City of Urbandale History

Urbandale: A Brief History 1917-1992

The City and School District

The Street Cars Arrive


Civic Organizations

Urbandale Schools

City Government

The City and School District

Typically, a new town is formed because of growth in an area and a desire of the local people to have their own government, but Urbandale’s situation was not typical. The town formed because of the schools.

At the beginning of this century, the area that is now Urbandale was a community of family farms, typically one-quarter of a section. Two one-room schools served the area: the McDivitt School at Meredith Drive and 71st Street and the Center School at Meredith Drive and 100th Street. Children east of N.W. 86th Street attended McDivitt School and children west of N.W. 86th Street went to Center School.

Rural school consolidations had been very slow in Iowa until 1913 when state legislation offered state aid to consolidated schools, based on the number of rooms in the school. Johnston School District became consolidated and took in the area up to Meredith Drive, including the McDivitt School.

People south of Meredith Drive then managed to raise $2,000 to build a one-room school. A lot was purchased at 70th Street and Douglas Avenue and the school opened in 1913. Johnston Consolidated District was then threatening to extend its boundaries another mile south and there was talk of busing students to Johnston by horse-drawn carriage.

The only way to prevent this was by forming an Independent School District, which could be done only by first incorporating the town. A petition was filed on March 5, 1917, for an election to incorporate 2,562 acres that was described as “three miles west of the Des Moines City limits.” It took in the area from 63rd Street to N.W. 86th Street and from about Urbandale Avenue to Meredith Drive. Forty-nine votes were cast in opposition. (Women were not allowed to vote at that time.) The 1920 census showed a population of 298.

The Street Cars Arrive

One boost to the area was the advent of the streetcar line that had been extended to the Urbandale area in 1905. The turnaround was at 70th Street and Roseland Drive. This was the location of Urbandale’s first businesses. The streetcar delivered supplies and was also used by doctors to come to see their patients–in the days when doctors made house calls. Many families did not have a car and used the streetcar for transportation. Service ended on the trolley in 1951.

The Des Moines Register of April 6, 1917, had an ad for “Urbandale property,” a subdivision of 161 half-acre lots near the Urbandale car line–but they were not included in the incorporated area. Sixty-Third Street was the Urbandale boundary and the advertised lots were located between 58th Street and 62nd Street, south of Douglas Avenue. These lots sold for $500.

Acreages in Urbandale were typically from five to twelve acres. Sixty-Fourth Street from Roseland Drive to Douglas Avenue for instance, was divided into eight five-acre lots. People moving to Urbandale were interested in country living, where they could have some chickens, a good-sized garden, and perhaps raise a couple of pigs or a cow.

People often ask how the town was named. Although nobody is sure, it is thought to come from the interurban railway that went to Boone. (There is no connection with the Urban family.) “Urbandale” picnics were held annually, starting in 1909 (eight years before incorporation), but they were held at Fagen’s Grove in Beaverdale, at Beaver and Urbandale Avenues.

A number of dairies operated in Urbandale during the 1920s and 1930s, among them ones owned by the Lambs, Stuarts, Walkers, Kerns and Burnsteds. A turkey farm, operated by Laird Jones from 1946 to 1954, was located at the northeast corner of 64th Street and Douglas Avenue. He raised approximately 1,200 turkeys a year.

Coal mining started in Urbandale in the 1920s with the mining of low-grade soft coal. The largest of the four mines was the Des Moines Ice and Fuel mine, located on what is now the site of Karen Acres Elementary School. (When the school was built in 1964, the shower house from the mine was converted into a three-room school annex.) Other mines were the Urbandale Coal Mine at 78th Street and Meredith Drive and the Beck Coal Mine on Merle Hay Road. A majority of the miners lived in Des Moines and commuted by streetcar. Coal shafts are located under much of Urbandale.

Electricity became available in 1917 when the lines were put through to Camp Dodge. Water lines were hooked up in 1934 by the WPA and sewer lines were installed in 1950.


The first church in Urbandale was the McDivitt Methodist Church, located near the McDivitt Grove cemetery at 70th Street and Meredith Drive. It was built in the summer of 1875.The church was torn down in the 1950s. The Urbandale United Church of Christ was organized in 1921 as a community church. A basement church was built at 70th Street and Oliver Smith Drive. Later, it became a Congregational church and for many years served the community as a meeting place for various groups. The Victory Christian Center (originally the Open Bible Church) was built in 1948. Since that time, the number of churches has increased to 15, including a wide variety of denominations.

Civic Organizations

The population in 1950 was 1,777. Rapid growth started after World War II and Urbandale officially became a city in 1960, with a population of 5,821. A number of new developments started–Karen Acres and Rolling Green were the largest. People in the new developments complained about feeling like outsiders and it was at this time that the Urbandale Women’s Club was formed, providing a place for newcomers to get acquainted by joining groups for cards, bowling or civic improvement.

The Women’s club “City Hostess Plan” was formed in 1961 to provide newcomers with information on how to get involved in all community activities as quickly and as easily as possible. For the past 34 years each new family moving into a home has been called on and provided with a booklet telling about Urbandale’s clubs, youth activities, recreational facilities, businesses, history, etc. This has done a great deal to maintain the small-town atmosphere people in Urbandale enjoy.

Much of the city’s progress has been due to its organizations and clubs. The Urbandale Lions Club, organized in 1945, has contributed in many ways. Members raised money through a horse show and car raffles to buy land from Millard Olmsted for Lions Park and then built the shelter house there. The Chamber of Commerce, American Legion, Garden Club, PTA, school booster clubs, Jaycees, Historical Society, Senior Citizens and many others have done their part in adding to the quality of life in Urbandale.

Urbandale Schools

With rapid development in the 1960s came a surge of children into the district, creating a crisis in Urbandale’s schools. The school’s bonding capacity was too small to build the classrooms needed. For a few years, classes were held in various places, including the Sears Roebuck Store, Lions Park Shelter House and several churches. Eventually, the supply caught up with the demand and in 1991, Urbandale Schools were able to build a new gym and add resource centers at each of its schools. The District serves approximately 3,500 students.

At the time of incorporation, the city and school had the same boundaries, approximately four square miles. The city has grown bit by bit with 42 separate annexations, both voluntary and involuntary, some of which took in only one property. Today, the city’s area is approximately 17.65 square miles.

School boundaries did not change with the city boundaries and there has been only one addition to the school district since its beginning. People directly west of the Urbandale Independent School District (from N.W. 86th Street to the Interstate) had a choice of joining either Grimes or Urbandale. They chose Urbandale and the school boundary moved west to the Interstate, making the school district approximately six square miles.

The remainder of Urbandale is divided among five school districts: Des Moines, West Des Moines, Johnston, Dallas Center-Grimes, and Waukee.

City Government

Careful planning by city officials has meant an orderly development in Urbandale both for commercial and industrial growth and recreation. Land has been set aside regularly for parks as developments were platted.

Urbandale now has 415 acres of park land that support many activities, including the best sports complex in the state at Walker Johnston Park, fitness trails at Lakewood and Coronado Parks, a variety of facilities, including a band shell at Lions Park and trails that almost encircle the city for walking, jogging, and bicycling. The indoor/outdoor pool is shared by city and school and is used by many people from Des Moines and other communities, as are all of Urbandale’s parks, shelters, ball diamonds, tennis courts and other facilities.

By Madeline Kaloides

Permission to reproduce granted by Madeline Kaloides

January 31, 2003

* NOTE: This is a personal recollection rather than a researched, scholarly work, and may not be accurate in all respects. For additional city historical information, please go to:

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