Railroad Fever

Part two

Small industry was being established in the county. At Little Rock the cheese factory made 9,805 pounds of cheese between May 17 and September 1. It used the milk from 60 cows in the operation, and the cheese was mainly sold at St. Paul where it brought 9 cents a pound.

Crops were reported to be real promising, but the problem of the poor was immediate. A special tax of 2 mills on the dollar was ordered by the board of supervisors to build a poor house.

The Rock Rapids Silver Cornet band was coming along very well. It entered competition at the Sheldon fair and won the first prize of $40.

At the start of October Dr. W. H. Budge, who operated the drug store, performed post mortems on cattle and treated the sick, announced that he would be leaving the community for a period of some months. He was going to Keokuk, where he would attend medical lectures, so he could get a medical degree.

The second week of October a blizzard struck northwest Iowa that proved very bad. The storm was listed by old-timers as the worst since the winter of 1873. Many head of stock died in the storm.

The solid hold of the Republicans on the politics of the county was promised a challenge when Democratic electors of the county were called to a meeting at the courthouse to form a political organization. It was the first time that anything but a Republican organization had appeared in the county.

On October 20, 1880 the Review reported that much building was going on in the new community. The editor said that if all the new structures were put together it would make a building 335 x 200 feet in size.

Another sign of growth and the desire for status symbols was evident in Rock Rapids. J. W. Blosser, the barber, received 20 shaving mugs, with the names of individual customers on each mug. It was announced that another 29 such mugs had been ordered.

Frequently mentioned in the old Review files was the need for a furniture store in Rock Rapids. In November such a store was started, with C. H. Smith and I. I. Burgett as proprietors.

On November 10 the Rock Rapids Bank published its first statement of condition. The bank had been opened earlier in the year. The statements showed assets: Loans, $43,177.10; building and fixtures, $3,100; due from other banks, $10,571.35; expenses of $844.59; overdrafts, $98.04; and cash $1,210.08. Liabilities listed by the bank were Capital, $25,000; deposits, $26, 271.01; bills payable, $4,500; undivided profits, $3,210. Footings were $58,981.92.

With the 1880 elections out of the way, the editor reported that the Republicans had swept all of the offices, Garfield had been elected president and all of the northern states were in the hands of the G. O. P.

December brought a new crisis for the young community. There was a serious fuel shortage. Shipment of coal had been slow and other forms of fuel were in short supply. Many of the business houses, as well as homes, had to resort to burning corn for heat. Wm. Gardner, on December 15, reported that he had received a shipment of five cars of coal, which it was said would relieve the situation for a time.


Mid-December, the Close Brothers announced that they would break large tracts of land in 1881, and they bought 5,000 bushels of flax for seed to put on the newly broken acres. There was grumbling about the "big landowners," Close Brothers, Mr. Carter, and Mr. Fell, who, it was said, were responsible for the slow growth of the county, because they held so much of the land. The writer pointed out that there ought to be a farmer on every quarter section of land. He did say that the big owners were hiring considerable help.

Fortunately the early day newspapers gave detailed reports of events of the period. The following story tells of progress of the year 1880.

That the speculators had a big part of the land in Lyon County is borne out by reports that the Close Brothers English investors owned 160,000 acres in Lyon and Osceola Counties. During the 1881-1882 period the Close Brothers built 115 houses in Lyon County. They were busy during the winter of that year making contracts for breaking the land that they owned to get it into crop production.


With the start of 1882 Rock Rapids had another paper started. It was the Lyon County Reporter, which was edited by J. E. McNamara. McNamara, incidentally, was a Congregational Church pastor.

On February 1, 1882 another meeting was held at Rock Rapids of all the people who were working for the construction of an east-west railroad through Lyon County. Reports given at the meeting were that the Northwestern was building West through Dickinson County at the time.

Stark news came the middle of the month when John Lannahan, who lived on the Little Rock River was murdered. According to the reports he had been at a farmers meeting and came home. He sat down to read, with his back to a window. He was shot through the head.

Investigation of the Lannahan murder was immediately started. One of the daughters had rushed to a neighbors home and told the story of her father's death. It was a first believed that some stranger was responsible-shooting from outside the house.

Details of the shooting were mixed up and finally one of the daughters broke down and admitted that her sister had fired the shot which ended Lannahan's life. The mother, daughters, and a boy friend of one of the young ladies were involved in the affair.

The crime caused an immediate problem as to what to do with the family until trial could be held. First they were brought to Rock Rapids and lodged in a hotel-later they were transferred to the home of Deputy Sheriff McCallen for safekeeping.

In April surveyors for the Spirit Lake and Western Railroad worked through Osceola County and reached the Lyon County line. There were all kinds of rumors about who was really back of the company-the Northwestern Railroad was credited with the work by some, while others said that Close Brothers were putting up the money for the work. Both denied any connections with the surveying.

