Winnebago County, IA
USGenWeb Project







The Winnebago County Agricultural Society filed articles of incorporation August 4, 1887 “'for the improvement of agriculture, horticulture, mechanical arts, and rural and domestic economy.”  The purpose of this society was to hold an annual fair in Winnebago County.  The first officers were: Eugene Secor, president; J. J. Otis, first vice president; Andrew Charlson, second vice president ; P. O. Koto, secretary; O. A. Olson, treasurer; R. N. Pomeroy, Buffalo; L. O. Dahlen, Center, Lars J. Flo, Eden, L. M. Mayes, Forest, B. B. Ketchum, Grant, P. J. Hugelen, King, O. B. Jewett, Lincoln, I. J. Kessey, Linden, T. J. Folken, Logan, William N. Higginbotham, Mount Valley, Edward McGreevey, Newton, H. S. Larson, Norway, S. Simmons, Forest City, board of directors.

This society was reincorporated February 10, 1900, as the Winnebago County Fair and Agricultural Society, with P. O. Koto as the first president.

An association similar in nature to the above was the Forest City Park and Fair Association, which filed articles of incorporation June 23, 1898 “to promote the interest of agriculture, horticulture, mechanical industry, and arts of science, to hold expositions and fairs, to offer and award premiums for the improvement of stock, tillage, crops, etc.”  The company, or association, was capitalized at $10,000 and M. C. Wheeler was the first president.

That the various associations formed for these purposes have had plenty in the way of material may be judged from the crop reports of Winnebago County, which show the products of the county to occupy a high place, both in quality and quantity.  The crops of the county as shown by the state Census of 1915 are as follows:

Clover Seed
Flax Seed
Timothy Seed
Wild Hay
Other Forage


Horses and Mules
$   948,751
Milch [sic] Cows
5,590 lbs.
$    1,216 value
219,434 fowls
95,849 value
Dozens of Eggs
150,503 value
Dairy Products
382,494 value
Live Stock
Dairy Products
Total Value

In comparison with the above table, showing the figures upon the products of the county, the table of assessments again proves the financial stability of the county.  The assessment for the year 1916 follows:

Buffalo Township
$ 372,475
Center Township
Eden Township
Forest Township
Grant Township
King Township
Lincoln Township
Linden Township
Logan Township
Mt. Valley Township
Newton Township
Norway Township


Buffalo Center
$ 164,681
Forest City
326 ,274
Lake Mills
     102 972
Money and Credits
Grand Total


On a pleasant June morning, in the spring of 1859, in company with John Lamm, an old settler of Winnebago County, I started from Mason City, on foot, to look for the first time upon the land of the Winnebagoes.  My traveling companion had resided for some time at Forest City, which was also familiarly known by the name of Puckner Brush.

About half way upon our journey we were confronted by a marshy slough not then bridged, and known as the “big slough,” which was swollen by recent rains.  My genial and accommodating companion, wishing to initiate me by degrees into the hardships of frontier life, kindly offered to land me on the other side dry shod if I would jump on his back.  The invitation was accepted with thanks.  Since that time I have often, when passing the place in company with others, used this circumstance to make a pun and create some amusement by stating that I once rode across that slough on a lamb's (Lamm's) back.

We reached Forest City about sundown, somewhat weary after our walk of thirty miles.  We expected to return to Mason City in a few days, and concluded to return by water by navigating Lime Creek.  We therefore constructed a raft of black walnut and butternut boards at the saw-mill, and made our return trip on this raft, which contained about three thousand feet of lumber.  Mr. Lamm acted as captain, and the writer as second mate.

We loosed our moorings just after dinner and glided smoothly over the placid waters of Lime Creek, until we reached Elk Grove, where we tied up for the night and enjoyed the hospitality of a settler by the name of Stiles.

The next day we reached a point about two miles north of Mason City, where we shipwrecked our craft on a rock.  Being so near the place of our destination, we left the raft for the night and hauled the lumber in by teams the next day.  The wild ducks and geese, which at that time were very abundant, surprised at the sight of such strange objects floating down the stream, would arise in their fright and fly rapidly away.  On the morning of the second day the first mate accidentally let his pocketbook drop in the stream, observing which the brave captain plunged boldly into the water and rescued the first mate's wealth before it vanished from sight.

