McCarty, Dwight D. History of Palo Alto
County. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Torch Press, 1910
The New Emmetsburg
With all its sudden growth and
outward prosperity, the old town of Emmetsburg on the river was but transitory.
The buildings were all rough, temporary structures, or built on posts, as it was
expected that the railway would plat a town elsewhere, and that the town would
have to be moved some time. Mr. Coonan did not take the trouble to convey lots
or plat the town for several years. Moreover, the location which chance had
selected was not at all suitable for a permanent town.
This unsettled condition produced a spirit of
uneasiness among the people that grew stronger as the railroad company in 1873
began to build from Algona westward. Even when railroad operations suddenly
ceased, the dissatisfaction with local conditions grew until in 1874, when the
agitation for a change began to take definite form.
Gen. John Lawler of Prairie du Chien, Wis., who
was an officer of the railroad company, had bought the northeast quarter of
section 25-96-33 for the purpose of a town site and the railroad had been
surveyed through that tract. Austin Corbin of New York City owned the northwest
quarter of section 30-96-32, adjoining the Lawler quarter on the east, and was
anxious to get in on the town site proposition. T. W. Harrison was the attorney
for Mr. Lawler and the railroad, and Geo. B. McCarty was the attorney for Mr.
Corbin. Mr. McCarty thus describes the negotiations: "Mr. Corbin gave me
special authority to act for him and to visit the officers of the railroad
company with a view to making arrangements looking to the location of a depot
and town site. In July I went to Prairie du Chien and saw Gen. John Lawler, who
promised to meet me in Milwaukee next day. I then went to Milwaukee and saw S.
S. Merrill, general manager, and Alex Mitchell, president of the railroad, and
had several hours' session with Lawler, Merrill and Mitchell, and an agreement
was then reached that the railroad company was to proceed at once in connection
with Austin Corbin and plat the northeast quarter 25-96-33 and the northwest
quarter 30-96-32 into a town site and town lots; that the township line between
said quarters should be the principal street and that the depot should be
located within 200 feet of said line and that a court house square be platted on
the highest point east of said line and dedicated to the use of the county for
court house purposes, provided the county took steps to locate the county seat
there within a reasonable time. That a public park of not to exceed a square of
four blocks should be located on the high ground near the northeast corner of
the northeast quarter 25-96-33 and dedicated to the use of the town as a public
park. That they were to proceed at once to plat out the town site and when so
platted that part of the site on the northwest quarter of 30-96-32 should be
equally divided between Austin Corbin and John Lawler, that is each alternate
lot or block as the agents of the respective parties should agree.
"It was further agreed that before said
division was made each person who owned a lot in the Coonan plat with a business
or dwelling building thereon and would move his building to the Corbin and
Lawler site before December 1, 1874, should have a lot donated to him upon which
to locate his building, and other persons who would build and erect a good,
substantial, new business building or residence on said plat on or before
December 1, 1874, should have a lot donated to them, in consideration of their
moving or erecting buildings. It was provided that no two persons should be
located on adjacent lots. There must be at least one intervening lot between.
That after locations were made deeds should be made to said parties and
remaining lots divided. It was also stipulated on the part of the railroad
company that this agreement was to be subject to the approval of Gen. Dodge,
chief engineer of the company, and that before said town was so laid out and
platted Gen. Dodge should designate on the ground what land was required by the
railroad company for right of way and depot grounds and Gen. Dodge should
definitely locate the right of way, tracks, and depot site and that when the
road was constructed to Emmetsburg the railroad company contracted to erect
their depot on said site so selected and make it their permanent depot site. I
then went to Madison, Wis., and saw General Dodge and he approved of the
agreement and agreed that he would have the plat of depot grounds and site ready
within ten days, or as soon as he could take some additional measurements, etc.
It was also agreed that I was to act as the agent for Austin Corbin, and T. W.
Harrison was to act as agent for the railroad company, and we were to proceed to
survey and plat the town as soon as possible." 1
By this compromise a town site war was
avoided, and the original plat was called Corbin & Lawler's Plat of
Emmetsburg and is so known to this day. This division also secured for the
county-seat the beautiful court house square, and the spacious public park in
the west part of town. The Corbin quarter in Freedom township had originally
been homesteaded by Thomas Mahar in the early sixties. His cabin stood at the
southeast corner of the court house square and only a few years ago a slight
depression there plainly marked the place of his cellar. Mr. Mahar abandoned his
claim soon after taking it.
