Van Buren County Iowa
American Guide Series
Compiled by workers of the Writers' Program
of the Work Projects Administration
in the State of Iowa
FEDERAL WORKS AGENCY
JOHN M. CARMODY, Administrator
WORK PROJECTS ADMINISTRATION
F. C. HARRINGTON, Commissioner
FLORENCE KERR , Assistant Commissioner
GEORGE J. KELLER, State Administrator
The Van Buren County American Legion
possible to make any headway, they moved, the next morning, to about a quarter of a mile farther, to it better camping ground. The band gave two more concerts at Keosauqua, but did not make any money; the ministers; in the town had warned the people to stay away from the infidel Mormons.'
"Again they struck the trail and went. about six miles when they canto to it bad bluff. After reaching the crest, they went. a mile farther and then had to rest. They remained in camp for several days, then crossed the line into Davis County."
The "Ferry Tree" site, where the Mormons supposedly crossed the river, is commemorated by a pointed wooden marker placed there by the Van Buren County Chapter of the D. A. R. (see The Ferry Tree, Points of Interest, Keosauqua).
During these years of the Mormon migration, a small group camped and passed the winter on a farm owned by John Fitzgerald of Dos Moines Township, Van Buren County. The men worked for Fitzgerald and other farmers of the community when extra hands were needed with the farm work. During the winter throe of the women and one elderly man died of influenza and were buried on it hill near the encampment.
With the conling of spring, the survivors started westward. Mr. Fitzgerald gave the leader a fine saddle horse and new boards for siding one of the wagons. Another small group spent the winter in Bentonsport. The men tended looms in the woolen mills at Bonaparte, ground corn at the grist mill at Vernon, and did farm work and carpentering. IL is said that in the vicinity of Vernon there are several old houses the wood of which was hewn from native oak and walnut trees by the Mormons who were encamped there that winter. The story goes that. the men worked for the most meagre wages, receiving only enough food and clothing to get through the winter. With Hu. coming of spring, they left the town as quietly as they had entered it.
THE ANTI-HORSE THIEF ASSOCIATION
The Anti-Horse Thief Association of Van Buren County was founded at Winchester, near Stockport, in the north central part of the county.
The Association was organized in 1839 with J. M. Whitaker, president; Charles Price, vice president; and Asa Smith, treasurer. Over a thousand names were listed on the books of the Association from the time of its founding until it was disbanded in 1937. During its entire existence only three men were refused membership. The first meeting was held in a blacksmith shop in Winchester. Later the organization purchased the out Masonic Hall and met there.
The popular belief that the Mormons were the horse thieves of the early days, stealing as they passed through Van Buren County
has been proved false. The members of the Anti-Horse Thief Association discovered that the thefts were instigated by an organized band consisting of some of their own neighbors, who had others of their band in Missouri do the actual stealing.
Although the Association was unable to curb the horse thieves, it did return stolen horses to their rightful owners. It once cost the Association $75 and three weeks' work to recover a stolen pony valued at $20. The Association finally broke up the band of thieves, some of whom were sent to the penitentiary at Fort Madison.
Each member in the Association paid a yearly fee, Brass Collar members being assessed at one dollar, while Rear Rank members paid fifty cents. A fine was imposed on all members not attending meetings. Widows of deceased members remained in the Association without paying dues.
Every summer the Association had picnics, one of which cost the treasury $150.
Only twice in the history of the organization did the regular monthly meeting fail to take place.
C. W. Workman of Birmingham, Iowa was the last president, and C. L. Beswick the last secretary of the Association.
VAN BUREN COUNTY RAILROADS
In 1854 David Kilbourne helped organize the Keokuk, Fort Des Moines and Minnesota Railroad Company, but it was not until 1855 that work on the line started. Land for railroad purposes had been given to the state by Congress and it was from this grant that the Legislature in 1856 ceded the railroad certain sections upon which to construct a road from Keokuk up the Des Moines Valley. The state also provided stone, timber, and other materials. Advance workmen constructed bridges, which were trestles with rock approaches. Rails were light and frail, usually but twenty feet long composed of iron imported from England and shipped up the Mississippi from New Orleans. There were no rail braces and the road-bed was plain dirt.
Trains were running to Farmington by 1857. The same year trains were operating between Keokuk and Bonaparte, and going as far north as Bentonsport.
When the railroad reached Bentonsport, the company asked Keosauqua for $75,000 to help the railroad continue up the river and through Keosauqua. Keosauqua refused, and the railroad directed its line northward to Mt. Zion, by way of Rock Creek to Summit. By 1861 trains were being operated as far as Independent (now Selma), near the county line.
The next railroad venture in the county ended in failure. The Iowa Missouri State Line Railroad Company was formed in
but after many miles of grading was done the Van Buren and Decatur County citizens who comprised the company ran out of money, and the work stopped. One of the articles of the corporation stated that at no place should the railroad extend more than six miles on either side of the state lino. In 1870, the I and M. S. L. and the Burlington and Southwestern companies were merged under the name of the latter. The line was built from Viele to Farmington, to Mount Sterling, to Niles, and to Milton, the last station in Van Buren County on that line.