In the early settlement of the county all enjoyed equal social rights and privileges.  There was no aristocracy in those days, and fashions had not found the way to these western wilds.  To convey some idea of the simple manner in which life was enjoyed, it may be well to state that we were so fortunate as to find accommodations with a company of seven persons, who slept in a small building on a pile of shavings, and there, seven in a row, with shavings for our bed and pillows, we enjoyed peaceful and refreshing sleep.  A steam saw-mill had been built at an early period in the history of the settlement, and it was of great benefit to the community in furnishing boards and lumber for houses, and also enabled them to make rough tables, benches, bedsteads, etc.  It was our privilege to commence housekeeping with furniture made by our own hands.

The Winnebago Indians were quite numerous when the first white settlers came to the county.  The Sioux Indians came in occasionally.  There was a deadly enmity existing between these tribes, and when they met, as they would occasionally, there was music in the air, and a sanguinary conflict would follow.

The Indians were in the county more or less until the year 1862, when they were driven away by the United States Government on account of their taking part in the bloody massacre at New Ulm and Mankato, Minnesota, and at Spirit Lake, Iowa.  At this time there was a great excitement throughout this part of the country.  Many people fled to the older and more settled portions of the state.  The first news of the massacre reached the settlement by refugees from Minnesota who arrived at Forest City about 2 o'clock at night, and gave the alarm.  The people being aroused from their slumber at dead of night, and being told of the massacre and that the Indians were upon them, were intensely excited and some fled.  Those remaining at once organized for protection and sent out scouts to watch for the Indians.  The scouts returned and reported that the Indians had been driven back and the excitement soon passed over.

The Indians were quite adept in playing games with cards, and were ready to play with the whites for whiskey or money.  During the games there were always some innocent appearing Indians about, not indicating that they were paying any attention to the game, but who in fact would see what cards the white man held, and by secret signs would communicate that knowledge to their red brothers, who took part in the game.  If the whites were not posted in Indian tricks, they were quite sure to be euchered [sic].

The first white settlement was made in the county in 1854 and 1855.  Philip Tennis, George Thomas, John Maben and Thomas Bearse were the first to settle in the county.  Others soon followed.  Philip Tennis was killed by the Indians in 1863 on the Sioux River, where he had gone for the purpose of trapping for fur.

Mr. Bearse removed from the county many years ago.  Many amusing incidents are told of him, only one of which we will relate.  It was during the time of the war of the Rebellion, that he came to town one morning, somewhat excited, and stated that we would soon hear of one of the greatest battles of the war, for he had that morning seen the smoke of battle in the south.  The person with whom he was speaking laughed at him and told him he could not see the smoke of battle that far, when he promptly replied,  “I did see the smoke, and furthermore, I smelt powder.”

In 1857 a postoffice [sic] was established at Forest City, with Robert Clark, postmaster, and in 1858 a mail route was secured from Clear Lake to Algona, by way of Forest City, with Joseph Hewitt, mail carrier.  Previous to this the settlers were required to go to Mason City for their mail and indeed the first settlers received their mail at Cedar Falls.  At this time there was no flouring mill nearer than fifty miles, and the earliest settlers were obliged to go to Cedar Falls, a distance of one hundred miles, for flour.  Previous to 1860 the nearest market for grain and pork was McGregor and Dubuque, and with wheat at forty cents a bushel, and dressed pork at two cents a pound, a load would not pay the expenses of a trip to market.  As railroads pushed westward the distance to market became gradually shortened.  Many strange experiences were had by the early settlers in getting to and from market.  On December 2, 1856, one Alexander Long, in attempting to reach a neighboring settlement, was caught in a snow blizzard and frozen to death.  His body was not found for several weeks.  These trips were frequently made with ox teams, as but few were able to afford horses.  My first team was a yoke of oxen.  “We once drove an ox team to Independence to market, a distance of 130 miles, or 260 miles for the round trip.

