McCarty, Dwight D. History of Palo Alto County. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Torch Press, 1910


Chapter XI
The Old Town

    The first attempts at building a county-seat were failures because they were purely speculative. They were premature and lacked natural advantages that would compel rapid advancement. The first town in the county was a natural growth. It was unplanned and unheralded, located by a force of circumstances, and grew from a natural and spontaneous necessity.
   Martin Coonan had built a log cabin in 1858 on the east bank of the Des Moines River on section 23-96-33. This hospitable little home was the stopping place for weary travelers for several years. About 1865, Mr. Coonan hauled brick that was left over when the court house at Paoli was rebuilt and built a new brick house about 16 x 24, two stories high. He used his old cabin as an addition or lean-to. This pretentious dwelling at once became the "tavern" of the county and many a wayfarer found shelter and good cheer within its walls. A traveler coming to Palo Alto County for the first time in 1869, thus describes his impressions: "The next day we plodded westward and crossed into Palo Alto County and later in the day first beheld Medium Lake at a point north of the Michael Jackman home. When we passed the old house the children came out and stood in a row (like an old fashioned spelling class) the largest at the head and ganging down to one just able to stand alone. We came along the east shore and around the foot of the lake (where Call's Addition is now platted) and thence northwesterly. When near where the Scott Ormsby home now stands we came across three small children herding some cows. We asked them, 'Where is Emmetsburg?' One of them, a girl, replied, 'You are right there now, sir.' 'Yes, but where is the town?' 'Right here is where it is.' 'But we don't see any town.' 'Sure, and don't you see that stake there in the grass, and that one there- that's Emmetsburg.' ' But where is the hotel?' ' Oh, it's Coonan's you want. It's over there beyond the hill.' So on over the hill and just as the sun was setting we arrived at Coonan's." 1
     The name still clung to the stakes of the abandoned town that Hoolihan and his friends had so confidently laid out. But Coon's "Hotel" was the magnet that drew all comers. Mr. Coonan had made quite a road in hauling brick to his house and with an eye for business, put up a sign some distance out, "Emmetsburg," with a hand pointing toward his home. This deflected travel from the staked-out town of Emmetsburg on the shore of Medium Lake, and from the deserted town of Paoli. Mr. Coonan also secured the postoffice and that added to the prestige. The Coonan place thus became the objective point for all travelers and settlers.
    In the fall of 1868 Thomas C. Davis came to the county, bringing with him an old saw-mill outfit. He formed a partnership with E.G. Pond and together they built a brush dam across the Des Moines River a short distance from Coonan's and set up the saw -mill. They began to saw some lumber for the settlers and this new industry was the final step in the locating of the real town, which soon began to straggle along the road leading to the Coonan house.
    The next spring "N.D. Bearss built a small shed 10 x 12, about 6 feet high on one side and 7 feet on the other. This was built by setting some old slabs and poles in the ground and tacking tarred paper on and then banking up on the outside with hay. The roof was made with poles and hay. In this 'store' he had about a wheelbarrow full of goods, some pipes and smoking tobacco, etc. He was alone and lived in this shed boarding himself." 2 
    The same summer "M.D. Daniels built a one-story building about 12 x 14, which I think was made entirely out of native lumber. Daniels and his wife and two children lived in this. He was a blacksmith and had a shop about 10 x 12 made by standing poles on end with the slabs nailed on them. The roof, what there was of it, was of slabs." 3
     That fall George B. McCarty came out to Palo Alto County to cast his fortunes with the new town. He thus described the journey and his experiences in getting settled: 4 "I had then decided to locate at Emmetsburg, and in October, 1869, having remained until after election to vote and work for my townsman, Samuel Merrill, for governor of Iowa, two days later Al Jones and myself  with my few belongings started for Emmetsburg. We went from McGregor via boat to Dubuque and from Dubuque to Fort Dodge via railroad. At Fort Dodge we hired teams, Al Jones having purchased a stock of goods with which to start a store at Emmetsburg, when we should get there. We had three teams loaded with lumber and goods; were three days getting through. Had to unload