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From Blue Mills to Columbia Cedar Falls and the Civil War
By Kenneth L. Lyftogt
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 1993 Iowa State University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One A Town on the Cedar
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A young army explorer named Albert Lea led a troop of cavalry through the valley of the Cedar River in 1835. The Cedar, known originally as the Red Cedar, was the key waterway in northeast Iowa, and Lea was much impressed at what he saw. He wrote that
the river is perennially supplied with pure and limpid water, and as it meanders its way for 300 miles to the Father of Waters, receiving large tributary streams, as it moves along through rich meadows, deep forests, projecting cliffs and sloping landscapes, it presents to the imagination the finest picture on earth of a country prepared by Providence for the habitation of man.
At the time of Lea's journey, Iowa was a part of the Wisconsin Territory, which had been acquired from France in 1803 as a part of the Louisiana Purchase. Land-hungry settlers could see the beauty of the territory just west of the Mississippi. They could also see its potential, and by 1846, when Iowa was admitted as a state, major communities had been established along the principal rivers. Independent farmers were claiming land, breaking the tough prairie topsoil, planting crops, and building homes. It was an ideal place for pioneers.
The first white people to set up their camps in the Cedar Valley were traders and trappers, people who had no intention of settling there permanently. They sought convenient sites where they could trap near the streams and rivers, hunt in the forests, and trade with the few remaining Native Americans. Since the defeat of Chief Black Hawk in 1832, most were being driven from the territory.
The first settler to look beyond a traders' camp was a Canadian-born farmer named William Sturgis. Sturgis was living in Iowa City with his wife, Dorothy Kidder Sturgis, when he heard of good land near a small waterfall a few miles from where the Cedar joined the Shell Rock River. Sturgis and Dorothy, accompanied by his sister, Catherine, and her husband, Erasmus Adams, packed their covered wagons and moved there in the spring of 1845. The men filed land claims: Sturgis chose an area on the south bank of the river near the falls, and Adams selected a spot a little farther south.
Both couples built cabins, cleared about five acres of ground for crops, and began their new lives. Both women had babies in their new homes, and soon other families settled near them. A real community was beginning: by 1847, ten families were living near the falls, and they began to call their little town Sturgis Falls.
William Sturgis had selected the site near the falls with a larger purpose in mind. He could imagine the near future when the valley would be filled with farms. The farmers would need to have their grain milled and transported downriver to the eastern markets. The future of the town lay with the river, and he had plans for both a dam and a mill.
Sturgis's plans would indeed come to fruition but not through his efforts. Such ambitious plans required money, and though he was able to construct a rough dam, he could not afford to do the job properly. The job was completed by the Overman brothers, John and Dempsey, along with their partner, John T. Barrick. The partnership of Overman and Barrick purchased the Sturgis claim in the fall of 1847, and Sturgis returned to Iowa City.
Work on the mill began in earnest the next spring. Many of the growing number of settlers were employed on the project. They hollowed out the ground just south of the river and created a millrace 70 feet wide and six feet deep, which would carry water to the mill's wheels.' They soon had the first sawmill in what was by then Black Hawk County. The rough board mill was torn down in 1850 and replaced by a large, five-story stone building. The new building housed both the sawmill operation and the first gristmill in the county. The gristmill was a crude affair-the burrs had been carved from granite boulders found along the banks of the river-but it worked. Soon farmers from the length of the upper Cedar Valley and from as far away as Fort Dodge, 100 miles to the west, were driving their grain-filled wagons to the falls. As the town grew and changed, the name also changed. The first name, Sturgis Falls, had honored the first settler family; the new name-Cedar Falls-honored the river and the forests along its banks.
Frontier life carried with it intrinsic physical hardships and the possibility of violence. Despite rough times and setbacks, the town grew rapidly in its first years. By 1855, nine waterwheels on the river supplied power not only to the large Overman mill but also to three other sawmills and a furniture factory. The four-block downtown area, near the millrace and stretching southwest of the river, was a busy place. It boasted a general store run by an Irish-born merchant, Andrew Mullarky, and a newspaper, the Cedar Falls Banner, as well as other stores and businesses. There was a full block of multistoried brick buildings-the Overman Block. The largest of these buildings, the Overman Building, had several halls large enough to seat hundreds of people. A school on the corner of Fifth and Main streets was crowned with a belfry. The citizens of Cedar Falls had been so proud of their new frame schoolhouse that they had raised funds and sent to New York for a 150- pound bell, the first tower bell in the state. A brick factory just south of town turned out more than 75,000 fired bricks in 1855.
Cedar Falls was named the county seat of Black Hawk County in 1853, and John Overman donated 50 town lots as the site of the proposed courthouse. Andrew Mullarky's store served as the unofficial seat of county government in the meantime.
