Buena Vista County, IA
INTO THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
The year 1895 was long remembered by people everywhere throughout the Nation, chiefly because of the financial panic which caused the collapse of fortunes and the abandonment of schemes of building and promotion.
Many persons in northwest Iowa had another reason for recalling the date. That summer the Pomeroy cyclone made its disastrous appearance. It was on a hot, sultry afternoon two days after the Fourth of July had been celebrated that tornadic forces first seemed to be gathering. The air was quiet, the atmosphere sticky and oppressive, and newly washed clothes hung limp and damp on the line. There was no sign of a breeze stirring -- only the waiting hush of the heat. Late in the afternoon the air darkened, clouds rolled up over the sky, and an angry, greenish light appeared in the west. A storm was coming up, but no one guessed what kind of a storm it was to be.
Then the wind struck. Out of the west came a roar of fury and the whirling vortex of the storm shot toward the earth. Straight as an arrow it clove its way eastward. Onlookers stared with whitening faces, then turned and dashed for shelter. The swirl of dust and debris seemed to blot out of the world.
Fifty-five miles of destruction were left as the wind cut its pathway across Cherokee, Buena Vista, Pocahontas, and Calhoun counties. At Pomeroy in Calhoun County the damage was most severe. That town was so utterly swept away that the cyclone was named for it. Sixty lives, out of a population of about a thousand, were lost in the storm and many more persons were injured. The cyclone's path was about a half mile wide. The crops in its track were left a total loss and homes were smashed to kindling. Growing corn was whipped to ribbons or torn from the ground and small grain was left as though it had been mowed by a careless hand, with here and there a tuft left standing. Fences, posts, and farm buildings were swept cleanly away. Trees were torn up by the roots or twisted off and stripped of branches and leaves. The roads were blocked with fallen trees, and heavy rain made travel even more hazardous.
The storm seemed to increase in intensity as it swept along, and unlike the usual tornado with its balloon-shaped cloud and its long funnel sweeping the earth, this Pomeroy storm seemed to have four descending vortices which twisted, swayed, and bounded like black dervishes as they raced on their way. Barns were ground to splinters and mixed with the bodies of horses, cattle, and hogs. The ground for miles around was strewn with farm machinery. Chickens, completely stripped of feathers, walked about with an air of dazed astonishment.
With demoniacal fury the storm descended upon the farm home of Jacob Breecher and his five-year-old daughter, Dora. Joseph Slade was seriously injured there and died the next day. Donald Hill's barn, sheds, and windmill were destroyed. J. H. Wadsworth was injured and his buildings were demolished.
W. R. Clemons in Maple Valley Township had just returned from Alta when he saw the storm coming. He hurried his wife toward the cellar and followed her. They got down safely but just as he reached the last step Mr. Clemons put up his left hand to steady himself and at that instant the house was torn away and with it the muscles of his left arm. In spite of the shock and the pain of his mangled arm, Clemons guided his wife, who was also badly injured, out of the cellar and across the fields to the home of their son. On the way, they had to pass the bodies of their livestock that had been killed. Clemons died two days later.
Another victim of the storm was Charles Totman. He had sent his family to the cellar and then bustled about the house, probably closing windows or getting lights and wraps for those below. The wind struck before he could follow the others to safety and in an instant the house was whirled from its foundation and smashed to kindling. Later Totman was found in the farmyard with severe internal injuries. He died the next day, July 7. His family were all slightly injured, while the barns and machinery about the place were scattered.
Residents of Storm Lake watched with fear as the storm approached. First it became as dark as night, then the hurricane struck and the spires of the German Methodist, [sic] and Catholic churches were snapped off. Luckily the center of the storm missed the town and hit the lake, whirling the water up into a tall column that moved swiftly forward like a ghost running through the rain and wind. The excursion steamboat, bought years before, was the only thing destroyed. After the wind had passed, a tidal wave rushed back across the lake, flooding the southeast shore, drowning 70 head of stock and wrecking a hen house, leaving the chickens strewn about in all directions.
