Buena Vista County, IA
LOCATING THE COURTHOUSE
No town had ever grown up as planned at the site of Prairieville, a mile from the river, and finally the people of the county realized that it would be better to build the courthouse at Sioux Rapids. Up until 1869 the courts and boards had met in the Struble and Bell homes as described, or in other houses or storerooms. Even in 1870, when the grand jury of the first term of district court ever held in Buena Vista County met on May 5, the members gathered at the Struble home, where they held their session in the corn crib. James M. Hoskins, one of the jury, later wrote: “There was little use for the jury. After casting about and investing all the crimes that had been committed in the community, we finally brought in a charge of larceny against a boy had stolen a jack knife. We worked hard four days[;] this was the only crime we could be sure of. Judge Henry Ford of Sioux City was presiding and after hearing all the evidence in the case he sent the young man to the reform school for a short time. After adjournment the court, bar, jurors, witnesses and all who remained would gather about the big table and play poker. There was not much ostentation or formality about court proceedings in those days.”
In January 1870, the treasurer, Hubbard Sanderson, had his office in his home several miles from Sioux Rapids on the east side of the river near the Clay County Line. Ole Johnson, the auditor, also had his office in his home, although that was more than two miles southwest of Sioux Rapids. Ryan Hard, the sheriff, had neither office nor jail. O. H. Dahl, clerk of courts, conducted business at his home a mile south of Johnson's, and people had to go to the hovel of O. H. Storla, the county recorder, half a mile from Dahl’s, to inspect the records. The Storla family lived in a dark one-room cave-like sort of place, crowded with children. But here in this gloomy place the early records and titles were kept.
The population of Buena Vista County was still small and scattered, and it was hard to get anything done. All felt the need for a courthouse, but found it, difficult to agree upon the building. A site had been given to the county in l869; it was in Block 12, Sioux Rapids. A contract was drawn up calling for a courthouse 26 by 36 feet, two stories high with three rooms downstairs, a hall, and two stairways. On the second floor there was to be a court room and several smaller rooms for offices.
N. W. Condron won the bid but for some reason the people were not pleased and they secured a writ of injunction from the court, stopping the building proceedings. The injunction was dismissed at the May, 1870, term of district court, and Condron was permitted to go ahead. He finished the courthouse in October of that year at a cost of $4,945. It was a relief and a satisfaction to the people when the building was finished. Already the lack of adequate quarters had caused serious trouble, for in August 1870, the county treasury had been robbed of nearly $4,000.
Hubbard Sanderson, who was elected during the voters' rebellion of 1866, was still treasurer. W. S. Lee was away, trying to sell his thousands of acres of swamp land to men in the eastern states. Abner Bell and Sanderson were good friends at the time of the election but a year later had quarreled. Sanderson had refused to pay some county warrants issued by Bell. Bell took the matter into court, sued, and received a judgment for full payment. But he still felt indignant that Sanderson had questioned his honesty and, as he was clerk of the county, he wrote the whole case in his minute book and told exactly what he thought of Sanderson. He also told how Hub Sanderson had sworn, and called him a liar. After this fuss became known a suit was started against Sanderson and he resigned from his office. L. F. Clark was appointed to fill the vacancy but afterward the matter was cleared up, Clark resigned, and Sanderson was reinstated. Sanderson was also reproved for allowing his son, who had not qualified, to act as his deputy in the treasurer's office.
With the robbery, Sanderson was in trouble again. The county money had been locked in a desk in his home but the lock was an ordinary one, easily broken. The desk stood in a lean-to shed built as an addition to the main house and was not occupied at night, so it was an easy matter to open the window, enter the room, break open the desk and take the money. It is thought that this desk was the one ordered when Abner Bell was still clerk of the board, for in his records it was noted that the board should “make an order for the clerk to get Richard Ridgway to make two desks, as students, only larger, with draws and dores [sic] to lock; one for the clerk and one for the treasurer.” This ancient desk was the one broken when the county funds, $3,718.90, were taken.
The affair of the robbery led to the resignation of Sanderson once more and this time, although he made good most of the money, turning over $2,350 in warrants which he held, he was not reinstated. No one really believed he had committed the theft, but it was an unfortunate happening. L. A. Clemons was elected treasurer and the board purchased a new iron safe at a cost of $1,100. From that time on the county funds were secure.
The courthouse attracted much legal work, and it was natural that the organization of the Buena Vista County Bar Association took place in Sioux Rapids. The group was formed February 21, 1872, with seven attorneys participating; two from Sioux Rapids, two from Newell, and three from Storm Lake. J. E. Wirick was chosen president and G. S. Robinson, secretary.
The little town was then booming and seemed, to people who had lived there at the beginning, to have made great strides since the first few houses had been put up. An anonymous writer in the Sioux Rapids Press, June 11, 1885, left the following glimpse of community life in 1870:
“Among the inhabitants was a lawyer with a long head and a lame leg who entertained us in primitive style in a mansion built of sun-dried bricks. A young and inexperienced doctor boarded at the log hotel on the hill and wanted to sell us a homestead claim in the suburbs, four miles distant, for $400.