Some amusing things have occurred in the history of the county.  The standard of religion and morality was not of the highest type, and the early preachers were not always received with that respect usually accorded to those in clerical robes.  The first preacher that filled stated appointments was an itinerant Methodist minister, by the name of Hankins, who traveled a circuit of some fifty or sixty miles, and who had to all appearances been a rough character before he experienced religion.  He traveled his circuit with an old horse and buggy.  While preaching at Forest City he had offended some of the worldly minded people and, in order to retaliate, some wicked son of Belial suggested the idea of taking the burs off his buggy.  The suggestion met with favor and the burs were removed from the axles of the buggy.  He hitched up his horse to make the next appointment without discovering what had been done, and started off at his usual gait, but had not proceeded far before a wheel ran off and let him down.  He returned with the old Adam fully aroused and would have administered severe physical punishment had he discovered the guilty party.

Soon after this a preacher was holding services in Forest City one night, when some wicked boys took a donkey and placed him in the entrance of the building where he was preaching, and by torturing the poor brute induced the donkey to sing one of his songs.  The preacher hearing the music, and taking in the situation at once, remarked, “I have heard of the devil going about like a roaring lion, but tonight he he [sic] has come in the form of a braying ass.”

In 1862, a man, by name Scrogin, was traveling through the county on foot, and becoming footsore and weary took a horse, without leave, owned by Samuel Tennis, that was running at large on the prairie near Forest City.  He rode him several miles and then let him loose, supposing he would return home.  The horse was missed the next day, and John S. Blowers, in company with another settler, started in pursuit.  Mr. Blowers was sure scent when after a horse thief and soon struck the trail, which he followed until he captured his man.  Mr. Blowers had an old revolver of the style called the pepper-box, which he was careful to load before starting.  When following up the trail they came upon a skunk, which he endeavored to shoot with his pepper-box, but found that he could not discharge either barrel, and like a “dead Injine” his revolver was no go.  The thief was overtaken in the northern part of Wright County and Blowers leveled his revolver on him and commanded him to surrender.  Being confronted with so deadly a weapon, and thinking discretion the better part of valor, he gave himself up and returned to Forest City.  District Court had been in session in Forest City, but had just adjourned.  Court was held in the county only once a year.  The following week court was held at Mason City and the prisoner was taken there in order to have trial in that county, at that term of court, if possible.  In order to give the court jurisdiction it was necessary to show that the horse had been taken by Scrogin into or across the county.  The facts are that he did not take the horse within several miles of Cerro Gordo County, but the prisoner did not relish the thought of remaining in the county jail a year, and wishing to have a speedy trial, he told the judge that he passed through that county.  This seemed to give the court jurisdiction, and he was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to the penitentiary at Fort Madison for a short term.  The following amusing circumstances in relation to this case is [sic] given on the authority of Old Timber Wood, who at that time practiced in the courts of the district and was the prisoner's attorney.  The officer who had taken the prisoner to Mason City was anxious to take him to the penitentiary, and was permitted to do so.  It was before the time of railroads, and took several days to make the trip.  The officer started with the committment [sic], prisoner and shackles.  At night they slept together, and in order to present escape, the prisoner was shackled to the officer.  Before reaching Fort Madison, the prisoner somehow managed to get possession of the committment [sic], and when they arrived at the penitentiary he promptly handed it to the warden and represented himself as the sheriff.  Appearances were somewhat in his favor, and the sheriff was promptly locked up and the prisoner walked leisurely away.  The sheriff was obliged to send for friends to identify him in order to get released.

In the early settlement of the county game of all kinds was very abundant, and while the writer was never much of a hunter he feels inclined to relate a chicken story.

In the fall of 1862 there was a crop of buckwheat on Block 95 in the south part of Forest City.  The prairie chickens soon found it and were destroying the crop very rapidly.  The writer, thinking the chicken crop was about ready to harvest, left his place of business one afternoon, after school was dismissed for the day, and went to the buckwheat patch with a double-barreled shotgun, for an hour's sport, and reached the place just as the chickens were flying in for their supper.  He at once opened fire, but getting somewhat excited, unfortunately put shot and wads in both barrels of the gun before charging it with powder.  This caused no little trouble and delay, and he could only spend time to draw off one barrel and thereafter used only one barrel in shooting.  Notwithstanding the misfortune with the horn in charging with shot before he did with powder—nineteen nice prairie chickens were slaughtered and bagged before sundown.