While these preliminaries were being arranged, T. W.
Harrison was busy preparing for the removal of the Old Town to the new location.
Mr. Harrison describes these events as follows: "One morning in June, 1874,
when I went to my office, I founds, delegation of the business men waiting for
me. They said that a meeting of the business men was being held in one of the
stores and they wanted me to come over to it. I was then the attorney and agent
for the railroad company, and they wanted to know if I thought the railroad
company would plat out the railroad town site and give them a lot for each
building they would move over if they would move at once, as the risk from fire
was too great where they were, and their stocks of goods were getting too large
to carry without insurance, and they wanted to get on permanent lots and enlarge
their buildings. I told them I thought the company would do that, but that the
company would want some guarantee that they would move in case the railroad town
site was platted. They told me to draw up any kind of an agreement and bond I
desired, and they would sign it. I prepared an agreement and bond with a
forfeiture of $500 each in case they did not move as soon as the lots were ready
for them, and they all signed it, fifteen of the leading business men of the Old
Town. I took the agreement and bond to John Lawler, the vice-president of the
railroad company at Prairie du Chien, Wis., and he said, 'Yes, the company will
do that,' but that he would have to submit it to the directors in New York City.
He said it would take about a week for him to get an answer and for me to return
home and hold myself in readiness upon receipt of a telegram from him, to go
ahead then and plat the railroad town site." 2
When at last the telegram was received stating that the
negotiations had been approved, Mr. McCarty and Mr. Harrison hired Le Roy Grout
to do the surveying and began to plat and lay out the new town. 3
"The grass was tall, in many places up
to our hips, and in some places as high as our heads. Not a tree nor a shrub in
sight—just prairie. We got a team and mower and set flags and would mow two
swaths through so we could see to set and line up the stakes. When the survey
was well along the question of moving came up. In the meantime dissensions had
arisen. Coonan had become awake and was offering special inducements for them to
stay and others got discouraged at the thought of moving out on the prairie and
locating their buildings in the tall grass, without a furrow broken, no roads or
paths. In fact it did not look very inviting. About this time some of the
dissenters held a meeting and resolved they would not move and about one-half of
them agreed to this. Then the question came up and was discussed pro and con for
three or four days." 4
Martin Coonan told them that a hard winter was coming
on and that they would freeze and starve out in "Staketown " as he
called it; that they had better stay right where they were and he would give
them all the lots they wanted. These were potent arguments, and the business men
became exceedingly lukewarm on the subject of moving. I had procured a house
moving outfit to come here from Humboldt with their teams and tools, all ready
to do the moving. The business men dreaded the trouble and expense of moving.
The house movers were clamoring to commence their work, and one day while I was
out of town they loaded up my office, moved it out and dropped it on the corner
where the Waverly Hotel now stands, and it stood there a lone speck on the
prairie for two or three weeks. If it had not been for the bond the business men
would have been strongly inclined to remain where they were. But I assured them
with great earnestness that the company would collect that bond from every one
of them. Finally we got the four leading merchants together in a room, and
handed them the plat of the new town and said that we would give them their
choice of corners and give each of them two lots on a corner if they would move
over at once, and wherever they located would center the business of the town,
and be the most valuable property in town. They said that was fair, and that
they would do it." 5
It was on September 2, 1874, that the
Harrison office was moved up to the new site and as the first lone building on
the prairie, marked the beginning of the prospective town. The second building
moved up was the McCarty office building, occupied by McCarty & Hartshorn,
which was located on lot 2, block 51, where it stood just south of the present
McCarty & McCarty law office until burned in April of 1909. The third
building moved was the White & Shea office, which was moved over to the
opposite side of the street, to lot 1, block 52, where Berger's store is now
located. The fourth was Tobin & Co.'s general store.
"Early the next morning," says T. W.
Harrison, "the movers loaded the Tobin store building on their trucks, and
started for the new town, while all the people looked on and wondered. The
building was not large, but it took several days to move it to the new site, and
Mr. Tobin was selling goods out of the back door all along the way. He was so
well known and so universally liked, and the novelty of the situation gave him
such an advertisement that a large crowd of customers followed him to the new
town, and his business was larger than it had ever been before, so much so that
he said he wished that the other merchants would not move, but leave the new
town trade to him and he would be perfectly satisfied." 6
This building was placed on the corner where the Tobin Block is now occupied by
the Farmers' Savings Bank. The fifth was the Ketchen & Lenhart clothing
store, which was moved to lot 1, block 37, the corner where the Emmetsburg
National Bank now stands.
