Brooklyn, IOWA?! A brief history of our Midwestern sister city

Brooklyn, IOWA?! A brief history of our Midwestern sister city
The Brooklyn Paper / Gersh Kuntzman

BROOKLYN, IOWA — We share a name — but actually, we really don’t.

The Dutch origins of the name of New York’s “Brooklyn,” or “broken land,” date back to the 1600s when it was first settled.

But here in Brooklyn, Iowa, the founders weren’t going Dutch, or even thinking of the independent city back east, when they changed the name of their town from Greenfield to Brooklyn in 1859.

As current residents tell it, the town renamed itself when the downtown was shifted a half-mile south to be better situated next to the newfangled railroad line. To come up with a name, the mayor went to the highest point to peer out over the landscape. After observing that the town sat between two small rivers, he reportedly said, “There’s a brook over there and a brook over there, and all this land in the middle. We should be called ‘Brookland.’”

The name was shortened to the better-sounding “Brooklyn,” and the rest is, well, not history so much as time passing.

Brooklyn prospered for the usual reason that a Midwestern town prospers: luck. The first lucky break came when the town found itself on the main stagecoach route between Dubuque and Des Moines.

Next, the railroad line was built, ushering in a long era of prosperity that resulted in a gorgeous (now vacant) Victorian hotel and a large (now vacant) opera house downtown.

Eventually, Interstate 80 (“America’s Main Street”) was cut through the heartland two miles south, bringing with it a fair number of curiosity-seekers who pull off the road to see whether this Brooklyn bears any resemblance to the version back east.

It does not. The tallest building in town is the grain elevator, there are no local police, and there’s not even a restaurant (Rednex, the constantly-being-renovated bar on Front Street, has started to serve meals around the middle of the day — but locals are so convinced it won’t last that they haven’t started calling the place a “restaurant” yet).

Times have been tough. In the mid-1990s, the fanciest house in town — the old Manatt house on Jackson Street — was about to be sold by the City Council for $1 because the buyer promised to pick it up and drop it a few towns over, making room for a new town library.

Residents got wind of the arrangement and demanded that the sales contract be voided. The City Council said the sale could only be stopped if the residents raised $50,000 (a sizeable chunk of change in a farming town) — in a month!

The townspeople did it — raising $52,000 in contributions ranging from $1 to $5,000 — and the Victorian home is now the Brooklyn Museum. The new library was built next door.

The Manatt family made its fortune in cement, is the area’s biggest employer, and even today, virtually everyone you meet is either a Manatt or a Kriegel — and many are both because of all the marriages between the clans.

A Kriegel tale describes how an ancestor punched out (or was punched out by) John Wayne.

Today the town’s greatest attraction is its display of all 50 state flags and quite a few foreign flags, resulting in its designation as “The Community of Flags” (though locals were quick to point out that the highway roadside is often defaced to suggest Brooklyn is a different kind of community.)

The display was the brainchild of Alex Werhle, a German immigrant in his late 70s.

“There were a lot of flags under Hitler, but after Hitler, no one wanted to see a flag,” he said. “But here, the flags are a source of pride.”

He added, though, that “ever since they started building casinos in Iowa,” the tour busses never seem to stop and look at the flags anymore.

“They rush right past us on the Interstate now,” he said.

Brooklyn’s flag display was the idea of Alex Werhle.
The Brooklyn Paper / Gersh Kuntzman