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Whatever happened to Podunk Center?

Published: Wednesday, April 11, 2012 11:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, April 12, 2012 10:52 a.m. CDT
(Contributed photo)
This is the gas station and general store in Podunk Center in 1952.

Editor's note:This is the first in a two-part series on the Iowa town of Podunk Center

WINTERSET — Eight miles south of Winterset and six miles north of Lorimor is the place that used to be known as the hub of the world.

This was the small, farming community called Podunk Center.

The story of Podunk Center is probably similar to many stories of small, Iowa towns that popped up in the mid-20th century and died off when state highways were relocated.

However, Podunk Center sticks out from the others for one good reason — it’s name.

“I don’t know that it ever was (considered a town),” said Wendell Spencer, Madison County Historical Society curator, “but it got publicity.”


According to a Des Moines Register article from August 1948, The term podunk describes a place that is 10 miles southwest of nowhere and a little bit around the corner.

It can also be described in the dictionary as an imaginary small town, taken as typical of placid dullness and lack of contact with the progress of the world.

This is the story of Podunk Center, which is now situated on county road P71.

Harold (Hal) Morris was 29 when he quit his job with a meat-packing plant in Des Moines and bought an acre of Madison County land for $1,500 in 1934. He didn’t tell his wife at the time what he had done.

Morris built a general store and put in gas pumps.

After Morris built his store, a neighbor started calling it “Podunk Center: Hub of the World.” The name stuck.

Another potential name for the town was Toonerville.

While the town may have been founded in 1934, a obituary that ran March 23 in the Creston News Advertiser stated Edith Fleming, 97, of Osceola, formerly of Murray, was born in Podunk Center in 1914.

Podunk Center’s greatest population was 21 people, and this was in the 1930s. However, the rural-farming community isn’t on any map or postal guide.

General store

In 1937, Joe Ascheral purchased the place and operated the store for a year.

In 1938, Guy Handley and Gaylord Sawhill purchased it. At the time, Sawhill farmed land nearby, but gave it up to operate the general store and gas station.

The general store sold groceries, notions, automobile supplies and soda pop. To generate electric power for the place, there was a tall, wind-charger tower.

Sawhill also bought cream, eggs and poultry from local farmers. In the summer months, the icehouse was popular with customers.

“It was before Casey’s,” Spencer said with a smile.

By the late 1940s, Sawhill had the idea of putting in tourist cabins for people to stay in. This later evolved into a four-unit motel.

Sawhill was in charge of the place until August 1961, when he sold it to Homer and Gloria Weeks.

When the Weekses became owners of Podunk Center, Gloria Weeks put out a mimeographed weekly newspaper called the Podunk Center News.

The population of Podunk Center at that time with Sawhill, his wife and their three children.

Podunk Center actually rose to its greatest fame when it was about to completely die off.

See Thursday’s Creston News Advertiser to find out what happened next.

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