Red Oak, IA
Among the early residents of Montgomery County were Native Americans, dating back to over 10,000 years ago. The earliest white settlers arrived in the early 1850s, settling near a small stream they named Red Oak Creek for the Red Oak trees that grew along its banks. Montgomery County was formed in 1851 and named for Revolutionary War hero Richard Montgomery.
Even though the settlement of Red Oak was officially made the Montgomery County seat in 1865, it grew slowly at first, numbering only about 50 houses in 1868. However, the quiet nature of the community changed in 1869, when the Chicago, Burlington & Pacific Railroad line came through town. In the same year, the town of Red Oak Junction was officially organized (the “Junction” was dropped in 1901).
The arrival of the railroad triggered rapid growth and an influx of wealth to Red Oak over the next decade. The town became the trading center for the entire region, and new industries sprang up quickly, including a meat packing plant, a brewery, a cannery, flour mills, and a brick and tile works. At the height of the town’s prosperity, around the turn of the century, several fine community buildings, including the Montgomery County Courthouse, were constructed. Newly wealthy merchants, as well as railroad officials, built many splendid homes on Red Oak’s east side. These homes stand today as a tangible reminder of Red Oak’s storied past; several of the structures are on the National Historic Register. The annual Heritage Hill Tour is an ideal way to experience the town’s architectural heritage. Beginning at the courthouse, visitors can walk or drive a route that winds past structures in a variety of styles — including Victorian, Queen Anne, Georgian, Italianate, English Tudor and Prairie — all constructed between 1870 and 1916. Informational brochures, as well as a map of the tour, are available at the Red Oak Chamber of Commerce office.
Among sites on the tour, and a tangible reminder of the importance of the railroad in Red Oak, is the restored 1903 Burlington Northern Depot, which today houses a World War II Memorial Museum. The depot is open for self-guided tours.
Red Oak has a proud military history and heritage. Red Oak natives have fought for their country in every engagement since the Civil War. Red Oak’s Company M suffered 160 casualties among its 250 members; 52 men were killed in action.
The town has a particularly strong and moving connection with World War II history: Red Oak lost more of its sons, per capita, in the conflict than any other community in the United States. Residents would gather daily at Red Oak’s Johnson Hotel to await and exchange news about the war. Indeed, one particularly tragic day — March 6, 1943 — more than 100 telegrams arrived bearing news of Red Oak soldiers missing in action. Red Oak gained the recognition and gratitude of the nation, which was expressed in 1944 with the U.S. Navy’s christening of Red Oak Victory, a cargo and ammunition ship that played an important role in the Pacific theater. Happily, despite her hazardous tour of duty, Red Oak Victory did not suffer a single casualty. Today, Red Oak Victory is one of the few remaining Victory ships. She is maintained under the care of the Richmond Museum of History in Richmond, California.
Remembrance and reverence for the sacrifices of her sons and daughters is an integral part of the Red Oak community. Each Memorial Day, more than 1,000 flags, donated by the families of war veterans, fly in Red Oak’s Evergreen Cemetery, and the town’s Court of Honor sponsors special ceremonies each Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
In the town square, memorials have been erected for veterans of World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. A fountain in the square is a tribute to the men lost during World War I.
Respect for the town’s military heritage is passed on to each successive generation. In 1998, students at Red Oak High conducted a series of interviews with Red Oak veterans of World War II and their family members, preserving for posterity the voices of some of America’s heroes. In 2004, the Red Oak High School Minnisingers Show Choir performed at the opening of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.