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Wapello County History
by Tom Quinn, Past President of the Wapello County Historical Society
Table of Contents:
At the roar of cannon fire, hundreds of people rushed forward shouting and waving their torches lighting up the night. They ran on foot, galloped on horseback and bounced along in wagons. Every so often someone would stop and drive a stake into the ground.
It was midnight on May 1, 1843. The event was the settling of Wapello County by land rush. Land was being carved up into sections for homesteading. Over 1,000 settlers staked claims that first day.
Before May 1 of 1843, Wapello County was Indian land. By treaty, no white man was allowed to settle in the county. Soldiers stationed at the Indian Agency drove off trespassing white settlers. By the end of May, there were 5,000 people living in Wapello County. They were cutting down trees to build cabins, clearing land to plant crops, and making good use of the abundant grass prairies with their livestock.
The first known residents to the area were the Mound Builders, a name archaeologists and historians have given to an early peoples that may have migrated here across a land bridge from Asia. Precisely who they were, where they really came from or why they left will probably never be known. But what we do know is that they were in Wapello County and left six earthen mounds as record. Known as Caldwell Mounds, Sugar Creek Mounds, Trowell Mounds, Stiles Mounds and Village Creek Mounds, they sat on high ground overlooking broad valleys. The Mounds are regular in shape and contain ash, charcoal, stone tools, and bits of unglazed pottery. Occasionally human remains have been uncovered in the mounds.
It is pure speculation what the mounds may have been used for. Some people say they were cremation grounds, others believe the mounds were merely observation posts, while some experts think they were used in religious ceremonies.
What we do know about early Wapello County is that it contained plentiful game, rich prairie soils, tall hardwood forests, good water, and vast coal deposits. There were herds of buffalo grazing on the prairies and countless herds of deer and elk ranging between Ottumwa and Eddyville. In the forest there were great numbers of wild turkeys and prairie chickens. Occasionally a black bear would waddle down to the river and then go back to its den in the woods. It is no wonder that early pioneers and Indians alike wanted to live in such a land.
Iowa was never a permanent home to any Indian tribe after the Mound Builders. But the state's plentiful game did attract migrating Indian hunting parties that wandered across its borders. The Iowa Indians were a nomadic tribe that had small villages in Iowa, but wandered from Lake Michigan to the Missouri River. Other tribes that occasionally roamed Iowa were the Illinois, Missouri, Otoes, Omahaws, and Pawnee.
It is the Fox and Sac Indians that gave Wapello County most of its Indian heritage. The Fox and Sac Indians were originally from around the Great Lakes. In their many skirmishes with the French, they were pushed westward eventually crossing the Mississippi River into Iowa where they set up hunting camps along the Des Moines River valley. At one time there were three Indian villages in Ottumwa and a Hardfish village near Eddyville.
Most of the Indian activity in Wapello County occurred between 1800 and 1843 when a peace treaty was signed that forced the Fox and Sac to reservations in Nebraska.
In 1838 two important events happened that forever shaped the history of Wapello County. Chief Wapello moved his village from Muscatine to the Des Moines River just south of Ottumwa, and an agency for dealing with the Indians was being built near what was to become known as Agency City.
A Council House, a place to hold talks with the Indians, was the first building completed at the Indian Agency. Soon to follow was a house for the first agent, General Joseph Street, who arrived with his family in April of 1839. A "Pattern Farm" to teach farming skills to the Indians was begun and several other buildings were constructed.
The county is named for a chief of the Sac tribe, Chief Wapello. A statue of him sits high atop the Wapello County Courthouse. He was a powerful ruler among his people and a good friend of the white man. Wapello was born about 1787 at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. He died March 15, 1842 near the forks of the Skunk River while on a hunting trip. He so admired the first Indian agent in the county, General Joseph Street, that Wapello asked to be buried beside him upon his death. Both are buried near Agency, Iowa in Chief Wapello Memorial Park.
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The beginnings of the town of Agency, separate and apart from the Indian Agency, was begun in 1843 when Shaphat Dwire opened a general store and was named the first postmaster. Soon after that a church was built and houses sprung up. The first settlers were those employed at the Indian Agency. The town grew slowly until the railroad came in 1859. Agency was incorporated on January 6, 1859.
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Southeast of Agency along the Des Moines River, the community of Eldon was getting its start. John Groover, a German immigrant, had cleared some land, planted some crops and built a cabin. Since this was before the May 1, 1843 legal date for settlement, government troops burned down his cabin, set fire to his fields and drove him off. Mr. Groover returned after the 1843 land rush and reclaimed his land.
