Early History of Van Wert

written by RUTH SIMMERMAN.
Prior to the year of 1854, the territory on which the town of Van Wert now stands, was in the midst of an almost limitless expanse of gently rolling prairie, broken only by a small amount of timber that followed very closely the water courses and consisted principally of large trees without the smaller timber and underbrush that prevailed in latter years. On this vast expanse, the blue stemgrass, native to virgin soil, waved in the gentle breeze or furnished material for almost annual prairie fires that swept with devastating effect across the country. This was the natural feeding ground for deer and buffalo and antelope.

Hundreds of these animals were seen by the early settler feeding unmolested, save as some hunter or settler sought to replenish his larder or secure skins and robes for the protection of himself and household against the call of winter.

Prior to the coming of the settlers, this section, as others of our vast domain, was claimed by the red man. Neither did he relinquish his claim without a struggle. Within three miles of Van Wert there is a field that bears even today, unmistakable evidences of a mighty Indian battle, whether with some luckless emigrant train, some daring settlers or some other Indian tribe, will perhaps never be known, but the battle was fought and the Indians moved on.

About this time, the emigrants from the east, attracted by the wealth promised by our fertile prairies, began the settlement of this section, and among others, came JAMES IRVING, a man of culture, who had enjoyed social distinction in his native state, and settled in the year 1854 on the northeast quarter of section 13, Long Creek Township. In this he used his homestead right and paid the federal government $1.25 per acre. A man by the name of LAMBERT TAYLOR secured the homestead right to the northeast quarter of the same section. MR. IRVING built his cabin home a few feet south and west of HARRISON DEVORE's residence. MR. TAYLOR built his near where the GRANT SPENCER house now stands. As the country was being rapidly settled at this time, these two enterprising citizens at once conceived the idea of adding materially to their wealth by locating a town on their lands, and in order to play fair with each other, they decided to open up a new road running north and south between their lands, even though this was not on a section line, and lay out a certain number of lots on each side of said road. This they did and named the town this created, Florence.

Just what sentiment entered into the selection of the name, is perhaps not known by anyone now living. Neither have I been able to ascertain definitely why the name was changed within a few years to Prairieville or Prairie City. Some people claim that those two names were used interchangeably and were applied to the same town during the same period of time. Others thought it was first Prairie City, then Prairieville, still others the other way around. Prairieville and then Prairie City. There came a time, however, when the name because of post office complications, was again changed, this time at the suggestion of ADAM JOHNSON, a then prominent citizen of this little village, to Van Wert. I understand that he wished it thus in honor of Van Wert, Ohio, his native home.

The first post office in this new town was kept by MR. IRVING in his own home. The first store by JAMES TAYLOR, a relative of LAMBERT TAYLOR before mentioned. This store was located in a log building that stood across the street from TEIDJE GARAGE (near where the back of what is now DAVY JONES OIL STATION, and faced the north.) There was another store soon after, located near where MR. OWEN's barbershop now is, operated by GEORGE BIGFORD. Still another on a parcel of ground near where the bank building now stands, but I have not been able to ascertain the name of the first owner.

The first blacksmith shop, a very necessary part of every pioneer town, was erected by an Irishman by the name of GALLAGHER. The shop was located at the extreme south end of the row of surveyed lots and was very near where BILLY FRY now resides. MR. GALLAGHER was followed in this shop by FRANK MEDKIFF, he in turn by FRANK MANVEL, and still later by STEVE IMMS, whom many of our citizens still remember.

At a very early date there was a family by the name of WHITAKER living where the bank now stands. Also one by the name of WALDONS just south of the hotel, and GRANDAD MURRAY, an old bear hunter, lived where B.A. HALL now resides. There also seems to have been two families by the name of WROTH living on the west side of the street and one by the same name where IRA ROGERS now lives.

Among the early merchants of our town, no one name stands out with greater prominence, than that of JOHN GEMMILL, who was for many years the leading merchant of the town. He built the house where BILL FRY now resides and lived there several years before he left for other parts. Next came EPP STONE, a hustling merchant for those times, followed by JOHN TALLMAN and still later by W.F. BLAIR, then a very young man, who operated his first independent store on the corner where the TIEDJE GARAGE now stands, forty odd years ago. Since that time we have had many enterprising merchants, but they are of too recent date to mention here.

Very early in the town's history there camped by the side of the road one night an emigrant by the name of DR. POWELL. The next morning the neighbors were shocked to learn that during the night his little baby had died. This raised the question of a suitable place to bury not only this baby, but all others that death was sure to claim as time went on. At this time MR. IRVING, ever in the forefront, gave one acre of land located in the southeast corner of his quarter section, to be used as a public burying ground. Since that time literally hundreds of bodies, including the body of an Indian woman have been laid away.

After the burial of his baby, DR. POWELL decided to locate here, and his wife taught one of the first, if not the first term of school in this district. The school house stood where CLYDE GOULD now resides and the land on which it stood was donated by MR. STEEN for school purposes. In all we have had four school buildings, the first being a log school house referred to above, the second was a frame building 22 by 28 feet in size, built in 1872 at a cost of $465. The third was built in 1885. On the lots costing $2,700, the present building was erected in 1918 at a cost of $2,100. The last bonds were paid off in April of 1936.

It was a great day when we got our first railroad. This occurred in 1880; in October of that year there gathered an immense crowd of people, some of whom are living still to witness the coming in of the first regular train over the then called Humeston and Shenandoah Road. The crowd then was perhaps never surpassed at the place until years later when Theodore Roosevelt, then President of the United States, spoke to the people who had gathered on the same spot to listen as America's first citizen made his Van Wert speech. Two years later the Des Moines and Cainsville Road was built through Van Wert and located their first depot just west of the main street of today. I ought to mention as of special interest, the coming of our first bank. The bank was started and operated for a short time by MR. SHAW who later sold out to the bank of Van Wert and organized in 1900, "The Van Wert State Bank." This bank operated until 1930.

Christianity has held an important place in our community life. From the very beginning of the town's history there has been an organization of the Methodists and I find that JAMES BLAIR and wife, parents of E.J. BLAIR, were charter members. Before the town was three years old there had been erected by his band of pioneer Christians, a church. This building served the people for many years until the new frame building was erected on the ground where the fine brick structure now stands.

The Christian Church has not so early a history. Just after the days of the Civil War, or about ten years after the first Methodist Church was built, a man by the name of JOSEPHUS PORTER held a protracted meeting in a log building that stood one mile south of town where MR. KLING's orchard now is and at the close of the meeting organized the Christian Church. About two years thereafter, this band in turn built their first church building with which you are all familiar, was dedicated after which it was moved and converted into the present home of MR. and MRS. C.C. WALKER.

The town has enlarged her borders many times. First there was IRVING's First and Second additions, BRANSCOMB's addition, CORBETT's first and second additions. CORBETT also gave the town the beautiful park that we now enjoy. Later there was BAVIS, BLAIRS and THOMPSON's additions. Altogether, we now have the beautiful little town called Florence, Prairie City, Prairieville and Van Wert, your home and mine.

Practically all of this history was taken from a newspaper article written by A.E. PRICE. The article appeared in the Leon Paper May 12, 1926.

First Christian Church was organized 1886, one mile south of town where the KING ORCHARD is, the first house of worship built summer of 1886 on the east side of main street on DR. TALLMAN's lot. This building was moved, rebuilt where the parsonage now stands. In 1914 a new Christian Church was built, and closed April 13, 1969.

Source: The Leon Journal-Reporter, Leon, Iowa, April 25, 1974
Shared by Larry McElwee, Dodge City, Kansas
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