marie’s father was the baby of the family and never worked in the mine, but he ran a grocery store in Waukee. She says family celebrations always revolved around food. Alice took her knowledge of Northern Italian food and used her special secret recipes in the new restaurant.
“It was very family style,” Marie says. “It wasn’t pretentious, and in those days there weren’t as many restaurants. She was kind of outspoken, and she took an interest in the customers and got to know them.”
Marie says the legacy of food and family is what defines Alice, and it’s what made Alice’s restaurant so special.
“It was like Cheers,” she says. “The place where everyone knows your name. Jim still cooks when requested. The legacy from my family is even if you’re an immigrant and don’t have anything when you come here that you can make something of yourself. There’s a strong work ethic.”
Patrons of Alice’s may certainly miss the food, but there are still opportunities to enjoy the cooking that Alice perfected so many years ago. The Waukee Historical Society has asked Jim to cook for its annual fundraiser each year. Those who loved Alice’s can enjoy her food, and the proceeds will go to the organization that is working to preserve the history of the town she loved.
The Shuler legacy
In 1920, the first coal mine, Harris Mines, opened northeast of Waukee. In 1921, Shuler Company started their mine, one mile east of Harris. Shuler Mine was the last major shaft mine in Iowa, with a shaft of 387 feet. It was also the heaviest producer of any mine in the state. During their 28 years of operation, they took out more than 7 million tons of coal. Mining was an important part of the community until the last mine closed in 1949.
Mary Ladurini, another of Alice Nizzi’s nieces, grew up in the mining community. She says she remembers it fondly.
“On Sunday afternoons, the women would get under a shade tree in someone’s yard and sit and visit, and the men would have their own little corner with a bottle of beer or they’d play bocce ball,” she says.
Little remains of the mining community itself, but one former Waukee resident intends to ensure that the town remembers the miner’s heritage. Hiram Ori, who died in October 2010, left $500,000 to the Waukee library for a coal mining museum. He left the bequest to honor his parents, Ernest and Casimira Ori, Italian immigrants who lived in Waukee until their deaths in 1974 and 1982.
Ori wanted a way to honor all of those who worked in the Shuler Mine and the immigrant community in general. The library is still working on plans for the proposed 1,900-square-foot addition.
Another way Shuler has been memorialized is in the naming of one of Waukee’s schools, Shuler Elementary. An art piece, called the “Black Diamond,” memorializes those from the mines.
The sculpture features a piece of coal, or “black diamond,” supported by four steel beams. At the base are four different vignettes that pay homage to the Shuler Mining Company, its miners and their families.
“Black Diamond” was created by artists Rebecca Ekstrand and Thomas Rosoborough. The public art work was paid for by a grant from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, as well as additional monies from the cities of Waukee and Clive, the Dallas County Foundation, Bravo of Greater Des Moines and private donations.
Waukee Mayor Bill Peard was instrumental in bringing the concept to the Waukee city council for their review and approval of allocation for the funds for the project. The Shuler Mine is a significant piece of Waukee history, and the mayor and city council believe it is imperative that the City of Waukee support the effort to represent the history of the Shuler Mining Community.