Palo Alto Co, Iowa USGenWeb Project

From the Emmetsburg Democrat, Wednesday, July 11, 1906 for the Semi Centennial celebration of the first settlement in Palo Alto County:

Palo Alto County in 1856
By Col. T.W. Harrison.

I came to Webster City, Ia., in March, 1869, moved to Buchanan county about Sept. 1, 1862, and practiced law at Independence until February, 1870. About the first of February, 1870, I came to Ft. Dodge, then by stage to Humboldt, stopping there for a day, then by stage on bob-sleighs to Algona, stopping there a few days seeking a passage of some kind to the "West Fork" as the country along the Des Moines river in Palo Alto county was then known. There was no road and no travel then between Algona and Emmetsburg, and Emmetsburg was only known as a postoffice and the "Irish settlement".

The McGregor & Missouri railroad was partly graded at Algona and was building from Charles City west to Algona with the expectation that it would be built through to Emmetsburg and perhaps Spencer in 1870 or 1871. I found that J.Y. Strough and J.P. Colby wanted to make a trip to "west forks" -Mr. Strough to sell agricultural implements and Mr. Colby as deputy United States revenue collector to look after the venders of tobacco and intoxicating liquors, there being no "lid" in this part of Iowa at that early day. I got permission to ride with them in a wagon box on a pair of bobsleds. We started early in the morning on a cold, stormy mid-winter day. The snow was two feet deep on the prairie and it was storming and blowing hard. With the experience of after years we would not have started on that journey in such a storm. There was a little track for eight or ten miles out to what was known as the "Sod House Settlement" near the west line of Kossuth county six or eight miles north of where Whittemore now is, where there were eight sod houses and a sod school house on a section occupied by homesteaders, and the school ma'am was looking out of the window as we went by to see who dared disturb their solitude. From the "sod house settlement" we took a west course as nearly as we could judge aiming for Mickey Jackman's timber on the east side of Medium lake, the horses wallowing through the deep snow without any track whatever and facing a snow storm, and no sign of any improvement of any kind until we reached Mickey Jackman's place just before night. From there a track on the lee led to southeast of the lake and from there to Mother Coonan's in the little old brick house down near the river. Bless her dear big Irish heart. She always had a mile and a kind word and a little joke and a hearty meal for every one 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 apple sauce was the bill of fare three times a day and seven days in the week, and nobody wanted anything more or different. We slept in the "school section" the low second story being one square room, we called it the "school section" with a bed in each of the four corners, the first eight men to retire took the beds and the other twenty or thirty men slept on the floor. It was a silent inducement for retiring early.

The Old Settlement
At that time, the middle of February, 1870, there were the Coonan brick house, which Martin Coonan Sr. told me he built from broken bricks he gathered up from the wreck of the old Stockdale court house at Paoli where it fell down, the Coonan milk house twelve feet square, four feet in the ground, and tooled ??? , in which all the county records were kept, a low wooden building, twelve feet square in which "Jimmy" Fitzgerald and his estimable bride were living and keeping a general store, a small, new, unfinished frame building in which Jones & Johnson were just starting general store, and in one corner of which Geo. B. McCarty was smoking his pipe and pretending to keep a law office with a single copy of the code of 1860 as his legal and metal guide; at the river bank Tom Davis and E.G.Pond were struggling to put in a dam and build a sawmill and living in one end of the mill; M.P. Daniels was running a blacksmith shop some of the time, and a man by the name of Barrie was running a "dug out" for some purpose that I never explored. William H. Shea was helping James P. White in the county treasurer's office. Martin Coonan Sr. told me that Emmetsburg was originally located and platted by some Fort Dodge speculators on the quarter section which is now Call's addition to Emmetsburg and named Emmetsburg in memory of the Irish patriot, Robert Emmet, because of Emmet county on the north, and so they called it Emmetsburg. That was when he hauled the brick from Paoli for the house in 1866 or 1867. it made a road to his house down by the river, and that he then put a sign at the forks of his road, reading, "To Emmetsburg, " and pointing to his house, and when they got the first postoffice they located it at his house and called it Emmetsburg. That was the whole of Emmetsburg as I first saw it in February, 1870. "Jim" White was county treasurer, and had his foot and his hands in all the business in the county, both political and commercial. He bought the county warrants at 25 cents on the dollar and paid all the taxes for non resident land owners and ran the first newspaper in the county, called the Palo Alto Democrat, which was printed at Estherville, where O.C. Bates had a small outfit for printing the Vindicator. Wm. Cullen was county auditor, "Bob" Shea was clerk of court, " Billy" Powers was register of deeds and kept the records stored in the attic of his one room, one story residence, down in the woods by the river in West Bend township. These county officers all lived on their farms from two to twenty miles from Emmetsburg, and excepting the county treasurer, would come to their offices when sent for to transact some official business. Jim White came from his farm every morning on horseback and went home again at night. For several days I borrowed his saddle 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 tow 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 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.

