Even as a third grader at Altoona’s Willowbrook Elementary, Alex Payne was intrigued by the history of Altoona, particularly when his class visited historic sites like Back Door Fabrics in Olde Town. For a kid, these dusty places contained a kind of magic—it was like the people and events of the past were echoing through the walls, their stories begging to be told.
For Alex, that magic never faded. When he grew up, he made it his life’s work to tell the stories of the people and places around him – both past and present – writing two books on Altoona’s rich history, volunteering with the Altoona Area Historical Society, and bringing history to life as co-chair of Altoona’s sesquicentennial celebration in 2018.
But that’s just scratching the surface of Alex’s life in Altoona, where he has both documented his hometown’s history and managed to become a key character in it.
For today’s #PeopleofAltoona feature, we asked the writer and local historian to tell us his Altoona story thus far…
Alex’s Altoona Story, In His Own Words
I can’t remember a time when Altoona wasn’t a major part of my life. My parents moved here from Des Moines just weeks after I was born. My mom was born and raised in Des Moines, and my dad was originally from Davenport. Altoona offered great schools and was closer to family in the Quad Cities.
I became passionate about Altoona and its history at a young age. In third grade at Willowbrook Elementary, we did a unit on local history. During that unit, we took a field trip to historic sites in the Southeast Polk area, including Back Door Fabrics (now the Altoona Area Historical Museum). I fell in love with the historic building and Olde Town.
That love of local history didn’t end in third grade. I joined the Altoona Area Historical Society when I was 13, becoming the youngest member by about three decades. Since I was not old enough to drive, my parents would have to drive me to each of the meetings and then come pick me up. I have remained active ever since, even writing two books on the history of Altoona.
Being a part of the Historical Society, I got to know Tim Burget while he was still mayor. In July 2008, I realized Altoona’s sesquicentennial was 10 years away, and that we needed to start planning for the big event, ensuring that the historical society was a part of it. After years of reminding Tim of the approaching anniversary, he and I met with Melissa Horton from the Altoona Area Chamber of Commerce in 2016 to start a planning committee for the event, and I served as co-chair.
Altoona 150 only helped expand my involvement in the community. After the sesquicentennial, I joined the group that brought back Altoona Palooza in 2019. I couldn’t get enough of being a part of the planning of these exciting events in our community.
In late 2017, I realized Altoona was lacking a community holiday event like the ones I had enjoyed when I was a child. I love Christmas and remembered how popular Christmas in Olde Town was until it ended in 2008. I worked with Victoria Veatch, who was a board member of the historical society, and we put together a small holiday event at the museum to see if there was interest. It turned out to be a success. We decided to bring back Christmas in Olde Town as an annual event, and have continued to grow it each year.
As revitalization talks about Olde Town started up, I joined the Altoona Area Chamber of Commerce’s Olde Town Revolution Task Force and worked with local business owners to recreate the Olde Town Business Association this year. Our first major task for the business association was bringing back the Olde Town Farmers’ Market.
I was also a member of the city’s original Arts and Culture committee, helping interview and select artists for upcoming public art projects.
What makes Altoona home to me? I would say it’s the people. Not only is Altoona where my parents live, but so many other people here have become like family to me. They are there to help when you need it, and to celebrate your successes. There are people passionate about Altoona, and so many who have a common goal for what they would like to see.
We support each other, and I think the COVID-19 pandemic showed that. We came together and supported our businesses and restaurants, or created chalk art and bear hunts for families to get out and enjoy while everything was closed.
As a resident of Altoona, I feel like getting involved in my community and helping to make it a better place is the most rewarding thing I can do.
– Alex Payne
Thanks for reading this #PeopleofAltoona feature!
Just minutes from Des Moines, Altoona is home to amenities that everyone can enjoy—from major entertainment attractions and shopping destinations to beautiful metro parks—as well as good schools, cozy neighborhoods, fun community events, and a thriving economy.