“Then there was no church edifice or resident preacher, and but little to betoken the progress that has been made. A strolling preacher reasoned of righteousness, repentance and judgment to come in a small building which was crowded with the lame lawyer and his 29 neighbors.”
In the fall of 1868 William S. Lee returned to the county after selling his real estate in the East. He immediately got into trouble with his old political enemies and again left, but came back the next year to live at Storm Lake. He did not again take part in county affairs and finally retired to live peacefully in Sioux Rapids until his death. In the meantime the new railroad had linked up the south half of the county with the outside world and no sooner was the courthouse built at Sioux Rapids than the people who were rapidly settling the country by the lake demanded that the county seat should be moved into their own territory.
The railroad, however, was the big event in 1870. Early in July the road was completed from Fort Dodge to Storm Lake, and on the Fourth there was a big celebration at the western end by the lake shore, with a platform framed and bannered with tree branches and bunting. L. J. Barton presided over the ceremonies and S. W. Hobbs was the speaker of the day. Four days later, on July 8, the last spike was driven linking the railroad to the Sioux City line. This occurred a few miles west of Storm Lake and again there was uproarious rejoicing. A great number of visitors were on hand to witness the scene, some of them having come on the excursion train for the Fourth of July celebration. The driving of this last spike linked together the thriving towns of Dubuque and Sioux City, and all stations along the way.
This line was later acquired by the Illinois Central. Three new towns were laid out along the line – Newell, Storm Lake, and Alta, and the rivalry began at once between them as to which one should become the county seat town. Storm Lake was built where muskrat houses looked like scattered haystacks, blue flags bloomed beside the blue water, and in springtime the air was filled with the wild voices of returning water birds. The city was laid out with wide, cheerful streets, and trees were soon planted along the avenues. For a long time growing boys rejoiced that there “was hardly a tree in it big enough to switch a kid with.”
Newell was well situated for business because it was on a main highway of travel, but it was handicapped in the beginning by being at times almost surrounded by water. It was said that to sink Newell out of sight it would only be necessary to go around it with a hay knife and cut it loose! The land was so level that there was little “fall” and the water would not drain away naturally, so at last a system of artificial drainage had to be worked out. A canal or large ditch, nine and a half miles long with four miles of branch ditch, was dug to carry off the surface water, roads were built up high and dry, and the whole community started toward an era of prosperity.
Another town was laid out, west of Storm Lake. It was called Alta in honor of Altai Blair, daughter of John I. Blair, an official of the railroad. This Spanish name also meant “high” and was particularly appropriate because the new community was built on the second highest point of land in Iowa – 1,515 feet above sea level. It was second only to a promontory near Lake Okoboji. The elevation at Alta was a divide separating the Missouri River and its tributaries from the Mississippi River. The divide extends north to the Okoboji region and may be traced on the map. On one side of this imaginary line all the rivers run toward the south and west. On the other side they run toward the south and east. Thus although the region about Alta is flat with few high hills, there is a gradual slope downward in both directions from the town.
The town was a little slow in getting started. The only occupant was at first the section foreman; then came the station agent and with the actual operation of the railroad, J. M. Tibbets started a general store, handling dry goods, medicines, and hardware brought from Fort Dodge. A little later Sanders Furlong bought an interest from Tibbets and became postmaster.
P. G. Peterson came out from Chicago in 1872, and while his wife started a hotel he began to sell land for the railroad company. Peterson soon got the reputation of being a hustler, and no wonder! He drove a fast team, and when he had got a prospective buyer ensconced in his buggy, whipped up the horses and drive at such a speed that the would-be purchaser did not dream how far from the station they were going! Thus, according to the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune, “Elk, Maple Valley, Nokomis and even Diamond and Pitcher townships in Cherokee County were settled by 50 Swedes, Danes and Norwegians, who thought they were getting a farm close to town, when in fact they were a dozen miles out. But they were not deceived in the land, the uniform quality made selection easy.”
In September 1872 the people of Storm Lake petitioned the board of supervisors for removal of the county seat to that place. At the same meeting appeared petitioners from Newell with a similar request for their town. This made it a triangular affair with Sioux Rapids and Newell combining their votes to defeat Storm Lake. After that the choice lay between Sioux Rapids and Newell and the county voted again on the question. Of course the citizens of Storm Lake wanted the county seat moved south, but not to Newell. They voted to keep the county seat where it was, hoping that another day would be more favorable for a relocation in their own town. Naturally there was some hard feeling among the residents of the different places. The Past and Present of Buena Vista County states that “Any Sioux Rapids politician showing his face at Newell about that time would probably have gotten it pushed in, as the people of that town were so sure of themselves, and counted so heavily on the friendliness and expressed desire of Sioux Rapids to have the county seat located at Newell, that they had erected a brick building to be given to the county for a courthouse providing their town was chosen.”
