Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
Boom Times in Van Buren County
The word "boom" has several meanings in the English language. As a noun, "boom" can refer to a long spar that extends a sail; a beam attached to the pole of a derrick, a line of floating timbers used to obstruct a passage, a wrecking ball, or a thundering sound. As a verb, it either means growth or describes a loud, explosive sound.
Thus, boom times are periods of expansive growth in area, population, or economic activity. Boom periods are synonymous with and coincide with rushes of upward spurts of population growth. For example, each time gold or silver was discovered in western communities, hoards of prospectors and settlers rushed into the area, boom times resulted, and towns sprung up overnight. But this was not the case with the mineral discoveries in Van Buren County.
Traces of gold were found here in several creek beds as early as the 1830s. According to Ralph Arnold, several people eked out a living panning gold around Farmington, as did one family in the Stockport area. Ralph said that gold specks could still be found. He had a prospector’s pan that he employed to find tiny fragments of gold ore in Chequest Creek.
Excitement over reports of an oil deposit underneath the surface near Keosauqua caused some prominent local citizens to invest in an oilrig during the 1920s. Unfortunately, the oil drilling only produced a small gusher followed by a mixture of sand and water. A similar fate had happened when an attempt was made to drill oil near Farmington in the 1860s.
Van Buren County’s greatest boom period in population growth was during the 1830s and 1840s. Already in 1838, three thousand citizens lived in clusters, mostly along the Des Moines River. Two years later people within the county doubled to 6,000 and by 1850, population had swelled to 12,000!
During this boom cycle, only a few hamlets and villages along the river grew into actual towns. In 1850, Keosauqua had barely reached 700 residents, with Farmington, Vernon, Bentonsport, and Bonaparte each counting between 300 and 600. But the mills up and down the river were buzzing, building was at a record pace, there was full employment with high wages, and businesses prospered. Hotels, boarding houses, and homes could not be built fast enough to accommodate large waves of arriving settlers and pioneers.
The greatest numbers of these were Mormons as they crossed Iowa between Nauvoo and Utah. During the winter of 1847, over 2,000 had camped along the river between Reed’s Creek and the eastern edge of Bonaparte waiting for the ice to go out so that they could cross the river safely, while hundreds more waited in other locations. Of the thousands who traversed the county in waves between 1847 and 1853, few settled or stayed very long, thus they did not add much to the population boom. They certainly impacted economic growth, however, as Van Buren served as a supply station providing hospice for these people and other pioneers. With new people arriving almost daily to settle and venture westward, it was a difficult task to keep up with supply and demand.
Statistics about Van Buren’s population boom are fascinating. While the population jumped a whopping 300% in twelve years, villages still remained small and simply became more numerous. During this period of expansion, the entire county became settled and the frontier line moved westward beyond its borders. By 1850, fifty villages competed for a share of this big population and the vast, growing market.
During Iowa’s territorial days, Van Buren led all Iowa counties in population and was one of its leaders in economic production. But after 1850, population and economic growth did not keep pace with other counties and Van Buren quickly lost its leadership role. In spite of the early boom, it retained a charming, refreshing, rural nature that has been brought forward to the present time.
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick