Crawford County, Iowa, IAGenWeb


Early History of Vail, Iowa

Early Settlers Before Vail

This area's very first known settlers were Cornelius Dunham, who came in 1849 with his son and daughter, and Franklin Prentice and his wife. The place where they located became known as Dunham's Grove, which is about 3 miles southwest of Vail in East Boyer Township. They had migrated across the uninhabited Iowa plains in a covered wagon drawn by oxen. They brought cattle and hogs with them and that summer they built a log cabin and plowed some of the virgin prairie to plant corn, potatoes, and other crops. In 1851 Jesse Mason and George and Noah Johnson came to Mason's Grove to settle. Mason's Grove was located about 7 miles northwest of Vail in Milford Township.

The nearest market was at Kanesville (now Council Bluffs) some 80 miles southwest of Dunham's Grove. Once or twice a year these early settlers made the trip by ox team to exchange their farm products for clothing, groceries, and various things needed. It could be as many as ten days before they returned home.

In 1854 John A. Dunham, the oldest son of Cornelius Dunham Sr., came with his wife to occupy the original claim at Dunham's Grove. Later that year John A. died. In 1856 Tracy Chapman arrived at Mason's Grove where he worked as a farm laborer. He later married John Dunham's widow, Celinda. He became a successful farmer and stockman, and took an active part in local affairs. He served as a Justice of the Peace and on the County Board for several years.

Vail Beginnings

It was not until 1867 that the first settlers arrived at what was to become the town of Vail. Thomas Ryan, an employee of the Northwestern Railroad, arrived here that year. He had charge of the section in this area and lived in the section house built at the place where it was hoped to locate a town.

In 1869 Mr. Ryan helped the surveyors lay out the town of Vail. Thomas Ryan was born in Tipperary. Ireland, and came to the United States in 1852. He led a life of adventure and hard work, spending several years steam boating on the Mississippi. During the war, he lived in Michigan, and after the war he entered the employ of the Northwestern Railroad.

The first sign that it was more than a name, was the coming of Dr. James DeWolf, who erected a one and one-half story building, which he used as a grocery store, doctor's office, and a residence. Dr. DeWolf was the town's first physician, first merchant, and for many years the leading spirit of the town.

Dr. James DeWolf was born a Vermont Congregationalist, but in early life he came in contact with Presbyterianism. He received his training in two Presbyterian Academies, one in Hartford, Pennsylvania, and the other in Ohio. Several years after his marriage he moved to Mt. Carroll, Illinois, and later to Clarence, Iowa, where he helped establish a Presbyterian Church.

The Doctor had acquired a pioneer's love for laying the foundations of new communities and in coming to Vail, he had clearly defined ideas of what a well ordered town should have. He and his wife had five children: Mary, who opened and taught the first school in Vail; John, who opened the Citizens Bank; George, one of Vail's leading merchants; Anna H.; and James Jr. The Doctor and his wife remained here until their deaths and are buried in the southeast corner of the cemetery he helped to found.

Vail, First Incorporated Town in Crawford County

It was in 1875 that Vail was incorporated, the first town in Crawford County to do so. In March of that year, Justice John DeWolf went to Denison with a petition, signed in due form, praying for the incorporation of Vail. There were 35 signatures to this petition.

In March 1875 A.S. Rehan had taken the census of Vail and found that it contained over 200 inhabitants. By 1900 census figures show there were 578 residents in the city of Vail.

First Town Government

Shortly after incorporation, the first election was held and the first town officers were: Josiah McHenry, mayor; J.F. Powers, recorder; E.B. Bannister, assessor; J.J. Strahm, James McAndrews, W.W. Anderton, A.B. O'Connell, W. Van Dusen, trustees; and James DeWolf, J.M. Coleman, J.S. Riggs, James McAndrews, and Ward Van Dusen, commissioners. The first meeting of the newly elected officers was held November 4, 1875. A.S. Taylor was appointed marshal and street commissioner. John DeWolf was elected town treasurer.

