MASON CITY — During 25 years as the Mason City Public Library’s historian and archivist, Terry Harrison has presided over a collection that includes nearly 200,000 photographic images, rare books, newspapers and maps dating back to the 19th century.
Now Harrison is ready for his position to also become part of history as he plans to retire in January.
Harrison, a Sedalia, Missouri, native, has degrees in classical archeology and American history. He took over this “local history project” in 1991 at the urging of his friend, then Mason City Library Director Andy Alexander, according to Globe Gazette archives.
When he got the call for the job, Harrison said, he was installing stained-glass windows in Kansas City.
The role originally was planned to be a four-month contract job.
“Terry didn’t grow up here, but you wouldn’t know that from talking to him,” said Mason City Public Library Director Mary Markwalter.
“He did so well and acclimated himself,” she said. “That’s no small thing. He has been a wonderful resource to the community.”
Markwalter would not say if his position will be replaced. She said the library would know “closer to January.”
Among the treasures in the library archives is a seven-minute short film from 1934, shot on the day John Dillinger and crew robbed the First National Bank.
“Unfortunately, there’s none of the robbery. It’s the before and after,” Harrison said.
“But, it is a wonderful document, because it shows all the people gathered around the bank. It shows everyone moving around, everyone gathering around and congratulate themselves on surviving.
“It’s unlike just about anything that we’ve got,” he said.
The archive collection also contains a 1911 letter from Frank Lloyd Wright to George Stockman, asking him to have the Stockman House photographed for a collection of Wright’s work.
It was discovered by the late Art Fischbeck, whom Harrison credits for gathering many of the archives’ early materials.
“The letter was just shoved in the trash along with everything else,” Harrison said. “We were digging through 52 boxes of material.”
The archives also contains a few three-ring binders with information on Meredith Willson and his family.
“I fought with the guys across the street good-naturedly for years,” Harrison said, referring to organizations dedicated to the Mason City native who wrote “The Music Man.”
“1912 Mason City did not look like ‘The Music Man,’” Harrison said. “Had no relationship at all. That streetscape over there (at The Music Man Square) was a Hollywood streetscape.”
Mason City was a town of 15,000 people in 1912,” he said. “It was a very cosmopolitan town.”
“Almost 20 percent of the population was born someplace other than the United States,” Harrison said. “There were Mexican, Greek, Serbian, groups from everywhere in this town.”
Also among the archives is evidence of a rougher past than “The Music Man” depicts, he said.
An early twentieth century court document shows “all the episodes of ‘disorderly conduct,’ which was a euphemism for prostitution,” he said.
“This was the norm in this town — lots of prostitution, lots of bootlegging, lots of everything.”
But he also cites a 1850s-era general store ledger as one of his favorite pieces in the collection.
“It tells what people were buying in 1856,” he said. “You get that whole attachment to people’s cultural history.”