Keosauqua needed a railroad connection with the K. D. & M. at Summit, and in 1873 a company was formed to build a 4 1/2 mile line to the K. D. % M. The first cars on this branch line in on a narrow gauge track. Stationary benches were screwed into place on the flat cars and a canvas awning stretched overhead to protect the passengers from sunshine and showers. On the first excursion on the line, however, there were neither honchos nor roof. The passengers perched oil the sides of the cars, their feet hanging over the edge and nearly touching the ground. The road fell into disuse after a few months of operation.
In 1881, the Chicago. Rock Island and Pacific Railway Company, then the owners of the old K. D. % M. from Keokuk to Des Moines, obtained the roadbed and right of way of the Keokuk, St Louis & Missouri, the grade was widened, standard wage track laid, and the same year the first passenger train was operated into Keosauqua.
The Fort Madison. Oskaloosa and Northwestern Railway was incorporated in 1871, and a year later changed its name to the Fort Madison & Northwestern Railroad Company. It was eight years, however, before track was laid from Fort Madison to West Point; two years later the line had gone through Hillsboro, McVeigh, Stockport, Long View, and Birmingham to Collett.
In 1890. a new corporation, the Chicago, Fort Madison & Des Moines Railway Company took the line over, widened the guage to standard size, and in 1891 began to extend the new line to Ottumwa.
Two men in Keosauqua, Holbert and Forbes, believed in the necessity of the Underground Railway, and while they did not shelter escaped slaves in their own homes, they helped many to places of refuge, and supplied them with food and means of travel Whenever possible.
Three houses in Keosauqua are said to have been used as slave stations. These are the old Pearson house, the old Holden House, and the old Otto White House.
Each house, which is still in fair condition, has two cellars, one
with the entrance from the outside. the other with an inside entrance. This arrangement made it possible to admit slaves into the house by night and hide them in the inner cellar. which could not be entered from the outside. No searching party, having gone through one cellar, would look for a second one. The door to the inner cellar-a trap door in the floor-was concealed by a rug. Slaves were often taken from Keosauqua to Winchester. then to another station in Birmingham, then to Fairfield.
Nineteen slaves belonging to Rural Dagg of Clark County. Missouri, made a break for freedom one June day in 1S-IS. They reached Farmington. rested. and went on to Selma. Only a few of them were captured.
The first death recorded in Bentonsport is that of Aunt Maurin. a former slave, brought to Bentonsport by Shapely Ross.
The tale of the arrival of the slave known as Aunt Polka is still told by Keosauqua old settlers. One winter night when it was snowing and a cold wind was blowing. word was brought to the Negro churches that a Negro woman was hiding in a cornfield near the town and was in danger of freezing to death. Five of the elders set out with lanterns in the falling snow to find her. The poor woman, discovered, thought her would-be rescuers Were would-be captors coming to take her back to slavery. Screaming with terror she ran to the other end of the cornfield, clutching a baby in her arms and dragging a wailing boy at her side. When the men pursued her, she leaped on the stump of a tree. drew a long knife and threatened to kill anyone who touched her. Finally comprehending the intentions of the searching party, she told a pitiful tale of hardship and death. Starting out from Mississippi with her fourteen children. with only a bag of cornpone for food, site had left the two oldest boys and the two oldest girls with a Negro family along the way. Eight of the remaining children had died on the journey from hunger, exposure, and sickness, and only the two youngest, a baby girl in her arms and the toddling boy at her side, remained alive. While she stayed in Keosauqua. the woman and her children lived with Mary Crawford and Mary Dixon. When her youngest child was about five. Aunt Polka. as she was called, was sent to the Van Buren County Home and the two children were adopted by two Negro families. The girl. Merin, is now married and living in Chicago; nothing is known of the boy. Many years ago Aunt Polka, who for long after her capture was referred to as the "Wild Tom of the Woods." died in the County Home.
NEGROES IN VAN BUREN COUNTY
After the Civil War many of the Negroes south of the mason and Dixon Line came North. The largest settlement in Van Buren
county was in Keosauqua, where there were at one time more than four hundred Negroes. They chose for their homes the part of town that, is still known as "Nigger Hill." Here the Negro families of early days built their small houses and their first Baptist church. Some of the old Negro families came to own their homes and to live fairly comfortably. Among the better known early Negroes were Uncle Sandy Howard, Milt Gibbens, Jordan Payne, Uncle Dick Johnson, Sam Buckner, John Johnson, and Egbert Sneed, Soon the Negroes erected a school, which was taught by a Negro teacher named Grace Crawford. Many years afterward a law was passed permitting the Negro children to attend the town grade and high schools. Pettie Green, one of the Negro students, graduated with honors from high school, and was a leading football player and a prominent orator at Penn College. Ile is now teaching in Mississippi.
