The History of Keokuk County, Iowa



The first sheriff of Keokuk county was George W. Hayes. He was a very eccentric individual, and some of his peculiarities, as exhibited during the days of his official dignity, are cleverly delineated by one who then knew him:

"In weather hot or cold, wet or dry, he always wore the insigna of his office in the shape of an old blue blanket overcoat.

"To see him the first time was to know him at any other time or place. We had occasion one day to place in his hands a subpoena in which several persons were defendants. To avoid the repetition of all their names, we added, as is usual after the first name, the abbreviation, et al., meaning, also others.

"In the course of a week, Hayes returned the writ, declaring that neither he, nor any other of the witnesses he had notified, were acquainted with or knew anything of this man et al."

Some time in the spring of 1847 there was a political meeting at Lancaster for the purpose of appointing delegates to a congressional convention. The meeting was held in a new building being erected by Whisler and Mitts, for a store room, and was attended by about twenty-five persons. About the close of the meeting a shower of rain came up, attended with vivid lightning, and terrific thunder. One bolt came down, striking the front end of the house where the meeting was assembled, killing two men and a horse. Joshua Bennett, one of the persons killed, was standing just beside the door, and between it and the counter; Charles Payton, the other one, was standing somewhat on the other side of the door, holding a large horse by a chain halter; some were seated on the counter and others on benches; others were standing up, and one gentleman within a foot of Payton. There was no warning, no getting out of the way, no refuge or flight from the lightning shaft. One terrible crash, mingled with the sound of breaking of window glass, and a sulphureous odor was the first thing realized. Bennett and Payton gently and slowly sank to the floor, and for the first minute or two their eyes indicated perfect mental intelligence, but breathing had ceased, and the fire of mortality had gone out. Every effort known to those present was resorted to for the purpose of restoring them, but to no purpose, and in fifteen minutes they were quite livid.

One of the characteristic features of Lancaster in early days was its liberty pole. It was erected by a man of the name of Allen, who had been a seafaring man. The pole was one hundred feet high, and was made to represent the main-mast of a ship. It had four platforms at various elevations from the ground, and these communicated with each other by means of rope ladders. In 1855 the top blew off, and finally the pole was cut off at the base. Many readers will remember this pole, and the mention of it will call back to their minds many fond recollections of that wonderful little town, which once played such an important part in the history of the county.

In early clays the mail facilities were not what they now are; even in the more populous sections of the country, and in the chief metropolis of the nation, were the facilities much inferior to what they now are at any ordinary railway station in the far West. The first mail received at Sigourney, February 7, 1845, consisted of one paper for Wm. B. Thompson, one paper for S. A. James, and some post-office blanks. The mail-carrier was John H. Bragg, who made semi-monthly trips from Washington to Oskaloosa, via Sigourney. There were no postage stamps used, the amount of postage being marked on the letter, which amount could be paid either by the person sending the letter or the one receiving it. The postage on an ordinary letter was five, ten, twelve and a-half, twenty-five, and thirty-seven and a-half cents, according to the distance sent. Letters would sometimes be months in reaching their destination, and then when they did arrive the person to whom they were directed would have great difficulty sometimes to raise enough money to pay the back postage. Gen. James A. Williamson, at present Register of the General Land Office at Washington, and formerly of this county, averred at an old settlers' meeting, held at Sigourney a few years since, that in those days he walked twenty miles to borrow twenty-five cents in order to lift a delicate missive from his sweetheart in Indiana.

In the summer of 1845 Dr. B. F. Weeks located in Sigourney. He was a bachelor, nearly forty years of age. In his earlier days the course of true love did not run smooth, and a cloud seemed to hang over him. His intimate friends were few but warm. He had first studied law in the East, and then came to Illinois. Whatever his love affair was, it evidently caused a change in the whole course of his life. He changed his life programme, came to Iowa and studied medicine. After corning to Sigourney he had a very successful practice. On the 16th of July, 1846, he was taken suddenly ill at the house of Maxon Randall. A son of Mr. Randall came to Sigourney for Mr. James, who was soon at his bed-side. The latter says that he found him calm and composed, but firm in his opinion that he would not long survive. At the earnest solicitation of Mr. James, a messenger was sent for Dr. Stone, who resided in Washington; but at a quarter of one the same afternoon, being fully conscious, and with a prayer upon his lips of "Lord, receive my spirit!" he breathed his last.