Since Vail had just emerged from the wilds, action had to be taken on newly created problems. At the first council meeting, several ordinances were enacted for the governing of the town. The brief contents of the ordinances that were passed follows:

1. Establish the kind of boardwalk to be built on given streets. 2. Restrain hogs from running at large. 3. Restrain mules, cows, and cattle from running at large. 4. Deal with taxing of dogs and sluts. 5. Related to saloons and licensing of the same. 6. Related to the keeping of billiards, bagatelle, and pigeon hole tables.

In 1876 Mr. Josiah McHenry was reelected mayor, and all the old incorporation officers were also reelected.

In May 1879 a citizens meeting was held in regard to raising funds to purchase apparatus to fight fires, but this was rejected. In October 1879 the city did purchase three 30 gallon fire extinguishers. The following January a meeting was held in the schoolhouse to form a fire company, and M.R. McGrath was appointed fire captain.

We find reference to the fact that the prohibitory law was strictly observed by the saloon men of this town, for July 4, 1884, was the "driest" ever passed in the history of the town.

In every town the water supply is of prime importance. As early as 1892, numerous citizens of Vail had been urging the city councilmen to submit to a vote of the people the question of establishing a system of water works in the town. However, until 1896, most of the homes were supplied by their own wells which also meant outhouses. In that year, a well was completed which could furnish 12 barrels of water an hour and a waterworks was put in with a tank on the hill where the present water tower stands.

Early Trials and Tribulations

There are always problems and menaces when the land is broken and crops are planted. In the early days, as the land became dotted with homes and small settlements, one of the hazards the people had to contend with was the prairie fire.

Another menace was that of grasshoppers. Soon after the coming of the railroad, the county suffered its first real invasion, which lasted over a period of 4 or 5 years. It was particularly severe in Vail in 1875 and 1878, when the churches were trying to raise money for church buildings. One of the methods the farmers used to fight the grasshoppers was to make a wooden or galvanized iron trough and fill it with kerosene and attach it behind a drag. As they drove across the field, the grasshoppers would jump up as the drag came along, and many would land in the kerosene filled trough and be killed.

One of the first sad accidents occurred in 1876 when Mr. Michael McAndrews was killed by a fall from a fractious horse. This occurred on the Main Street of Vail.

On February 8, 1898, is chronicled a destructive fire at Vail in which the Cranny livery barn was destroyed. Of the livery stock, 13 horses and 5 cows were burned.

In the winter of 1899 Vail was reported to be in the midst of a serious diphtheria epidemic. Schools were closed and no public amusements were allowed. There were several deaths before the epidemic was stopped.

In the early years Vail had floods almost every spring until the river dredge was built.

Fun Times

Each summer a carnival and a chautauqua were held in tents in Paine Park. The Catholic Fair was an annual event in Vail. A March 1892 Observer reports that: "After all accounts have been settled by Reverend Father Murphy, he finds that he has on hand nearly $1300 as a result of the Catholic Fair, lately held in Vail. These being the net figures, they show that the fair, under the circumstances, was a decided success."

Pioneer Merchants and Businesses

Vail experienced a typical western boom town growth. In 1869 it was not much more than a signboard and a house occupied by a railroad employee. By the spring of 1873, an influx of newcomers brought to Vail a number of businessmen: McHenry Hotel; Mooney and Coleman Store; J.F. Powers, furniture store; Strong and Van Dusen, general store; E.B. Bannister, hardware; James DeWolf, postmaster; William Familton, land agent; and Charles Anderton, harness shop.

Among the other pioneer merchants were McAndrews and Lucy, hardware; Barrett Brothers, general store; Watson and Greenough, cattle buyers; T.J. and Theodore Hoffman, A.D. Young, and Columbian Alberts, lumber dealers; and Dr. Ed Darling, physician.

By 1874 several more businesses had been added: a boot and shoe store, two drug stores, blacksmith, two saloons, a meat market, two carpenter shops, and three dealers in agricultural implements. James Wood and John Wilson of Vail started a brickyard three miles south of Vail. Dr. Walker is also mentioned as having a large practice.

