The Music Man
Iowa Stubborn: The History of Mason City
By Josh Kaplan
“You really ought to give Iowa a try!”
– “Iowa Stubborn”
Of all the indelible characters featured in Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, one of the most memorable is not a man or woman, but the town of Mason City, Iowa. Commonly referred to as River City, Mason City is not only the setting for The Music Man – it is the heart and soul of, and inspiration for, the musical with a history and personality all its own.
Prior to the mid-19th century, the area around Mason City was home to the Winnebago and Sioux Indian tribes. As the tribes were pushed further west, timber merchants from Illinois settled the land where the Winnebago River merged with Caimus Creek. Originally named Shibboleth, the town’s name was eventually changed to Masonville in honor of one of the town founders’ deceased son, Mason. In 1870, Masonville was re-named to Mason City, with Darius B. Mason elected as the first mayor.
The late 19th century brought much development to Mason City due to the establishment of a major railroad line connecting Mason City with other Midwestern hubs, as well as an abundance of natural resources leading to the creation of several major businesses including the Brick and Tile Company, the Northwestern State Portland Cement Plant, the Lehigh Portland Cement Company and the Colby Car manufacturing plant. By the early 20th century, Mason City had become the largest freight-shipping town in Iowa, triggering a mass influx of immigrants in search of employment and housing. The architecture of Mason City also developed wide recognition during this time. In 1907, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to design several buildings in the town. Several of Wright’s buildings – built in the “Prairie Style” – are still standing, including The Park Inn Hotel, the only remaining hotel in the world designed by Wright.
The Great Depression brought hard times to Mason City. The infamous bank robber John Dillinger specifically targeted the town in a crime spree that earned him the title “Public Enemy Number One,” although his foray into Mason City was less successful than it could have been. On March 13, 1934, Dillinger and his gang stole $52,000 from the First National Bank, despite the fact that the bank actually held $300,000 at the time. Even in the midst of the Depression, Mason City retained its hopeful spirit – on March 5, 1936, the first Sears, Roebuck and Co. opened its first store in downtown Mason City.
Post-Depression, Mason City experienced a burst of new growth in several arenas. In 1954, the first pony – a gentle and easy miniature horse – was introduced in the town. The breed quickly spread across the state and the country. Mason City’s economic development was spurred by the addition of the sugar beet and pork packing industries, helping the town become the largest urban center between Des Moines and Minneapolis. Culturally, Mason City experienced an unprecedented popularity explosion in the mid-20th century, when The Music Man opened on Broadway in 1957, winning nine Tony Awards and becoming one of the biggest hits in theater history.
Today, Mason City is home to nearly 30,000 residents, many of whom work in the manufacturing, health, financial services and technology sectors. More than 50 years after The Music Man opened on Broadway, music remains a guiding force in Mason City. Meredith Willson is honored annually at the North Iowa Band Festival while The Music Man Square and Meredith Wilson Boyhood Home in Mason City stand tribute to his life and his love of music.
Josh Kaplan was bitten by the theater bug at a young age, when he starred in his nursery school’s production of Three Little Pigs. Since then, life has led him to many places. He graduated from Boston University in 2000, Yale Law School in 2004, and became a certified yoga instructor in 2010. But he has remained true to his first love, attending as much theater as possible, volunteering at Arena Stage, and even writing plays, the most recent of which won the Key West Emerging Artist award.
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.