three for four times and carry the lumber and goods out when the teams would get stuck in sloughs, which was not only hard work, but wet and muddy as well. We arrived at Emmetsburg October 20, 1869, after dark. We put up and covered up our goods. The next morning we unloaded the goods and our personal effects on the ground and put some of the lumber over them. Commenced to look for a carpenter and found there were only two in the county - Thos. C. Davis, who was building a small house for Rev. B.C. Hammond on his homestead, the east half of the southwest quarter 30-97-32; and W.H. Caner, who was somewhere in the southeast part of the county putting up a shanty. Jones had a saw and a hatchet; I had a hammer and jack-knife; and being thus supplied with tools, we commenced a building 16 x 20 from the lumber we had brought. As we expected to get some native lumber at the saw-mill, we had only brought a small amount of dimension lumber for temporary sills and plates and a few rafters. Joists were not needed, because we had no flooring material and mother earth made a good solid floor ,as we had found a high spot that was reasonably solid. By night we had the frame work well up and not having any shingles and a small amount of boards, we had to use them sparingly, but had quite a large roll of building paper which in that case covered a multitude of omissions and quite a pile of goods. That night we had our goods piled up in one corner, yet in the boxes, in fair shape. And the heavens smiled upon us and no rain fell. The second day with what lumber we had and our building paper we had the building well enclosed and roofed in.
    "On the third day it rained. The fourth day I started to Fort Dodge with Jo Smith, Culver and Clark, three homesteaders who had recently located in the county, but has horse teams, for more lumber and materials. It was damp and rainy in the morning but about eight o'clock, when were about five miles on our way the wind suddenly turned to the northwest and blew a gale. In less than an hour the mud began to freeze on our wagon wheels and ice formed on the water standing in the grass and sloughs, and I believe I never saw so cold a day. We walked nearly all the time and then nearly froze. We reached Humboldt about nine o'clock that night, and so cold it was that ice formed on the shallow sloughs that would almost bear our horses. They would climb on the ice and it would break in, while the mud would freeze on our wagon till we would have to chop it off with hatchets so that the team could haul the wagons. Next morning we started and reached Fort Dodge at noon, the ice in the sloughs bearing the horses and wagon. Loaded up and next day started on our return trip. The weather was some warmer, but the ice would break and cut through and our wagons would become stalled. For three days we worked, unloaded and carried out our loads and re-loaded often in water and ice far above our knees, and always wet and cold. We finally reached Emmetsburg on the night of the fifth day and then set to shingling the building. Took the tarred paper off the sides and put in studs and joists and finished up the building. This time we brought one door and two windows and 12-inch wide boards to lay across the joists for floor. We also brought some flour, 1 barrel of pork, 1 barrel of molasses and 1 barrel of salt. I remember this fact well from the fact that when we would get stalled those barrels would have to be rolled off and rolled out through the mud and water to dry land and then reloaded, which, when I now well remember that the mud and water were often more than knee deep- well, we had one man in our crowd who was inclined to swear, and it took a great amount of effort on the part of the other three of us to convince him that not amount of swearing could better a job like that.
    "Coonan's farm house was of brick 16x24, with a small wood addition. The brick part was 12 feet high, giving an attic chamber, one room, and what Mrs. Coonan called the 'landing,' a small space at the head of the stairs partitioned off by itself. The balance of this attic chamber  in one room was commonly known as the 'school section.' This contained four beds, one in each corner, and the balance of the floor space was occupied by the 10 to 30 other males guests and members of the family and when all the floor space, including that under the beds was fully taken, later guests had to 'sit it out' down stairs. 5  The lower story was divided into a kitchen (very small), a small bed room and a living room, but usually the cooking was done in the living room. The small bed room was occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Coonan, but when women were there Mrs. Coonan sent Martin to the 'section' and the women occupied the bed room.