The year 1876 showed rapid growth. The roller mill and brewery were in operation, many new sidewalks were added, and 10 to 15 houses were erected during the spring. A house raising in this vicinity was a signal for people to come together and help. It took about one day to raise a cabin with the community helping. These pioneers were anxious to meet new faces, share their experiences, and get the news, as they worked, talked, and ate together on such occasions.

Two businesses that were on the outskirts of town have passed on with the advance of modern technology; the ice house and the sorghum mill. J.W. Gould had a sorghum mill on the northwest edge of Vail, which he operated from the 1880's until World War I. Farmers from miles around brought cane to be run through the mill, which consisted of one large and two small rollers run by horsepower. Cane was crushed to obtain the syrup. Some years when little cane was grown in the area, the mill did not operate.

Joe Rundlett's Ice House was located west of Vail. on the Allen North farm. During the summer months, they supplied area; merchants with ice for their coolers and city folk who needed a chunk of ice for their iceboxes.

As early as 1885 Vail had a brickyard located north of St. Ann's Church. The brick was said to be as fine as any ever made in this part of the state; they are of the best shape and quality, doing great credit to the proprietors, Mr. Mosher and Mr. Britton.

An 1898 Observer ad reads: "Brick for sale in any quantity at from $7 to $8 per thousand. I am also an experienced bricklayer and plasterer, and I solicit your contracts in that line. I guarantee perfect satisfaction. Give me a call. A.D. Servoss."

Vail also boasted of a sawmill in the later part of the nineteenth century. It was purchased by Richard Brockelsby in Minnesota and located near the Brockelsby home in Vail. In 1925 it was moved to the Ray McCullough farm where it operated until 1940.

During the horse era, Vail had four livery barns which were equipped with buggies and horses for the convenience of anyone wanting to rent them. Also one could leave his team to be bedded and fed for a small charge.

A birds eye view of Vail in the year 1890, taken from the Crawford County Observer: "The country surrounding us is all cultivated by first class farmers, who every year bring to our markets hundreds of thousands of bushels of grain besides the large amount of stock that is shipped from here. Today every branch of business is represented. We have six general stores, three hardware stores. two drug stores, two banks (besides Langan Brothers who are transacting an extensive land and loan business), two lumberyards, four grain firms, one flour mill, one machine shop, four blacksmith shops, four agricultural dealers, three hotels, one restaurant, two butcher shops, one barber shop, and three billiard halls, besides one more grocery and billiard hall soon to be started."

Vail markets in 1890 were as follows: wheat 88 cents, corn 19 cents, oats 20 cents, butter 15 cents, and eggs 6 cents.

Early Schools

In a small frame structure located on the hill where the old schoolhouse burned, the first school in Vail was opened in the fall of 1871, by Miss Mary DeWolf (later Mrs. A.L. Strong), daughter of Dr. James DeWolf. At a meeting of the electors in the spring of 1873, it was voted to ask the district township for $800 to build a larger schoolhouse, the building being erected in 1874.

Once again the rapidly increasing population of the village demanded a more commodious school building, so in 1877 a four room building was erected at a cost of about $3,000. The old house was sold and moved down to the main street of town, and a new building was erected in the same location.

St. Ann's School in Vail opened October 6,1890, with an enrollment of 60 students under the supervision of Reverend James Murphy, who was pastor at the time. Four Franciscan Sisters of Dubuque opened the school. A year or so later, the sisters of St. Francis of Clinton, Iowa, established their first mission west of the Mississippi in Vail.

In the year 1891, the Vail Public School honored its first graduating class, which was composed of four young ladies. Members of the class were Theresa Kral (Kelly), Alice Miley (Abts), Nellie Haas (Watson), and Lorraine Shove (Bennett). There had also been one gentleman in the class, Tom Mason O'Brien, who had left school before graduation to take a job. Mr. O'Brien later became the editor of a large city newspaper. The following year, St. Ann's had its first graduate, Anna Murphy.


