McCarty, Dwight D. History of Palo
County. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Torch Press, 1910
The Period of Development—1873-1910
The year 1873 was one long to be remembered. It ushered in the years of adversity, that tried the stoutest heart. The hard times, the grasshoppers and the wet seasons, together made a combination that threatened bankruptcy for even the most industrious. These years of toil and sorrow are a sad but necessary part of the county's history.
The grasshoppers of the Rocky Mountain region paid a visit to Iowa and adjacent states in 1873-4 and again in 1876-7. It is difficult to describe the ravages of these insects and hard to realize the extent of the suffering that their devastation caused the pioneers. These insects are a species of locust or grasshopper that breeds abundantly every year, by boring holes in the ground and filling these holes with eggs during August, and these eggs hatch out the following spring. Hundreds of these eggs are laid by a single insect and the rate of propagation is enormous. When hatched out the young feed on the tender vegetation near by and when they have eaten everything in sight they migrate in great swarms, devouring grain, garden vegetables, growing crops, young grass, and everything of a like nature. These pests traveled in dense swarms, often several miles wide, obscuring the sun and making a roaring noise like the sound of a waterfall. They traveled mostly in the warm portion of the day, and in the early mornings and cool evenings would gather in loose grass or protected places for shelter and warmth. This fact was made use of by the farmers to destroy the pests, which were often shoveled up in great quantities from sheltered places, and loose straw and hay were scattered around and then burned when covered with the "hoppers." These grasshoppers often covered twenty miles a day in their flight, leaving in their path a region devastated as though swept by a prairie fire. The old settlers remember vividly the events of these visitations, that were like the "plague of locusts" that visited the Egyptians in the days of Pharaoh.1
The climatic conditions were such, however, that the grasshoppers could not survive after the second year. In 1876, when they appeared in this county for the second time, a determined fight was made to destroy them as soon as hatched, and protect the growing crops. The county was organized in the spring, the county buying large sheets of tin and barrels of tar, which were distributed throughout the county, and from these "hopper dozers" were constructed. The long sheets of tin were fastened together and bent up at the bottom side and filled with tar. These tins were then put on wheels or carried through the fields, knocking the grasshoppers off the grain and into the tar, from which they were taken in large quantities and burned.2
The following year the grasshoppers departed unwept and unmourned and have never since appeared in this part of the country.
These repeated ravages of the grasshopper pests were a serious hardship on the early settlers striving to make a living on the Iowa prairie. With crops destroyed, gardens ruined, their incomes thus cut off, real privation and starvation stared them in the face. Many had to seek other means of employment in order to live and it was only the courageous and determined persistence and hope of the pioneers that brought them through this crisis in our history.
The grasshoppers had so completely devastated the prairies that food and provisions were very scarce. This scarcity was intensified by the terrible money panic of 1873, inaugurated by the disastrous "Black Friday" on Wall Street, which spread its ominous results throughout the country. Money was almost unknown and the settlers had to subsist as best they could on game and what few provisions they could procure. Many of the settlers were in desperate circumstances.
The condition of the people became very deplorable in 1874, especially during the winter months. The extremely wet weather and the ravages of the grasshoppers had left them without crops, and many of them in such destitute circumstances as to be "unable to procure food, clothing, or seed to sow for the coming season." These facts were set out in a resolution adopted by the board of supervisors February 4, 1874, and forwarded to Hon. E. J. Hartshorn, then a member of the general assembly of Iowa, and asking for relief in their time of need.3
Nothing, however, came of this appeal and the people of the county were compelled to work out their own salvation, which they did with persevering courage and hopefulness.
But these reverses and troubles soon came to an end. After a year or two their effects had been overcome. The splendid courage and determination of the settlers surmounted all obstacles, and the tremendous fertility of the soil soon yielded an abundance that brought a return of prosperity. Adversity was after all short-lived and the final period of development was at last ushered in and the county grew in population and prosperity with a steady and healthful advance. Space allows mention of only a few incidents in this long and eventful period.
The prosperity of the county continued to increase. An article in the Palo Alto Reporter October 7, 1876, says: "Lands range from $2 to $10 per acre, wild, and from $8 to $20 improved. . . Dairying and stock-raising are becoming favorite industries of the county. In 1874 the county exported $30,000 worth of butter and $80,000 worth of cattle. In 1875, $50,000 in butter and $100,000 in fat cattle."
The schools of the county were increasing in number and efficiency. A. L. Day, who was elected county superintendent of schools in 1873, was a man of culture and scholarly attainments. Mr. Day started a private school at Emmetsburg in 1874 and Miss Maria Blair4
acted as deputy superintendent until the Old Town was moved up to the present site. J. C. Bennett was elected superintendent the following year and served one term.
One of the Normal Institutes of which there is a record in the newspapers was held in October, 1876. Miss Bassett and J. L. Martin were instructors. About fifty teachers were enrolled and an instructive program was carried out successfully.
