Buena Vista County, IA
USGenWeb Project




All this time the prairie sod was being turned under and more and more crops were planted and harvested, while in the towns, or at suitable sites between new homes, churches and schools were built. As the seasons came and went and the people toiled week-days in the fields, on Sundays braving sun or blustering winds to travel miles to the nearest church, one might think with Emerson:  “Out from the heart of nature rolled the burdens of the Bible.”  Before church buildings were put up, religious services were often held in the schoolhouses or, as was the case at Newell, stores where the congregation had to sit on boxes and nail kegs.

It was a point of honor, too, to go regularly to school, no matter how far the children might have to trudge through slush or dust.  August Anderson, who with his brother and parents, the P. T. Andersons, moved to Scott Township in 1877, said:  “My brother and I had to walk two miles to school, but we hardly ever missed a day if it was ever so cold and stormy, and we, as well as the other school children, never knew what it was to wear overshoes, because we had none to wear.”

There were many good times, too, to which the young folks especially looked forward.  In the winter spelling bees, singing schools, and debating societies met at the schools, and participants and spectators alike thought nothing of walking four miles or more for such entertainment.  In the summer there were school and Sunday school picnics along the shores of the lake or on the banks of some lazy stream, where the girls might be teased to take off their shoes and stockings and lift up their long skirts to go wading in the water.  There was often an elaborate round of entertainments in the fall and through the holiday season -- lectures, socials, oyster suppers, and at Christmas, when evergreen trees were ceremoniously cut down and hauled to classroom or pulpit to be set up and decorated with nuts, strings of popcorn, and little candles of many colors.

The first ministers were usually itinerant, like the circuit rider who reached Sioux Rapids every now and then, and often stopped at the pretentious George W. Strubles’ [sic] log cabin.  That two-story home was for five years the county courthouse, meeting place of the board of supervisors, and community place of worship. As a rule the circuit rider had very little money and only a scanty supply of clothing.  Such deficiencies did not hamper his thought processes or his manner of delivery, however, for he could preach powerful sermons.  Once, when he had on only a shirt and a pair of trousers, being minus coat, collar, and shoes, he turned to one of his followers and exclaimed, "Well, Brother Thomas, I preached for all there was in it, didn't I?”

On another occasion the minister had been promised $20, but at the last minute not enough money had been collected, and a substantial sum had yet to be raised.  The men present thought of an easy way out.  They simply held a friendly poker game and the loser, George Struble, had to make up the necessary deficit.

As many of the earliest settlers of Buena Vista County were Scandinavian, they brought with them the religion almost universal in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark and among groups from those countries.  Ole Enderson Hesla, who settled in Section 36, Barnes Township, in 1866, was called the “moving spirit” in the organization of the Little Sioux Valley Lutheran congregation two years later.  Ole O. Brown presided over a meeting called for September 26, 1868, and Ole Hesla acted as secretary.  The other persons present included Ole Johnson, Sever A. Knudson, Anders Aslagslon, Halvor Olson, Olson Dokken, Arne K. Stake, Ole K. Stake, O.H. Storla, Halvor K. Stake, and Anders Middelson.  Meetings were held in what was known as the Dahl and Brown schoolhouse, with the Reverend Nils Amlund in charge of the services.  The group built a church in 1880.

Around Albert City, the community first known as Manthorp, the Lutheran Congregation was organized April 14, 1873.  Twelve families met for that purpose at the D. A. Danielson home which, being only 12 feet square, compressed the faithful into very close quarters.  However, intermittent services had previously been held there by a Norwegian minister from Sioux Rapids.  This pastor had baptized Ida Bergling, born August 5, 1870, the first child born among the church members there.  The congregation built its first church in 1887.  Five families organized the Swedish Free Church there in 1880.  The Swedish Mission Evangelical congregation was organized on February 15, l887, but was first known as “The Christian Association of Fairfield Township, Buena Vista County, Iowa.”