On July 22 of 1882 it was announced that Dr. A. Mcnab, of Luverne, would move to Rock Rapids to establish his medical practice here. He also bought the Budge Drug Store, to be operated in connection with his medical practice.

Another man, who was to play a big part in the future of Rock Rapids, came to Rock Rapids in July to start a legal practice. He was E. C. Roach, who came from Prairie City, and people of that community and of Newton, were loud in their praises of Roach as a lawyer and as a citizen.

The editor of the Reporter commented that Rock Rapids now had 11 attorneys and seven doctors. In that list was a new doctor, Dr. Coghlan.

On July 22, McNamara reported that Close Brothers had broken 6,000 acres so far in 1862-and that they expected to match that in the coming year, bringing a great amount of land in the new county under cultivation.

New industry was being praised for its progressive attitude, and Mr. Partch, who had started a creamery two months previous was given a fine write up of his product and production. It was said that he had sold 10,250 pounds of butter during the two months period. Great hopes were held for the future of the business.

There was much to-do in Lyon County the summer of 1882 over two measures under consideration in the state. Both of these measures called for constitutional amendment-one to prohibiting the sale of liquor in the state and the other to change the constitution so that there would be no discrimination against anyone on account of their sex-in other words give woman the vote. Final action was taken on the saloon matter and the word went out that the saloons would have to close.

Much agitation in August and September for the incorporation of the town of Rock Rapids resulted in the filing of a petition with the district court, which ordered the election held on October 30. There was much interest evidently from the news reports of the campaign. However, when the election was held-the vote was "no." The editor of the Reporter commented that this ended the matter for two years-but he expressed great regret that the people had decided against incorporation. He said in his story "If we were incorporated the dilapidated condition of our sidewalks would be remedied, the low brothels that are located almost in the heart of the town would be unceremoniously disposed of, the large piles of refuse that are now so conspicuous in the by-streets and alleys would all disappear.

The saloons had the word and both Rock Rapids' liquor dispensaries closed their doors-at least the editor of the paper thought this was a good thing for the town.

In October another item told of the arrival in Rock Rapids of H. B. Pierce, a young enterprising lawyer, and C. J. Clark, who came from Ida Grove. They opened an office for Buxton & Clark, of Ida Grove, and immediately became very prominent citizens.

The November general election went off about as expected with the Republicans carrying off all the offices. A total of 172 votes were cast in Rock Rapids-of that number 126 were for Republicans and 44 for the Democrats.

Evidently the editor's complaints about sidewalks had some validity, as late in November O. P. Miller, the community's young and aggressive banker proposed to the council that he would buy the lumber and help build a sidewalk from the depot to the main business intersection, if the town would cooperate on the project. The matter was taken under advisement.

December of 1882 brought the verdict in the murder trial of Mrs. John Lannahan and her daughters for the murder of the husband and father earlier in the year, at their farm home on the Little Rock River. The mother and the older daughter, Maggie, were each sentenced to life for the crime and the younger daughter was given a sentence of ten years. The cost of bringing the women to justice was over $15,000, reporters stated. This was because a jail had to be built, and there was high court costs-an argument as to just what the various costs were followed-with it being finally stated that the jail cost about $10,000 and the trial about $5,000.


As the years passed Rock Rapids continued to grow, more people came to live here, and children were born. From 1875 to 1877 a schoolhouse had been built, and it was fully adequate to the needs of the pupils enrolled from the district. Growth of the community changed all this and by 1883 there were 175 students enrolled in the Rock Rapids schools and school facilities were not adequate to take care of them.

Another sign of community strain was from the danger of fires. Fires in any pioneer area are serious and Rock Rapids was suffering many fires-bad ones-and there was little or no fire protection. Several times efforts had been made at organizing a fire company, but the efforts had been only partially successful because there was no fire fighting equipment-except the pails that everyone brought when a fire broke out-the axes and other home tools which could be used.

A serious fire was reported at Doon on January 6, 1883. The engine of the Omaha Railroad, after its daily run to Luverne and back, had been put in the engine house and the fire drawn. Early the next morning it was discovered that the engine house was on fire. Efforts were made to get the engine out of the building-and the volunteers did get it moved a little ways, when the flames spread so much they had to give up. The building was listed as a complete loss and the railroad sent another engine to pull the fire-damaged unit at Doon to the shops for repair. The loss was set at $1,000-and train service was temporarily shut down.

That same week a bad fire took place in Rock Rapids which completely destroyed the home and household furnishings owned by County Superintendent A. H. Davidson.