When the need for a Methodist Church arose, the Negroes sought funds in various ways. Aside from asking for donations, debates were a popular means of raising money. The general public of the town could attend for a nominal price of admission. The Negroes divided into teams and chose two or three debaters from each side. Prominent business and professional men of the town were the judges. The two favored topics for debate were, "Which is more educational, travel or reading?" and "Which is the more destructive, fire or water?" Among the more frequent debaters were "Scutty" Johnson, Jordan Payne, Dick Johnson, Harold Given, George Winfrey, and Sumner Johnson.
Many of the Negroes of early days were good musicians. At one time there was a Negro male quartet in Keosauqua, consisting of John Buckner, leader, D. Minor, Nate Shininghouse, and Frank Bennings. The Buckner quartet sang not only at Negro festivals but also at many gatherings of white people.
For years the Negroes celebrated the freeing of their parents from slavery with an "Emancipation Supper," held on the first of January. An Afro-Masonic lodge was part of the community for several decades.
An old Negro by the name of Sandy Howard owned a small plot of ground that is now part of the local State Park. Sandy farmed his acreage industriously, but the soil was sandy, and the yield dishearteningly small until he started planting sweet potatoes. The crop was so large that it supplied not only the needs of his family and the wants of his friends; there was even a lot left over to sell. This plentitude continued year after year until the town people began to call the knoll "Sandy's Knoll." The name is still used, although a roadway in the State Park passes over the ground old Sandy Howard once owned.
Gradually the sons and daughters of this early group began to
move away. Late in 1938 there were but three families left in the town-the Garretts, the Kennings, and the Buckners, only one of which still lives on the site of the original Negro settlement.
VAN BUREN COUNTY IN THE CIVIL WAR
Van Buren County, almost on the border line during the Civil War, was at times threatened with invasion by the Bushwhackers who devastated the country along the Iowa-Missouri border. The whole town of Keosauqua was organized in defense, and a man stationed in the tower of the Congregational Church to warn the people of the Bushwhackers' approach.
Van Buren County, which at that time had a population of approximately 17,000 sent more than fifteen hundred voluteers to the Civil War, three hundred of whom died in battle.
In January, 1939, two of Van Buren County's Civil War Veterans, Eli McKinney and William Breitenstein, were still living.
"I hope you live forever and I live to see you die," is McKinney's favorite greeting. Born in Monroe County, Ohio, in March, 1847, McKinney came to Iowa with his parents in 1851. They settled just above Bentonsport in the now abandoned town of Columbus, and were the last residents to leave the town. McKinney was mustered into service in 1864, when he was seventeen, and after four months received an honorable discharge. He married Milisia Edwards in 1865. George C. McKinney and C. E. McKinney, two of his five children, are still living; his wife died in 1921.
William Breitenstein* was horn in Lee County, Iowa in 1841. He enlisted in 1864, in Company B. of the Third Iowa Infantry at Keokuk, and received his honorable discharge at Atlanta, Georgia. Five daughters and one son grew up on the farm near Farmington, where Breitenstein and his wife lived until his retirement in 1913. On his 97th birthday, in 1938, the Breitensteins' four children. eleven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren celebrated the day with them in Farmington.
*Mr. Breitenstein died on October 1, 1939, at his home in Farmington.
THE GUERILLA RAIDS
In 1864. "Price's Hell Hounds," about a dozen soldiers from the Confederate army who had stolen uniforms from killed, wounded. or captured Union soldiers, posed as a hand sent out by Lincoln from the Union army, and plundered villages and farms in Van Buren County.
Forming in Memphis, Missouri, the band crossed the Iowa line south of Cantril, and went wherever its leader directed. The raiders seized money, firearms, horses.
The gang sought recruits among the civilians and forced S. W. Losey of north of Troy to join their number. On one of the raids the outlaws foisted a broken-winded horse upon a farmer in place of his good horse. As soon as the band departed, the irate farmer started for Pulaski to arouse the people against the raiders. All settlers old enough to handle guns formed themselves into a small army and it was not long before "Price's Hell Hounds" found it necessary to find other communities for their pillaging.
VAN BUREN COUNTY IN THE SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR
During the Spanish-American War, Iowa furnished men for four regiments and two batteries of light artillery. In its enthusiasm, Van Buren County would have sent an entire company. So eager were some of the volunteers to enlist that frequently when a youth was rejected because of physical disability, he slipped in with another company for a second, a third, and even a fourth test, until sometimes he was finally accepted. Only a few volunteers, how-ever, engaged in actual warfare in the Philippines and Cuba.
THE BONAPARTE DAM
By the 1890's the Des Moines River and its tributaries were becoming emptied of fish and all efforts to stock the river by artificial means had proved unavailing. The solution of the problem, said the firshermen and sportsmen, was to secure a fishway across the Des Moines in Van Buren County; but they could never have visualized the nearly impenetrable network of legal entanglements and human obstinacy centering about the dam at Bonaparte and the Meek Mill beside it, through which the path to the fishway would lead.