The Storm Lake Pilot for May 24, 1870, announced, “Five church organizations have established themselves in Storm Lake. They are the Universalist, Methodist, Congregational, Presbyterian, and Catholic.”

About seven months later, December 27, it reported, “There are now thirty-seven schools in Buena Vista County.  Teachers are drawing from $35 to $45 per month.  Newell has the laPilotrgest school, with forty-two scholars.”

Newell's first church was the Congregational, organized October 21, 1871.  Its building, put up in 1872-73, was used also for five years by the Methodist Episcopals, whose own church was erected in 1877.  The Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church was organized May 11, 1884, and the Danish Baptist Church in October of the same year.

Roman Catholic services were held at Newell by a priest from Fort Dodge in 1872, and during the next ten years a priest from Storm Lake celebrated the mass in private homes.  The church was organized in 1882.

Storm Lake's first Protestant church, built for the Presbyterians, for a time also housed the Baptist and Methodist congregations.  It was a pretentious structure of Gothic style and cost $2,284.  Part of the money obtained for building purposes had been secured on the understanding that the church should be debt free on its dedication day, but on that date, November 17, 1872, the amount of $247.15 still had to be raised.  This sum was subscribed in 25 minutes’ time, and the ceremony went ahead as planned.

The first Methodist Church was dedicated in October 1875.  It was a wooden structure, with a foundation of granite built from boulders found along the lake shore.

By January, 1880, the Storm Lake Pilot reported that the place was fast “becoming a City of Churches.”  “In fact,” it continued, “we do not believe there is a place of equal population in Iowa that can point to an equal number of churches.”

A few months later the paper described a social affair sponsored by the ladies of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  This was to be a “Neck Tie Sociable” held at the City Hotel, and everything was to be done “to make the occasion one of enjoyment and pleasure to all who may attend it.  It is understood that the ladies will make two neckties, wear one, and put the others together, and let that male portion of the assembled throng select from the pile, and take the lady wearing one of the same color to supper.  Come, everybody, have a good time, and ten cents pays the bill.”

While one can easily realize the spontaneous merriment that such an entertainment might cause, it is also possible to imagine what heart-burnings, what secret currents of emotion, could result from the wrong young man picking out the wrong tie.  What exquisite agony, what refinement of mental torture could be suffered by the girl who, bravely wearing her colors, had to watch her hoped-for escort select those matching the tie stitched by someone else!  It is to be hoped that the good ladies of the church helped tide over any awkward situations.

There was choir practice, too, for as the various denominations built churches of their own and installed pianos, or organs, it became possible to indulge in group singing with adequate accompaniment.  Often choir practice was the only opportunity for music-lovers and they put extra ardor into their renditions of the hymns and religious “pieces” -- solos, duets, or quartets.

At Sioux Rapids, the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church was organized May 11, 1871, with C. W. Johnson as leader.  This group built its first church in 1882.

Methodist services had been held in homes in this community as early as 1859 -- probably by the “strolling preacher who reasoned of righteousness, repentance and judgement [sic] to come” -- but it was 1872 before Rufus Fancher, a homesteader, was authorized by the conference to take charge.  A church was erected in 1876.

A council of pastors and delegates from neighboring churches met on November 4, 1875, to help organize the Sioux Rapids First Congregational Church.  The first building was put up in 1881 and seven years later converted into a parsonage upon the dedication of larger quarters.

The Reverend V. Bloodgood of Spencer organized the Sioux Rapids Baptist Church August 11, 1881.  A portable steel frame building served as a meeting place for the Seventh Day Adventists when they banded themselves together locally in 1902.  The first Lutheran sermon in Grant Township was preached at the home of Jacob Ernst August 27, 1871.  A visiting pastor, the Reverend Theodore Martens, came every few weeks and held services in the Coon Township schoolhouse.

The Zion Lutheran Congregation was organized in September 1879.  Twenty acres of land was purchased and here a church was built.  It was dedicated September 7, 1884, with the Reverend William Laner as the first resident pastor.

As the first principal settlement in Buena Vista County, Sioux Rapids had a school as early as 1856.  The Independent School District was formed in 1870, an event of which Wegerslev and Walpole's history says:  “The district was formerly composed of a part of Lee Township, but the independent district included with this also a part of Barnes Township.  The forming of the district in this way was vigorously opposed by those living across the river who favored a district including the town only.  There were several residents across the river who would add materially to the strength of the school, if the district could be made to extend over their territory.  The townspeople saw this, so they wrote up their proceedings, sent them to the legislature, and had them lega1ized and published as a law before the residents across the river were scarcely aware of what had occurred.”  A new and larger building was made necessary in 1882 when the Chicago and North Western Railroad came through.  Sessions were held in the Methodist Church until the new school could be opened in 1885.  A. S. Newcomb was the first teacher in the independent district and when a room had to be added to the school to accommodate the increased number of pupils, his wife took over this classroom.

Miss Alma L. Gates taught Storm Lake's first school -- l5 pupils who met together in private homes for the beginning sessions, at times in S. D. Eadie's residence, and again in the West house on Cayuga Street, between Second and Third, where the opening session of November 21, 1870, was held.  Colonel Vestal was so enthusiastic over this progress that he wrote in the next issue of the Storm Lake Pilot (November 23):  “This is an epoch in the history of this city to which future generations, when Storm Lake has her twenty thousand, thirty thousand, aye, even fifty thousand inhabitants, with schools, academies, and colleges of the highest grades, will look back to with profound interest.  We have been particular in stating the time and place so that in future years there shall be no dispute as to when, where, and by whom the first school was organized and taught.”

The pupils who had enrolled on the opening day of school were the following:  Emma West, Libbie West, Anna B. Guilford, Angeline Wirick, Josephine Selkirk, Alice Riley, Mary Hoyt, Caroline Hoyt, Willie West, Frank L. Wirick, Thomas Selkirk, John Hoyt, and Marcellus Perkins.  Several days later these original students were joined by Allen Gates, John Bailey, Willie Bailey, and Lora Bailey.

In 1871 a small frame building was put up for a schoolhouse and there the teacher, Miss Honeywell, presided.  Next a hall above the Smith brothers’ store was used for a school and then the Baptist Church was put into service for a year of week-days to provide sufficient classroom space.  By that time the school had grown so large that a new brick school building was started.  This was finished in 1875.

Although the earliest records of the Newell schools are missing, it is known that a school was organized in 1870 in a building about a half-mile from town.  The following year sessions were held right in Newell.  In 1878 a two—story brick building, that had been built when it seemed that the town might have a chance to be county seat, was put to use by local authorities as a school.  If this building that might have been used as a courthouse was to stand there as a monument to lost hopes, the people might as well make some good use of it.

Miss Jennie Carter taught the one-room school opened at Alta in 1874.  In this year, when two teachers were needed, (these were Ira C. Harlin and Emma Wilson) classes were held in various parts of town, for some time in the Swedish Lutheran Church.  Six years later a four-room school was built in the south part of town.

At the time of the world's Columbian Exposition, J. W. Jarnagin, in charge of the educational division of the Iowa exhibit, offered a series of prizes to be granted at a preliminary display in December 1892 at the State Teachers' Association in Cedar Rapids.  This was to stimulate interest in the school work exhibit at the World's Fair.  The first prize for the best display from rural schools went to District No. 8 of Nokomis Township in Buena Vista County.

There was a township school building in Linn Grove in 1892, attended by the smaller children of the town, while the older pupils had to go to an old building across the river.  C. L. Ward, O. L. Hesla, H. E. Loe and O. A. Mikelson formed the independent school district of Linn Grove in this year, and arranged adequate quarters for all the students.  A larger building was put up in 1894.  Miss Julia Brown was the first teacher in the independent district.

Albert City, being one of the newer communities, did not organize an independent school district until June 8, 1901.  That fall, classes were held in a country schoolhouse a short distance from town while Albert City's own building was under construction.  When the new school was opened in January 1902 the teacher, Miss Margaret Adair, had 38 pupils.