    "I boarded at Coonan's for nearly two months and then Al Jones and I went and slept in the old saw-mill. We could look out and see the stars and during that January and February and March it was cold and we had three or four big snows and blizzards. I remember one February morning when Jones and I awoke the snow had blown in and formed a drift completely covering our bed with more than two feet of snow. We used to take such of our clothes as we took off and our shoes in bed with us. We had a bedstead made of willow poles which was about 1 1/2 feet high, and we nailed a piece of slab on the head and foot and had a big army blanket which we would stretch over these slabs from head to foot and it protected us against the snow, unless it was a regular blizzard, when it would fill up over the bed so that in the morning we could only with difficulty extricate ourselves. But if cold, the air was of a better quality than in the school section and we could get it first hand. This mill building was owned by Thos. C. Davis and E.G. Pond. Davis had partitioned off a room in one end of the mill building about 12 or 14 feet square. This partition was made by setting poles upright and then nailing other poles and a few pieces of slabs to the upright and then setting another row of poles and filling in with hay. Davis and his wife and two small children lived in that room and Pond, who was a single man, boarded with Davis. Sometimes when it was too stormy, Al Jones and I would camp in the store building, but it was so small that we could not have a bed there but would roll up in blankets on the floor.
    "Aside from the Coonan house and the old mill building already described, there were three other buildings: Bearss, Daniels, and the building built by Jones and myself. During the fall and winter of 1869 and 1870 the regular inhabitants of Emmetsburg were:
    "Martin Coonan and wife and five boys, Mart, Will, Dan, Tom and John.
    "T.C. Davis and wife and two children.
    " E.G. Pond.
    " N.D. Bearss.
    " M.D. Daniels and wife and two children.
    " Al Jones.
    " W.H. Shea.
    " Geo. B. McCarty.
    "James P. White was county treasurer and lived on section 18-95-32, Nevada township. He would come up to town nearly every day and when the weather was too bad to make the drive he would stay over night. In addition to these there were a number of other parties who stayed a few weeks: M.E. Griffin, now a banker at Spencer; G.R. Badgrow, now postmaster at Sioux City; Wm Starr of Monticello, Iowa, and others. While there was scarcely a day or night that there were not travelers at Coonan's, I remember one night while I roomed at Coonan's, there were 78 persons there, and all had accommodations, such as they were. Shelter at least on a stormy January night meant a good deal." 6
     Mother Coonan was noted for her hospitality. "Bless her dear, big Irish heart," writes T.W. Harrison, who stopped there in those days. "She always had a smile and a kind word and a little joke and a hearty meal for everyone who came along. I boarded there for weeks afterwards, and such hearty meals and heartily relished by everyone; a milk pan full of hard fried eggs, boiled potatoes, elegant white bread, good butter, strong coffee with sugar and cream, and dried applesauce, was the bill of fare three times a day and seven days in a week, and no one wanted anything more or different." 7
In February, 1870, T.W. Harrison first came to the frontier town of Emmetsburg. "For several days," he says, "I borrowed Jim White's saddle horse and rode around the country to see the lay of the land, and in the course of a week I became satisfied that this land, which would grow natural grasses from six to eight feet high on the bottom lands and two to three feet high on the upland prairie, must have a desirable future, and that I was willing to settle here and take my chances on its development. Another inducement was the fact that two valuable railroad land grants crossed each other at or near the location of Emmetsburg, and I reasoned that those two railroads must be built at some time and that there would be a town where they crossed each other. So I announced to the 'Old Settlers' that I had decided to locate here. They asked me what my business was. I said, 'Lawyer and Real Estate.' They said, ' You will starve to death at that trade.' I said, ' I will take my chances with the rest of you,' and they laughed heartily." 8
Mr. McCarty, during the winter, had a table and a few books in one corner of the Jones & Johnson store building which he had helped to build, and that was his law office. In March he had lumber hauled from Fort Dodge, and built an office building 14x16. This was the first office building in the old town. 9
     Among the new arrivals that spring were H.L. Burnell and wife, and E.J. Hartshorn. Harrison formed a partnership with Burnell and they put up a small building and used it as an office and residence. McCarty and Hartshorn formed a partnership in the law and land business about the same time. James P. White and W.H. Shea also put up an office building. Later M.L. Brown and his brother, P.S. Brown, came and built a small hardware and agricultural implement building. About this time James Fitzgerald and his wife bought the small Daniels house and opened up their store. Ketchen and Lenhart put up a building for a clothing store. That summer A.D. Gallop built the "Valley House" and the little settlement began to take on the airs of a town.