The first Bonaparte (lam was a primitive affair, built by William Meek, Sr., in 1840 for gristmill purposes, after authorization by an act of legislature of 1839. This act stipulated that the dam was not to exceed three feet in height, that it was to contain a lock 130 feet long by 35 feet wide, and that the lock was to be kept in good repair in order that boats might pass through it at all times (also free of charge). The right of construction and maintenance was to remain in force for fifty years.
The Meeks had the right of ferry over the Des Moines, and also a large tract of land, which gave them control of the river front for a mile or so above the Mill.
The Meek family at that time consisted of William Meek and his four sons - Isaiah, Robert, Joseph, and William, Jr. The Meeks operated mills in Michigan, and were not only skilled workers but astute business men. Their mill in Iowa became popular with the pioneers, who came from ten to a hundred miles away to have their
bags of grain ground and gladly awaited their turn in this place where there was always a chance for a catch of fish, or a game of checkers, or a session of talk in friendly company.
As the years passed a bigger mill was erected. Later the mill added carding machines, an innovation that pleased the pioneer women who had till then carded all the wool by hand. Then the Meeks introduced the weaving of cloth, the quality of which was not surpassed by any factory in Iowa.
In the spring, when the fish were vainly struggling to reach the headwaters to spawn, the waters below the dam became a popular fishing place. The fish were so plentiful that it was not unusual for men to cast out a wagon load with a pitchfork in a half hour.
Before 1850 the Des Moines Improvement Company had entered into a contract with the government to improve the Des Moines River in consideration of a vast quantity of land that the government had ceded to it. The plan proposed to make the Des Moines navigable by the slack water system, for which locks and dams were required at various points on the river. Work had already been done at Farmington, Croton, Bonaparte, Bentonsport, and Keosauqua. But the work had been poorly done, and after the flood of 1851 seriously damaged the structure, the company failed to complete the contract, and the improvements were auctioned off. The dam, locks and gates at Bonaparte, costing $80,000, were sold to Isaiah Meek for $200.
At this time there were three dams at Bonaparte. The farthest up-stream was the original or brush dam. About a yard away was the second dam, which had been built by the Meeks under government direction, and fitted with locks and gates to permit the pas-sage of boats. The newest dam stood in front of the second and was the only one visible, the others being lower and covered with water. The older dams were still in fairly good condition, having been enlarged by drift and mud and protected by the newer structure.
Isaiah Meek's purchase of the $80,000 dam for the sum of $200 was an instance of the Meek family business acumen. In the contract with the State Commissioners who sold it by state authority, there was a covenant on the part of the Meeks "to forever preserve and maintain the dam and locks," which was probably one of the considerations of the purchase. For the supposed purpose of abrogating the covenant, a two-fold resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives in 1866, stating that "since facilities for travel and transportation are afforded by the Des Moines Valley Railway, the Des Moines River is no longer used for purposes of navigation, therefore it is requested that Congress declare the Des Moines not a navigable stream to the end that same may be more cheaply ha-proved as a motive power for machinery."
This resolution was passed, and the river shortly thereafter proved it libelous by tilling with water high enough to float Mississippi steamboat from the mouth of the river to the Raccoon Forks. In 1866 also, a bill was passed disposing of all look and drawbridges on the river; nevertheless, legal opinion held that it did not release the Meeks from the obligation "to forever' maintain the locks at Bonaparte.
In 1894, fishermen and sportsmen asked the Meeks for permission to build a fishway, to be paid for by popular subscription. Prominent men from all over t he state, alarmed by the depletion of fish in the Des Moines. had promised the necessary funds; but the Meek Brothers refused the request, insisting that the fishway would weaken the dam. However, they were willing to sell the dam for $25.000.
The Fishermen's and Sportsmen's Club circulated petitions, requesting the legislature to buy the dam and destroy it. This petition bore so many names that when it was presented it weighed fifty-four pounds and was carried to the speaker's desk by t wo men. All to no avail. So bitter was the disappointment of the fishermen at the legislature's refusal to buy the dam that Senator L. C. Blanchard of Mahaska County drew up a bill authorizing the State of Iowa to pay the expense of a fishway in the dam. The bill passed the Senate, but when it reached the House, the chairman of the Fish and Game Committee either lost or pigeonholed it. Representatives Eaton and Merriam, who had pledged themselves to its passage, hunted it up, and planned to bring it before the House on the next to the last night of the session. They were delayed a few minutes in reaching the House that fateful evening, and one who was perhaps in the employ of the Meeks, seeing an opportunity to kill the bill, had it called up by the representatives of Van Buren County and "indefinitely postponed."
During the next two years the State of lowa, assisted by W. L. Read, representing the fishermen and sportsmen, sued to compel the Meek Brothers to put a fishway in their dam; but the suit was lost because the Meeks claimed, among other things, an "adjudication," in that Fish Commissioner Griggs had brought suit against them for maintaining a nuisance, in that they had no fishway in their dam, and the case was decided in their favor. Fish Commissioner Griggs delayed his appeal until too late. When the court held the case adjudicated, an appeal to the Supreme Court merely affirmed the decision of the lower court.
