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City of Vinton History

The community of Vinton began its history known as Northport in the mid-1800’s. Initially an outpost for trading, it quickly became a support center for the burgeoning number of farmers who were taking advantage of the rich soil around Vinton. Farmers needed a place to sell their products and purchase needed items. Business opportunities were numerous and businessmen came to Vinton to establish processing factories for the farm products, open up retail storefronts, and provide technical assistance to area farmers.

Cedar River Bridge John Tilford became a key person in the development of Vinton as he purchased and then sold home lots from downtown south toward the current fairgrounds. For both business and community-interest reasons, Tilford donated many of his tracts to churches and other community resources. The town grew to a population of roughly 5,000 by the early 1900’s.

 Vinton weathered a variety of social/economic downturns and upturns during the early and mid 1900’s. As Vinton and the nation emerged from the Great Depression and World War II it resumed its role as a rural farming community and social hub of Benton County, largely due to its position as the County Seat. People rarely traveled to the larger communities of Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, instead coming to Vinton on Saturday night to shop and socialize.

 Residents growing up during the 1940’s and 1950’s recall a vibrant and active downtown, several active factories including the Iowa Canning Company who hosted the Sweet Corn Day each Labor Day as well as the packing plant and other significant factories. The city had five farm implement dealerships, several grocery stores – many of which were small neighborhood stores, a J.C. Penney's and a Sears store, as well as a local daily newspaper produced in the community. The Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School was active with many students from all across the state living at the school during the school year.

The 1960’s brought more turbulence to the community with Vietnam and national social unrest. The factories, with the exception of Iowa Canning, lived on during this decade and Vinton remained an important social and economic center for Benton County.

The 1970’s was a decade of transition for Vinton as it saw the beginning of the end as a rural, farm based and self-sufficient economy. The early 1970’s saw a still-vibrant community but by the late 1970’s several key businesses had shut their doors including Hawk Bilt, Perfex and Iowa Ham. More and more citizens had to look outside the community for employment – towards both Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. The community was split regarding the proposed routing of Interstate 380 which ended up 12 miles to the east of Vinton. High interest rates at the end of the decade were putting extreme pressure on local businesses and would help contribute to significant local, small business loss in the 1980’s.

 The decade of the 1980’s was, overall, bleak for Vinton as the farm economy collapsed across the nation. As examples, Vinton went from five implement dealers to one, saw the Chevrolet dealership close its doors and the remaining small factories close as well. Many farmers were forced to declare bankruptcy and/or have large farm sales in an effort to hang on. I-380 was completed in 1985 and changed the traffic flow through Vinton overnight. With Highway 218 no longer the primary thoroughfare between Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, businesses that relied on the traffic struggled, with many closing. Café 218 closed and would open and close repeatedly for the next 20 years, several gas and service stations along the highway closed. Family and corporate businesses struggled. A&W closed as did Fellers, Ben Franklin, Sears, Penneys, Me Too, and Kerr McGee to name a few. In addition, the phone and electric companies were sold off and left town. The business community saw many locally owned businesses transferred to out-of-town owners. For example, Cromer’s was sold to Dubuque-based Thiesen’s and Ankeny-based Casey’s General Store created a presence in town. Problems were compounded in 1988 with a significant drought further pushing farmers and, consequently, local businesses into bankruptcy. In 1989 the school district, suffering from declining enrollment, joined with the community of Shellsburg.  Citizens began to move much of their work and spending to the larger cities of Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. This trend would intensify over the next 20 years. It was at the heart of this decade, 1985, that the Chamber of Commerce, attempting to deal with these major issues, formed Vinton Unlimited with the purpose of attempting to attract new business to town. As the 1980’s closed, it was not at all certain if and how Vinton would survive as a viable community of several thousand residents.

 The 1990’s saw a gradual but steady recovery for the community. A “spec” building built in the early 1990’s remained unfilled and the community downed four separate bond issues to deal with its aging elementary schools. However, during this time, the hospital was brought back under local control, a library bond issue passed, and the high school received an addition. Hardee’s and Subway moved to town and local businessman Don Karr led a campaign to upgrade the outdoor sports facilities for the high school. By the end of the decade a new housing development was underway and a significant street renovation was taking place, providing the downtown retail district with a significant facelift. In contrast to the previous decade, the 1990’s entered precariously and exited with a renewed sense of hope and optimism. The downtown reconstruction project earned the city an "All -Star Award" from the Iowa League of Cities in 2000.

Downtown revitalization continued in the early years of the 21st century. The Parks and Recreation department acquired significant new recreation resources and expanded its program offerings. The Vinton Cruise, started in the 1980’s to help bring people to Vinton, remains a strong draw as does the annual Party in the Park celebration. A “Wall Dogs” celebration resulted in eye-catching and appealing murals on downtown buildings and the movie theatre opened, expanding the entertainment options for the community and strengthening the local theatre troupe. In the very recent past, the community supported the construction of a new high school that will see its first graduating class in May of 2008.