     W.J. Brown and Alex Peddie were among the newcomers in 1871 who cast their destinies with Emmetsburg.
     In 1872 F.H. Roper became the landlord of the "Valley House" and did a thriving business, clearing $1,000 in the first five months. 10
     James Fitzgerald was a genial but thrifty merchant and his quaint mannerisms furnished amusement for the town. Many are the stories told about "Fitz" as he was popularly known. Three of them are worth recording. In the early days of the town the boys used to buy cigars, etc. at Fitz's little store and he was always willing to give change for a ten dollar bill if the customer made a purchase but "no buy, no change" was an inflexible rule of the store. W.H. Shea, Jas. P. White, and Al Jones put up a job on Fitz and began buying cigars, etc., and telling him to  "charge them to McCarty." This was done and in the course of a week or so Fitz presented his bill of $7.40 to McCarty for payment, whereupon the account was indignantly repudiated as not of his making. Fitz mourned as for a lost friend over being swindled in this manner, but quietly bided his time and one day White and his two friends came into the store and asked for some cigars in order to get change for a $10 bill. Fitz took the bill and quietly tucked it into his inside pocket and busied himself arranging his goods. When White asked for the change Fitz Coolly answered, "Oh, charge it to McCarty." On another occasion when a customer came in to buy a pocket-book but had no money to pay for it, Fitz sorrowfully put the pocket-book back on the shelf, remarking, "You must think me green to sell you a pocket-book on tick when you've no money to put in it." One day a lady came into his store and wanted to buy a darning needle, for which he charged her five cents and when she complained of the price, Fitz exclaimed, "The freight, the freight, lady. I can't sell it for less, the freight is so high." But everyone liked good old Jimmie Fitzgerald and his "old woman" who together by thrift acquired enough to retire from the business and live in comfort to a ripe old age.
     At this time Fort Dodge was the terminus of the railroad and all lumber and supplies had to be hauled from there. Joe Mulroney was running a small stage from Fort Dodge to Spirit Lake once a week to carry the mail and such passengers as had no other conveyance. The arrival of the weekly mail was an important event and the whole town would turn out to welcome the stage on its arrival. In December of 1870 the McGregor & Missouri River Railway was built as far as Algona and from that time on, there was a daily mail by stage from Algona, and that place became the terminus and the base of supplies for Emmetsburg until the railroad was completed through in 1878.
     The Catholic Church was the first church in the old town. It was erected in 1871 through the efforts of Father Linehan of Fort Dodge. Before this settlers had gathered logs to build a church, but a prairie fire sweeping over the prairie had destroyed all the results of their hard labor. 11  This new church was a large structure for those early days. Father Smith was the first pastor. He arrived at Emmetsburg in December, 1871, when the new church was a large structure for those early days. Father Smith was the first pastor. He arrived at Emmetsburg in December, 1871, when the new church was only partially completed. With fearless energy and boundless faith the young priest began his life work in the new field. He completed the church and organized his parish. There were only thirty-nine Catholic families in the county then, but his sphere of activity was much broader. His parish contained eight counties, but as resident priest he had charge not only of Northwest Iowa, from Hancock to the state line on the west, but also all those counties lying north of Humboldt, Pocahontas, Buena Vista and Plymouth. In addition to his charge in Iowa, he attended to Southwest Minnesota and Eastern Dakota. In the Iowa territory there are today twenty-seven priests, where the territory was once attended by him alone. Moreover, in the tireless and willing discharge of his duties on the wild and desolate frontier plains, he ministered to the needs of all, and was the kind and cheery friend and adviser of all the settlers, regardless of church or creed. Father Smith is still in active charge of his large and influential church at Emmetsburg, which has grown from the small beginnings so auspiciously started many years ago. No service that he has ever rendered during his long and devoted life has reaped such abundant fruit as those years of untiring devotion to the pioneers on the Iowa prairie. 12
     In the winter of 1871-2 the scattered Protestant families organized a Union Church, John L. Lang being the leading spirit, and Rev. B.C. Hammons, who lived on a homestead five or six miles northeast of town, preached for them. "This Union Church was afterwards duly incorporated and was the forerunner of the present First Congregational Church of Emmetsburg. A Union Sunday School was also organized by Mr. Lang and conducted by him in the spring and summer of 1872. In August, 1872, that Little Giant of Methodism, Col. E.S. Ormsby, located in the old town and it did not take him long to gather together that remnant of the Tribe of Israel known as Methodists and organize a Methodist Episcopal Church and Sunday School which have both been flourishing ever since." 13
     Others began to locate in the town that was already assuming considerable importance as a trading center. There were over 1,000 settlers in the county and Emmetsburg was the only town and trading point this side of Algona and Fort Dodge. T.H. Tobin, Pat Joyce, and John Hall started stores. E.S. Ormsby established the first bank in 1872 under the name of Burnham, Ormsby & Co., capital $10,000. M.F. Kerwick also came in 1872.