When the legislature assembled in 1902, Senator Blanchard of Mahaska County, at the request of a representative of the fisher-men, introduced a bill asking that as much of the Bonaparte dam as was necessary for a fishway be condemned, and that the expense be borne by the state, the work to he done under the Fish and Game
Warden and approved by the Governor. After the bill had been submitted to the Attorney General for his approval, it was introduced in the Senate. At a morning session, when petitions were in order, the Senator from Mahaska arose and said, "Mr. Speaker: I have here a petition from some of my constituents living below the Bonaparte dam which I would like to introduce and have read, and gravely he handed the following Petition to a waiting page who took it to the reading clerk's desk, where it was read.
Said the Pickerel to the Catfish:
"I heard rare news today,
That the dam down here at Bonaparte
Will have a good fishway!
I can't be pious here below:
For staying where I am
I bump against that structure
And invariably say 'dam'!"
Then the game fish fell to shouting
At the good news they had heard
The Catfish opened wide his mouth,
But never gasped a word!
Said the Quillback to the Sucker:
"I hate to be confined
To this one spot forever
I'm afraid I'll lose my mind;
This dam roaring makes my head ache.'
"Say, look here," said the Bass,
"Ask the Fish and Game Committee
To give us all a pass!"
Then the Quillback took the bandage
From off his aching head
"You're a scaley lot of fellows!"
The big mouthed Catfish said.
Said the Salmon to the Goggle Eye:
"When this fishway is in place,
I'll strike out for headwaters
At a good two-forty pace!
This clam-roaring and head thumping
Will ne'er again be mine
And perhaps our friends the fishermen
Will be dropping us a line."
Then the game fish burst out laughing,
Nodding each expectant head
Said the Mullet to the Catfish:
"I've just heard something new:
That the Fish Clubs and Game Warden
Have been making 'game' of you:
That the sucker tribe you've shaken
And you're classed with Bike and Bass!"
Then said the smiling Catfish:
"Yes, I'm swimming in that class."
Then the Eel began to grumble
About this preference --
"Well, a big mouth," said the Mullet
"Oft stands in place of sense!
When the fishway had been finished,
And the Meeks had shed their tears,
There was the biggest fish convention
That had been held for years,
With loins now firmly girded
And in each fin a staff,
They prepared to give "Old Bonaparte"
The "Razzle Dazzle" laugh.
As they climbed the road to freedom
Everybody had to smile:
The glad flip-flapping of their tails
Could be heard for half a mile!
The bill was passed without a dissenting vote on March 8, 1902. When it reached the House the Petition happened to strike the fancy of Representative Martin J. Sweeley of Woodbury County, who had a gift for humorous rhyming, and who wrote a reply to it, which, in turn, was responded to by the author of the Petition, and before the fun was over, six "dam elegies" had been written. The House passed the bill unanimously on March 22, and the Chicago Tribune commented that for the first time in the history of Iowa an act had been passed after arguments in doggerel.
Although the Meek Brothers had offered the entire structure a few years before for $25,000, the Van Buren County jury brought in a verdict for $40,000 as the price to be paid for the few feet of dam to be occupied by the fishway.
In the meantime nature took a hand. The summer flood of 1902 injured the dam somewhat, the heavy ice of the spring of 1903 damaged it further, and the great flood of the same year riddled the structure with countless holes and finally swept out the main part of it, leaving only the two ends in their natural position. Thus
the elements did more, in two years than the combined forces of legislature, courts and sportsmen had been able to do in sixteen.
THE FLOOD OF 1903
The spring of 1903 was chill and wet, as that other spring of 1851 had been. Day after day the rains fell, until the streams over-ran their banks. The racing waters of the turbulent Des Moines rose higher and higher until at eleven o'clock on Monday, June 1, the river reached its highest recorded flood mark - 27 feet, 8 inches above low water level. The walls of the levee melted under the raging torrent, and the next day the dawn rose on a scene of desolation. All the lowlands were inundated. Water ran six feet deep in the streets of the business section of Keosauqua. The electric light plant was under water, and there was no light; no mail came in; the telegraph lines were down; and no train entered or left Keosauqua for ten days.
Practically all river bottom farms lost from thirty to sixty acres of corn and countless tons of other grains and hay. Corncribs and winter woodpiles broke loose and were washed away in the flood. Many houses along the river were lifted from their foundations and swung out into the swirling muddy torrent. A sad-eyed cat sat alone on the roof-tree of a tipping house; a rooster, wildly crowing, balanced on a speeding barrel top until the water closed over him; seventy chicks and twenty hens found refuge in Colonel H. Blackledge's second-story bedroom; and a pet cow, tethered atop a flat-roofed woodshed, went down the river at nightfall and was seen no more.
The merchants of the river towns piled their goods next to the ceiling, only to have the water reach into the second story and ruin beyond redemption goods that might as well have remained on the floor. Three spans of the bridge at Kilbourne were battered away by the waves; Pittsburg was a sea; Vernon and Bentonsport, below the railroad, were submerged, and water stood four feet deep in Stong's store; boats went up and down the streets of low-lying Farmington; at Bentonsport, residences were washed away; in Bonaparte, water rose a foot above the walks on Second Street, and the whole center of the Bonaparte dam was torn away.