Near Newell the barns of three farmers were blown away and a schoolhouse was twisted into bits. Then, before crossing the line into Pocahontas County, the satanic whirlwind took one last fling at Buena Vista, striking the farm of John Slayman and sending the buildings sailing into the air. Every member of the Slayman family was hurt, but none were killed. Then the storm passed over and vanished in the direction of Pomeroy where its terrible force was spent. East of Pomeroy the black cloud lifted and disappeared.
But this darkest of all days passed. So too did the period of financial worry, and finally the new century dawned on what seemed to be a new world. Rural mail delivery was started and telephone lines were extended out into the country. Some new towns came into being -- Albert City, with its mixture of Scandinavian and German residents, and Rembrandt, and Truesdale. Rembrandt was originally laid out on the Barney Orsland farm, in 1899, and called Orsland in honor of the owner. The place had served as a work camp to house employees during the construction of the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad from Storm Lake to Winthrop, Minnesota. The town was later renamed for Rembrandt, the Dutch painter. The rich farming land of the surrounding country produced surplus crops of marketable quality and quantity for the local livestock.
Truesdale was another Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad town and was named for an official of the company, W. H. Truesdale. In 1901, when the place had only 14 inhabitants, Jacob Lorey was named postmaster.
There were several other country post offices on crossroads during these years; Racine, Crozier, Leverett, Elkton, Blaine, Hire's Grove, Hanover, Mayview, Menoti, Northam, Peach, Plum, Sayre, and West Scott.
With the county prospering and new communities growing up, people began to think more about social and educational gatherings in which all could participate. One of these was the Chautauqua. In the years prior to 1903 efforts had been made to hold summer assemblies at Elm Park, near Storm Lake, but not much had been accomplished although there had been lectures at the various camp meetings held by the churches. Senator Jonathan P. Dolliver and Champ Clark had spoken at the lake but there had been no regular course of lectures or entertainment. Finally in 1903 the Reverend W. J. Carr of the Methodist Episcopal Church and three other men planned the Storm Lake Chautauqua, to be held in the shady park by the lake shore. This Chautauqua was the first in this section of the State and was such a success that later many other towns prepared similar programs. Among the lecturers who came to Storm Lake for these summer sessions were William Jennings Bryan, Robert La Follette, Booker T. Washington, Billy Sunday, and John Vance Cheney.
Another important and highly popular event was the Buena Vista County Farmers’ Institute, organized May 11, 1893. It was the custom to meet for a day's session in January or February of each year and the meetings had the practical value of an interchange of ideas and experiences combined with talks by prominent speakers, the judging of contests, and entertainment features centered particularly around home talent. The young people of the various communities participated in school exhibits and presented short skits of music or programs of topical interest. An agricultural short course kept the men well posted on the latest theories and methods, while the women learned helpful tips from domestic science demonstrations. The livestock show usually attracted many entries of cattle, swine, horses, and poultry. This farmers' institute was popular from the first and was destined to continue for many years.
During these years steps were taken toward acquiring a library for Storm Lake. In 1902 the Reverend E. E. Reed, president of Buena Vista College, began to interest people in getting a favorable hearing for a proposal to secure a Carnegie library. He devoted two years to this work. At first a proposed location was considered on the college campus; then in March 1904 a board was organized to seek for and control the library's affairs in connection with the city council. With the assistance of donations and a Carnegie fund, a building was erected and formally opened to the public September 29, 1906. Miss Ethelyn Bailie was the librarian. Closely identified with the library was Miss Elizabeth Walpole, one of the pioneer daughters who had watched over and helped foster the growth of the town. She later became the Storm Lake librarian and held that office for a period of 30 years until her death in May 1941.