     The town had grown so naturally along the Coonan road, that no plat had been made at first and the buildings had been located in Coonan's corn field or pasture at the whim of of the newcomer, but in the summer of 1870 Mr. Coonan had some blocks and lots surveyed out and later had the plat recorded as "Emmetsburg." 14
     The Democrat published by Jas. P. White, at Soda Bar, and the Advance, published by McCarty & Hartshorn and Harrison & Burnell, were the rival papers that flourished throughout the exciting campaign of 1870. But when White lost the treasureship at that election his paper soon after went out of business and the Advance sold out to Bates & Hagedon, who discounted the old name and started the Palo Alto Patriot in June 1873. 15 After a year the Patriot sold out to the Palo Alto Printing Company, who dropped the old title and began the Palo Alto Pilot. The first issue was June 11, 1874, and was printed in Old Town. 16 J.C. Bennett, who worked on this paper says: "When I first came in contact with it in July, 1873, it was a pretty badly mixed up outfit. It had evidently been stored in someone's barn at some time. The first ink we had to work with was about half straw. The first court calendar printed for use in the county was printed in the Pilot office in the early part of the winter of 1873. Old Town was located in the building that is now occupied by McCrum as a shoe store. It was made of nothing but siding and thin ceiling. The only press was an old worn hand press in freezing weather and it was pretty hard to do anything...The Pilot was edited by different parties, first by J.L. Martin, then by Rev. J.E. Rowen, who was the Methodist preacher here. A.W. Utter was next editor. I was with it from the fall of 1874 to June, 1876. 17
     In 1871-2 several houses were built on the hill a mile east of Old Town. T.W. Harrison built his house in the spring of 1871 (the one now occupied by Mr. Appleby) and E.J. White built theirs in the spring of 1872. "These houses 18 were half way between the Old town and the location where the new town was expected to be laid out. They were the first houses on the present town site of Emmetsburg as they are now in the northwest part of our present city."
     "That (1872) was the summer of brides for the new town. Mrs. T.W. Harrison, Mrs. Emory King, Mrs. Al Jones, Mrs. Ben Johnson, and Mrs. A.L. Ormsby, all came as brides. Some of them were disappointed at not finding it a larger town in fact, as they had read glowing descriptions of it in the numerous letters from their lovers for a year or more before. But they made a happy addition to the new town society, and were each in turn vigorously, if not delightfully, serenaded by Duncan's Band." 19
     "Among the old settlers who lived in the vicinity were ' Paddy in the Bush' (Patrick Nolan who lived in the woods north of town); 'Paddy on the Flat' (Patrick Nolan, who lived on the river bottom south of town); ' Paddy Green' (Patrick Nolan, who lived on the west shore of Medium Lake); Mrs. Laughlin, the character of the community, who lived south of town, always full of her jokes and witticisms; Dan Kane, who lived in the woods north of town; Mr. and Mrs. Martin Coonan, Sr., who kept the early boarding house in or about the town; John Pendergast, who lived near the lake where Mr. Saunders's mansion now stands; John Nolan, who lived on the west side of the lake; William O'Connell, who lived west of the river; Wm. E. Cullen, William Murphy, and Charles Hastings, who lived south of town; James Hickey, Larry Burns and Pat Lannon, who lived west of the river and south of town; James Nolan, Martin Laughlin, Lott Laughlin, Jerry Crowley, Miles Mahan, Ed Mahan, Billy Jackman, and Patsy Jackman, at Walnut; Mickey Jackman on the east side of the lake; T.H. Tobin, William Shea, Thomas Shea, Robert Shea, Joe Mulroney, Kiren Mulroney, William Mahar, and others at Soda Bar in Nevada township; Michael Kirby, John Doran, Dan Doran, and others, west of the river in Great Oak township; John Neary and Thomas Welch, east of the river and some others whose names I do not now recall." 20
     Other people located in the town from time to time, until in 1874 there were forty or more business buildings and houses. But all the buildings along the Coonan road were small and cheaply constructed as it was realized that the railroad company would locate a depot on its own ground and that those on the Coonan plat would have to move or there would be two towns within a few miles of each other. It was in the summer of 1874 that the Old Town reached the acme of its existence, for in a few short months it disappeared like the mist before the morning sun and the new and fairer city on the hill took its place in history.

