Winnebago County, IA
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Civil law made its appearance as soon as men began to realize that they were dependent upon each other, and that some system of rules was necessary for the protection of person and property—rules that would promote the general interest without trampling upon the rights of the individual.  The legislator and the lawyer therefore made their appearance with the very dawn of civilization.  At first the laws were few and simple and the methods of the primitive courts were doubtless crude as compared with those of modern times.  But as the occupations and business interests of the people became more diversified through the needs of advancing civilization, the laws became more complex and were arranged into codes.

“To establish justice” was written into the Federal Constitution by the founders of the American Republic as one of the primary and paramount purposes of government.  To establish courts through which the safety of person and the rights of property shall alike be securely safeguarded!  The founders of the republic also showed their wisdom in separating the functions of government into three departments—the legislative, the executive and the judicial—the first to enact, the second to enforce and the third to interpret the nation's laws.  States have copied this system and in every state there is a Legislature to pass laws, a supreme and subordinate courts to interpret them, and a governor as the chief executive officer to see that they are fairly and impartially enforced.


When the territory of Iowa was organized in 1838, Charles Mason, who lived in Burlington, Iowa, was appointed chief justice; Joseph Williams, of Pennsylvania, and Thomas S. Wilson, of Dubuque, associate justices.  Upon these three men devolved the duty of holding court at such places as their presence might be required, anywhere in the entire territory.  It would be an arduous task for three judges to attempt to hold court and settle all the disputes in Iowa now, but in 1838 there were only a few settlements along the eastern border.  All three of these judges continued on the bench until Iowa was admitted into the Union in 1846.  Judge Mason was the first chief justice of the State Supreme Court until he resigned in June, 1847, when he was succeeded by Judge Williams.


When Winnebago County was created in 1851, it was placed in the Fifth Judicial District, which included practically all Northwestern Iowa, and of which Cave J. McFarland was judge.  No provisions were made for holding court in the county, for the reason that at that time it had not a single white inhabitant.  Judge McFarland retired from the bench about the time Winnebago County was settled, and about the same time the state was redistricted for judicial purposes, Winnebago being included in the Fourth Judicial District, of which Asahel W. Hubbard, of Sioux City, was elected judge in 1857.  Before Judge Hubbard had an opportunity to hold court in Winnebago County the state was again redistricted and the county was made a part of the Eleventh Judicial District, which was composed of the counties of Boone, Franklin, Hamilton, Hardin, Marshall, Story, Webster, Winnebago and Wright.

John Porter, of Hardin County, was the first judge of the Eleventh District.  He was born in Washington County, Pennsylvania, April 14, 1828, and passed his boyhood there, working on a farm or in a mill during the summer months and attending the public schools in the winter seasons.  At the age of eighteen years he began teaching in the common schools and followed that profession for about three years.  He then entered the law office of Todd, Hoffman & Hutchins, one of the leading law firms of Warren, Ohio, where he studied for several years and in 1854 was admitted to the bar.  The same year he located at Plymouth, Indiana, and practiced there for two years, when he came to Iowa, first locating at Mason City, but later removing to Eldora.  In 1858 he was elected judge of the Eleventh Judicial District and remained on the bench until 1866, when he resigned to engage in the practice of his profession.

Judge Porter presided at the first term of the District Court ever held in Winnebago County, in June, 1859.  The records of that term were burned and the oldest record of the District Court in and for Winnebago County is that of June, 1862.  Judge Porter also presided at this term.  The grand jury for the term was drawn from the following list:  E. A. Ames, John S. Anderson, H. S. Botsford, Darius Bray, A. P. Harper, David Lentz, Charles Lutz, Augustus Oulman, John Oulman, David Secor (foreman), Eugene Secor, Charles D. Smith, Samuel Tennis, George W. Thomas and B. F. Wellman.

The following citizens of the county were summoned as petit jurors:  John H. T. Ambrose, John S. Blowers, J. K. Boyd, Charles Church, James Church, Robert Clark, J. H. Day, George Lackore, Hudson Lackore, James Lackore, William Lackore, James Pinckney, C. A. Stedman, Edwin Trumbull and Simon Trumbull.

In 1864 the Twelfth Judicial District was created, consisting of the counties of Bremer, Butler, Cerro Gordo, Floyd, Hancock, Mitchell, Winnebago and Worth.  William B. Fairfield was elected the first judge of this district and began his judicial duties on January 1, 1865.

