Buena Vista County, IA
USGenWeb Project




Storm Lake was incorporated in 1873 and the first municipal election was held that spring.  S. H. Hobbs was elected mayor.  The town's growth was assured in 1878 when it became the county seat, and from then on it was destined to be Buena Vista's leading city.

The people had hoped for additional railroad facilities and on July 6, 1871, Storm Lake Township voted 44 to 15 to help with the construction of the Maple Valley Railroad from Jackson, Minnesota, through Storm Lake to Onawa.  This road, however, which would have given the city a connection with the great Union Pacific system, was never built.

Thomas Selkirk, the hotel keeper, opened a stage line on a semi-weekly schedule from Storm Lake to Spencer July 4, 1871, and by the following spring the schedule had been increased to a daily service.  Regardless of what particular community the settlers lived in, whether in Storm Lake, Newell, Sioux Rapids, Linn Grove, or Alta -- all now had a chance to participate in various endeavors of mutual interest.  One of these was the county fair, toward which steps were taken on May 3, 1873, when the Buena Vista County Agricultural Society bought 35 acres of land from Judge Early of Sac City.  The acreage was favorably situated about three-fourths of a mile west of Storm Lake, near both the lake and the railroad.  Rainy and chilly weather were drawbacks, but an enthusiastic crowd attended that first fair, held on September 23 and 24, 1875.  The awards were said to have been “liberal.”  The exhibitor with the most entries was J. D. Adams of Nokomis, who showed a half bushel of rye, one Berkshire boar, two sows, three Chester White boars, four sows, and three grade sows.  It had been mentioned that premiums were given for “almost anything, from stallions to crayon drawings” and that one diploma was awarded for good penmanship.  We do not know whether any prizes were given for cattle, although presumably some were offered.  It was at about this time that William Miller started raising stock near Storm Lake, exporting beef cattle and importing Shorthorns from Scotland.  Miller is said to have been the first man in the United States to import this breed, which was to become a great favorite.  Operating the Lakeside farms for many years, he crossed the ocean 71 times in his quest for good cattle.

The Buena Vista County Fair was continued for five years, and from then on was held only irregularly, whenever someone attempted to revive it.  “Bad luck, hard times, and grasshoppers” are said to have made “financial mincemeat” of the venture.  It was later revived at Alta and put on a permanently successful basis.

During these years the timber was still so scarce in the county that during the early seventies the Board of Supervisors allowed exemption from taxation to the amount of $500 for each acre of reforested land or for each mile of hedge planted.  Thus the black prairies, almost entirely devoid of trees, gradually turned green with numerous groves.  As more and more crops were being planted and harvested the wild life quickly disappeared, particularly the prairie chicken, which had been slaughtered by the thousands.  Two dealers advertised in the Storm Lake Pilot of September 15, 1875, for 10,000 prairie chickens for which they would pay two dollars per dozen.  The birds, to be acceptable, had to be “neatly drawn, stuffed with fine hay and delivered in good order.”  With destruction taking place on such a wholesale scale, it was no wonder that within a few years this species had gone almost entirely.

The newspaper, the Storm Lake Pilot, had been established early in the town's history, in the fall of 1870.  During the previous year A. E. Willits had visited the Board of Supervisors and enquired as to what inducements he might expect if he tried to start a paper.  He was assured the official printing of the county but a money bonus, which Willits felt necessary, was apparently not forthcoming, and so he let the matter drop.

But in 1870 Colonel Vestal, a Civil War veteran, and his brother-in-law S. W. Young, ventured to publish a weekly journal.  Taking their inspiration from the wind-tossed waters of the lake, they called their sheet the Storm Lake Pilot. The symbolic name and the paper both prospered and soon had taken a leading place among the journals of northwest Iowa.  His excellent war record had won Colonel Vestal many friends, and he was a versatile writer.  The paper was strongly Republican.  Partner Young was in charge of the mechanical department, and succeeded in getting out a neat and well printed job.

Both men had a flair for showmanship and launched the Pilot with a build-up which insured popular interest from the outset.  The leading men of the community were invited to be present when the first copy of the first issue was taken off the press on October 26, 1870, to certify as to its authenticity.  Some time [sic] later this copy was sold at public auction in front of the Pilot office.  Crowds gathered to see the fun and to hear prominent citizens compete with one another for the privilege of owning that first issue.  Bidding was brisk.  Finally the price climbed to $100.  The crowd pressed forward.  Somehow that bit of newsprint held up before their eyes had become a precious article.  It was part of the history of Storm Lake.  The bidding went on – “105 -- 106 -- .”