Cedar Falls was not, however, the only prospering young community in the county. Waterloo, also located on the Cedar and closer to the center of the county, was another contender for the honor of being the county seat. A sometimes bitter rivalry grew between the people of the two communities. A mob from Waterloo invaded Cedar Falls on one occasion and tried to storm Mullarky's store and carry off the official records. Local legend has the battle ending with the determined citizens of Cedar Falls driving the Waterloo bunch out of town by pelting them with rotten eggs. The incident did not settle the issue, however, and in 1855 Iowa's General Assembly called for a new election. Cedar Falls lost the county seat by a 260-to-388 vote, but many people in Cedar Falls complained that outsiders had been brought to Waterloo to cast illegal ballots.
When the town lost the battle for the county seat, Overman's donated land was used as a downtown park. In spite of the loss, however, Cedar Falls continued to grow. It was a Yankee town, settled for the most part by people from New England, New York, and the states of the old Northwest Territory-hard-working people who took a great deal of pride in their new home. Two of the most important of these early community builders were Peter Melendy and Zimri Streeter.
Melendy had been born in 1823, the son of a successful Cincinnati businessman. He grew up as Cincinnati changed from a small town to a modern city, and its progress showed the young man just what ambitious people could accomplish. From an early age, he had developed a keen interest in all aspects of agriculture and stock breeding and had become well known throughout Ohio for both his knowledge of farming techniques and his business expertise. Melendy and several other Ohio businessmen had become interested in Iowa as a possible place to set up a large-scale farming and stock-raising operation. The venture failed; for while such an operation could work on a limited basis, a truly large operation required better means of transport than Iowa's rivers and dirt roads. It needed a railroad, and no line was anywhere near. The Ohio Company had ceased operations by 1859.
Although the company lost money, the project had fired Melendy's enthusiasm for Iowa. While in Iowa, Melendy had started a correspondence with the Cedar Falls Banner editors, who persuaded him to visit the town. He did visit and was very impressed by the apparent progress and future potential of the place. Melendy purchased land at the edge of town, on the corner of Washington and Tenth streets, and built a fine house for himself, his wife, Martha, and their two small children. He formed a partnership with A. J. Graves in early 1860, selling farm machinery and tools. Once established as a citizen of Cedar Falls, he became one of its staunchest supporters, freely giving his aid to all social, educational, business, and political activities.
Zimri Streeter was one of the original settlers in Black Hawk County. He was born in 1801 and was more than 50 years old when he brought his wife, Lucinda Dean Streeter, and their 10 children from Illinois to Iowa. The large Streeter cabin was situated halfway between Cedar Falls and Waterloo, and Zimri Streeter tried to serve the interests of both communities. For example, he worked to calm the tensions that had arisen during the battles for the county seat. Elected to the Seventh General Assembly of Iowa, the first to meet in the new capitol in Des Moines, he quickly became known as a practical, commonsense politician and was nicknamed "Old Black Hawk" by his fellow legislators. In an age of fiery oratory, Streeter defied convention with his short, often humorous but still pertinent speeches.
There were many more such pioneers, all doing their part to build the town, people like Samuel and James Q. Rownd, Henry and George Perkins, George H. Boehmler, and the Massachusetts colonel, William Sessions.
Samuel and James Rownd were born and raised in Ohio. Samuel became a successful land speculator, and in 1850 he and his wife, Eliza, and her brother, George Philpot, drove a horse and buggy to Sturgis Falls. Rownd purchased more than 4,000 acres of land just southeast of town. He used old land grants given to Mexican War veterans in lieu of their pay, purchased at less than half their worth, as payment. Rownd and Philpot continued to live in Ohio until 1859, when both men pulled up stakes and moved their families to the Falls.
James Q. Rownd had been a tanner, a potter, and a schoolteacher in Ohio. His first wife, the mother of their eight children, Ann Lawvey Rownd, died in 1840. The widower married Caroline Brown 18 months later. The family lived in Summerfield, Ohio, until 1856 when, after hearing descriptions of Cedar Falls, he decided to move his family there too, settling on a 240-acre farm just outside of town.
The owners of the Cedar Falls Banner moved their operation to Waterloo in 1858, leaving Cedar Falls without a newspaper. Henry and George Perkins arrived in 1860 and set up another paper, the Cedar Falls Gazette. The brothers were from New York, where they had learned the printer's trade. Once in Cedar Falls, they quickly established themselves as leading boosters of the town. They found a friend and fellow community builder in Peter Melendy. They asked Melendy to write a regular column for their weekly paper that would keep the area's farmers informed of the latest farming techniques and innovations. Melendy's column was an example of the Perkins's personal approach to journalism.
Mexican War veteran Colonel William Sessions, his wife, Elmira, and their three sons and two daughters came to Cedar Falls from Massachusetts in 1859. The colonel was an experienced organizer and quickly found himself involved in many community activities. His eldest son, Fitzroy, 29 years old, was appointed constable of Cedar Falls.