Judge Fairfield was a native of New York, where he was educated, studied law and was admitted to the bar.  At the time of his election to the bench he was practicing law at Charles City, the county seat of Floyd County.  He is remembered by old attorneys as a man of commanding appearance, well educated, thoroughly versed in the law, but one who “liked to take things easy.”  He lacked much of that reserve which so often distinguishes judges.  In 1870 he resigned his position on the bench and engaged in the banking business at Charles City, in which he continued until his death some years later.

George W. Ruddick, of Bremer County, succeeded Judge Fairfield.  He was born in Sullivan County, New York, May 13, 1835.  His early education was acquired in the common schools of his native country, but at the age of fourteen years he entered an academy at Chester, Ohio, where he studied for one year.  He then read law with A. C. Niven, of Monticello, Ohio, and in April, 1856, graduated at the Albany Law School.  Upon receiving his diploma from that institution he was admitted to practice in the courts of New York, but decided to try his fortunes in the West.  In July, 1856, he located at Waverly, Iowa, and quickly established himself in practice.  The Circuit Court was established by the Legislature of 1868, and in the fall of that year Mr. Ruddick was elected one of the circuit judges.  When Judge Fairfield resigned in 1870, Judge Ruddick was appointed to the vacancy by Governor Merrill and continued to serve as district judge until 1892.

Porter W. Burr, of Floyd County, succeeded Judge Ruddick and began his official term in January, 1893.  He was a good lawyer before going upon the bench and made a capable judge, but he declined a second term, preferring to engage in private practice.  In 1897 he was succeeded by Jefferson F. Clyde, of Mitchell County.  That Judge Clyde was a good judge is evidenced by the fact that he was reelected in 1900, 1904 and 1908, serving four full terms of four years each.  His successor, Millard F. Edwards, of Butler County, was elected in November, 1912.

As there have been two judges in the Twelfth Judicial District since 1886, a word of explanation as to how this was brought about may not be amiss.  The constitution of 1857, Article V, Section 1, provides that:  “The Judicial power shall be vested in a supreme court, district court, and such other courts, inferior to the supreme court, as the General Assembly may, from time to time, establish.”  Under this authority the Legislature of 1868 created a tribunal known as the


The act establishing the Circuit Court provided that the State of Iowa should be divided into two circuits.  Harvey N. Brockway, of Hancock County, and George W. Ruddick, of Bremer County, were the circuit judges whose jurisdiction extended over the Twelfth Judicial District.  In 1870 Judge Ruddick was appointed district judge, as already stated, and Robert G. Reiniger, of Floyd County, succeeded him upon the circuit bench.  When Judge Brockway's term expired in 1872 no successor was elected, the circuit after that time having but one judge.  In 1884 John B. Cleland was elected to succeed Judge Reiniger.  His home was at Osage, Mitchell County, where he had been engaged for several years in the practice of law before his elevation to the bench.  He served until the Circuit Court was abolished by an act of the Legislature.

At the general election on November 4, 1884, the people of the state ratified the following constitutional amendment relating to the judicial department of the state:  “At any regular session of the General Assembly, the state may be divided into the necessary judicial districts for District Court purposes, or the said districts may be reorganized and the number of districts and the judges of said courts increased or diminished; but no reorganization of the districts or diminution of the judges shall have the effect of removing a judge from office.”

Pursuant to the authority conferred by this amendment, the Legislature passed the act abolishing the Circuit Court, which act was approved by Governor Larrabee on April 10, 1886.  That act also divided the state into eighteen judicial districts and provided for two judges in the Twelfth District.  Judge Cleland, who was then circuit judge, was appointed as the second judge in the Twelfth District and served until the general election of 1888, when John C. Sherwin was elected as his successor.  Judge Sherwin was a resident of Mason City, Cerro Gordo County, and was a man of exceptional ability.  He served as district judge until November 7, 1899, when he was elected one of the judges of the Iowa Supreme Court and was succeeded as district judge by Clifford P. Smith, of Cerro Gordo County.  Judge Smith was in turn succeeded in 1908 by Joseph J. Clark, of Mason City, who was reelected in 1912 and again in 1916.

A third judge was added to the Twelfth District by the act of 1898.   Charles H. Kelley, of Charles City, Floyd County, was elected to the office, which he has held continuously by reelection since that time. At the beginning of the year 1917 the judges of the district court for the district were:  Charles H. Kelley, Millard F. Edwards and Joseph J. Clark.


Prior to 1886 the district or prosecuting attorneys held their office by appointment.  The following amendment to the fifth article of the state constitution was adopted by the voters of the state at the general election on November 4, 1884:  “Section 13, The qualified voters of  each county shall, at the general election in the year 1886, and every two, years thereafter, elect a county attorney, who shall be a resident of the county for which he is elected, and shall hold his office for two years, and until his successor shall have been elected and qualified.”