Not far from this time, wishing to have some fun at duck shooting, a trip down Lime Creek was made one afternoon, and thirty ducks killed and brought back as trophies.

The following snake story is given on authority of Amos Chilson.  Several years ago, within the limits of Forest City, and near the north part of town, on a pleasant spring morning, Mr. Chilson saw several snakes crawling about and on looking around he found the place, or den, from which they came, and opened battle on them.  He killed those in sight and then commenced digging at the mouth of the den—slaughtering the snakes as he dug.  The winter frost had not been thawed out of the ground and he soon found his digging intercepted by the frost.  He therefore abandoned his digging, but on counting his prey he found that he had killed seventy-three good sized snakes.  In relating the story he remarked that he “would have done much better if the frost had been out of the ground and it had been a good day for snakes.”

Previous to the year 1865 there was but little attention paid to farming, owing principally to the distance from market and the great expense in transporting the products of the farm to the markets of the world.  The population of the county in 1865 was only 298.  In 1869 the population had increased to 1072; in 1870 it was 1572 and in 1880 about 5000.  From the settlement of the county the year 1865 a majority of the settlers expected to make their living by holding township and county offices, or by hunting, trapping or trading with the neighbors.  Money was scarce and they used in its stead county, bridge, school house and road orders.  Many county and township jobs were let at fabulous prices.  The result was that these orders were sold as low as forty cents on the dollar.  The low price of the scrip was overcome, however, by a liberal allowance for the services performed.  All persons elected to office were expected to appreciate the honor conferred on them by treating liberally over their election.  It would not do to neglect this important requirement and if one went home without meeting this popular demand, he was liable to be waited upon by a committee who would inform him that his presence was desired, and that he was expected to provide such refreshments as their several appetites craved.

As railroads approached nearer, the inhabitants began to pay attention to agricultural industry.  New settlers came in and the virgin soil, that had remained in the state of nature for ages, was brought under cultivation and produced bountiful crops.

With industry came habits of temperance and morality.  Churches and school houses were erected, and social rights and religious privileges equal to those of counties in the older East were established.


The following items are quoted from the Winnebago Summit of December 21, 1882:  “We received a very pleasant call this morning from Mr. Thomas Bearse, who was the first actual white settler of this county. Philip, son of Samuel Tennis, came here in 1854 to hunt and trap, and he induced Mr. Bearse, who was then living at Rhode's Mill, to come up with his family and locate in Winnebago County.  Mr. Bearse came in the spring of 1855, and built a log house on the east side of Lime Creek, in the edge of the timber, nearly on a line directly east of Forest City depot.

“In May of the same year Mr. Bearse had an encounter with a bear, near Bear Creek.  He went out at this time, taking along his rifle, and saw a bear.  The bear was not near enough to shoot at, and was finally lost to sight.  In returning home Mr. Bearse saw two bears that were coming toward him.  He got behind a large poplar tree, and waited until one of them came near enough to shoot at, when he discharged his rifle, sending a ball through the animal.  The bear continued to advance, and gathered up a handful of leaves to staunch the wound in his side, the same as a person would do under similar circumstances.  When the bear reached the tree, behind which Mr. Bearse stood, he climbed up it a short distance, but weak from the loss of blood, fell back on the ground.  Mr. Bearse drew his knife, and as he was engaged in cutting the throat of the wounded bear, its mate came up behind him, and putting his paws around him, began hugging him in good old fashioned bear style.  In the struggle which took place the bear struck the knife out of Mr. Bearse 's hand, which left him to contend with bruin single handed.  He finally found a piece of burned limb, and struck the bear across the face with it, knocking him down, and then the bear ran off.  Mr. Bearse was quite severely scratched in the struggle with the bear, but not seriously hurt.

“Mr. Bearse continued to reside in the county about twelve years, when he removed, but later returned to make his home in Norway Township.