The damage to stores, mills and bridges was staggering, and reached hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many were left homeless; but no human lives were lost. Perhaps the greatest loss to the county was the destruction of the mills, so essential to industry, which were never replaced.
FARM BUREAU OF VAN BUREN COUNTY
The Agricultural Society of Van Buren County, organized in
1838 in conformity with an act of the Territorial Legislature of Iowa, is the oldest organization of its kind in the state. In 1918 the Society changed its name to the Van Buren County Farm Bureau. It had eighty-five farmer members. The purpose of the organization was to co-operate with the state and federal departments of agriculture in spreading improved farming methods. Arthur J. Secor was elected as the first agricultural agent for the county, and since 1918 has served continuously in that capacity.
Van Buren County operated the first limestone train in the state, bringing the product within easy reach of the farmers, even stopping to unload the limestone between stations. Seven hundred tons were unloaded one day in 1927. The county's soil improvement, program won first place in the national soil improvement contest in 1927. Perhaps no other county in the state had made as much progress in soil saving as Van Buren, and it was largely because of this preeminence that the C. C. C. camps were first placed here.
One of the Farm Bureau's noteworthy accomplishments was the organization of the Co-operative Creamery at Keosauqua, which opened in 1927, and by 1935 had reached a sale of twenty-two million pounds of butter a year. The first carload of butter from Van Buren County was shipped in 1929. The Keosauqua and Farmington creameries, in partnership with other southern Iowa creameries, contribute their share to the more than twelve million pounds annual output of the Southern Iowa Corporation, the formal opening of which was celebrated in Keosauqua in 1935.
The Farm Bureau organized, and manages, the present County Fair. It took the lead in organizing the county shipping associations and all co-operative farming enterprises.
The 4-H Club has been sponsored by the Farm Bureau and has grown steadily throughout the county.
PLACE NAMES IN VAN BUREN COUNTY
The place names of Van Buren County are mainly of American or English origin.
Many of the locally descriptive names derive from trees on the spot or in the vicinity, such as Ash Grove School, Brush College, Hickory Grove Church. Sometimes creeks or rivers give the designation: Bear Creek School, Lick Creek Church, Des Moines (River) City. Now and then a name carries a definite picture of a local spot: Rising Sun, Irish Bend, Pleasant Hill, Farmington, Center Chapel, Home Prairie Church.
Other places have taken their names from local pioneer settlers: Baker's Stump Creek, Ely's Ford, the Bradford School, Meek's
Presidents furnished the inspiration for the naming of Pierce-
ville (hamlet), Van Buren County, Washington township; statesmen for Webster School and Lacy Keosauqua State Park; and generals for Napoleon (hamlet), Bonaparte (town), Black Hawk (defunct village).
Transferred names were common, their origin arising; from associations with the old homes of the pioneers, and towns and villages in the eastern part of the United States; a few appear to have been remotely derived from England. Examples of these are Alexandria, Gainsborough, Farmington, Lexington, Pittsburg, Plymouth, Philadelphia.
Animal names also have their place in the county nomenclature: Bear Creek, Conn Branch, Big Duck Creek, Wolf Hollow.
The religious life of the community is reflected in various names of biblical origin, such as Bethel (church), Lebanon (hamlet) Mt. Zion (village),Palestine (hamlet), Providence (church).
The ideals of the early settlers are revealed in such names as: Enterprise, Eureka, Harmony, Hopewell, Salubria.
Names referring to Indians are strangely few: Fox River, Fox Island, Fox Post Office -- all these in memory of the original inhabitants; Iowaville, on the former of Iowa Indians; Keosauqua, Indian Creek, and Indian Prairie.
Unusual names are rare. Hedevalante is the name of an early township and hamlet; Paneko, the name of an early post office.
Population: 98; Platted: 1839; Incorporated: 1851; Railroad:
C. H. & P.; Highway: Dirt Road, 4 m. NW. from Bonaparte:
Churches: Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist; Schools: grade;
Library: Mason House; Des Moines River Bridge: 1883
This small village on the Des Moines River was once an, important port-of-call for Des Moines River steamers. Tree-covered hills hem in the little valley in which Bentonsport lies; and from Vernon, across the river, only the spires of the two white chuches and a few houses along the shores are visible. At one time, the town had a population of one thousand. It is the center of an agricultural community that is hidden from view by the surrounding hills.
The Old Mason House now houses the public library in one room, the rest of the house being closed except on Homecoming Day. The library was donated to the town by Calvin Brown, son of James Brown, one of the pioneer settlers who made a small fortune in Bentonsport. After Brown had given the books to the town, Mrs. Kurtz of Des Moines, Iowa, the granddaughter of the original owners of the Old Mason House, offered the room to house the books. Among other interesting buildings in the hamlet are the Bentonsport Academy, now the public school, the Hancock House, and the Presbyterian Church (see Points of Interest, Bentonsport).