Under this provision the following have served as county attorneys of Winnebago County, the year in which each was elected also being given:  C. L. Nelson, 1886; C. H. Kelley, 1892; Andrew Miller, 1896; Oliver Gorden, 1898; T. A. Kingland, 1904; G. H. Belsheim, 1908; Homer A. Brown, 1910 (to fill a vacancy); L. A. Jensen, 1910 (for a full term); Thomas Boynton, 1916.


The law is a jealous profession.  It demands of the judge on the bench and the attorney at the bar alike a knowledge of the law, a respect for the rights of litigants, and a conscientious effort to interpret rightly the laws of the land.  Within recent years the courts have come in for some caustic criticisms because of what seems to have been needless delays, and a great deal has been said in the public press about “judicial reform.”  The lawyer has been made the butt of ridicule by some of the great novelists, but it should be borne in mind that many of the really great men in our national history were lawyers.  John Marshall, one of the early chief justices of the United States Supreme Court, was a man whose memory is revered by the American people and his opinions are still quoted with confidence by members of his profession.  Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston and James Monroe, who negotiated the Louisiana Purchase and gave to their country an empire in extent, were lawyers.

Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Thomas H. Benton, Salmon P. Chase, Thomas M. Cooley, Stephen A. Douglas, and a host of other eminent Americans wrote their names upon the pages of history through their knowledge of the laws.  Their loyalty, patriotism and love of justice cannot be questioned.  And last, but not least, stands the name of Abraham Lincoln, self-educated and self-reliant, whose consummate tact and statesmanship saved the Union from disruption.

While Winnebago County has never produced a lawyer whose fame has “startled the nation,” the members of the local bar have always been equal to the task of handling the litigation that has come before the District Court.  In the early history of the county there were not many cases in the courts and the early lawyers frequently engaged in some other line of business in connection with their professional practice.  A majority of them were politicians and were occasionally called upon to serve the public in some office, the salary of which helped them to “tide over” until such time as there was more business for them to handle as attorneys.

The first lawyer to locate in Winnebago was Jeremiah Murphy, or “Jerry,” as he was commonly called, who located at Forest City about the time the county was organized in 1857.  He is said to have been a good lawyer for that period, witty and sarcastic when occasion demanded, and never hesitated to use any means to win.  He has been described as “considerable of a sport,” always wore a white plug hat and carried a cane.  To add to his income he gave a great deal of attention to the real estate business.  He left the county after a residence of about one year and it is not known what became of him.

J. K. Boyd, the second resident attorney, came to Forest City in 1861.  He served for a short time as county judge and also kept a hotel.  A good story is told of “Judge” Boyd, which illustrates the resourcefulness of the man, though it reflects but little credit upon his profession.  It seems that A. B. Tuttle, later a resident of Mason City, had some orders that had been issued by the Forest school district and had sent them to Boyd for collection.  At that time the revenues of Winnebago were somewhat meager and the authorities found it easier to issue orders than to pay them.  Boyd collected some of the orders, but failed to remit to Mr. Tuttle.  Failing to receive satisfactory replies to his letters, Mr. Tuttle came to Forest City to find out what was the matter.  Boyd admitted that he had collected a portion of the money due on the orders, but his bill for fees amounted to more than the total sum collected.  When Tuttle protested he was met with the remark:  “You know, Mr. Tuttle, we lawyers must live,” and the client departed without receiving a cent of his money.

DeWitt C. Hayes opened a law office in Forest City in 1867.  He was a native of the state of New York, where he received an academic education and was for a time engaged in the grocery business.  He then went to Wisconsin, where he became interested in the law and practiced some in the inferior courts.  Returning to Watertown, New York, he studied in the office of Brown & Beach for about a year, when he was admitted to the bar. In the fall of 1866 he came to Iowa, locating at Charles City and forming a partnership with Starr & Patterson, but the next year he came to Forest City.  He was a sharp, shrewd lawyer, quick to see a point and take advantage of it, and was generally successful in the conduct of his cases.  Soon after locating in Forest City he formed a partnership with Martin Cooper, under the firm name of Hayes & Cooper.  This partnership lasted about a year, when Mr. Hayes went to Floyd County and purchased a farm.  A little later he gave up the law entirely and devoted himself to his agricultural interests.

Martin Cooper, who is mentioned in the above paragraph as a partner of Mr. Hayes, came to Forest City soon after the close of the Civil war.  In 1869 he was elected county superintendent of schools.  He was a careful, painstaking lawyer and practiced in the county for at least a quarter of a century.