Histories of four Vail churches can be found in the following site pages:

United Presbyterian Church

Methodist Episcopal Church

Episcopal Church

St. Ann's Catholic Church

First Banks

John DeWolf operated the Citizens Bank in Vail from 1878 until its closing in the panic of 1893. From an 1890 Observer, we find the Citizens Bank offered to its customers, besides general banking services, farm loans, and insurance at lowest rates, deeds, mortgages, leases, and legal papers correctly drawn. Interest was paid on all time deposits, and passage tickets to and from Europe were available.

About 1880 A.A. Leachey and C.E. Price established the Traders Bank in Vail. Later Mr. Price became sole owner, and he later sold the bank to W.A. McHenry, whose family owned a private bank at Dow City and controlling interest in First National Bank in Denison. Sears McHenry was president of the bank when it closed in December 1925.

Doctors and Dentists

Perhaps the "Real Heroes" of the early days were the country doctors, who combined the offices of nurse and physician, of counselor and friend, and who, though limited somewhat by lack of equipment, drugs, and knowledge, did a wonderful job of ushering little lives into the world, fighting against tremendous odds with the black diphtheria, smallpox, and lung fever, the most fatal scourges of the early days.

Such a hero was Dr. M. Fitzgerald, who was here from 1871 to the early nineteen hundreds. Besides being proficient as a physician and surgeon, he was a colorful character who also served as postmaster, county coroner, was an ardent Democrat, owned and operated a drug store, and was a race horse enthusiast. From a 1909 Vail Observer, "Dr. Fitzgerald smote Cheyney Baker on the face Friday night last, and was duly fined five dollars and costs."

The settlements were widely scattered and a call at night to the country doctor, meant perhaps a drive of 15 or 20 miles across the trackless prairie. The streams had to be forded as there were no bridges at the time, and they frequently made their visits by horseback while wolves followed closely, howling fiercely.

Dr. Ed Darling, Dr. James Glynn, Dr. Charles Little, and Dr. J.M. Young were other well known early physicians in Vail. For many years Vail had two or even three physicians at one time. Our dentists were mostly local boys. Dr. Louis Molseed began his practice here in 1903 and continued until his death in 1925. He was followed by Dr. Roger McGrath and Dr. Francis Lally.

Tom Fitzgibbons was a veterinarian in the early years of Vail.

The Newspaper

The Crawford County Observer, as it was known at that time, was founded by G.A.W. Davidson in May 1878. In 1879 the paper was purchased by J. Otto Engstrom who sold it in 1880 to Gregg and Roberts.

The Observer began life as a six-column, four page paper, printed all at home; later it was changed to an eight column folio and ready prints were used. There were several other publishers until 1910 when A.J. Monaghan purchased the Observer from Mr. Vail. Jay, as he was known. will be remembered by many Vail residents for he was editor and publisher for 50 years.


The Central House or Jenkins House, as it was commonly known. was probably the earliest hotel in Vail. It was located on Main Street. Rates at the Central House were $1.00 a day. In 1892 Edison's latest invention, the phonograph, was on exhibition in the parlor on the evening of a dance. Those attending the dance were told to "embrace the opportunity of hearing it."

Other hotels in Vail's history were the Wallace House, and the City Hotel. The City Hotel had as its first proprietor J.L. Brumbaugh. In 1893 Vail was said to be "becoming metropolitan because Mr. Brumbaugh of the City Hotel had employed a colored gentleman as cook".

Probably the most popular and best remembered hotel in our fair city was the Wallace House, erected in 1883. It was situated on the corner of Middlesex and Warrren Streets, (better known as Main Street). There was also the Farmers House on Main Street whose advertisement in the Observer read, "good accommodations for day and week boarders."

The Railroad

Needless to say, the Chicago Northwestern Depot was always a busy place. Very early Observers contain a time table for trains going east and west out of Vail. An 1890 paper lists four trains going each direction in a twenty-four hour period; the one going west at 4:33 a.m. is the only passenger train listed at that time.

Passenger trains soon became a way of life to our ancestors. In reading old Observers, one will find mention of the fact you could ride the train to the July 4 celebration in Denison, or perhaps to the ballgame at Manning, or even up to Lake View to spend the day.

