Why Sabula?

Why Sabula?

(featured in Bellevue Herald Leader, July 31, 2013)

By Erica Shoemaker


Lowell Carlson asked me a few weeks ago why I chose to live in Sabula.  This got me thinking and wondering how other people who have lived, or currently do live in Sabula. Why do people choose to live on Iowa’s island city, hosting a population of about 600 residents?

Not being much of a reporter, I posted my question on Facebook and got quite a few responses from people who grew up in Sabula but no longer live here, people who visit Sabula, and people who currently reside on the island.

First things first though…why do I live in Sabula?  I grew up a small town girl, and have wonderful memories from those years, but after getting married, we moved closer to the Quad-Cities for a while, and then traversed to San Antonio, Texas, up to southern Indiana, then back to San Antonio, and then 5 years ago, we came full circle back to Sabula, Iowa.  The main reason is that both mine and my husband’s families are here, a job opportunity was presented to my husband, and we thought it would be nice to have the kids get the chance to live near their grandparents while they finished up middle and high school.  It’s been a nice place for them to live a semi-sheltered existence, get to learn to drive on rural highways instead of freeways, spend time with grandparents and other area family, and finish out their childhood years in the good ol’ Midwest.  Other than those reasons, and having my grandma and my parents living a half a block from me north and south, I love the view from my back porch of Sabula’s middle lake and bluffs.


So what does the island city mean to other people?  My grandma Shirley Vicks moved here when she was in high school, met my grandpa Jim Vicks, and raised their family here.  Gram Shirley says, “I just love Sabula.  It’s a quiet little town, love the beauty of the river and the lakes of course, but I loved staying here all these years being close to my family.  I can’t say I know everyone in town anymore, but I have neighbors and family that look out for me.  I don’t drive and not able to get around too well, but when the weather’s nice, I like to get out and cruise the town in my power chair.  I wouldn’t be able to do that as easily and as safely in a big city.”

Many former and current residents of Sabula shared fond remembrances of growing up in Sabula—do you relate to any or all of them?

Barbara Wakefield, who grew up in the old Methodist parsonage, remembers from her childhood in Sabula, the Brooks Tent Shows that were held in the schoolyard, how you went K – 12 grade with the same classmates, how the streets never went by their proper names, but instead Back Street, Church Street, School Street, Main Street, and River Street. She also remembers her mom talking about how the Indians would set up tents and ice fish on the river during the winter back in the 20’s.

Lisa Vicks Mathiesen of Swisher, Iowa said, “My hometown for the first half of my life was Sabula. My family goes back many generations on Iowa’s one & only Island City. For me personally, it was a great place to grown up in the 60’s & 70’s and holds many good memories for me. Back then, I knew who lived in every single home. There were no “out of towners”. We could always round up a group of kids to play dodge ball, hide & seek, kick the can, red light/green light or tag. And many hours were spent riding our bikes with cards attached to our spokes by a clothes pin, swimming in the middle lake or playing on the equipment in the parks or school yard – most of which has since been banned by the “safety police”. I’ve always loved to read and spending time at Sabula’s public library where my Gramma Winnie Vicks was librarian for a couple of decades. When I would earn money for doing chores for Mom or Gramma, I would head for Papke’s Drug Store, where I would spend a quarter on penny candies that would fill up a paper lunch sack.  But as long as I still have family members on the Island, it will always be my home away from home.”

Former residents, brother and sister Tye Ireland and Terri Ireland Jahn also shared fond memories.  Terri remembers that she used to love to go to the “Y” in the railroad tracks swimming and how she enjoyed the bluffs’ beautiful fall colors, the small town friendliness of people taking care of each other, and the lifetime friends I met:  “I have many warm memories of life in the island city.”  Brother Tye Ireland agreed that he also loved swimming at the “Y” and climbing the bluffs to get a drink of spring water.

Former alumni of Sabula High School reminisced about memories of growing up on the island in a lively banter on Facebook.

