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In 1868, with Iowa fast outgrowing its only prison in Fort Madison, state lawmakers began thinking about building a new penitentiary. Several cities around the state vied for the prestige and economic benefits the new prison would provide. Anamosa, a rapidly growing town of 2,000 in east-central Iowa, was ultimately awarded the prize, in no small measure because of its proximity to some of the largest and finest dolomite limestone deposits in the world, coveted as the perfect building material for the massive institution. From 1873 until major construction ended in 1943, inmate workers literally built walls around themselves, slowly erecting a structure from the Iowa prairie whose imposing and magnificent architecture would continue to command respect and awe even to the present day. From Wild West bad man Polk Wells and boy-murderer Wesley Elkins to heinous mass murderer John Wayne Gacy, many have passed through Anamosa's iron gates and, with the quietly dedicated men and women who managed them, have contributed to the rich tapestry of Anamosa prison history.
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About the Author
Richard Snavely and Steve Wendl were career employees of the Anamosa Penitentiary and helped establish the prison museum. They have chosen the best images and stories from the prison museum's large archive and their personal research.