On Homecoming Day, the third Thursday in August, the little town bustles with life. Sometimes fifteen hundred people throng the usually quiet streets during the celebration, which has been a yearly event since 1921. The origin of the celebration, however, dates back to the Fourth of July following the town's platting.
Driving their teams in the river, for there were no roads, Giles Sullivan, Charles Sanford, and a man named Ross came from St. Francisville to settle on the site of Bentonsport in 1836. There was a settlement across the river too, on the site of Vernon. On June 29, 1837 the supervisors of Van Buren County, Wisconsin Territory, granted a license for a ferry between the settlements. It was to run every day from daylight till dark and at all times of the night for mails and express and in cases of sickness.
Two years later, John Bending, Charles Sanford, and H. P. Graves platted and surveyed a townsite on the north side of the river. It was called both Port Benton and Benton's Port, after Thomas H. Benton, a well-known senator from Missouri. Shortly after the town had been platted the inhabitants celebrated the Fourth of July with an old-fashioned barbecue. Settlers even came from beyond the county's limits. Some of them declared that since every one came bent on sport the town should be christened Benton-
sport. There are those in the county today who insist that this is the origin of the name. However that may be, the town's Fourth of July celebration became an annual one and out of it grew the yearly Homecoming celebration.
Before the end of 1839, H. P. Graves and Alva White had opened the first store. Not long afterward John Burton and his mother started the first hotel. As the village grew and flourished the names of Harlan and Henry, shoemakers; Moses Springton, blacksmith; McHenry and Slade, harness makers; and John and Marshall Cottle, wagoners, became familiar to everyone in the vicinity.
Bentonsport was an important town industrially for a number of years. The first flatboat loaded with homegrown produce, went down the Des Moines River from Bentonsport. The town was not only a port-of-call for flatboat traffic on the river, but was also the terminus of the Des Moines Valley railroad for some years. In 1843, Hitchcock and Noble built the first flour mill and sawmill, operating it until 1866.
In 1851, the two Green brothers, looking for a site for a paper mill, became interested in Bentonsport at the suggestion of James A. Barr. They started to build their mill, the first paper mill in Iowa, but had hardly completed the first floor when the spring flood of that year (see Flood of 1851, History of Van Buren County) destroyed almost all that had been erected. The five story mill was not finished until 1852. For a time, most of the townspeople were employed in the mill, which was the largest in southern Iowa. The paper, mostly news print, was shipped to all parts of the state. In 1874 the Green brothers moved to Blue Rapids, Kansas, and established a business there; but the mill operated as a paper mill until about 1900. Later it was converted into a grist mill. During the flood of 1903 (see Flood of 1903, History of Van Buren County), water almost covered the windows of the mill's first floor. It was destroyed by fire in 1905.
In the early 1850's Mr. and Mrs. Sam Paine, parents of Albert Bigelow Paine, came to Bentonsport from New Bedford, Massachusetts, and chose a farm site adjoining the town. In 1856, Mr. Paine built a double log cabin on a hilltop on his farm, the highest point in Van Buren County. For many years the townspeople climbed the hill to see the view and stopped to watch the work in the quarry under the hill. About this time the railroad depot was built on the Paine farmland just below the town. Paine conducted a general store in Bentonsport until 1862. As soon as his son, Albert Bigelow Paine, was born on July 10, 1861, Paine closed his business and prepared to go to the Civil War. After he had organized a company and drilled them on the village green, the group joined the 19th Iowa Infantry, Second Division, as Company
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I. When the war was over, Paine's ill health furred him to sell his farm and move to Zenia, Illinois. His sister, Elizabeth, married Alex Carter and remained in Bentonsport. Albert Bigelow Paine, author of a three-volume work on Mark Twain, and many other books, grew up in Iowa and Illinois, spending part of his time in Bentonsport, visiting his Aunt Lizzie.
In 1854, James A. Brown established a sawmill. The first linseed oil mill in southern Iowa was erected here in 1865 by James Brown, who did a prosperous business for two years, and then, with a Mr. Moore, converted it into a woolen mill that manufactured cloth until 1876.
Itinerant Methodist ministers visited the town as early as 1840, and by 1841, religious meetings were being held in the homes that dotted the banks of the river. The first church organization was a Congregational Society organized in 1843 under the leadership of Rev. Harvey Adams, The Congregational Society also sponsored the first Sunday school, but did not erect a church, the first one in Bentonsport, until 1856. Rev. William Harsha served as the first pastor of the Presbyterian Society, organized in 1853. A Universalist Society, organized about 1858, erected a church, but the organization lasted only a few years. Much later this church was used by the Seventh Day Adventists, who established a society in 1878.
A Mr, Butler presided over the first log school with its pucheon floor and desks. Pupils balanced their slates on plank desks, fastened to strong, sturdy pins that had been inserted in holes bored in the log walls. In 1851 an Academy, a private institution, was erected by Messrs. Sanford, Greef, Brown, Richards, and Dr. Cowles, These men spent $3,000 on the building, which they sold to the Bentonsport Independent School district for $1,000 in 1870.
