McCarty, Dwight D. History of Palo Alto
County. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Torch Press, 1910
Early Speculative County Seats
Visions of riches made over night
has always been the dream of the county-seat promoter. If he could only locate a
town that would be come the county-seat, his fortune would be made. But many a
well laid scheme turned out to be only a bubble. The western country in the
early days was full of such "stake-towns" and towns on paper. Palo
Alto was no exception to the rule, and the story of the early attempts to locate
a county-seat presents and interesting chapter in our history.
As early as 1858 three Fort Dodge speculators,
Hooligan, Cahill and Cavenaugh by name, came up to Palo Alto County. They
brought a surveyor with them and made extensive plans for laying out a town.
William Murphy, then a young man who had come to this county in October, 1857,
and pre-empted a claim (southwest quarter of section 30-96-32), and was living
there for the purpose of proving up, and was also doing teaming from Fort Dodge,
was employed to assist in laying out the town. A site was selected on the west
bank of Medium Lake at its southern extremity, where Call's addition to our
present county-seat is now platted. This was but a mile and a quarter from the
log cabin of Martin Coonan, on the bank of the Des Moines River, at the place
which is now known as the Riverdale farm.
These parties surveyed and staked out a town and
proceeded to build a log court house, store, and blacksmith shop. As yet the
town was without a name, but one day when the buildings were well under way the
four were talking the question over. Hoolihan, who was a very well educated man
and an enthusiastic champion of the cause of the oppressed Irish, suggested that
they name the town after Robert Emmett, the fearless Irish patriot, of whom he
was a great admirer. In order to distinguish it from Emmet County, the name
"Emmetsburg" was finally agreed upon, and the four men returned to
their work, full of hope for the future which was to see their town of
Emmetsburg the metropolis of Palo Alto County. Their dreams were in fact
realized many years later, but they did not reap the benefit and it was only
after many temporary expedients and many vicissitudes that Emmetsburg became the
thriving county-seat that it now is. But alas for their hopes! Their money gave
out and they were obliged to abandon the enterprise and return to Fort Dodge.
This town was therefore never platted, or filed for
record. The buildings stood for some time, until they were probably hauled away
by someone who, no doubt, considered that he needed the logs a great deal more
than did the stakes in the abandoned town. Although the venture was a financial
failure and disappointing to the high hopes of its promoters, yet the name
"Emmetsburg" clung to the stake-town, and persisted through the
vicissitudes of fortune until it was finally preserved to posterity and became
an important factor in our county's history. 1
In 1859 another attempt was made to establish
a county-seat. John M. Stockdale, representing a syndicate of speculators from
Fort Dodge, brought up the swamp land of the county in payment for which he
agreed to build a court house and school house. He was an influential man,
besides being on the inside of state politics, 2 so he easily
secured the appointment of county-seat commissioners favorable to him. 3
Accordingly Judge C.J. McFarland, district judge of the 5th Judicial District of
Iowa, appointed Cyrus C. Carpenter of Webster County, John Straight of
Pocahontas County, and William Pollock of Webster County, to locate the
county-seat of Palo Alto County. On January 3, 1859, they located it on the
north half of section No. 6, in township No. 95 north, range No. 32 west of the
5th P.M., on the town plat of Paoli. This was a town on paper, supposed to be
located on what is now known as the Dooley, or Consigny farm, two miles south of
Emmetsburg. It was here that Stockdale had procured control of the land and
proposed to build the county-seat as a nucleus for a thriving city.
In accordance with the county, Stockdale began to build
a brick court house and school house at Paoli, but the work dragged along and
when the court house fell down and was rebuilt one-half as large as the original
specifications called for. Considerable litigation resulted over this, but was
Somehow the new town did not prove attractive. Court
was held there for a time, but the judge and others in attendance had to go
several miles away to the nearest settler for their meals and lodging, and so
the bleak old court house was finally abandoned for more comfortable quarters
and soon fell into decay. The time had proved inauspicious for the founding of a
town, the surrounding territory was not sufficiently settled to make a town
necessary and the plans of the promoters of the county had failed utterly.
Thus the county lost the money they put into the public
buildings and the speculators failed to realize their anticipated profits. The
town of Paoli was more than a possibility. The frost finally cracked the walls
of the old court house so badly that "the settlers considering it dangerous
to their stock which congregated inside to fight away the flies, made a bee and
tore it down." 4 Later the bricks were hauled away and a
few years afterward no trace remained on the prairie of the once loudly heralded
town of Paoli, the county-seat of Palo Alto County.
1. This description follows the facts as given by Wm. Murphy,
who remembers them distinctly, and he is corroborated by others.
2. Stockdale was a cousin of Samuel J. Kirkwood, governor of
the state in 1860.
3 See sketch of "Early Days on the West Fork," by
Ambrose A Call in Algona Upper Des Moines, August 15, 1906.
4 "Early Days on the West Fork," by Ambrose A Call.