Calmar History

Calmar History

The First Settlers

The First Settlers

It is to this scenic spot that Norwegians Thore P. Skotland and his family came one delightful day in the spring of 1850. Perhaps his heart was warmed by a terrain that reminded him of the rugged beauty of Norway. Whatever his reason, he put his roots down in a piece of land two miles north of the town to be know later as Calmar, Iowa on a tract of land called the Rhuben Boe Farm. His descendents still occupy on part of this land. A German settler in the southern part of the township had preceded Skotland, but nothing is known of him.

That summer, Skotland and his wife saw only 6 people, three whites and three Indians. It is difficult to imagine seeing no human beings outside your family for month’s. The three countrymen who broke his drought of companionship were Thorsen Land, Lars Land and Andre P. Sandager. This was made even more interesting by the fact that these three were not just fellow Norwegians, but were also Thore’s brothers.

You might wonder how this could be, since they had different last names. Norwegian custom at that time decreed that the surname belonged to the land, estate or farm a person came from. When you left your home to live elsewhere, you also left behind your name.

Skotland and his family, Calmar’s first recorded settlers, were soon joined by others. In 1851, seven other settlers arrived. In the period of the 1870’s through the 1890’s, Calmar showed a population gain from 700 to almost 1100 people.

While the City of Calmar, continued to grow and flourish, Thore P. Skotland took on many new endeavors. One of those would be to become one of the three incorporators of Luther College in Decorah, IA. He was also a member of it’s first Board of Trustee’s and a member of it’s first building committee. In 1874, he sold out and moved to Otter Tail County, Minnesota, where he died in 1903 at the age of 81.

Naming the Town

Naming the Town

Swedish-born Alfred Clark and his pals referred to the area as "Marysville" after a mining town they had admired in California. When it was found that another Marysville, Iowa already existed, another named had to be found for the town. Half a mile east was an area commonly referred to as "Whiskey Grove," where the flower brothers, two Canadian traders, did business with Indians, soldiers and all others seeking "fire water." This was an area where bootleggers reportedly operated and always managed to evade the law of the time.

While some used this name to refer to the Calmar area at the time, it was actually never the name applied to the town location. There was debate between Englishmen and Norwegians on what name to choose, and they decided to let Landin and Clark decide, as they were Swedish and would not take either party’s side. Their decision was to name the town Calmar, after Kalmar Sound on the southeast coast of Sweden. This had been Alfred Clark’s original hometown.

The Railroad and Calmar, Iowa

The Railroad and Calmar, Iowa

"…Counting every mile of railroad track that leads me back…" is part of the lyric from that old popular tune, "Sentimental Journey", a song about yearning for and returning home. In the day it was written the railroad was the most likely means a person would use for a long trip back home, and there is just something about the remembrance of railroading days and travel that evokes a feeling of romance in us. Song’s, movies, even mystery novels that center on their use of a train and its passengers have unique appeal to the public. Collecting railroad memorabilia continues to be a growing interest worldwide. Who wouldn’t like to take a trip on the “Orient Express”?

Calmar, at one time, was a major railroad hub of the Milwaukee Road between Marquette and Mason City. Passenger trains ran on this line up until some time in the 1960’s. These passenger trains ran between Madison, Wisconsin and into South Dakota. At Madison, there were connections with other passenger trains and going into Milwaukee and Chicago. In addition to hauling passengers, these trains handled express shipments for all the stops along the line. There was also a direct line running northwest to Austin, Minnesota.

Calmar railroad yards, looking east at the turn of the century.
Twice a day, there would be meat trains from the Hormel plant in Austin, heading for Chicago and points east. One train ran in the early morning hours and the other ran in the afternoon. There were trains transporting meat from the Morrell Plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. These trains received top priority over other trains running on the line because, even though the merchandise was in refrigerated cars, it was very important that they were not delayed. Calmar also had livestock yards where cars hauling livestock could be spotted on the track and the animals unloaded for feed and water. This procedure was required to be done on the line every 24 hours, and Calmar was one of the stations that had these facilities.


The station in Calmar was staffed 24 hours a day, every day of the year. There was a station agent, clerks and four operators to handle the station duties. The operators received train orders for each passing train and for the trains originating in Calmar.

In 1864, the McGregor-Western Railroad began acquiring land and word spread that the railroad would run through the town of Calmar. This was exciting news to a relatively undeveloped town, as it would make Calmar a central market place. Also, it would be the direct and only line between Chicago and the Twin Cities, as there was no line existing in Wisconsin to join these points. Previously, farmers and businessmen traveled 40 to 50 miles to river towns to purchase supplies, but this could change all that.

Fortune smiled on Calmar, in 1868, when it became the eastern terminus and junction with the main line for the I & D branch of the Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad, which was built as far as New Hampton, Iowa. This added value to Calmar’s, location, and in 1869, the train terminal was transferred from Conover, Iowa to Calmar. Decorah was happy and held a sizeable celebration at Luther College, which was now a few years old and going strong. The stagecoach was no longer needed and the county seat had access to railroad facilities.

The Old Depot Hotel, in all its former glory.
The facilities in Calmar included a well-equipped freight depot, and a passenger depot with a hotel. Passengers could get meals and lodging as well as train tickets at the hotel. Plans for the 10-stall roundhouse were completed in 1911. Once this was built, large engines could be switched to fall another direction by use of the turntable. There were also pits within the roundhouse that allowed workers to do repairs under the engines. East of the roundhouse, a tall coal chute provided fuel for the steam engine fires, and a nearby watertower and pumphouse kept water readily available for direct connection to the engine.

In 1902, there were two passenger trains and two freight trains running daily between Calmar and Minnesota. A similar load ran on the east-west line that linked Chicago and Rapid City, South Dakota. A freight and passenger train ran daily south, through Jackson Junction to Cedar Rapids. Four trains ran daily between Calmar and Decorah.