Overland to Fort Dodge
Joe Mulroney was running a little shack of a stage, carrying the mail from Fort Dodge to Spirit Lake once a week. I wanted to go to Ft. Dodge and take the railroad to Independence and settle up my business there and return to Palo Alto county as soon as possible, but found that I would have to wait nearly a week for a stage. I learned that Kiren Mulroney was hauling lumber on bobsleds from Ft. Dodge to his brother-in-law John White, to build an office in Emmetsburg, and I told Kiren that I would pay him the regular stage fare if he would let me ride with him on the front bunk of his bobsled. He said " All right," and that I could go with him and welcome if I could stand it to ride as he did, and he refused to take nay pay for it. WE started but before we got to Ft. Dodge, we encountered one of the worst blizzards of the winter, and were "snowed in" at Ft. Dodge for ten days. Kiren Mulroney started back with his load of lumber but had to abandon it at Flower's sixteen miles from Ft. Dodge, and come home without it. By the first of April I was on my way back to Emmetsburg. At Ft. Dodge I bought 3,000 feet of lumber, with doors and hardware to put me up a small office. H.L. Burnell wanted to come with me and we came together. I had to pay four teamsters $20 each, cash in advance, to haul that little lot of lumber. The roads were very bad and it took them a week to make the trip. Burnell and I came along with them for fear they would never get through with the lumber. The old town of Emmetsburg was just started on the road through Martin Coonan's farm down near the river. When we got there with the lumber there were no town lots and no place to build. I tried to buy a lot on which to build and office, but it was not for sale. I then tried to rent it, but it was not for rent. So I told the teamsters to unload the lumber in Mattie Coonan's cornfield, which they did. We then needed a carpenter, and needed him bad. But one was not to be had in the county. So Mr. Burnell and myself went to work and ourselves put up the office, 16x24, one story as best we could. We probably put the sash in wrong end up and perhaps it was not exactly square or plumb, but it answered the purpose for all the business we had at that time. John Hefley was sheriff and district court was held twice a year in the old brick courthouse at Paoli near the geographical center of the county, on what is now known ad the John Dooley or George Consigney farm, two miles south of the present city of Emmetsburg. Judge Ford was the district judge, and Orson Rice, a noted lawyer and politician of Spirit Lake was district attorney for the judicial district, which covered twenty counties from Kossuth to Harrison, inclusive. When the weather was to cold to hold court in Paoli without a fire the judge ordered the sheriff to find some comfortable room up town, and court was thereafter held in some lawyers office or vacant room until the present court house was erected.

Early in the summer of 1870, Capt. E.J. Hartshorn came for Vermont to Emmetsburg, and formed a partnership with Geo. E. McCarty. Capt. Hartshorn was a born politician, and Mr. Burnell was a natural newspaper man, and as politicians cannot exist without notoriety, and notoriety can not flourish without newspapers, the firms of McCarty & Hartshorn and Harrison & Burnell started a newspaper in June , 1870, the Palo Alto Advance, the first republican newspaper in the county. The matter for it was prepared in Emmetsburg, but it was printed at Humboldt News.

On the fourth of July, 1870, a regular old fashioned breakdown fourth of July celebration was held in Kane's woods half a mile south of the village. Brant Hammond, a Methodist preacher, who had settled on a homestead five miles north of town and T.W. Harrison, were the speakers and in the evening a goodly display of fireworks was made in the village.

Mosquitoes were the worst, in numbers and in size, that summer that I have ever seen. The old settlers built smudge fires so that their cattle and horses could hold their noses in the smoke to keep the mosquitoes away.