The county schools were indeed becoming an important factor in the development of the county. No one man perhaps exerted more influence upon the schools of the county in an early day than J. L. Martin, who was not only a pioneer settler but a pioneer in school work. He was elected county superintendent in 1869 and as a teacher and instructor for many years thereafter took an active and influential part in perfecting the school system of the county.
Along in 1871 some difficulties had arisen over the swamp lands which had been conveyed to Wm. E. Clark in 1860. The board of supervisors finally appointed a committee, consisting of Geo. B. McCarty, Robt. Shea and Wm. E. Cullen, to investigate these swamp titles and they reported that the finances of the county were not in a condition to bear the expense of quieting these titles, but that the board make the best possible terms with the intending purchasers of the interest of the county and that the purchasers quiet the title in their own name and at their own expense, and suggesting that the board call a special election to ascertain the wishes of the people thereon, although this was not absolutely imperative.5
Again in 1874 a committee composed of W. H. Shea and T. W. Harrison was authorized to investigate the unpatented swamp lands of the county and procure patenting of such lands as soon as possible. And as these tracts were not listed for taxation, being unsettled and their ownership uncertain, in the words of the record "the county was losing large sums annually," and in order to remedy this the board agreed to quit claim all the swamp and overflowed lands, that were duly patented to the county, and not included in the description in the county's deed to Mr. Stockdale. These transactions as to the disposal of the swamp and overflowed lands show how little value was attached to this land at that time. Vast tracts of land were practically given away which are now being drained and reclaimed and made the most fertile farming land in the country.
A memorable convention was held at Le Mars in 1874 to nominate a candidate for district attorney for the northwest district of Iowa. That was before the days of the county attorneys, when the prosecuting attorney traveled around the circuit with the judges. Geo. B. McCarty from Palo Alto County, E. B. Soper of Estherville, Lewis, from Cherokee, Evans from Harrison County, Judge Robinson of Buena Vista, and Judge Ford of Sioux City, were the candidates before the convention. Emmetsburg sent a delegation of politicians, T. W. Harrison, Capt. E. J. Hartshorn, M. L. Brown, and Charlie Ketchen. After an exciting convention the Emmetsburg candidate succeeded in getting the nomination. The trip home was nearly as exciting as the convention, as the delegates vividly remember hauling their horses out of swamps and deep water and many acts of heroism and daring in getting across the swollen streams that several times threatened to engulf the whole party.
In the fall election Geo. B. McCarty was elected district attorney for the western district of Iowa. The next year he removed to Sioux City, in order to be nearer his work, and remained there until September, 1878, when he resigned the office, returned to Emmetsburg, and permanently resumed the practice of law at the county seat of Palo Alto County.
An agricultural society was organized in Palo Alto County in December, 1876, and January, 1877.6
After several preliminary conferences the following officers were elected at a meeting at the office of T. W. Harrison, January, 1877:
President—J. C. Baker.
Vice President—Jas. Scott.
Secretary—C. A. Hoffman.
Treasurer—T. W. Harrison.
And one director from each township.7
This was the beginning of the society that held annual fairs for so many years and that still owns the grounds south of Emmetsburg.
The railroad was so slow in coming that the enterprising citizens of Emmetsburg decided to build a road of their own. "The Des Moines River R. R." was organized with E. S. Ormsby as president and A. W. Utter as secretary, for the purpose of building a road south from Emmetsburg through the county. At a directors' meeting January, 1877, steps were taken to vote a tax and other arrangements were made. The newspaper report optimistically concluded as follows: "The meeting was well attended and a commendable amount of enthusiasm and unanimity of feeling manifested."8
Taxes were voted in one or two townships and voted down in others, and this reverse effectually crippled the enterprise. The building of the Milwaukee the following year and the Burlington a few years later put a damper on home roads, and though this branch was periodically agitated, it was never consummated.
The failure of the railroad to build through to Emmetsburg as expected was a great disappointment to the people. With the terminus of the road only twenty-five miles distant at Algona, it was expected that the new town would soon have railroad facilities. But year after year passed and the railroad company became involved in litigation over "overlapping" grants with other roads and did not comply with the requirement of their grant from the state, that the road be built through to Sheldon by December 1, 1877. The question of forfeiture of the grant became the issue in the Legislature in 1878. Capt. E. J. Hartshorn of Emmetsburg was state senator from this district and was a member of the Committee on Railroads in the Senate. In writing of the situation, he says: "We had a big fight over the old McGregor and Missouri River R. R. land grant. They had only built to Algona and their time was more than up for building through to Sheldon. The B. C. R. & N.'s terminus was then in Grundy County, and wanted to build up to Algona, take this grant and build on west form there. They made a tremendous effort in the Legislature, backed by powerful state interests, but generally along the line of the incompleted portion of the McGregor road the people wanted the grant taken from the old construction company and given to the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul road. After an exciting struggle we won out and the road was built from Algona to Pattersonville (now Hull I think) in O'Brien County that season (1878)."9
It was with great rejoicing that the first train was welcomed at Emmetsburg in 1878 and the town began at once to grow and expand commensurate with its importance as the county-seat of the prosperous county of Palo Alto.