“Among other things he talked of were the Indians, who used to roam over this section.  The Winnebagoes had their agency about forty miles north of here, up in Minnesota, and used to frequent this section to hunt.  The Sioux who were located still farther north, and the Winnebagoes were deadly enemies, and when the latter came here to hunt, the former used to follow them and try to kill them.  On one occasion ten Sioux Indians came to Mr. Bearse 's house, but went away without doing any harm.  On this same occasion this same crowd killed a Winnebago at Clear Lake, shooting him off a horse, and then cutting his head off and carrying it away to be scalped.  At one time while Mr. Bearse was living at Forest City, Eagle Eye, a Sioux chief, who was pursued by his enemies, the Winnebagoes, took refuge in his house and was protected by him and the pursuers driven away.

“Those were the days when deer were plentiful in this section, and Mr. Bearse says that he and Mr. Tennis have had as many as 300 at one time hanging up in the woods.  These animals were killed for their skins and their careases [sic] were left for other wild animals to feed upon.”


When the first settlers landed in Winnebago County, and for several years afterwards, there were several bands of Indians, Winnebagoes, who made this their home.  Their number varied—at times there were fully one hundred, again but a handful.  During the summer they would bury their pots and kettles in the ground, and leaving their teepees standing, would go forth into Minnesota to hunt and trap, returning in the fall, laden with the spoils of the chase.  For the most part they were harmless and seldom attempted violence.  They were, however, meddlesome and inclined to thievery, and often caused the settlers much annoyance.  But when such was the case, three cool, brave men could go into a camp where fifty Indians were collected, and invariably get back the stolen articles.

At one time Robert Stephens and family left their home to visit John S. Blowers, about a mile distant.  In the middle of the afternoon Mr. Stephens returned home alone, and on reaching his house found the door broken open, and on examination discovered that a number of trinkets and provisions had been stolen.  He at once returned to Mr. Blowers’ and related what had happened.  They decided that the depredation had been committed by the Indians.  Accordingly, Frank Byford, Blowers, Stephens and John Furney started for the Indian camp to reclaim the stolen articles.  They went to Porter, the head chief, and demanded that the loss be made good.  After a brief consultation among the Indians the blame of the theft was laid to Black Pigeon who offered to give a blanket and new gun to settle the difficulty.  This offer was accepted by the whites, who then demanded some traps that had been stolen some days previous.  These were also returned.  As the whites were about leaving the tepee, an Indian by the name of Toshanigan attempted to push by them through the entrance.  He had a gun partly concealed beneath his blanket, and his looks betokened mischief.  Porter, the chief, suddenly said, in a tone of warning, “Be careful, Toshanigan is angry.”  The situation was at once taken in by the whites, and Stephens, wheeling upon the Indian, grasped the muzzle of the gun and shoving him back into the tepee said, “By G-d! if you don't put up that gun and sit down, I'll cut a hickory and give you the worst hickorying you ever got."  Toshanigan sat down, and the whites went away unmolested.  The Indians were by no means desirous of having a war with the whites, and the settler who preserved a calm, determined bearing among them was never harmed.

Philip Tennis was sitting before his fire one wintry night partly undressed, when suddenly the door was burst open and in dashed a half dozen Indians.  They were intoxicated, and at once made for Mr. Tennis, showing signs of hostility.  He promptly met them, knocked one over into the fire, then leaped through the door out into the night.  The Indians searched for him in vain; and they soon left, venting their disappointment in howls and whoops of rage.

They were very fond of liquor, and would use any means to get a pint of whiskey.  One by the name of Dick Sharo came to John Blowers’ mill one time, and offered to give him a bear skin for a pint of whiskey.  Mr. Blowers said that he did not have any whiskey.  But the Indian insisted and finally Blowers said, “Where is your bear skin?” The Indian replied, making a motion with his hands and feet as though the bear was still running, “Ugh! me kill um—me kill um, morrow.”