Vicki Henfrey:  “Ice skating at night on the lake behind the Catholic church, bon fires to keep warm and Riding my bike every where, be in by the time the street lights came on.”

Rosann Darby Raymond: “Playing kick the can on bicycles. Walking to Savanna every Sunday to go the movies. Exploring the caves on the bluff. The spring had the best water ever, had several picnics there.  Six O’clock whistle…supper time!!! Vicki, I remember your mom’s cinnamon rolls at school lunch….yummy. The fire truck would go out on the ice to test it before they made the skating rink. I also remember the “boys” doing donuts out on the south lake with their vehicle. I believe one or two might have got in trouble doing that.”

Julie Ackerman Draise:  “The Lutheran church bells ringing at noon and 6:00 or is it 5:00?? Agree with Julie C. Sleeping on my grandparents screened porch in the summer. Closing the church hill in the winter and riding our sleds…for hours. Ice skating on the back lake and going across the street and warming up in Gene Dickinson’s parents garage. They had an old stove in the garage. Riding the country roads drinking beer! Well, maybe you shouldn’t post that one… ”

Joe Hartman:  “No matter what part of town you lived in fishing was only a couple of blocks away…jumping off the RR Bridge and parking between the Cemetery and Sand Pit.”

Jim Vicks:  “Sledding on an old car hood while being pulled by a car on the old dump road, jumping off the railroad bridge, and “Lovers Lane”

Julie Cavanaugh Theilken:  “Swimming at the Y in the summer to cool off was awesome! Hunting for a morel mushrooms when they were in season. Staying outside playing all day until the fire siren sounded at dinner time. Sleeping on the screened porch in the summer. Going to the races at ‘beautiful US 30 drag strip’! Going to dances on Saturday nights in Savanna with Lynne Ketelsen Mangler! Basketball games in the driveway at 512 Broad St. Growing up free and unafraid! Just a few of my favorites.”

Darlys Hutton: ” Being able to see the mighty Mississippi every day. Running when you heard the Delta Queen calliope and waving to the people on the boat as it went by.”

Sue Vicks Naeve stated, “I have many fond memories of growing up in Sabula from both myself and our girls. Playing, yes playing outside with other kids in person, NOT on-line, on the river bank, yards, vacant lots, or at the parks, staying out until we were hollered at by Mom to come in for meals or bath time. We didn’t have to worry about “stranger danger” because everyone knew and looked out for each others’ kids. Going for rides with Gramma Winnie out in the country was a fun time. As we grew to be teenagers, the beach was the hot spot or some days we would just layout tanning on rooftops(flat of course) smothered in baby oil with iodine added to it and lemon juice in our hair to make it even blonder. All in all, I never regret growing up in a small town. Many happy times and memories.”

Other former and current Sabula folks and visitors shared their reasons for why they love Sabula:

Brenda Wilcke McKone, former teacher at East Central Elementary School in Sabula said, “I absolutely loved teaching in Sabula for the past 33 years. Obviously the scenery and atmosphere of the island is a big draw, but what kept me there was the people. Even though I never lived in Sabula, it always felt like home. The people who live there are good people who care about their kids. They would go out of their way for any of us teachers and made us feel like part of the community.

Debb Pataska, who also taught at the Sabula elementary building said, “I always looked forward to the drive over the causeway in the early morning when the mist and fog was hovering above the water. The sun was peeking out and the birds were flittering about. It was a peaceful scene to watch just before the chaos of my work day began.”

Lynne Mangler:  “I like the great neighbors, the beauty of the changing seasons; it’s a different view all year round.”  Since I am one of her neighbors, I am glad to hear she likes us!

Rhonda Meyers:  “I love it cause if my kids did something wrong on one side of town I knew before they got home.”

Janet Marburger: “My favorite thing about Sabula is driving out Evergreen Avenue in the fall. It’s like a tunnel of beautiful colors from the leaves on the trees!”