The long heralded railroad from the south finally became a reality in 1881, when the B., C. R. & N. R. R. commenced building their tracks through this county north to Estherville, Spirit Lake, etc. When the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul found that the B., C. R. & N. was about to build from Emmetsburg to Estherville, they became alarmed lest the new road should take a part of the territory which they had intended to occupy and cut them out from a line which they had projected from Emmetsburg northwest via Estherville, Jackson and Crookston, Minnesota, and then north to Winnipeg. This was a pet scheme of S. S. Merrill, the general manager of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railway. The Burlington, was the old B., C. R. & N road was called, had no sooner made their survey and begun grading than the Milwaukee rushed contractors, laborers and material to Emmetsburg and began to push the construction of a branch road north. This unusual activity stirred the Burlington and they redoubled their efforts and there began across the northern part of Palo Alto County a race in construction of railroads that is one of the most memorable in the history of the west. Neck and neck the two roads struggled as far as Osgood, six miles north of Emmetsburg, where the Burlington being slightly in the lead, drew in close to the low line of bluffs north of Osgood, which would have crowded the Milwaukee, which was building parallel with them on the west side, into the foot hills, and thus the Milwaukee suddenly changed their survey and crossed at Osgood to the east, going by way of the town of High Lake (now abandoned), then on to Estherville. Another strategic position was the narrow isthmus between Spirit and East Okoboji Lakes, which is only wide enough for one right of way. Here again the Burlington stole a march by sending A. A. Wells, who lived near Osgood, up there to secure the right of way and when he had contracted for the right of way it effectually shut out the Milwaukee from that route, and they built no further than Estherville, while the Burlington continued on through. The rivalry between the two roads was very keen and the trains started from Emmetsburg at the same time, and as the roads ran parallel to each other for four or five miles, there was a daily race between the two trains to reach the crossing. The train crews soon imbibed the spirit of bitter rivalry and it was a daily event for the crews to hurl anathemas at each other and fight for the right of way at the crossing. The Milwaukee road ran one of their engines squarely across the crossing and held it there, refusing to let the other road cross their trains until finally the engine was removed by a court injunction. But though the Burlington seemed to get the best of these stirring days of rivalry, this new road was barely able to keep going. One of their engines was attached in Minnesota for a coal bill. Times were hard and business poor. Several of the old settlers remember distinctly that for several years, especially during the summer time, the Burlington carried very little freight and it was a common sight for days in succession to see the engine and the caboose go by without a single freight car attached.10
Trains would wait for passengers and freight and even on the Milwaukee they have been known to leave cars of lumber, household goods, etc., on their main track between stations for the convenience of the consignee in unloading. But although the Milwaukee temporarily had the advantage of the freight and passenger traffic on account of their main line running east and west through Emmetsburg, for which the branch line made a good feeder, yet after the death of Mr. Merrill and when other parties came into control, the branch was neglected, the road bed grew up to weeds, the track poor, the trains more irregular, and often in the winter the trains would be stuck in the snowdrifts for days, or would not run at all for weeks at a time on account of the snow and severe weather. Finally a compromise was effected with the Burlington and the Milwaukee tracks were taken up, the branch abandoned in 1889 or 1890, and nothing now remains except the abandoned grade which may still be seen paralleling the present Rock Island track north to Osgood, the historic evidence of a great struggle in railroad building.
There are many other events that are well worthy of being chronicled, but the limits of this volume prevent their narration at this time. The files of the county papers, which have been preserved, give a regular history from week to week of these later years of development.
1 "For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened: and they did eat every herb of the land, and all of the fruit trees which the hail had left; and there remained not any green thing in the trees, or in the herbs of the field, through all the land of Egypt."—Exodus x:15.
2 Palo Alto Reporter, June 9, 1877. See also March 3, 1877, June 2, 1877.
3 Minutes, Supervisors' Record, no. 1, p. 347. A copy of the said resolution will be found in full in Appendix C to this history.
4 Maria Blair and George B. McCarthy were married December 14, 1875.
5 Minutes and Supervisors' Record, Palo Alto County, vol. i, p. 212.
6 Reporter, Dec. 16, 1876, vol. ii, no. 27, and Dec. 30, 1876, vol. ii, no. 29, and Jan. 20, 1877, vol. ii, no. 32.
7 Reporter, Jan. 20, 1877, vol. ii, no. 32.
8 Palo Alto Reporter, Jan. 20, 1877, vol. ii, no. 32.
9 Letter of Capt. E. J. Hartshorn, Washington, D. C. See also the files of the Reporter during this time.
10 Statements of J. A. Spies, Z. F. Dickinson, C. H. Giddings, and others.