Another splendid building was erected in Storm Lake in 1906, and dedicated Sunday, September 30. It was the Methodist Episcopal Church, constructed of red brick with a granite foundation. It was 70 1/2 by 101 1/2 feet and cost $26,000. The congregation had made this possible with their enthusiastic cooperation, and when some additional funds were found to be necessary to pay for a pipe organ, $820 was raised in 20 minutes. The instrument was installed in March 1907 in plenty of time for the Easter service. It had been eagerly anticipated by all the music-lovers of the vicinity.
An event also of interest to religious circles was the installation of a melodious new bell in the tower of St. Mary's Church. This took place Tuesday, March 20, 1906.
The people were finding new ways of getting relaxation and keeping up with the outside world. Most novel was the viewing of moving pictures that were occasionally brought to town on a traveling circuit. At Storm Lake such pictures, produced by the Edison Company, were shown for the first time in July 1900 at the auditorium. This was pronounced a “most interesting exhibition” but probably no one then dreamed that some day [sic] it would be possible to go to the movies daily if one wished, or that special theaters would be built all over the country, just to house cinema audiences.
No one in the vicinity had yet seen an airplane, but there had been considerable discussion of the subject, so much so that the following item was reported in the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune for August 15, 1902: “A box kite, flying over the city Tuesday morning attracted great attention. The uninitiated thought it was a new-fangled flying machine and they gazed at it in open-mouthed wonder.” It was years later, in 1919, that such a machine was actually owned in the region. Albert City was the first town in Buena Vista County to have an airplane. Albert Sundholm, a young local man, attended the flying school at Fort Dodge, and when he returned a company was formed at Albert City to buy a new Curtiss plane. Soon Sundholm was taking his neighbors aloft to get a view of the prairie. And, during the campaign for the consolidation of the public schools, he circled the city with “Vote Yes” painted on the fuselage.
The first automobile at Albert City was F. L. Danielson's “Queen”, acquired about 1908. Soon there was to be competition for it. The local paper for September 28 of that year, said; [sic] “O. R. Larson will not be outdone by any of the other boys. He has ordered through E. L. Danielson a ‘high wheel’ auto, or ‘horseless carriage’. Albert City with autos galore, a ball team which is seldom beaten, the place of big picnics, and church conventions, is getting up in the world and shows signs of being quite a town some of these days.”
Everywhere, improvements were made. People had telephones, and water, and sewage systems and gas plants for light and heat were built. Streets were paved, larger buildings went up, and stores and business houses were enlarged and improved. At Storm Lake a canning factory was started and put into operation in August 1905. About the same time, the Storm Lake Butter Tub and Tank Factory was opened.
Several communities were damaged by fires which temporarily retarded commercial and civic activities, but the damaged areas were quickly rebuilt. Truesdale, which in its few years of existence had already had one disastrous fire, was the scene of another on June 29, 1907. Just at midday flames raged through the Johnson lumber yard, burning the entire stock and the office building. The Skewis grain elevator nearby caught fire at the same time and was entirely consumed with its contents of 2,500 bushels of oats and 200 bushels of corn. Part of the $30,000 damages was covered by insurance. On January 10, 1908, H. W. Kleeb's drug store building at Truesdale was burned down.
Dr. D. H. Nusbaum's $8,000 sanatorium at Storm Lake was completely destroyed early on the morning of June 20, 1909, by fire which originated either in the water heaters or was caused by spontaneous combustion. The flames leapt to the old Illinois Central station but were there quickly put out. The Western elevator and power house in Sulphur Springs and 2,500 bushels of oats were burned in a $7,000 fire at Sulphur Springs, March 9, 1910. A few months later, early in August of that year, the Newell creamery was burned to the ground. The stockholders of the organization had just met to discuss plans for a new building but had decided to wait until the following spring before starting construction. As the Pilot-Tribune reported, ‘"Fate had other plans” and the interested persons revised theirs to conform to the new circumstances.