In those days there was a great amount of goods shipped into Vail by rail. Three drays at one time furnished their services to make deliveries from the depot to various business establishments. Fritz Farley, Bart Mitchell, and Mr. Mahoney were among those that rendered that service.

Recollections of an Old Time Resident

The following story about early Vail was told by an old time resident, L.L. Hoffman, who is now deceased.

The depot, which was one of the busiest places in Vail, was located across the highway just east of the Dialoc building. It consisted of a large freight room, a dispatchers room, and waiting room with a large potbelly stove and many seats for people to sit on while waiting for the passenger trains. Many trains came and went in a day. Freight and mail trains brought all things ordered by mail; also, all lumber and coal. On Saturdays the stock trains came through going to Chicago for Monday's market. Other stock trains brought in feeder cattle from Omaha and took the fat hogs and cattle back to Omaha. Passenger trains ran to Omaha and Boone each day and returned the same day. One could get on or off at any town along the way.

At the Vail Roller Mill they bought corn, wheat, and oats from the farmers. Corn meal and flour were made here and the rest of the grain was shipped out by rail or sold to people needing feed. This mill was owned by Tom and Art Adams. All the machinery in the mill was run by steam. Chris Monday was the boiler man. Adam Short ground all the grain with William Brockelsby helping him.

Next to the mill, going east, was the lumberyard. It was a huge building that housed all supplies. Across the highway from the lumberyard was a blacksmith shop, also a garage. Across the street was a post office, mail being hauled by a team of horses. There were two routes, a north and a south one.

The postmaster was Ed Darling and later Lennie Hoffman. Rural carriers were John Gould and Billie McCullough. Next was a harness shop run by Bill Watson, who was also a taxidermist. He displayed many birds and animals in the window of his shop. Next came a saloon and then a place to hold town meetings and some other buildings for miscellaneous use.

Next to the alley was a butcher shop where all kinds of fresh meat was sold. The kids received free wieners while mom shopped. Liver was given away in those days. The butcher would drive through the country with his team and sell meat to the farmers who were tired of canned meat. Next came a pool hall and then George Whiteing's grocery store. Next a dry goods store and then the Farmers Bank. The bank had a room above where motion pictures were shown; mostly continued pictures to keep up the interest.

After the bank came a hardware store, a furniture store, a drug store, Chamberlin's store, soda fountain, Ben Olson's candy store, a garage, and a dentist office. Across the street where the Memorial Hall stood was a large hotel owned by Mannings. The Wallace House consisted of a large kitchen and dining room. The upstairs was all bedrooms. Many travelers spent the nights there and ate meals, too. They also had many regular boarders. The dining room was often cleared, and dances and parties were held.

Next to the Wallace House was Mrs. Maguire's hat shop. She could make a hat for the ladies and decorate it while you waited. Frank Barton's picture studio was next.

On the north side of the highway was a blacksmith shop and a livery stable owned by Chris Larson and Art Gould. A blacksmith shop could take care of the every day needs of the times. They repaired broken wagon wheels, plows, and equipment of all kinds. The livery stable boarded horses, both riding and driving, and also rented out horses. Horses made a good income for them because all horses wore shoes. Shoes had to be reset or made new every six weeks, so they did shoeing for all the farmers' horses whenever needed. All hogs and corn were hauled to town by team and wagon in those days.

The Traders Bank was located where the post office is today. Next came the Ryan and Ratchford General Store. Here you could buy rugs, clothes of all kinds, shoes, and all canned goods. Crackers were in a large barrel and could be purchased by the bulk also beans and pickles were in barrels. Next was a saloon operated by Ted Kenney, then a drug store and soda fountain, a land office, a furniture store, and the telephone office. In front of these places were rails known as hitching posts to tie the horses to.

Across the street going north was a land office, then a shoe repair shop in the home of Tom Powers. Next came the Beck building which was used by the Masonic Lodge members. The Woodman Hall was next. Basketball was played here and both church and private dinners were served in the hall. Graduations were also held here.

Source: Vail Centennial 1867 to 1967.

Our thanks to Tammie Fries of Vail, Iowa, for extracting this history.