A Bunch of "Paddies"
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. Loughlin, 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 only boarding house in or about the town, John Pendergast who lived near the lake where Mr. Saunder's mansion now stands, John Nolan who lived on the side of the lake, William O'Connell, who lived west of the river, Wm. L. Cullen, Wm. Murphy and Chas. Hastings, who lived south of town, John Hickey, Larry Burns and Pat ??? who lived west of the river and west of town, Jerry Martin, William Rider and Orin(?) Rider three miles north of town, James Nolan, Martin Laughlin, Lott Laughlin, Jerry Crowley, Miles Mahan, Ed Mahan, Billy Jackman of Walnut; Mickey Jackman on the east side of the lake; T.H. Tobin, Wm. Shea, Robert Shea, Joe Mahoney(?), Kiren Mulroney, William Maher 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 Walsh, east of the river, and some others whose names I do not now recall.

In February 1870 there were about 1,000 settlers living in the county. During the year, 1870, many new settlers visited and made new homes in the county. During that summer mail came only once a week by stage from Fr. Dodge, and afternoons of mail day everybody would stand out and look and watch for the mail coach. In the fall of 1870 the railroad was completed to Algona and after that we got daily mail from Algona and all the travel was turned through Algona instead of Ft. Dodge as Algona was only twenty five miles away, while it was sixty miles to Ft. Dodge. The town grew some in 1870 but not rapidly. The people could not get titles to the lots and were more squatters.

The Catholic Church in the old town was the first church, and everybody was glad to welcome it and to contribute toward the building. It was erected in 1871 through the efforts of Father Lenihan of Ft. Dodge and was considered a large building but was entirely too small for the congregation. Rev. Father J.J. Smith was the first pastor and he exercised a wonderful influence for good over the entire community., Protestant as well as Catholic, for his hearty handshake, pleasant smile and cheering words of good counsel and advice were always gratefully and thankfully welcomed by all the poor as well as the rich, the strangers as well as the long time acquaintances. The church now stands on the lake shore north of Saunder's mansion.

In 1871 Calls(?) addition was platted in lots and T.W. Hartshorn and James A. White built their houses in a row up on the hill. T.W. Harrison built his house in the spring of 1871, John L. Lang built his in the fall of 1871 and Captain Hartshorn and E.J. White built theirs in the spring of 1872. These were the first buildings on the present town site of Emmetsburg.

A Summer of Brides.
This was the summer of brides for the new town. Mrs. T.W. Harrison, Mrs. Emory King, Mrs. Al Jones and Mrs. Ben Johnson all came as brides. Some of them were disappointed at not finding a larger town. In fact, as they had real 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 famous band.

It is not often that a church meeting is held in a lawyer's office, but the first Protestant church meeting, with a view to organizing a church, ever held in the old town was held in my office in the spring of 1872. John L. Lang was a big hearted, broad minded Congregationalist. Rev. B.C. Hammond, who lived on a homestead five or six miles northeast of town had preached on an occasional Sunday in the old log school house that stood on the Pendergast farm near lake during the summers of 1870 and 1871, but no attempt had been made to organize a Protestant church or society. There were some Congregationalists, some Methodists, some Baptists, and some Presbyterians among the Protestants, and Mr. Lang originated the plan of organizing them all in to a union Protestant church and he call the meeting referred to at which were present Mr. and Mrs. John L. Lang, Mr. and Mrs. T.W. Harrison, E.G. Pond, his mother and sister and others whose names I do not recall. The meeting was opened with a fervent prayer by Mr. Lang. He then stated the object of the meeting and a plan was formulated for the organization of a Union Protestant church, fervent enough and still broad enough to admit all the Protestants of every persuasion in the vicinity until such time as the different denominations might become strong enough to sustain churches of their own. The union church was afterwards duly incorporated and was the forerunner of the present First Congregational church of Emmetsburg. A union Sunday school was 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 very long to gather that remnant of the tribe of local known as the Methodists and organize a Methodist Episcopal church and Sunday school which have both been flourishing institutions ever since.
In the spring of 1873 the railroad company started to build from Algona to Spencer and that gave the community new hope and new life, but as they were stringing their grading shanties and outfits along the line, and taking the right of way a great cloud of ravenous grass hoppers came down and destroyed all the growing crops and the grangers took possession of the politics of the state at the same time and the railroad company abandoned the work at once and we did not see any more railroad building until five years afterwards.
By the spring of 1874, the little town had grown to about 250 inhabitants and probably 100 buildings of various kinds, mostly small and built on stilts so they could be moved to the railroad town a mile and a half away when the railroad came in. The merchants had large stocks of goods and a good trade but there was great danger from fire and no insurances, for the buildings were close together on either side of a county road, with tin chimneys and stables and hay stacks in the rear of the stores and dwellings.