The area around Eldon had many advantages for settlers. It was well wooded, well watered, and had rich mineral deposits. In 1859 the Keokuk and Des Moines Railroad located the Ashland Crossing flag station on the present town site. In 1861 William Riordan and a few others settled in the area and the town began. A short time later, a second railroad, the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad laid tracks to Eldon. A railroad boom town had begun. The town was incorporated in 1872 and by 1878 there were three general stores, two drug stores, a shoe shop, two blacksmith shops, a barber shop, three hotels, a saw and grist mill, a lawyer, and three physicians. An article written at the time touted Eldon as "a growing, prosperous town with a good future where any young man would want to live."
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In 1841, J.P. Eddy came from Warren County, Ohio to establish a farm and Indian trading post in what is now called Eddyville. Nearly 1,000 Indians from the Hard Fish band were living in the area at the time. Mr. Eddy's trading post sold skinning knives, blankets and other items that the Indians were eager to purchase. Although J.P. Eddy only lived there three years, he made his mark felt. He built the first store, the first schoolhouse, and he was the first postmaster.
By May 1, 1843, there were ten families living in Eddyville. In 1847, twenty families were there along with a saw and grist mill, Martin Tucker's Hotel, Dr. Ross (a physician), and a blacksmith. The town incorporated in 1857. By 1868, Eddyville was on its way with the Thurbaugh and Phillips Plow Factory, an ox-powered wooden mill operated by James Brady, a pork packing house, and a brewery.
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The earliest settlers arrived in Blakesburg in 1843, building their cabins near an Indian village. Located on a high rolling prairie, Blakesburg was near a heavy body of timber and near extensive coal fields. In 1852 Theophilus Blake laid out the town. Four years later there were nearly 500 residents and numerous stores and businesses including a grist and saw mill, four dry goods stores, three blacksmith shops, one wagon shop, one gunsmith shop, one tailor, and a saddle and harness maker. At one time Blakesburg boasted as a "show town" with one of the finest opera houses in the state and a constant parade of traveling vaudeville troupes and medicine shows.
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Chillicothe was laid out in 1849 by A.J. Wicker. The first house was built for the Reverend A.J. Pierce, a Methodist minister. The first post office opened in 1849 with A.J. Wicker as the postmaster. At one time Chillicothe had three general stores, two wagon shops, three saloons, a creamery, four doctors, and two hotels.
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Kirkville was laid out by John Kirkpatrick and grew to be quite a trading point. During its heyday around 1890, it had a population of over 700 people and prospered due to the coal mining operations that were located there. The principle business was the Kirkville Supply Company. After the coal mines were abandoned, the population and traffic in town decreased.
Other towns in Wapello County
There were many other towns in Wapello County during the mid-1800s including Farson, Dahlonega, Keb, Wigglesville, and Ashland. Most of these flourished for a while and then died out.
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Seeing an opportunity to make some money on land, several investors formed the Appanoose Rapids Company and in May of 1843 staked claim to 467 acres of land that was to become Ottumwa. The Appanoose Rapids Company had determined the center of the new county of Wapello and proceeded to make their land holdings the county seat. It was naturally suited for a town site with good river access and plentiful game.
The land they staked claim to was near three Indian villages. The hill on which Ottumwa High School now sits was the site of Chief Wapello's village. Chief Keokuk's village was on the Des Moines River bank opposite the mouth of Sugar Creek. Chief Appanoose located his village a mile upstream.
The new town was briefly called "Louisville" before it became officially known as Ottumwa. There are several possible meanings of the Sac Indian word "Ottumwa." Two commonly accepted meanings are "place of perseverance or self will" and " land of rippling waters."
Ottumwa was first settled in the summer of 1843 and grew slowly at first. In 1844, one year after it was started, Ottumwa was chosen to be the county seat of Wapello County. At that time there were only ten buildings in town, most of which were occupied by government officials. The following year still found Ottumwa a primitive town with no streets or sidewalks.
In 1845 Ottumwa supported three stores, a tin shop, a blacksmith shop, a tailor shop, two hotels, a whiskey shop, and about 15 log houses. The only public building was a little temporary jail. There were no churches or schools in 1845.
1848 was the turning point in Ottumwa's history. The town began to grow rapidly. Trade flourished and many improvements were made to make life more pleasurable.
By 1853 there were eight dry goods stores, two drug stores, one clothing store, one stove store and tin shop, one harness shop, two hotels, two churches, a tannery, two steam saw and grist mills, a carding machine, one wagon shop, three cabinet shops, one chair shop, one gun shop, one wheelwright, three blacksmith shops, four shoe shops, three tailor shops, one bakery and confectionery shop, seven lawyers, and six physicians.