In a letter to the Winnebago Republican, March 12, 1917, Mr. J. F. Thompson, who came to Forest City in 1872, wrote:  “Your information of the burning down of the Barton store building and the Masonic Hall (March, 1917), along with the other two buildings on the north, pains me much, for with the going of the Barton store and the Masonic Hall, many fond remembrances of happy days and events had by me many years ago, go with it.  This building had just been completed when I landed in Forest City in July 1872, and was the only brick building then in the city except the residence of Judge Clark, my father-in-law, which stood where the Hotel Summit now stands or rather where the remains of that once magnificent hotel stands.  The brick schoolhouse located on the stand-pipe hill had burned down the winter before, and in the spring of 1873 I was employed by the school board to teach the Forest City public school in the basement of the old Barton building just burned and you can well understand, therefore, why I am pained to hear of its destruction by fire.

In its basement I organized the Forest City public school and had as my pupils many of the old time boys and girls, some of whom still remain, but most of whom have gone—either to their home above, or moved away.  I can recall the names of but very few of my pupils, in that old damp, dark basement school room.  In fact, no names now come to my mind of those still living there, except Mr. Ed. Pinckney, who with his brother Edwin and sister Mary, attended, as I now recall it to mind.  But those were happy days to me, and I am sorry that the old building is no more.

I took active part for many years in the Masonic order, whose home was in the hall above the store, and I had the honor of being Master of the Lodge.

The summer of 1873, the school board had erected the old brick school house on the site where the former High school building now stands, and in the fall or winter we occupied it.  I was the first Superintendent (or Principal, we called the office then) of the High School in that new school house, which was torn down when the frame building now there, was erected.

I organized the school that fall with three departments; [sic] primary, intermediate and high school.  I cannot call to mind my two assistant teachers.  I was offered the principalship of the school for the next year and urged to take it, but declined, as I wished to go to the state university at Iowa City to finish my course and also the law course in that institution, which I did and graduated from the university in the Class of 1874.

Besides the Barton building there were three other stores.  My brother, J. Thompson, had a store where Mr. Pinckney's drug store now is; Mr. Pinckney's father conducted a drug store where Mrs. Babbit's store stands.  J. W. Mahoney had a store and the post office in the Hewett store building, where the north part of the First National Bank building now is, and there was a store building at or near the Secor Block.  That was the town at that time, except Mr. Blennerhasset had a drug store where your fine new office now is.

There were no churches in the town, no school house, no lumber yards, no railroads, and in fact, nothing but the stores above mentioned, and a small frame building where Clark's Jewelry store now is, and where E. L. Stillman at that time conducted a small hardware store.  I have seen Forest City grow from almost nothing to the fine small city it is now, with its paved streets, its fine school buildings, and churches, Waldorf College, magnificent stores, banks and dwellings.  You can therefore imagine why I feel sorrowful to learn of the Barton building and the Masonic Hall going up in flames.  It is quite the last one of the old landmarks of Forest City and soon too, the last of we old builders will pass away, there being now left of us, only Messrs. B. A. Plummer, Eugene Secor, W, O. Hanson, Brother Jasper and myself.  We old timers did the best we could, however, to lay the foundation for the fine little city.  More than thirty years ago we fought the saloon out of the town and you can now feel proud, you younger generations, to know you walk on sidewalks not built—not one foot of them—by the saloon tax or license money.  No child born or reared in Forest City now thirty years old or under, [sic] has ever seen a saloon in our beautiful little city.

All can well feel proud of its fine college, churches, school buildings and other public and private buildings.  I have been in every county of our grand old state of Iowa, having lived therein now a few months less than 60 years and I have traveled over quite a good deal of the United States, Canada and Old Mexico, and I want to say, and I say it advisedly and truthfully, there is no town of its size that I have ever seen that excels the beauty of location, environment, organization and lay out of buildings and parks of Forest City.

And the civic center of our school houses and college in a few years will be the pride of all, and the wonder of those who visit our town, and you can well be proud of the fact, that with myself and a few others like Senator Boe, you thought out the idea and fought the apparition until it became an actual fact, and your work in connection therewith was most commendable and worthy of this recognition.

A History of Winnebago County and Hancock County, Iowa. Vol. 2.  Chicago:  Pioneer Publishing Company, 1917.  205-17. Print.

Transcribed by Paul Nagy