“Anyone else, anyone else?  Do I hear 110?  Do I hear 107?  Going, going, now at 106 dollars!”

The auctioneer's hammer crashed down and the sale was over.  The first copy of the Storm Lake Pilot had been sold for a sum that might justly have been called a record anywhere.

As Barton stepped up to take possession of the paper and the onlookers admired or secretly envied his ability to make money and spend it so effectively, they could not guess what a different picture he would present a little less than four years later.  In August 1874 the banking and real estate firm of Barton and Hobbs had to close because funds to the amount of $22,000 were missing.  Tax receipts and school funds amounted to $8,000 and the remainder consisted of private deposits.  Many persons, particularly old people, including many in Sac and Ida counties as well as Buena Vista, were left destitute by the crash, which had taken their life savings.  The town of Storm Lake suffered a mild panic, from which reverberations echoed all over the region.  Barton and Hobbs had been considered cornerstones of the community, a key position vouched for by the firm's continuous two-column page-length advertisement in the Pilot. No one blamed Samuel Hobbs, the second partner, perhaps because he stayed and faced the trouble while Barton, as the paper naively remarked, “was suddenly hard to find.”  He disappeared, but was traced as far as the Northwestern railroad station in Carroll, Carroll County, and from there on he was lost to the history of Iowa.

In the meantime, the citizens of Storm Lake had enjoyed a more pleasant experience.  This came with the arrival July 1, 1873, of a real steamboat, the J. D. Eddy, named for the Storm Lake station agent of the Illinois Central.  The boat had been built by Rouse and Dean in Dubuque after the model of the best and fastest yachts constructed on the Clyde, in Scotland, and shipped to Storm Lake on railroad flat cars.  She was made of iron, with a length of 47 feet and a seven foot, six-inch beam.  Her carrying capacity was 75 to 80 passengers.

A trial run was made about noon that July 1, and the shores of the lake were ringed with people who stood watching the boat move briskly out over the water.  Apparently many were suspicious, for only 45 accepted the invitation to go aboard for the next trip.

The steamer had arrived in good time for the Fourth of July celebration, and on that day was booked for an excursion which took 55 persons forth on the lake.  The Storm Lake Glee Club and String Band had gone aboard and the organ that had been installed droned out its musical accompaniment.  Colonel Vestal of the Storm Lake Pilot, who was one of the passengers, set down his pleasure at the occasion in print:  “The melody of voice and instrument mingled with the music of the waves, and as the vessel ‘walked the waters like a thing of life’, and we looked out on the broad expense, or watched the waves chase each other for very joy, we could not help thinking of the pleasures and enjoyments which Nature and the art of man have provided for mankind.” It was a great day for all the people.  A real “show boat” was chugging about in the clear blue waters.  Music, gaiety, and color had been brought to the quiet of the inland lake.  The boat was operated by the Storm Lake Navigation Company, J. S. Eddy, master, J. M. Russell, engineer.  Trips were made Wednesdays and Saturdays, leaving the wharf at the foot of Lake Avenue at 4 p. m.  The fare was 50 cents a single trip, with a strip of five-trip tickets available to commuters, and with unused portions transferable.

The Fourth of July was always an exciting event in those early times.  Merchants would gather in back rooms of various stores weeks ahead of the holiday to decide how Storm Lake should celebrate.  The question was a momentous one because the merchants felt they owed it to the community to put on a “grand and glorious” celebration.  Committees would then be appointed and work would begin.  Money was collected by various persons and contributions of from three to five dollars apiece would be made.  Some individuals, who gave $10, were considered very generous.  From $400 to $500 was necessary to put on a good Fourth.  The Holiday was the day people looked forward to most and it continued to be so until the coming of the automobile satisfied the desire to travel on the road rather than to stay in their own community for the day.