The issue was not again taken up until 1876, when petitions were received from Alta and Newell. Storm Lake did not enter the race at all. This time Newell people prepared pledges on which they obtained the signatures of many Sioux Rapids people in the determination to hold them to their word and to receive their votes. But Alta seemingly played the same role in 1876 that Storm Lake had in 1872. The vote was split, neither town would vote for the other, and Sioux Rapids won again in the game of politics and kept the county seat. Newell lost hope after that and made no more attempts, but Storm Lake was only gathering strength for another struggle. Circumstances helped the Storm Lake cause, for on January 1, 1877, the Sioux Rapids courthouse burned to the ground, and everything was lost except the records of the board of supervisors and the county safe. Now was the time for another effort.
As soon as the winter was over the people of Storm Lake and vicinity held a mass meeting and decided to campaign for the relocation of the county seat. A committee of five was appointed to manage the campaign, the citizens were to provide funds for the committee, and all were to work together with no argument nor questioning. The committee's part was to find out what county officials or candidates were favorable to relocation of the county seat at Storm Lake and to make friends for the town. In an effort to influence county office candidates it was decided that no one from Storm Lake should run for office. This action rapidly brought results. Newell and Alta could no longer hope to gain the county seat for themselves so were willing to swing their votes to help their neighboring town. That fall a motion to rebuild on the old location in Sioux Rapids was lost by a county vote and the fall court was held in a schoolhouse.
During the previous summer, with the help of business men and citizens of Newell, residents of Storm Lake had organized the Storm Lake Building Association and had planned to build a city hall, 30 by 56 feet, and two stories high. Now, with the petition for the relocation of the county seat, they presented the county with a ten-year lease on the building.
The written proposition was as follows: “To the county of Buena Vista in the State of Iowa: The Storm Lake Building Association of Storm Lake, having procured a lease to the southeast quarter of Block 16 in the town of Storm Lake aforesaid for the purpose of erecting a building thereon to be used for courthouse and council room purposes for a period of ten years, hereby tenders to said county, free of charge, a lease of said premises and of the building now being erected thereon, for a period of ten years, subject to a lease of the courtroom of said building for council room purposes when required for court or county purposes and subject to forfeiture in case said building is not used for courthouse purposes within one year, or in case said county shall erect a permanent courthouse before the expiration of said lease.” This proposition was signed by the president of the association, A. R. McCartney, and by the secretary, H. Applington.
Since the county would have to go to heavy expense if a new courthouse were to be built at Sioux Rapids, the board of supervisors at once accepted the Storm Lake proposition and named one of the members custodian. At the October election the question of relocation came up for the third time. This time Storm Lake won with an overwhelming majority of 908 votes to 206 votes for Sioux Rapids.
The transfer of the county property began in October 1878. The board of supervisors met October 14 to canvass the vote of the county and thereafter declared that the people were unmistakably in favor of the removal of the county seat. The very next day Storm Lake sent wagons and drivers to Sioux Rapids to remove the safe, the record books, and the furniture. It was reported in the Storm Lake Pilot that William Harris and Henry Hanks hauled home “the forty hundred pound safe” in which the county funds were kept and that other men with teams – Cummings, Stanton, Tuller, Okey, Smith, and McCartney brought furniture and records. Many Storm Lake citizens accompanied the caravan to guard the property and see that all was orderly.
The committee feared that the Sioux Rapids people might offer some resistance and they took along two barrels of apples and other refreshments as a peace offering. But nothing happened. Sioux Rapids extended no welcome to the jubilant visitors, neither did she offer reprisals. If the peace offering was accepted nothing was said about it. In spite of the quiet, however, Storm Lake residents did not breathe easily that night until everything was safely under the roof of the new building and in their own territory at last. For eight long years the struggle had been going on, in fact the relocation of the courthouse had been the main issue in each county election. Now that it was settled ill feelings soon disappeared and a friendly atmosphere was restored. Finally, in 1888, the ten years of the lease were up. The old courthouse was by then far too small to accommodate the increasing business of the county. Offices were small and dark and the courtroom was inadequate. The three-story building planned was to be made of pressed brick with adequate offices, fireproof vaults, courtroom, jury rooms, and consultation rooms. The estimated cost of this new building was $25,000. A special election was held in May and the result was too close for comfort – 737 for the new courthouse and 725 against it, but it was a victory. The outlying towns were strongly opposed because of the cost which would increase their taxes. The contract was given immediately to J. M. Russell of Storm Lake and the building was started. It was a handsome structure, set in the center of the square and surrounded by magnificent trees.
Iowa Writers’ Project. Buena Vista County History. Storm Lake, Iowa: Work Projects Administration, 1942. 33-39. Print.