Bentonsport lost some of its importance when the railroad was extended to Fort Des Moines, and when the river traffic gradually dwindled in volume. The river was not bridged until 1885, when Bentonsport was still a manufacturing town. In 1900 there were still two woolen mills, a paper mill, a sawmill, and a grist mill in operation, but during the succeeding years they were closed or destroyed. The flood of 1903 did a great deal of damage.
Across the river the ghost town of Vernon also flourished before 1900. During the days of the Civil War, its woolen mills sent many blankets to soldiers in the front lines. Old-timers in the community now prize some of the blankets used in those days.
POINTS OF INTEREST IN VICINITY
1. MASON HOUSE (N. E. cor. Front St.). This former hotel is a landmark not only for Van Buren County, but for the state as well. The large three-story structure, modified Georgian in style, has the main facade on one end of the building and lacks the delicacy that prevails in most Georgian designs. The roof is not a gambrel, but the treatment of the chimneys is true Georgian. The house was erected by Billie Robinson in 1853. In the early 1850's Mr. and Mrs. L. J. Mason came to Bentonsport and bought the house in which they conducted the hotel that was known up and down the Des Moines River. When boats landed regularly at Bentonsport and while Bentonsport was a railroad terminus (1857-1860), the Mason House was home to many a steamboat captain and railroad man. When Mr. and Mrs. Mason died, their son George managed the hotel for many years and his sister, Mrs. F. O. Clark, lived in
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the house until her death in 1911. Mary Frances Kurtz, daughter of George, now owns the house. During the flood of 1903, water almost covered the first story windows. Much of the original furniture has been kept intact in the building today, and nothing has been added to alter the atmosphere of the past. When Mrs. Mary Frances Kurtz of Des Moines is in Bentonsport, the house is open.
2. HANCOCK HOUSE (one half block from Mason House). Erected by James A. Brown, the house resembles many houses on Cape Cod. Thirty-nine kinds of wood were used in its construction. Captain Frederick Hancock, who moved into the house in the early 1850's, had formerly been an officer at the Army Post in Cottonwood, Nebraska. In Bentonsport he was storekeeper in the firm of Hancock and Creel. Later he was justice of the peace. In 1936, a group of Government men measured the old house, and sent a report of their findings to Washington. The house is now owned by Miss Una Keck, an employee in the Treasury Department in Washington.
3. BENTONSPORT PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, constructed of brick and Georgian in style, was dedicated in 1856, about three Years after it was organized by the eleven charter members (March 12, 1856). Before the church was erected, the members of the various denominations in the village worshipped together in the little
brick school house, supplying the pulpit with any pastor who could be obtained. The Presbyterians and Congregationalists erected their churches about the same time, and the Universalists and the Methodists built their churches a little later. Rivalry among them when the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists secured bells for their churches, each trying to outdo the other. The Presbyterian bell, according to the church history, came from Pennsylvania and had a fine deep tone that could be heard farther than any other village bell.
According to Mrs. Lizzie Carter's published history, Rev. Harsha, the first resident pastor, "was allowed to resign" because he was "spending rnore of his valuable time fishing at the mill locks than in fishing for sinners in the vicinity."
After the controversy of organ versus James Green's tuning fork had been settled in favor of the organ, money was raised to buy a parsonage. The decline of the village's prosperity brought a decline in church membership that closed the church for a while. The Sunday school re-opened, and then the church. Meetings are held in the church only during Homecoming each year.
4. BENTONSPORT ACADEMY. In 1851 the Bentonsport Academy was established by a private group at a cost of $3,000. There is a hint of the Georgian style in the square brick building, the small paned windows, the lintel, and the door.
5. BENTONSPORT POST OFFICE (east of Mason House). The Pentonsport Post Office. formerly a private dwelling, has features of the English Renaissance style. Constructed of solid walnut, this old story-and-a-half house has small glass windows above the door, Gothic details in the cornic, small paned windows and shutters. The vertical wall sidings, used in its construction, end in a steep shingle roof. The house was built in the early days of the settlement.
6. VERNON (across the Des Moines River from Bentonsport). Vernon, one of the earliest towns of Van Buren County and laid out in 1837, is directly across the river from Bentonsport. A school house and a few residences are all that remain of the once thriving village. In the flood of 1851, high water washed a channel between the town and the grist mill that had been built upon the river bank in 1845. The mill was left abandoned on the island formed for a year, then it was brought to shore and repaired. It was used as a woolen mill during the Civil War and afterward. One ofDVernon's best businesses was its pottery, the first one in Van Buren County. started about 1848. In later years the capacity of the pottery was about 240,000 gallons a year. During these years, the home of Dr. Gideon S. Bailey, pioneer physician credited as the founder of the town, was the show place of the village.
Transcribed by Rich Lowe for the
Van Buren County IAGenWeb Project
- copyright 2007 -