Like any other town in Iowa or in the nation, Ankeny has a unique and interesting history waiting for those who show interest to delve into it. While many Ankeny 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 1875 and incorporated as the city of Ankeny in 1903. With those first families, their names and histories became a part of the town. All over Ankeny, there are names of famous first settlers — like Wagner — 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.
John Fletcher Ankeny
Though several suburbs nearby don’t bear the name of the person who founded them, Ankeny does. John Fletcher Ankeny was the son of Joseph Ankeny, who migrated west from Pennsylvania with his family, ending up in Des Moines. John Ankeny was a doctor by trade, and spent time in California, Hawaii and Illinois before moving his family to Des Moines in 1869.
It is because of the narrow gauge railroad from Des Moines to Ames that Ankeny has come into existence; it was the most important thing to happen to Polk County in the 1870s. John Ankeny was a promoter and stockholder of the company, and he bought the land that would become Ankeny on July 1, 1874, for $1,600.
The town of Ankeny came into official existence on April 19, 1875, and the plat of the town was filed three days later. On the original plot, 11 blocks were divided into 71 plots. This was the area from First Street on the north, the east side of Maple on the west, Fifth Street on the south and the west side of Walnut on the east.
Dr. M.B. Cherrie purchased a number of plots, and town lore has it that when Main Street was renamed to Cherry Street, it was done so after him. Whether that’s true, no one knows. But upon Ankeny’s death in 1886, Mrs. Ankeny was interested in liquidating her holdings in the town. Cherrie purchased many of the lots.
Though Ankeny did furnish the town with some establishments, like a hotel and store, he never actually lived here.
It’s quite obvious that many of Ankeny’s earliest elementary schools have directional names. In fact, when the school district was deciding on a naming scheme, officials held a contest to name the first elementary building. The name that won out was Northwest, thus each of them have directional names, though those names might not mean what they did when the first elementary school was founded in 1962.
One elementary that doesn’t have a directional name is Crocker. It was named after Crocker Township, which itself was named after General Marcellus M. Crocker, a well known citizen of Polk County and distinguished general in the Civil War.
The township was organized in 1871, at which time the first election was held. The newly elected trustees divided the township into nine school districts and nine road districts. The population of Crocker Township was composed of people who farmed and raised livestock. Now much of that land is filled with new housing developments, and almost none of it remains rural, but Crocker Elementary remains a reminder of those earliest roots.
The Neveln Center
The Neveln Center facility is the oldest public building in the city of Ankeny. It is a three-story school building erected in 1919 and has approximately 60,000 square feet of floor space. The building was not named Neveln until much later, after past superintendent Ed Neveln.
The Neveln Center is now a community resource center. The idea for the repurposing of the building came in 1991, and it now serves the needs of area families on multiple levels. The vision is for the center to provide a central location and coordination for resources of non-profit and people oriented organizations that are accessible to everyone in the community. The efforts of the Center focus on coordination and collaborating with various area organizations, agencies and community groups to make services cost efficient and more available.
As the project was realized, it also required remodeling and renovation to make it a usable building today. The building is a sound structure, and the Ankeny Historical Society has been involved in the remodeling and upgrading of the building, helping to maintain its historical character. One very costly and necessary requirement was a new roof, which was accomplished through the collaborative efforts of the City of Ankeny, Ankeny School District, Neveln Center Inc. and a small army of community volunteers.
Every penny of funds provided the Neveln Center Inc. is put to good use. The project is growing each year. Volunteers involved in the project find it personally rewarding to see the Resource Center developing. The Center is close to reaching the goal of being financially self-sustaining. Nonetheless, the project is a large one that is developed in phases and continues to require significant financial support. Income generated through the Center will be used to upgrade the building and develop programs.
Currently home to the Ankeny bandshell and other activities like Movies Under the Stars, live music and All City Play Day, Wagner Park was named after one of Ankeny’s first councilmen, Henry Wagner.
Wagner was an efficient farmer and cattleman. He was also a stock buyer and banker. He was an officer of the Bank of Ankeny, later the Ankeny State Bank. He built the brick building at Cherry and 3rd Streets in 1902.
In 1910, Wagner gave the city 2.5 acres of land to be made into a park. It wasn’t until 1920 that the park was officially named after him. Ankeny homecomings and city-wide free barbecues — with meat provided by the cattleman himself — were held in the park until his death in 1929.
The park was used for leisure hours, children playing, and people listening to band concerts and holiday celebrations. As Ankeny grew, the Fourth of July celebration was changed to Fun and Feed Days because many suburbanites spend the Fourth in their old hometowns — a tradition SummerFest continues to this day.
A shelter house was used for meetings and civic activities but was destroyed in the 1974 tornado. Wagner Park was the only park until Ankeny became a city. The population had grown from 445 in 1910 to 12,000 and the city then established a parks and recreation department. The parks were acquired by purchasing the land or gifts from individuals and included Haubert, Sunrise, Hawkeye, Sunset and others. By 1975, the city had nine parks.
Kirkendall Public Library
The library is a result of the philanthropy of Lee and Clarence Kirkendall. The brothers were farmers who willed a portion of their land to the city to be used for the specific purpose of building a library. A library board was established in 1959, and the first library building was constructed for a cost of $50,000 at 211 Walnut St. It was considered one of the most modern in the town when built.
On May 30, 1974, the voters of Ankeny went to the polls to vote a new library. Ground was broken, and the library was moved to Wagner Park at First and Cherry Streets.
The current library now stands next door to Prairie Ridge Middle School on N.W. Prairie Ridge Drive. Though it’s the third library building that Ankeny has seen, it still bears the Kirkendall name.
Numerous streets in Ankeny are named after people, including N.W. Weigel Drive, named after former mayor and dentist Ollie Weigel.
Another interesting street name is Trilein. It was named after its developers, the Triplett and the Lein families, becoming Tri-Lein. Many of the streets in that general area on the southeast side are also named after kids and relatives of the Tripletts and Leins, including Lowell, Sharon and Wanda.
Ankeny began as a small town of just 445 people, and it now boasts a population 45,562. Though many are relative newcomers to Ankeny, its history is full of enterprising and interesting characters who built the town in which we live, and those famous names can still be seen around town today.