by Josh Kaplan, Literary Volunteer
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.
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