"Then came a halt," says Geo. B. McCarty in
describing the events. "No one would make a start. Those who had moved up
cut the grass and set out a few hitching posts and were ready for business.
Several days were spent in trying to get others to move but without avail. About
this time T. C. Davis, who was the postmaster, said that he would put up a
building if they would give him a lot. He selected lot 6, block 37, and began
his building. In the meantime we had forwarded a petition to Washington to have
permission to move the postoffice, but red tape and remonstrance held it up for
some time. In the meantime two or three small dwellings had been moved up. Then
Ormsbys agreed to have their bank building and E. S. Ormsby's house moved. P.
Joyce and Jas. Fitzgerald, each having a general store, refused to move, and the
others joined with them, John D. Hall saying that he would move if the others
would agree to. Finally a meeting was held at which there were those who had
moved and those favorable, which lasted until near midnight to devise ways and
means to break the deadlock. The movers' outfit was idle and on expense and they
threatened to leave. It was finally agreed that the parties present would pay
the movers when not at work for the next week and appeal to the people of the
county. A painter by the name of Walt Duncan was put to work painting boards —
'Staketown or bust,' Staketown being the name given to the new town by those
opposed, 'On to Staketown,' 'Staketown only station on this line,' 'Staketown
will pay more for farm products and sell goods cheaper.' These were nailed on to
stakes and set up on all roads, nailed to bridges, etc., and men were sent out
and stationed on all roads to appeal to the farmers to stand by us and aid us in
having one good town and the county-seat located there without a county-seat
war; that the location was a central one and that the railroad would build their
depot there under their contract, etc. Whereas on the other hand it would be two
small towns within one and one-half miles of each other, always scrapping and
fighting, a county-seat war, postoffice fight, etc., which arguments seemed to
take well with the farmers (Emmetsburg was the only town in the county at that
time, no other trading or business place). Many of them permitted signs to be
put on their wagons or chalked, 'Staketown or bust,' and would drive straight
through the Old Town to 'Stake-town.' It was a winning card and turned the tide
of events. The Tobin store had to get extra clerks and one Saturday took in $153
in cash and over $200 worth of farm products. Had to saw 2x4 lumber and set them
in the ground to hitch teams to. While the Old Town had a quietude settle over
it. Within a week they gave in and even offered a high bonus to be moved first. 7
So that by December 1st, the Old Town had moved up, and the new town loomed up
on its hill and could be seen from almost any part of the county, with not a
tree or shrub to hide it." 8
"Miss Mary McGroarty, sister of Mrs. A. L.
Ormsby, was a musician and musical composer, and she wrote a new march which she
called 'The March of Emmetsburg,' as she witnessed the flight of the town from
the old to the new site." 9
The new town of Emmetsburg, after many vicissitudes,
had at last become a reality. Later generations owe a debt of gratitude to the
wisdom and foresight of the men of 1874 who gave us a central, well located,
beautiful county-seat, with ample room for broad growth and advancement as time
One opportunity, however, appears to have slipped by.
Mr. Harrison says: "I had planned at the time to change the name of the new
town to 'Merrill,' the name of the general manager and most potent factor in the
Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad. I had Mr. Merrill in my office in
the spring of 1875 and submitted the matter to him, and it pleased him greatly.
He said: 'That means spending $20,000 to help make the town grow.' I replied
that 'I hoped so.' I discussed that matter with the business men of the town,
and some of them objected so vigorously because they said they had advertised
Emmetsburg so extensively that it would hurt their business to make any change
in the name, that I finally dropped the subject. Bui if that had been done the
city would now have 10,000 or more population. I learned afterward that Mr.
