Iowa City’s Bell Keeper – Herb Gartzke.

Allow me to introduce you to Herb Gartzke of Iowa City. I’m guessing you’ve never heard of Herb – yet when it comes to honoring those who have given their all in keeping Iowa City’s rich heritage alive, there’s no one more deserving than this guy. As a matter of fact, in 1987, the Cedar Rapids Gazette named him “Iowa City’s unofficial historian.”

Herbert Gustave Gartzke was born to Emil and Johanna Gartzke on October 23, 1900 in Hika, (Manitowoc County) Wisconsin (see map below) – about 90 miles north of Milwaukee.

The youngest of five children, Herb and the Gartzke family moved to Iowa City in 1905, when Emil, who had owned his own brewery and had worked for Schlitz in Milwaukee, took a job as plant foreman, working for William & Otto Graf – two brothers who took over Union Brewery, from their father, Conrad Graf, renaming it Graf Brothers Brewery in 1903.

Click here to read about another famous Iowa City brewer – Louis Englert.

Writer Mary Beth Freking, interviewing Herb Gartzke in an article for The Daily Iowan in May 1987, tells us more…

Click here to read more about the breweries of Iowa City and how they impacted our city.

In February 1978, Irving Weber interviewed Herb’s older brother Fred for the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Here, we get more info on the Gartzke brothers as they were growing up in turn-of-the-century Iowa City…

In 1921, Herb married Margaret Tucker while his brother, Fred, married Edna Goetz. Both couples ended up living in Johnson County the rest of their days. Fred became the Chief Engineer for the City of Iowa City (1937-1963) while Herb worked with Johnson County as shop foreman (1930-1970). It’s these jobs that brought the Gartzke brothers in close contact with Iowa City’s City Hall and the ornate clock tower of that classic 1881 building.

(P-0276) City Hall looking west on Washington Street – Click here to see more pictures of downtown Iowa City at the turn-of-the-century.

Before the city moved their offices into the new Civic Center in 1962, Fred Gartzke had his office in old City Hall. Once again, Irving Weber tells us more…

Iowa City City Hall, when it was built in 1881, was a state-of-the-art facility, housing city offices, the fire department, and the police department. It’s clock tower was visible throughout the city and the bells rang out on an hourly schedule, plus were used to signal emergencies.
Iowa City’s first City Hall was the William H. Bostick House – built in 1851 at 115 North Gilbert Street and used as City Hall when Iowa City was incorporated (1853) until the new City Hall was built. More details here.

(P-0039) Iowa City Promotional Post Card featuring City Hall – circa 1910.

In 1881 Iowa City built a new City Hall Building at the corner of Linn and Washington streets. The Fire Department headquarters was moved to this building. Ironically, the building nearly burned to the ground that year when a gas hose dryer was left on in the fire department, starting a fire that caused about $17,000 in damage. The cost of rebuilding the hall was $9,925. The fire department managed to prevent any more fires in their new quarters and remained in that building until 1961.
(P-0036) The Iowa City Fire Department Circa 1908 with the Iowa City Post Office in background.

In the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, urban renewal was the wave of the future. Most American cities were ripping down older buildings at a rapid pace and replacing them with new modernized facilities. Downtown Iowa City was no different and in 1962, rather than repair and restore the out-dated City Hall, it was easier – and less expensive – to rip it down while building a new Civic Center just a few blocks away.

Iowa City City Hall served our city faithfully until 1962 when it was razed during an urban renewal project that left the northwest corner of South Linn & Washington Streets basically empty since then. A drive-in bank was placed there in the 1970’s and rumor has it, at the time of this writing (2021) that the city is planning a new use of this valuable property in downtown Iowa City.

Which now brings us back to the Gartzke brothers. When Frank, as City Engineer, was in the process of moving his office to the new Civic Center, he informed his brother Herb that the city was planning on selling the old City Hall clock works and bell, basically at scrap prices. Sadly, these 19th-century rarities had been removed from the City Hall clock tower in 1954 and were left to gather dust in the City Hall basement.