D. T. Gibson, a native of Chautauqua County, New York, where he studied law and was admitted to the bar, began practice in Forest City in the spring of 1870.  He had been there but a short time when he was persuaded by W. C. Stanberry to remove to Mason City.  Still later he went to Waverly, where he formed a partnership with E. A. Dawson, under the firm name of Gibson & Dawson, which became recognized as one of the prominent law firms of Bremer County.

T. C. Ransom came to Winnebago County about the same time as Mr. Gibson.  He was born in Hartford County, Connecticut, September 22, 1824.  A few years after his birth his parents removed to Litchfield County, where he attended school and learned the shoemaker's trade.  Soon after attaining to his majority he began the study of law with Hiram Goodwin, and finished his legal preparation under O. H. Pratt, afterward United States senator.  He was admitted to the bar in 1859 and soon afterward came to Iowa, locating first in Clayton County.  Early in 1870 he came to Forest City, where he established himself in a paying practice.  In 1877 he was appointed prosecuting attorney for Winnebago County and held the office for three years.  For some time he was the senior member of the law firm of Ransom & Olmstead.  Mr. Ransom is deceased and his former partner, W. W. Olmstead, is now living on the Pacific coast, retired from active practice.

C. L. Nelson, the first lawyer to be elected to the office of county attorney under the constitutional amendment of 1884, was born near Christiania, Norway, March 13, 1846.  When about six years old his parents came to America and settled in Wisconsin.  Four years later they came to Winnebago County, locating a farm in Norway Township.  Young Nelson attended the common schools and later studied in the Decorah Normal Institute, where he fitted himself for a teacher and followed that occupation for several years.  In 1876 he was appointed deputy sheriff under Peter Lewis and became interested in the law.  He studied under Ransom & Olmstead and was admitted in September, 1878.  In 1886 he was elected county attorney and held the office until 1892, Mr. Nelson is now living at Ballard, Washington, where he holds some minor public office.

W. A. Chapman was born near Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1842.  While still in his childhood his parents removed to Canada, where he lived until reaching his majority.  He then came to the United States and taught school for several years in New York and Illinois and in 1873 located at Lake Mills.  Three years later he was admitted to the bar and built up a satisfactory practice.  In 1875 and again in 1889 he was elected county superintendent of schools, a position for which his former experience as teacher gave him special qualifications.

Other attorneys of by-gone days were:  J. T. Lattimore, Henry W. Ames, John Dunbar, A. H. Chase, E. F. Thompson, J. T. Kean, J. D. Leland and W. C. Harwood.  Mr. Lattimore was a native of Pennsylvania; studied law with Judge Wilbur in Mason City, and after practicing for a time in Forest City became connected with the Forest City Bank.  Henry W. Ames came to Forest City in 1871 but remained only a short time.  John Dunbar was admitted to the bar at Forest City in 1875, practiced there for about two years, and then went to Cedar Falls.  After practicing there until 1879 he returned to Winnebago County and engaged in farming.  Mr. Chase was admitted on a certificate from the State of New York, but turned his attention to journalism and was for some time editor of the Winnebago Summit.  J. T. Kean practiced at Lake Mills from 1880 to 1882, when he went to Washington City and took a position in the office of the adjutant general.  J. D. Leland was for a time in partnership with W. H. Fisher, when they moved to Leland.  W. C. Harwood was a member of the firm of Pickering, Hartley & Harwood, of Northwood, Minnesota, and took charge of the branch office of that firm at Lake Mills when it was established in 1879.  All these old lawyers are either dead or have moved away, but most of them left the impress of their characters upon the legal history of the county.


A recent docket of the District Court gives the following list of Winnebago County attorneys at the beginning of the year 1917: Forest City—J. E. Anderson, Homer A. Brown, Oliver Gorden, J. E. Howard, L. A. Jensen, J. M. Jensen, Alan Loth, George Osmundson, Burt J. Thompson and J. F. Thompson; Lake Mills—H. H. Dorland and T. A. Kingland; Buffalo Center—Thomas Boynton and B. L. Sifford.  Of these attorneys, J. E. Anderson, J. E. Howard, and J. F. Thompson are not engaged in active practice.  The law firms of the county are Gorden & Osmundson, Jensen & Jensen, and Thompson, Loth & Sifford.

A History of Winnebago County and Hancock County, Iowa. Vol. 2.  Chicago:  Pioneer Publishing Company, 1917.  179-87. Print.

Transcribed by Paul Nagy