In the winter of 1851 and '52, the typhoid fever made its appearance at Lancaster. It baffled the skill of the best physicians, and quite a number of deaths ensued; among them were John Baker, at that time county judge, and B. P. Shawhan, county recorder. The next winter it reappeared with equal fatality, and after selecting its victims as suddenly disappeared. In the summers of 1854 and 1855 the cholera visited Lancaster, and proved fatal in many instances. During the summer of 1855 exaggerated reports of the sick and dead list were circulated, producing so much alarm that scarcely a farmer ventured into the town for weeks after it had subsided. For all these diseases there was apparently no local cause, the town being on a high, rolling prairie, and no stagnant ponds anywhere in the vicinity.

One of the first merchants of the county, and the first to engage in business in Sigourney, was B. F. Edwards. He was an old bachelor; had habits of great economy, and gathered up all the nails, buttons, bits of old iron, pins and the like. The under side of his coat lappel was always literally padded with pins. When the feet of his socks would not bear any further darning, he would cut them off and lay by the legs, and to such an extent had he saved these, that he actually obtained the cognomen of "Sock-legs." In the autumn of that year he sold out and migrated to or near St. Louis.

A. W. Blair, the first attorney in Sigourney, came over from Oskaloosa in the fall of 1844, preferring the former place because of the competition, two lawyers having already located at the latter place. He was a short, heavy set young man, with a good brain, somewhat cultivated, but came to our place greatly discouraged by poverty and the "chills," both of which clung to him all winter. He was a native of North Carolina, and how he ever got out of the limits of the State where the summit of ambition is to say "gimme chaw tobacker," has never been found out. But he had somehow drifted to Bloomington, Ind., attended law school, and was really well qualified to become a lawyer. His location here, however, at that time, looked as unpropitious as the building of a steam saw-mill in the middle of a large prairie. He remained long enough, though, to cut out considerable timber.

When the Mexican war broke out Blair went to Mexico, and for a year was a cavalry scout along the frontier, on the Rio Grande. Returning, he purchased, with the assistance of Dr. Lowe, of Burlington, an outfit for the "Fort Des Moines Star," the first newspaper published in Des Moines; but before the first number of his paper was issued, and in the early part of the year 1849, he was carried off by an epidemic fever then sweeping over the country, and with a half-dozen other young men went overland to the then newly-discovered gold fields of California. He left his press in charge of Barlow Granger, which eventually fell into the hands of Curtis Bates, formerly of Iowa City, a very good man, who was afterward the first of that successive line of thirteen defeated candidates for Governor, beaten by James W. Grimes.

Blair finally settled down at Watsonville, a town about fifty miles south of San Francisco, where, if he had permitted it, he might have been elected to Congress. A few years ago he removed to Reno, Nevada, where he now probably resides. He never married, but continued to be the life of social gatherings; almost a lady's man, and delighted to put himself on easy and familiar terms with all the school-children.

A short time prior to the election in August, 1845, late in the evening "a solitary horseman might have been seen" slowly wending his way toward the capital of Keokuk county. He had been bewildered and missed the direct route from Oskaloosa to Sigourney, and was none other than Gen. Lowe, afterward Governor of the State, who was then canvassing the State as a candidate for delegate to Congress against A. C. Dodge, of Burlington. An audience to justify an extensive speech could not be obtained on such short notice, and the few who did gather together had to content themselves with a general war talk from the candidate, and on leaving the next day he left the people very much pleased with his graceful manners and frank deportment.

While the first court-house was being built in Sigourney, a young man appeared at the clerk's office and obtained that paper which permits to be united in one two willing hearts. He departed with all the joy beaming through his face that a gold digger might expose when approaching a rich placer. On the next day he suddenly returned, with face wan as Adam when walking out of Eden; he had lost his pocket-book containing his marriage license, and after long search had returned to know what could be done. Thompson was present, and, giving the clerk a wink, as well as a twinkle of the eye, at once took up the conversation. He informed the young man that he had known of one case, and had heard of two others of the same kind; that the only course left him was to go to Bloomington and before Judge Williams make affidavit of the loss, upon which the judge would send an order directing the clerk to issue another.

Upon this announcement the mercury in the young man's face fell at least twenty degrees. Tears came to his relief, and in most doleful accents he shadowed forth the disappointment to be caused by the delay; they were to be wedded on the following day, and, beside, before his return many of the good things of the table might be spoiled or badly damaged. Such, in fact, were his feelings that the clerk was constrained to interpose, and agreed to take the responsibility of a re-issue. Thereupon Joel Landreth, afterward Rev. Joel Landreth, left the clerk's office the second time inspired by high hope of conjugal bliss.

Transcribed by Pat Wahl. Thank you, Pat!


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