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News of the Weird

Tuesday March 26, 2002

Iowa town gives away free land 


CHELSEA, Iowa — If you call Chelsea home in the next 12 months, it can be yours for free. 

In a blatant attempt at self-preservation, leaders in this small central Iowa town are giving away three ready-to-build lots to anyone willing to build a house here. 

Mayor Roger Ochs said the homespun giveaway is the centerpiece of a strategy to revive a hard-luck community desperate for new blood, a broader tax base and a new lease on life. 

“We just want to get some new people in here,” Ochs said of the city-owned lots, which offers a sweeping view of the Iowa River Valley. “If it takes giving away something to do it, then the City Council felt it was worth it.” 

After watching one family after another move away, many after the Iowa River flooded the town in 1993, Ochs and the council decided it was time to do something to reverse the trend. 

In 1997, the city council bought seven acres of land on a hill north of the city for $25,000, subdivided it into 15 lots and paid to install sewer, water and electricity. 

The nine lots remaining are selling at discounted prices, between $7,500 and $8,500, well below the cost paid to install utilities. They’ll go for free as long as the new owner agrees to begin construction within six months and finish the home within a year. 


Taking ‘Lord of the Flies’ to a higher level 


KEY WEST, Fla. — Kathe Betz used her experience playing the trumpet to win the Key West Conch Shell Blowing Contest. 

The retired high school art teacher from Milwaukee outperformed 40 contestants Saturday to win the 40th annual competition that attracted conch shell blowers from 4 to 92. 

“I spent high school playing a trumpet, in college I played a baritone and I still play in a British brass band up in Wisconsin,” Betz said. “I think I have big lungs because I play all the time. 

“I did all of the fancy things I could think of to do,” she said, after playing a segment of the “William Tell Overture.” 

The contest, a facet of the island’s Old Island Days heritage celebration, has deep roots in Key West’s colorful history. Trophies were awarded in four categories, with judging based on the quality, novelty, duration and loudness of the sounds produced. 

Native-born residents refer to themselves as conchs, conch chowder and conch fritters are traditional island dishes, and the two-story, gingerbread-bedecked wooden houses in the historic Old Town district are known as conch houses. 


CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP) — Sometimes people can forget a birthday. But a whole town? 

That’s the case this year, when Cedar Falls turns 150. 

Despite an ample supply of history buffs, the occasion didn’t show up on anyone’s radar screen until only a few weeks ago. 

“I guess it kind of creeped up on us,” said Sid Morris, a member of the Cedar Falls Historical Society Board. “We thought we better get something together, and do it fast.” 

The board now has a committee formed and is planning a Labor Day celebration to mark the event. 

Organizers say it will be a family event with entertainment, vendors and people dressed in clothing from the mid 1800’s. The event is planned for Overman Park, named after the city’s first mayor, John Milton Overman. 

Cedar Falls was first recognized as a town in 1852. 


NEW BERLIN, Wis. (AP) — Garter snakes are choking the city’s plans to build a $40 million civic center. 

The city and the state Department of Natural Resources have been sparring over how to proceed since last summer, when state officials discovered garter snakes in an area where a road would be built to the center. The state classifies the species as threatened. 

The state wants the city to alter the road plan to save the snake habitat, but New Berlin officials say the road extension is critical for developers to solidify deals with potential tenants. 

After a meeting Friday, New Berlin Mayor Ted Wysocki agreed to submit a list of the city’s objections and offered a plan to move the snakes about 600 yards to the Deer Creek Preserve. 

“I just can’t believe there isn’t some element of common sense here,” Wysocki said. “We would dedicate our work force and find every snake that’s out there, seriously.” 

Gloria McCutcheon, the southeastern district chief of the Department of Natural Resources said her agency didn’t discover the snakes until eight months after the city filed its road extension application. 

“It may not have been everyone’s first solution, but it was a compromise,” she said.