George H. Boehmler, who operated a large shoemaker's shop on Main Street, came from the Alsace region of France in 1803 and settled in New York, where he and his wife had four children. His first wife, whose name is not recorded, died when their eldest child was 14. George remarried a few years later. His new wife, Barbara Schoffner Boehmler, was also an immigrant from Alsace, and in 1858 the family, now numbering 10 boys and two girls, drove a covered wagon to Iowa.
Samuel and James Rownd and George Boehmler were middle-aged men, family men seeking new homes and opportunities. Other Cedar Falls residents were younger people just beginning to make their way. George and John Rath were two examples. The Rath brothers were born in Germany and had come to the United States in 1855, when George was 18 and John 15. They first lived with relatives in Dubuque, where they worked, went to school, and learned English. They moved to Cedar Falls in early 1861. George was employed as a cabinetmaker and John worked in the town's second flour mill, a large, six-story stone building that had recently been opened by Edwin Brown.
Brown's new mill was another example of how rapidly Cedar Falls was growing. By 1860, there were more than 1,500 people living there and hundreds more living on nearby farms. There was regular communication with Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, and Dubuque by stagecoach.
Peter Melendy's farming and stock-raising project had failed because there was no railroad, so he became one of the leading figures behind efforts to bring a line to Cedar Falls. In 1858, an agreement was reached with the Dubuque and Pacific Railroad. The citizens of Black Hawk County subscribed a total of $300,000 in land and cash to ensure its completion. Cedar Falls businessmen such as Peter Melendy, the Overmans, and Edwin Brown put much of their personal fortunes into the project. All totaled, the people of Cedar Falls put up one-third of the county's money. This was done with the understanding that Cedar Falls would be the end of the division and that the roundhouse and machine shops would be located there. Although the Dubuque and Pacific Railroad failed in 1860, it was taken over by the Dubuque and Sioux City line, which honored the old agreement.
The new railroad grade was on the northeast side of the Cedar, and by March 1861, anyone downtown could look across the water and see men working and the huge locomotives puffing their way along the tracks. The new railroad company was hard-pressed for money, and while the line could get to Cedar Falls, it could go no farther. There was not enough money to build a railroad bridge across the river, so the new depot had to be built on the northeast side, opposite the downtown area. Access was over the town's Millrace Bridge, a 16-foot-wide, five-pier, wooden bridge built in 1857. When it was obvious that the line was nearing completion, plans were made to host the biggest celebration in the town's history.
The spring of 1861 had been very wet; it seemed that it rained every day. The streets of Cedar Falls, which still had hundreds of tree stumps in them, became thick with mud and all but impassable for wagons and teams. On 11 April 1861, several thousand people from the surrounding farms and nearby towns ignored the mud and came to join in the festival.
At 4:00 in the afternoon, a procession of citizens was formed by the appointed parade marshals. Mill owner John M. Overman proudly led the march. Music was supplied by the town's brass band, which had been organized by Dempsey Overman a year earlier. The band was making its first public appearance seated in a new, brightly painted wagon drawn by a full four-horse hitch. The procession marched across the Millrace Bridge to the new buildings of the depot, where the marchers stopped, each person in the crowd looking down the tracks for the train. At 4:45 they heard a train whistle, and in a few moments they could see the smoke from the locomotive. As the huge engine approached, the people began to cheer and shout, and in a moment the first train into town stopped at the depot.
The women of Cedar Falls had organized a women's association designed to improve the town, and their group had helped plan the celebration. The women had fashioned a large wreath from evergreen boughs in honor of the occasion. Jennie Powers, wife of lawyer Joseph P. Powers, and Mary Cameron, wife of businessman John R. Cameron, were chosen to represent the ladies of Cedar Falls by placing the wreath over the engine's smokestack. Attached to the wreath were a number of cards from individuals, local organizations, and businesses. Each card bore a message, such as
Dubuque editors-We thank you for your efforts in behalf of Cedar Falls.
Iron Horse-The best blood of modern stock.
Ladies of Dubuque-We hope to meet you and greet you at a future time in large numbers.
Ladies-the true moral conductors on the great railroad of life may they never grow less.
Ladies of Dubuque-Second to none, but the bright eyes and warm hearts of the ladies of this wide awake village.
We greet you one and all. W. H. Sessions, H. H. Carpenter, G. B. Van Saun, George Secord, A. F. Brown, Edwin Brown, J. B. Powers, P. Melendy.
Excerpted from From Blue Mills to Columbia by Kenneth L. Lyftogt Copyright © 1993 by Iowa State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of ContentsContents ACKNOWLEDGMENTS....................vii
1 A Town on the Cedar....................3
2 The Pioneer Greys....................12
4 Home in Cedar Falls....................39
6 The Cedar Falls Reserves....................60
8 A Third Summer....................90
11 Marching through Georgia....................134
12 Triumph and Tragedy....................145