Late in January a land sale was consummated that set a new high for the price of Lyon County land. John Gurney and his wife sold section 23, township 99, range 48, to an Englishman, Henry Lewis Noel. The section brought a fabulous price-10.078 pounds, 13 shillings, four pence. This was over $50,000 and it brought wide comment as being far and away ahead of sales which had been made in the past. This land is about halfway between Larchwood and Inwood, in Centennial Township.

Railroad talk in 1883 was still a major subject. The community felt that it was being held back because there was no direct east-west line through the area. In early April a meeting was held with the promoters of the Spirit Lake & Western Railroad, which had surveyed a line through here earlier. They had been promised help, and were being urged to get to work. The company representatives promised that there would be a line built through Rock Rapids before the end of the following year.

There was also much agitation for the construction of a line to the southeast and it was agreed that money would be raised in the community for a preliminary survey through the county, for a line to run from Sac City to Sioux Falls. This was supposedly backed by the Wabash Railroad. The line would run, it was said, from Sac City to Sheldon, through Rock Rapids to Sioux Falls. At least the preliminary survey was made.

There had been lots of snow and spring rains and the rivers were very high. In early May the Rock went on a rampage and as a part of the damage done, took out a major section of the lower milldam. This put Berkholtz' lower mill out of operation and put a heavy load on the north mill, in serving the people of a large area. It was announced that as soon as the water dropped work on rebuilding the dam would get under way.

Another bad fire struck Rock Rapids a telling blow early in June. Then early in the morning fire was discovered in the creamery operated by E. H. Partch & Sons. The blaze was out of control and the whole creamery plant was destroyed. Worst of all, the supply of ice which had been put up the winter before, for creamery use, was melted-and could not be replaced until another year had passed. The Partch's said the rebuilding would not be attempted until the following spring.

Industrial expansion was sought by the young community at every opportunity. Late in July a meeting was held with C. A. Eadie and H. M. Wallace. The men offered to open a tow mill in Rock Rapids, if the community would cooperate. They asked that four acres of land be provided, not more than a half mile from the depot. They also asked that the community build a 100x30-foot building for them, to be paid for when the mill got into operation. The mill they planned would have six brakes and would be powered by a 25 H. P. engine.

This mill became operative and was successful for a number of years. The mill took the flax straw which was largely a waste product, ran it through the brakes, and baled the resultant fibers. This was mostly shipped to Racine, Wisconsin where it was made into cordage.

The mill was located east of what is now North Union Street, and just north of Moon Creek.

Fall brought out the usual political wrangling-and charges were made that the "bank gang" was trying to get control of things. There were two banks and two newspapers in the young community, and the community was pretty split up over every issue that arose along the bank-newspaper lines.

Throughout the fall the Reporter was constantly encouraging farmers to plow fire breaks, and to be very careful that prairie fires did not get started. There were many such fires-and a bad one got started early in December northeast of Rock Rapids. In that fire hundreds of tons of stacked hay and grain was destroyed before the fire was brought under control, but not until it had burned over hundreds of acres.

Lyon County was growing up-Rock Rapids was almost 15 years of age, when Van Wagenan and McMillen edited the 1884 volume of the Lyon County Reporter. Both were lawyers-and politicians and most of their journalistic efforts were devoted to expounding on the virtues of the Republican Party-and talking about the party's great leader-Blaine, who they were sure would be elected as President of the United States that fall.

But politics aside, the new community was growing and seeking new residents all the time. One of the newcomers in February was another medical man. Dr. A. M. Vail came up from Red Oak and looked the community over. He decided it had great promise, so he moved here to establish a practice.

That same month there was talk and planning about how to get additional railroads to build through the community. Late in February a delegation came down from Sioux Falls to talk to the "Board of Trade" (in those days that was about the same thing as a Chamber of Commerce.) They wanted to build up enthusiasm for a line to run through Lyon County to Sioux Falls. They were especially interested in getting action from the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern. This road had made a lot of promises about extending their lines, but little was accomplished. In the delegation from Sioux Falls were R. F. Pettigrew, C. E. McKinney and H. L. Hollister, all names that were to play a big part in the progress of Sioux Falls for the rest of the century.

Social events were becoming more and more frequent and other attractions were popular. Early in March of 1884 work was started on a skating rink-and people of the community evidently were looking forward to the opening of the rink. Facetiously, we're sure, the editors of the Reporter said that O. P. Miller's home, which had the largest kitchen in the community, was the scene of daily roller-skating
practice-between the meal hours. Also it reported that J. I. P. Thompson always went to the roof of the Lyon County State Bank and practiced roller-skating between 2 and 3 p.m. The rink opened on March 13-the admission charge was 10 cents (for spectators) and 15 cents for those who wanted to skate. The charge was the same whether the skater had his or her own skates, or when the rink's skates were used.



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