Merrill built the Estherville Branch with the idea that the name would be so
changed, and it was his plan to complete it through to Fargo, North Dakota, and
make this city the division point for that line, with its offices, roundhouse
and shops at this place. The original railroad name for this station was 'Sage,'
in honor of Russell Sage, who was a stockholder and director in the company, but
as Mr. Merrill then had no town named for him in Iowa, it would have pleased him
greatly to have this town given his name, and he would have made it one of the
most important points on the whole Iowa and Dakota division." 10
Yet the citizens were progressive and hard working and
the town grew rapidly. Mr. Harrison thus describes the selling of the lots in
the new town: " I made up the schedule of prices for selling the lots in
the new town, placing the best residence lots at $25 each, and the best business
lots at $250 each, and submitted it to the land commissioner of the railroad
company. He said, * Oh, no! you have the prices too high. Put the best business
lots at $50 each, and the best residence lots at $25 each. We want that town to
grow so as to make business for our road when we build over there.' I said,' All
right, you are the boss, but I would take them all if I had the money, for the
best lots will soon be worth $1,000 each.' The lots sold fast, and the town grew
rapidly and lots which were then sold for $50 each, are now worth from $3,000 to
$4,000 each." 11
In the spring of 1875 the first sod was
turned for the planting of trees and gardens. The trees around the court house
square were planted by the citizens themselves, each planting a tree and caring
for it as it grew. Thus early was the practice of planting trees encouraged, and
to the far-seeing policy thus begun, we owe the chief beauty of our city that is
known far and wide as the "Shade Tree City" of Northwestern Iowa.
In this first spring after the Old Town was moved
to its new location, E. S. Ormsby who had moved his building to the location
where the First National Bank now stands, and controlled the land north of Main
street, which is now known as Burnham's addition, broke up a large tract of this
and planted it to wheat, and that summer after the wheat was cut people began to
build their houses there and it was a very peculiar sight to see the houses
dotting the stubble fields. 12
In the fall of 1875 by almost unanimous vote the
county-seat of the county was changed from the mythical "Paoli" to the
beautiful square donated and designated on the plat of Emmetsburg as "Court
House Square." 13 In 1876 A. L. Ormsby built his brick
residence on the hill, the first brick building in new Emmetsburg. The town was
incorporated in 1877, M. L. Brown being the first mayor.
Emmetsburg continued to grow and prosper as settlers
became more numerous throughout the county. The prospect of the railroad also
attracted people, but the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway did not
complete its road through to Emmetsburg until August, 1878. The B., C. R. &
N. Ry., now the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific, was built to Emmetsburg in
1882. With these two railroads, the town became a city and prosperity smiled
In 1880 the brick court house was built. It was a large
and substantial building for those times and still stands as a worthy public
building for a prosperous county. In the same year, T. H. Tobin built the first
brick store building in the town. The First National Bank Building and Waverly
Hotel were built in 1882. Other substantial buildings followed 14
until now Emmetsburg with its 3,000 inhabitants, six elegant churches, and its
splendid schools, many substantial business buildings, with elegant residences,
unsurpassed by any town in Iowa — stands a monument to its founders and
builders, as well as the worthy county-seat of the great and prosperous county
of Palo Alto.
1 Statement of Geo. B. McCarty. These recollections of early
days by Mr. McCarty have never been published, but a copy of them may be found
in the Semi-Centennial Record Book.
2 T. W. Harrison, "Fifty Years Ago in Palo Alto
County," Register and Leader, July 8, 1906.
3 This account of the beginning of the new town is taken
mainly from the statements of T. W. Harrison and Geo. B. McCarty, the two
principal actors in this drama. As here given it is reenforced by the
recollections of M. L. Brown, E. J. Hartshorn, Alex. Peddie, J. C. Bennett, and
others. Mr. Harrison's statement, as it appeared in 1906, contained some
inaccuracies which he would doubtless have corrected if a later revision had
been made after talking with others and refreshing his memory. The account
presented in these pages has been carefully verified and is believed to be an
accurate history of this interesting period. See early files of the Pilot for
the life of the new town. See also Appendix D for sample items.
4 Geo. B. McCarty's statement.
5 Statement of T. W. Harrison.
6 Statement of T. W. Harrison
7 "P. Joyce is waiting anxiously for his store building,
which is out running a race with that of Jas. Fitzgerald from the old town to
the new. At present Fitz is a few yards ahead." Palo Alto Pilot, Oct. 22,
1874, vol. i, no. 20.
8 Statement of Geo. B. McCarty
9 Statement of T. W. Harrison
10 Statement of T. W. Harrison.
11 Statement of T. W. Harrison.
12 Statement of J. C. Young.
13 Minutes and Supervisors' Record, Palo Alto County, vol. i,
pp. 413 and 424.
14 Many facts about the later history of the city will be
found in the Christmas Souvenir edition of the Emmetsburg Democrat, 1895. The
files of the Palo Alto Reporter, Emmetsburg Democrat, and Palo Alto Tribune, are
replete with contemporaneous history of the city, but full narration of those
events would fill another volume and must be left for some future historian.