The first railroad came to Ottumwa on September 1, 1859. Ottumwa was soon to become a center for the railroads as well as a manufacturing and wholesale center. In 1860 Ottumwa has a population of 1,632 that grew to over 5,000 people by 1870.
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It was the good rich land that brought the settlers to Wapello County in the first place, but it was the commerce that kept them here and attracted still more people to settle here. From three small trading posts, licensed to deal with the Indians before Wapello County was open for settlement, the business activities of the county have grown tremendously. Today there are over 1,200 stores plus dozens of industries and other forms of business. But it was farming that dominated life in early days. Most of the settlers were farmers in search of productive land on which to stake their futures. The prairie soils were rich for growing crops of wheat, rye, buckwheat, alfalfa, and oats. The new settlers needed saw mills to build their homes and grist mills to grind their grains. The city of Agency became known as the city of mill with lumber, grist, and weaving mills aplenty.
Livestock also played an important role to the early pioneers. The prairie made excellent grazing land for cattle. Beef and pork processing plants sprung up in all parts of the county. The village of Dahlonega had two of the first pork packing houses in the county. One such packing house was located just north of Dahlonega in a log building. The meat was packed and transported by wagon to trading points on the Mississippi River.
Other food manufacturers also found success in Wapello County. Anton Lowenberg opened his first "bake shop" in Ottumwa in 1875. The Walter T. Hall Candy Factory began making confections on Third Street in Ottumwa in January 1880. B. Walter started a brewery in Eddyville in 1868.
Large deposits of coal were discovered in the northeast part of Wapello County. The first coal mine in the county opened in Richland Township in 1857 by Joshua Marsh. In the mid to late 1880s, the Carver Mine was the largest coal mine in the state employing 500 people. There were mines near Kirkville, Chillicothe, Happy Hollow, Bear Creek, and Rutledge.
In 1848 there were no railroads and no well traveled highways to follow in the county. Travel was either by foot, horseback, or river. The railroads played a major part in opening Wapello County to other parts of the country and shipping local products out to world markets. Many of the county's first railroads were built around the time of the Civil War. By 1888 there were 105,012 miles of track in Wapello County. At one time, there were 57 passenger trains on seven lines crossing Wapello County every day. In its heyday, the Burlington Railroad alone handled 40,360 freight cars each month through its Ottumwa terminal.
Because of almost pure clay deposits found in parts of the county, several communities developed a reputation for fine pottery. Blakesburg, Dahlonega, and Ottumwa all had pottery manufacturers early in their histories. After the pottery was made, it was packed in wagons filled with straw and hauled to waiting customers.
Wapello County has had some very unique and successful manufacturing concerns in its history. The Johnston Ruffler Company of Ottumwa began manufacturing sewing machine rufflers in 1872. The Janney Manufacturing Company, established in 1899, made corn huskers and other agricultural implements. The Dain Factory began manufacturing haying equipment, fee grinders, and agricultural implements in January of 1900. Joe Dain sold his business to John Deere of Moline, Illinois in 1911.
Mining tools of superior quality were made be the Hardsocg Manufacturing Company beginning in 1891. Their most famous product was the Little Wonder Drill. This drill was used all over the world. It worked the copper mines in Peru, the diamond mines in South Africa, and even helped build the New York City subway system.
The Ottumwa Box Car Loader Company made a machine for loading railroad box cars with coal. The machine was invented and manufactured in Ottumwa by Phillips and Henry.
In the 1880s Ottumwa had over 40 cigar manufacturers employing 500 people. Some of the leading cigar manufacturers located in Ottumwa in those days were George Potter, John Pallister, Graver Cigar Factory, McKee and Marks, and La Flor De Mayo brand cigars. Julius Fecht was another famous Ottumwa cigar manufacturer. He owned a tobacco plantation in Cuba where he would load the tobacco onto ships headed for Florida. From Florida the valuable cargo would be hauled to Ottumwa by wagon train escorted by armed guards.
Other products made around the turn of the century in Wapello County include building brick and tile, wooden tool handles, granite grave stones, cigar boxes, mattresses, and perfume. A company in Agency was famous for its oak-split feed baskets. The American Mining Company manufactured coal mining equipment in Ottumwa.
Have you heard of a Collingwood? It's not an automobile or a painting, but it is just as artistic. Joseph Collingwood made over 450 concert violins while he lived in Ottumwa just after the turn of the century. His violins were in great demand by orchestra musicians on the east coast.
Ottumwa had large wholesale hardware companies dating back to 1856 and a wholesale drug house founded in 1851. Wholesale grocers and wholesale fruit companies also contributed to Ottumwa's reputation as a wholesale center for Iowa.
The commerce in Wapello County was diverse and prosperous in its early years. The area attracted inventors and investors willing to take a chance on a new idea and a new settlement.