Moving the Townsite.
One morning in June, 1874, when I went to my office I found a delegation 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 mover over if they would move at once, as the risk from fire was too great where they were and their stocks were getting too large to carry without insurance and they wanted to get on permanent lots and enlarge their buildings. I told them that I thought 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 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 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 then go ahead and plat the railroad town site consisting of half a section of land at the foot of Medium lake that Mr. Lawler had purchased some years before for the railroad town. And the railroad town and the railroad line had been surveyed through this tract. I received the telegram: "Go Ahead", and at once proceeded with the platting of the new town. Some time in August the lots were ready and were tendered to the business men who had given the bond. But in the meantime the owner of the farm where the old town was located had become interested and very active and proposed to lay out a large town site on his farm and give them all the lots they needed. He told them that a hard winter was coming on and that they would freeze and starve out in "Stake Town", as he called it; that they 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.

In the meantime Austin Corbin, a New York banker and western speculator, had sent to Ireland and bought up a claim from some heirs to one half the new town site, and that was used to discourage the moving. But I settled that controversy by dividing that half of the town site with Austin Corbin rather than to imperil the new town, and that is the way it came to be called Corbin & Lawler's plat of Emmetsburg. I saw that something had to be done, and that quickly or the plan of moving the old town would fail. And if it had not been for the bond the business men would have been strongly inclined to stay 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 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. They were T.H. Tobin, Pat Joyce, Ketchum & Lenhart and John Hall. Mr. Tobin was the oldest and wealthiest merchant, and they gave him the first choice and he selected the Tobin corner, where he kept store for so many years. Pat Joyce had the largest building in the old town, and they gave him the second choice, and he took the southwest corner of Main and Broadway, where the Joyce block now stands. Ketchum and Lenhart had the third choice, and they took the corner where the Emmetsburg National bank now stands, and John Hall took the corner where J.H. Hinckley's block now stands. Mr. Tobin had the first choice and it was agreed that he should move first. Early the next morning 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 and 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. This created a desire for the others to move at once, and from that time they could not be moved fast enough to suit them. The most of the old town was moved in the fall of 1874, and the spring of 1875 saw it only as a deserted double row of old cellars on either side of the county road. Miss Mary McGroarty, sister of Mrs. A.L. Ormsby, was a musician and muscial composer, and she wrote a new march which she named "The March of Emmetsburg", as she witnessed the flight of town from the old to the new site.

Town Grows Rapidly.
I made up the schedule of prices for selling 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 my 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 $1000 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.

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 and submitted the matter to him and it pleased him greatly. He said: "That means spending $20,000 to make the town grow." I replied that "I hoped so." I discussed the matter with the business men of the new 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. But if that had been done the city would now have 10,000 or more population. I learned afterwards 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, N.D., 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 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 in the whole Iowa and Dakota division.

The county seat was soon voted unanimously from Paoli to the courthouse square in Emmetsburg and in a few years the present courthouse was built, which was one of the finest public buildings in all northwestern Iowa.

In the winter of 1878 we had to make another fight for the railroad from Algona west. The option on the land grant had expired and the road had not been built and the legislature was asked to transfer it to another company. But the people along the line sent large delegations to Des Moines and succeeded in having the grant extended to the Milwaukee & St Paul railroad company, and in 1878 the road was built from Algona to Emmetsburg, and thence west to Dakota. that gave the city and county a great boom. They have continued to grow in population and wealth ever since, until lands which used to go begging at tax sales and could have been bought outright with perfect, clear titles at $2 an acre are now worth from $60 to $80 an acre, and have an actual, inherent value of $100 an acre.

Emmetsburg has always been a good town for business ever since 1870. Its commercial trade has always been larger in proportion to its population than any of its neighboring county seat cities, and there is no reason why it should not continue to grow and prosper in the future even faster than it has in the past.

Form 1878 to the present time is comparatively modern history to which I need not refer, as its record is written in the multitude of splendid farms and prosperous homes and numerous school houses and churches all over the county, which reflect a progress and development and enlightment not surpassed, even if equalled, anywhere in the great and grand and matchless state of Iowa.

June 18, 1906.

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