Part of Linn Grove's business district went up in smoke on the night of March 27, 1911, when a blaze broke out in the hall of the Modern Woodmen of America. It quickly spread to neighboring buildings -- a butcher shop, warehouse, and barber shop. Fire fighters demolished an old bandstand to halt the blaze in one direction. Fortunately no one was hurt, and at the livery stable the horses, as well as the harness and buggies, were all saved. Insurance covered most of the loss.
It was some years later, in 1917, before Storm Lake's big fire occurred. This broke out on Thanksgiving morning and almost completely ruined the Storm Lake Lumber Company offices, the O'Banion building, the Masonic Temple, the L. S. Dlugosch store, and the Steffen garage. The Commercial National Bank was partially destroyed, and the roof of the Milwaukee depot was consumed by the flames. The losses amounted to $150,000, and were covered about half by insurance.
During the next few years various events of interest mirrored community and county activities or changes.
A carload of fingerlings was unloaded and deposited in Storm Lake October 12, 1906. Black and silver bass were included in the shipment as well as pickerel, pike, crappies, perch, and sunfish. A large rearing pond for pan fish was to be operated on the west side of the lake. It had been stocked with fish as early as 1877, when the State Fish Commission had 25,000 trout brought from the hatchery at Anamosa.
The new Lakeside Presbyterian Church at Storm Lake was dedicated January 18, 1914. During the same year the old high school was razed and a new one built on the same site. In May 1916 President R. D. Echlin of Buena Vista College launched a whirlwind campaign to raise $100,000 for increasing the institution's endowment. By August the entire sum had been raised in the region of northwest Iowa and a similar campaign was planned for the following year. By 1918 an endowment of $200,000 had been secured.
In October 1918 the people of the vicinity had a chance to look backward and enjoy a representation of life in their pioneer days. This was made possible by the Daughters of the American Revolution who at that time presented a pageant at Storm Lake depicting scenes in Buena Vista County in the early years of its history. This event was all the more appreciated because a new phase of history was in the making. The United States had been engaged in the World War since April 1917. While a large number of men from the county were in active military service, the citizens on the home front were loyally performing many patriotic deeds.
During America's participation in the World War in 1917-1918, Buena Vista County furnished 1,250 men. About 50 gold stars indicated those who died or were killed in service and of this group of brave soldiers several were cited for particular action. One of these was Oliver P. Byam, instructor in the 146th machine gun battalion, who moved his platoon through heavy artillery and machine gun fire 400 meters in advance of the front line and from there opened fire on the enemy. He was later killed while leading a patrol. John L. Humphrey was gassed twice and wounded once, nevertheless he returned to the front, where he fell July 18, 1918. A posthumous Croix de Guerre was presented by Marshal Foch with the accompanying citation: “He gave evidence of the greatest bravery in all of the conflict and showed the finest loyalty to his comrades.”
Eva Delbridge of Storm Lake, a Red Cross nurse, enlisted on November 8, 1917. She had charge of the surgical department of base hospital Number 114. There was a number of other nurses from Buena Vista County, also several women stenographers and office workers who replaced men and thus released them for service with the armed forces.
The people of Buena Vista County did everything they could to help the Government during this tense period. They over-subscribed four of the five Liberty Loan quotas, [sic] they formed a County Council of National Defense (besides many smaller patriotic groups) and through the Red Cross helped make surgical dressings, hospital supplies, and knitted articles. College men were trained for military service at Buena Vista College with the Students Army Training Corps, while many of the alumni were serving overseas.
Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, brought happiness to Buena Vista County, just as it did to so many other parts of the world. The men began to come home again and to go on with their civilian life. They also formed Posts of the American Legion. One of the first groups was the Edward William Hartman Post No. 12 of Marathon, named for a gold star man.
Iowa Writers’ Project. Buena Vista County History. Storm Lake, Iowa: Work Projects Administration, 1942. 70-77. Print.