Herbert Gartzke, not wanting to see these priceless treasures lost, bought the City Hall 1,800 pound bell, the 1,200 pound clock, and the 14-foot-long pendulum for less than $50 in 1962. Herbert safely watched over these Iowa City icons until 1989, when he donated them all back to the City of Iowa City.

From 1962 to 1989, Herb Gartzke became the keeper of the City Hall clock, pendulum, and bell, storing the clock works in his garage, but proudly displaying the 1,800-pound bell in the back yard of his home (606 Second Avenue) beginning in 1966. On July 4, 1981, the 100th anniversary of the dedication ceremony of City Hall, the Iowa City Press-Citizen did a beautiful write-up on both Herb and the 100-year old bell…

In the article, Herb shares his vision that someday both the City Hall clock and the bell would be restored so that everyone in Iowa City could appreciate their significance as much as he does.

In July of 1987, yet another article on Gartzke and his City Hall collection was written, this time by the Cedar Rapids Gazette

On May 4th, 1989, Iowa City celebrated its 150th anniversary. Read more about that special celebration here. Prior to the big party, Herb worked out an agreement with the city to donate both the City Hall clock and bell so they could be enjoyed once more by the people of Iowa City. Once again, the Cedar Rapids Gazette did a beautiful story on 89-year-old Herb, his gift to the city, and his hope to ring the bell at its new location just outside City Hall on New Years Eve 1989, welcoming in the 1990’s…

Today, both the City Hall bell and clock are back in business – available for all Iowa Citians to fully appreciate the historical significance of both iconic items.

The 1881 City Hall Bell on display outside the Iowa City Civic Center (City Hall) at 410 E. Washington Street.

The 1881 City Hall Clock Works on display atop the Tower Place and Parking Building at Iowa Ave and S. Linn Street.

Click here to read more about old City Hall and Tower Place & Parking Building and their part in Iowa City’s Historic Skyscrapers.

Fred Gartzke (1896-1986) and Edna Gartzke (1902-1975) are buried in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City.

Herb Gartzke died June 8, 1990 at the age of 89, and his wife Margaret Gartzke passed on June 14, 1988. Both are buried at Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Iowa City.

Click here to read more about the many Bells of Iowa City…

Here’s a tip of the old hat to Fred and Herb Gartzke – two sons of a Milwaukee brewer who faithfully served our city for many years and had the foresight to save a part of Iowa City’s rich heritage. May the old City Hall bell ring out in your memory.

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Old Brewery recalls memories of younger days in Iowa City, Mary Beth Freking, The Daily Iowan, May 15, 1987, p 3

Graf Brothers Brewery 1903-1915,

Graf Brothers Brewery Advertisement, Iowa City Press Citizen, April 15, 1904, p 5

German-American Brewers in Iowa City, Glenn Ehrstine,

Herbert G Gartzke in the 1940 Census,

History – Iowa City Fire Department, City of Iowa City website

Fred Gartzke – Iowa City’s Engineer for 30 years, Irving B. Weber, Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 8, 1978

Old City Hall Bell to Ring on its 100th Fourth of July, Nan Seelman, Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 4, 1981, p 1

Salvaging Iowa City History A Bit At A Time, Cedar Rapids Gazette, July 29, 1987, pp 20, 12S

Ringing In Another New Year With Herbert Gartzke, Cedar Rapids Gazette, December 27, 1989, p 27

Margaret Tucker Gartzke obituary, Cedar Rapids Gazette, June 16, 1988, p 10

Herbert Gartzke obituary, Cedar Rapids Gazette, June 10, 1990, p 20

Fred Emil Gartzke, Find-A-Grave

Margaret Tucker Gartzke, Find-A-Grave

Herbert Gustav Gartzke, Find-A-Grave

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