Louis Iten, born in Switzerland in 1838, made a difference in Clinton that remains today. When he came to the U.S. in 1850, he first worked in the vinegar business in Davenport, and then moved to Clinton starting the L. Iten & Sons Cracker Company.

His cookie and cracker was recognized not only for the high quality of their goods, but especially for the emphasis on cleanliness and high standards of sanitation. The initial small building was enlarged to 70,000 square feet (what we now call the Burpee Seed building) and was known as the Snow White Bakery. It was built so that no other building could be located near it (producing dust and other wind-borne microorganisms).

According to Wolfe’s History of Clinton, “The prominent idea in the construction of this factory was…foremost in the minds of the proprietors since the establishment of the business — that is, to insure a system of sanitation which would...make it as clean and healthful as the most exacting critic could demand, as clean as the best housewife keeps her kitchen.”

A large ventilation system, and an air purification system were pipes to all parts of the building — a precursor to modern food manufacturing techniques.

His business philosophy was to “give to his customers the best (product) obtainable, and of making the best to be better still, if possible.” His wisdom paid off, as the business he started that was then run by his sons was sold in 1928 to National Biscuit Co, which we now know as NABISCO.

He was considered generous and philanthropic, and was loved and respected by his employees, of whom he was always considerate. The legacy he left, however, included more than the fine company he established. During his lifetime, he assured that his children were raised with an understanding of the importance of benevolent and charitable activity.  

But this story is not complete. His sons, Louis Conrad, John and Frank, assisted their father in the baking business. Louis and Frank started children’s playgrounds, operating them before giving them to the Clinton Public Schools.  They donated the stadium in the Clinton High school athletic field — Iten Field. Jane Lamb Hospital benefited from their thoughtful giving and he was an ardent baseball supporter and took a keen interest in organized baseball.  

The most unique component of their philanthropic initiatives, however, was Frank’s Christmas display. It started big and got bigger. In the late 1920s, his first display had Christmas lights, gnomes, a reindeer hitched to a sleigh, and Santa and his elves in their workshop.  

By 1934, on opening night, special police were required to direct the stream of traffic, Christmas bells chimed, a choir sang, and people drove from nearby states to see the light display. It took four electricians two weeks to place the 2,800 colored bulbs that made up the 1934 display.

When the position of a light in the sky was unsatisfactory they found it more convenient to shoot it out than change it. The beauty of the display was the talk of the countryside, even attracting the attention of the Boston Herald who printed a picture of the 1933 display.

William J. Petersen, in an article about the Christmas display, posed the question:

“Who gets the most fun out of the Christmas Display — Frank J. Iten, the children, or the older folks?”

The Iten family had fun with their charitable giving. And it doesn’t take huge resources to do this.   

First, think about what you feel and care about most strongly. Is it children, as it was with the Iten family, or healthcare, or the arts?  

Follow your heart, but make a difference — forever. Remember you can help build permanent, persistent community capital for the causes that matter most to you and the area by working with River Bluff Community Foundation, an affiliate of the Community Foundation of the Great River Bend.

Carol Machael is president of River Bluff Community Foundation.

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