Kelsey Dierks:  “When something happens in Sabula the whole town comes together to help.”

Michelle Themas:  “Being able to let kids go to the other end of town to play w/out worrying about them being kidnapped…just the all around “safe” feeling of living in a small town!!”

Jody Rittmer shared those sentiments, “Feeling safe around family and friends.”

Shal-Marie Winter Johns:  “My one memory is driving down the hill into town during the summer (shad fly time) and having the shad flies coming into our truck while we are driving….YUCK!”

Ashley Hansen:  LUCKY 7’s TACOS!!

Deb Thayer:  “So many fun happy memories of our wonderful Island City, Sabula. It seems like no matter where I roam, my heart always brings me back to the beautiful scenery and carefree living. Where else can our children ride bikes, fish, hunt, swim, play sports, enjoy winter fun & know just about everyone in town.”

Lora Dague Murphy:  “Growing up with the innocents of a small town where everyone looked out for one another. And climbing the tree on the river bank and carving your initials in it.”

Brittany Lawson of Sabula said, “Who else gets to say they live on an ISLAND in Iowa? My kids at school love hearing that. Not just an island, but an island on the biggest and most beautiful waterway in the United States!”

We have a little slice of recreational paradise here on the island.  Residents and out-of-towners get a lot of pleasure, family time, and memories made on the Mississippi and its backwaters that surround Sabula.  Several of our own take fishing to a whole new level by setting trotlines and commercial fishing.  How many people can say they have caught a 30-60lb catfish in the Mississippi?  I know a few, but they would have to kill me if they told me their fishing secrets.

That’s a big one!

Lisa Hartman, current librarian at the Krabbenhoft Public Library in Sabula, said that one of her favorite things about Sabula is “the serene beauty of the American flags lining River and Lake Streets during the summer holidays.”

Sabula’s beautiful, patriotic riverfront. Flags are all raised and taken down by members of the Sabula American Legion. (Picture taken by Missy Calentine Wilch)

Even some of our younger residents say they love living in Sabula.  Brynn H., soon to be 7th grader, said that she likes being able to tell people that she lives on an island, in Iowa.  I know from my own experience the confused look of disbelief you get from telling that to people who barely know where Iowa is, let alone Sabula.


Many memories are sure to be made at Island City Days, August 2 & 3rd!  Being a small town, it always takes volunteers from the community to care and Island City Days would not be making its return if it weren’t for the volunteers who have spent time to make it happen.  The Sabula Community Club members are the organizers of the celebration.

Back from left to right Brittany Lawson, Josh Kilburg, Jim Bangasser, Scott Bormann. Front left to right: Monica Bormann, Seth Lawson, Keshia Sandholdt, Lindsey Rittmer, and Ashlee Ready (not shown Jim Phillips and Hank Kramer)
Some members of Sabula’s volunteer fire department readied themselves for some water ball fight action at the Island City Days celebration.

So, why do we love Sabula?  Whether you live here your whole life or just come back to visit, I think the reason why so many of us love Sabula can be simply summed up by what Nikki Naeve Gold of Utah told me:  “It’s HOME!”



  1. Great article, Erica! I recently spoke with my college roommate from Chicago and we decided to bring her children to the island city to show them what we meant by “aunt” Candace grew up on an island. Both my roommate and her son have been corrected by people when they spoke of Sabula. “There are no islands in Iowa!” We stopped by hop-n-shop to purchase post cards for everyone to take to school to prove the island exists! . Each year I begin telling my students about where I grew up. Only Josh Payne, your cousin, and a select few other second graders in Dixon, Il. know of Sabula. It is great for get to know you games. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Candace! I was talking to my grandma Shirley about some of the history and another interesting bit of trivia would be to tell students that it became an island when the locks and dams system were put into the river. Prior to that, the lakes were celery fields 🙂


Leave a reply, share feedback, or start a conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s