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Iowa and the Nation

By George Chandler, Author of Practical Civics and Civics for the State of Washington


John L. Cherny, State Inspector of Schools, Department of Public Instruction Des Moines



 Transcribed by Elaine Rathmann





Chapter III


Civil Township



            Civil Township. We have learned that the congressional township is merely a tract of land six miles square, and that it was created of the purpose of locating land. The civil township, on the other hand, is the unit or basis in local government. Every county is divided into several civil townships, and each township is named.


            Township names were given by the early settlers, and often in honor of some prominent member of the first company of settlers that entered the township. Many counties in Iowa were settled about the time the Civil War began, and in those counties such names as Lincoln, Douglas, Liberty and Union are common. The boundaries of a township may be the same as those of a congressional township, but very often a civil township is formed from parts of two or more congressional townships. This often occurs when the congressional township is divided by a river. The early settler established the civil townships to suit their own convenience, and in some counties but few of them have the same boundaries as the congressional townships.


            To the people of Iowa, the civil township is a very important division. Comparatively few state and county officers are needed, but there is scarcely a county in the state that does not have at least 400 officers whose duties are confined to the civil township. A large part of all the money raised by taxation is expended in the township under the direction of its civil and school officers.


        The civil township is nearly a pure democracy, that is, a government carried on the by the people directly, rather than “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people” exists in its truest sense. It is here that the people meet at stated times to determine how their local government shall be carried on.


            Activities of Township Government. The activities or functions of a township government in Iowa include:

1.      Holding elections

2.      Repairing highways

3.      Listing property for taxation

4.      Equalizing taxes

5.      Relief of the poor

6.      Caring for township property

7.      Protection of public health

8.      Protection of persons and property


Township Officers. The officers of a civil township are:

3 trustees

1 clerk

1 assessor

2 justices of the peace

2 constables


These officers are elected by the people and serve two years. A fine of five dollars is imposed upon any one who, having been elected to a township office, refuses to serve, but no one can be compelled to serve two terms in succession.


            Contested Elections. If the defeated candidate has good cause to believe that the election was unfairly conducted, he may contest the election and have the ballots recounted.


           Trustees. The township trustees have many important duties to perform. They decide upon the place of holding elections, levy taxes for township purposes and act as a board of review in equalizing assessed valuation. They constitute the board of review in equalizing assessed valuation. They constitute the board of health of the township, act as fence viewers, overseers of the poor, and judges of election. The three trustees are chosen at each general election for a term of three years.


            The regular meetings of the trustees are held on the first Monday in February, April and November of each year. At the April meeting they estimate the amount of property tax to be used in improving highways and purchasing plows, scrapers, and material for building and repairing bridges. With the exception of listing property for taxation they have charge of all the activities of the township government.


            Public Highways and Property. The trustees have charge of all the public property in the township. They are custodians of building s and lands belonging to the township, and have charge of cemeteries which are not under the supervision of some private society. There is a growing sentiment in favor of “community halls” where the people of the township may meet for social, educational, cultural, recreational and political purposes. Such halls would be a desirable extension of public activity and would do much to make rural life more attractive, to only to men and women, but to the thousands of boys and girls that are annually drawn to the cities because of their cravings for just such opportunities. In some states such community halls are part of the public property of the township, and there is no doubt that this movement will spread to Iowa. The public property, however, which at present demands most of the attention is the township roads.


            Most of the work on township roads is under the authority of the trustees, who appoint a road superintendent to direct it. All able-bodied male residents of the township, between the ages 21 and 45, are required to perform two days’ labor upon the highway annually or pay the equivalent. In addition to this road poll tax, the trustees levy taxes upon the taxable property of the township as follows: (a) road fund, for the purpose of improving roads, purchasing plows, scrapers, et.; (b) drainage fund, for the purpose of draining roads; (c) drag fund, for the purpose of dragging all mail routes and main-traveled roads, the township being divided by the trustees into road-dragging districts and a superintendent appointed to have charge of this work in each.


            All township roads together with the less important county roads constitute the secondary road system of the state, and residents served by any such roads may petition the board of supervisors to establish a road improvement district. Good roads in such districts are constructed under the authority of the county, one-fourth of the expense being borne by special assessment on the farms directly benefited, one-fourth by the county road funds above named…


             Relief of the Poor. The trustees of each township are the overseers of the poor, and shall provide of the relief of such poor as should not, in their judgment, be sent to the county poor farm. The cost of providing for the poor is always borne by the county, whether they are cared for at the county poor farm or are supported directly with money, food or clothing in their homes. The poor are provided for at public expense only when their near relatives have not sufficient means to support them; and upon failure of relatives of sufficient wealth to provide support, the trustees may apply to the district court for an order to compel them to do so.


     No persons who have served in the army or navy of the United States, or their widows or families, requiring public relief, shall be sent to the poor house, when they can, and prefer, to be relieved to the extent provided by public charity. The state is especially charitable to the soldiers and sailors who have served in the army or navy during any war. Any such person, who dies without sufficient means to defray burial expenses, shall be buried at public expense, and shall not be buried in that part of a cemetery that is used exclusively for the burial of paupers. Any person receiving public charity must first gain a “settlement,” that is, he must have lived in the county a year. A person who has not gained a settlement is provided for temporarily until an order is obtained from the district court to return him to the county or state from which he came…


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