1. "Recollections of Early Palo Alto County," Geo. B. McCarty.
2 Statement of Geo. B. McCarty. Chas. Nolan, J.J. Mahan, and other settlers' descriptions agree with the one here given.
3 Statement of Geo. B. McCarty.
4 He had previously taken an extended trip through western Iowa with Ben Johnson in 1869, and spent four or five days in Emmetsburg, examining the surrounding country. Al Jones was then stopping at Coonan's. Statement of Geo. B. McCarty.
5 This was, as T.W. Harrison says, "A silent inducement to retire early." Statement of T.W. Harrison.
6 "Recollections of Early Palo Alto County," by Geo. B. McCarty. This statement from which quotations are made from time to time has never been published, but will be found preserved in the Semi-Centennial Record Book.
7 "Fifty Years Ago in Palo Alto County," by T.W Harrison, Des Moines Register and Leader, July 8, 1906. This statement was originally prepared at my request and was considered of sufficient general interest to have same published at that time. It appeared in several of the Emmetsburg papers in 1906. It will also be found pasted in the Semi-Centennial Record Book, pp. 387-8.
8 Statement of T.W. Harrison.
9 "I paid $50 per M for dimension lumber, and for flooring and siding, etc., about $65 per M. When I got the lumber home,  figured up and found my lumber had cost me, including the expenses of the trip, about $120 per M." Statement of Geo. B. McCarty. This historic old building was moved to the new town and stood (on lot 2, block 51, Corbin & Lawler's plat) just south of McCarty & McCarty's office until it was destroyed by fire in April, 1909.
10 Statement of F.H. Roper
11 Statement by Father Smith, Semi-Centennial Record Book, p. 211
12 Very Rev. J.J. Smith was ordained a priest in Dublin, Ireland, June 26, 1870. After coming to Dubuque on August 30, 1870, he was assistant priest at the Cathedral for three months. He was then appointed pastor at Clermont, Fayette County, from whence he was removed to Emmetsburg, in December, 1871. A very excellent comparison of those early days with the present, written by Father Smith, will be found in the Semi-Centennial Record Book, p. 211. See also sketch of his life and work in the Palo Alto Tribune.
13 "Fifty Years Ago in Palo Alto County," by T.W. Harrison, Register and Leader, July 8, 1906
14 May 24, 1871, recorder's office, Palo Alto County.
15. The most careful search and extended inquiry have failed to find a single copy of either the Democrat or Advance, and it is believed that time and inattention may have destroyed these valuable historical records. One copy of the Patriot was once discovered among some old papers at Algona. it was dated June, 1874, and marked in pencil, "the last copy of the Patriot," and contained a notice of the dissolution of the firm of Bates & Hagedon, the publishers. But even this copy is now lost.
16 Odd numbers of the Pilot have been found, and J.C. Bennett has preserved a file, beginning with no. 20 of vol. i, Oct. 22, 1874, to no. 47 of vol. ii, May 11, 1876.
17 Statement of J.C. Bennett
18 Statement of T.W. Harrison. Letter of Capt. E.J. Hartshorn.
19 T.W. Harrison's statement.
20 Statement of T.W. Harrison.