W. C. Skiff, one-time county treasurer of Buena Vista County and a former Storm Lake merchant, has told the story of those old July Fourths.  The celebration started at dawn, when “Forty guns at sunrise shot off from an anvil by Ben Skeels in front of his blacksmith shop, and by Schulz Martine from an old cannon opened the day.”  Later in the morning as folks came from all over the vicinity on foot, by top buggy or spring wagon, “you would see Orval James on his high-stepping bay horse.  He would be wearing a red sash over his shoulder and what a gallant picture.  Sitting bolt upright in the saddle he appeared every bit the part of a cavalry officer.  He was the marshal of the day.  He led the parade!”  Or perhaps the marshal would be Dr. W. D. Bailey, astride his white pony, Billie.

In the gala procession through the streets of town you would see Kelly Yerington and Norman Crowell with their baseball suits on, all ready for the big afternoon game.  Baseball had come to Storm Lake in the spring of 1874, and was considered a “glorious sport” for spectators and an “after supper pastime for those who ‘enjoy’ broken fingers and black eyes.”

And that morning you would see Don La Grange “all dolled up in his new spats, blue shirtwaist and red tie, Elizabeth Walpole with a sweet smile and all fixed up with a pink dress and a sack of stick candy, and ... Emil Journay wearing his band suit.  He played in the Storm Lake brass band which furnished patriotic music for the day.”  Paddy Fisk would be there in a blue fireman's suit, for he was on police duty.

Business men sponsored the parade and the floats.  The most popular entry was usually an elaborately decorated wagon filled with curly-haired little girls or very young women representing the original States, all grouped about a glamorous Goddess of Liberty.

After the parade had passed, people would gather at the band stand to listen to a speech by James De Land, Tom Chapman, Let Yerington and some other orator of the region.  One of the ladies would then read the Declaration of Independence and both speech and reading would be interrupted frequently by loud explosives fired by the children, until it was often impossible to hear the speaker.  Few cared, perhaps only the man or woman with the speech in hand.  At 12 o'clock the roast ox was served.  Each person paid for a steaming plateful and it was such a bountiful feast that all could be served generously.

The program would be resumed again at 2 o'clock.  Sports events on Lake Avenue included foot races, three-legged races, sack races, and potato races.  Spectators could sit down and rest on planks placed near the sidewalk.  Usually there were so many people watching that each person would have to stand up and push his way to the front to get a good view.

A baseball game between Alta and Newell and a picked team from Storm Lake almost always found a place on the afternoon program.  “It was no small job to get an umpire -- the kind required -- for his judgment must be bad and his eyes worse” -- according to Mr. Skiff.  “Storm Lake had to win that game in order to win the $25 prize.”

After the game picnic baskets were brought out and families ate their suppers in the park near the lake shore.  When it was dark enough everyone gathered to see the display of fireworks, usually shown at the south end of Lake Avenue.  Captain C. F. Aikin often took charge of this part of the entertainment.  An old windmill tower, which had been set up for the occasion, served as a high platform from which to send up Roman candles and sky rockets; there, too, pinwheels and other pieces could be displayed.  Sometimes a mass of fireworks would catch fire and go up in one grand blaze of light.  A “bowery” dance, perhaps begun late in the afternoon when the dimming sunlight filtered through the leaves of the bower of branches arranged as a canopy, continued all evening.  Up to the last the sonorous tones of Tom Stanton, or whoever called out the square dances, competed with the roar of the giant crackers or the hiss of the Roman candles.  Then the regretful strains of “Goodnight, ladies, we're going to leave you now”, put an end to the evening.  Fiddles were tucked back into their cases, picnic paraphernalia was gathered together, and in the buckboards, going home, drowsy heads were leaned against companionable shoulders or on piles of clean, sweet-smelling straw.

But sometimes July 5 was almost as much fun as the Fourth.  For in order that the merchants would not have to carry the left-over supplies of fireworks, the men of the town staged sham battles that evening.  The west side of the community would be pitted against the east side.  On one occasion the battle started when Walt Stock came riding down Lake Avenue on his spotted pony.  He was from the east side, and came challenging the west.  As he drew closer, the west side broke loose and soon captured him.  Then the battle started with firecrackers flying and Roman candles going off at unexpected intervals and places.  It was exciting but dangerous and everybody knew it.  All went well, however, until Dr. J. H. Lawrence, who later married Aurelia Wirick, suffered a broken leg while trying to dodge a sky rocket.  After that the mayor put a stop to this type of post-Fourth celebration.

Iowa Writers’ Project.  Buena Vista County History.  Storm Lake, Iowa:  Work Projects Administration, 1942.  47-52.  Print.

Contributed anonymously