When the Marathon school district became independent in 1893 and a new two-room schoolhouse was built, no one could imagine that in ten years this community was to introduce something entirely new in education.  But it was so.  A new type of school was started in Buena Vista County, and in every town arguments for and against it arose.  This is how it came about.  In the spring of 1903 five district schools near Marathon were added to the Marathon Independent District.  The old school building in the town was torn down and a new one of pressed brick erected at a cost of $20,000.  That fall, six drivers were hired by the school to bring rural children to this school.  Six school routes were planned.  Such was the start of consolidated schools in northwest Iowa.  As the years went by many other communities adopted the plan which was proving very successful.  Drivers were often older pupils who lived on the route:  they found that it was not difficult to gather up the children on their routes and get them to school on time.  Naturally the older boys were eager to obtain positions as drivers, especially as this work constituted a paying job.  At first, and for some years, horse-drawn hacks and carriages were used to transport the pupils to school.  Then when the automobile became practical and roads were improved, large motor busses were adopted.

By this union of town and country schools, the rural pupils had the same advantages as the town pupils and, more than that, both combined had more advantages than either would have had separately, for the building of the centralized school was larger and more convenient, had more equipment, and a more complete course of study.  Better teachers could be obtained for the larger schools and a school spirit could be fostered.  The whole community was drawn toward one center and so became more unified.  Thus in one step or one series of steps public education was improved, high schools were accredited, and advanced education stimulated.

Meanwhile, the whole county had benefited from another stimulus to higher education, the Buena Vista College established at Storm Lake in 1891.  In October 1890 the Presbytery of Sioux City had been set off from the Presbytery at Fort Dodge and a joint commission of 12 members had met at Storm Lake July 8, 1891, to discuss plans.  The commission finally accepted an offer of the Storm Lake Town Lot and Land Company of an acreage and suitable buildings for the new college.  Long before this it had been planned to start an academy somewhere in the region.  Cherokee and Fort Dodge had made offers and Fort Dodge had been chosen.  That had been in the fall of 1885.  The Collegiate Institute had been started at Fort Dodge at that time, with President F. J. Kenyon in charge.

Five years later, however, this school was given up because it seemed an unsuccessful enterprise.  Attendance was good, but the accommodations were insufficient and the collection of funds was always a worry.  Thus, when the Storm Lake Land Company offered to donate eight acres of land and buildings to the value of $25,000, it was decided to move the college to Storm Lake and take advantage of the generous proposal.  Thus the organization and incorporation of Buena Vista College was accomplished.  As long as the property and equipment was used as a college of liberal arts it was to remain the property of and under the control of the Board of Trustees; otherwise, it was to revert to the Storm Lake Town Lot and Land Company.

The college was situated in the southwest part of town, on an attractive elevation sloping down to the lake.  The main building was of brick and measured 90 by 72 feet.  It was three stories high.  The walls were trimmed with cut stone.  This main hall contained nine recitation rooms, a chapel, a library, and reading room, and ten smaller rooms for various classes and groups.  Other buildings were added in later years.

Buena Vista College, though Christian, was conducted on non-sectarian lines, and students and faculty belonged to a variety of congregations.  The curriculum of liberal arts and normal school training was gradually expanded to include art, music, commerce, and physical training.  Standards were raised to meet the increasingly rigid requirements of Iowa colleges and by 1911 Buena Vista was fully accredited, with credits acceptable to the graduate schools of the State and to the Iowa State Board of Education.  As a member of the Iowa Conference, the school participated in football, basketball, and track events.  A popular semi-monthly paper, the Track, [sic]1 was established in 1895, and proved of permanent value.

Iowa Writers’ Project.  Buena Vista County History.  Storm Lake, Iowa:  Work Projects Administration, 1942.  62-69.  Print.

1This history is in error here.  The student newspaper has always been known as the Tack.  A thank you to Mr. John Ullman for pointing it out and the librarian at the Buena Vista University for concurring.

Contributed anonymously