Forest City


Forest City has always been a community of idea people. “Forest City was literally cut out of a forest,” said Riley Lewis, a Forest City resident with keen interest in community history.     In 1855, the first settler, Thomas Bearse, lived where East Woods is now located, on the east bank of Lime Creek, now the Winnebago River, said Lewis, a member of the Winnebago Historical Society. Bearse’s main occupation was trapping and hunting. In one hunting escapade, he was attacked by a black bear and survived.   “That’s why we have Bear Creek,” Lewis said.

Robert Clark, who came to the actual town site in 1856, is usually remembered as “the father of Forest City,” according to Centennial Sketches, a book published for the 1955 celebration and reprinted with an addendum for the town’s 125th anniversary in 1980.   Clark platted the town and purchased the site from the government a year later. When the county’s government was established, he was the first judge. He also became the first postmaster in 1857. Forest City’s main street is named in Clark’s honor.  

Many of those who settled Forest City came from the northeastern states, Lewis said. Many were speculators, people whose families had settled the east who wanted to settle a new frontier. Others were frontiersman like Bearse, Lewis said. At the onset of the Civil War in 1860, there were 169 county residents, Lewis said. Twenty-nine volunteered to fight for the North. “After the Civil War was over was when you saw most of the Norwegians, Swedes and Germans” emigrate, he said.  

From the late 1860s to the early 1900s, there was a significant influx of northern European emigrants to North Iowa, he said. Emigrants from Sweden and Norway settled in the Forest City area because the topography was similar to that of their native countries, Lewis said. The first school classes were held in a one-room house on L Street in the 1850s, according to the book, “Centennial Sketches.” Sarah Beadle was the first teacher. Forest City became the Winnebago County seat in 1858, according to Centennial Sketches.

The city was incorporated in 1878.   Aggressive community leaders successfully encouraged the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad to come to Forest City, Lewis said. “It was just a milestone in 1879,” he said. “The books say there was a real celebration.” Jasper Thompson, who came from the eastern states, was one of the community’s earliest entrepreneurs, Lewis said. He was involved in banking and government.

By the 1890s, two passenger trains a day stopped in Forest City, Lewis said. The Flax Palace, a three-story, 150-foot-long ornate building adorned with flax, corn, barley and wheat, was built next to the rail depot (where Casey’s is now located). “It was for tourists” and in a sense played the role of welcome center, Lewis said.  

While people of Lake Mills petitioned the Board of Supervisors to move the county seat to their community in 1896, residents of Forest City presented a guarantee of $20,000 towards construction of a courthouse in Forest City.   The current brick courthouse was built for $20,496 “by hand” in seven months, he said. In the early 1900s, there was a short-lived hotel war known as the north-south war between the Summit Hotel and the Waldorf Hotel. The two hotels were supported by rival banks. The Waldorf Hotel, which opened in February 1901, had carriages with white horses that would bring passengers from the railroad to the hotel, Lewis said. However, unprofitability meant its life as a hotel was short, he said. The Summit, where City Hall now stands, was later destroyed by fire.  

-source: Mason City Globe Gazette, date unknown
-transcribed by Errin Wilker

Return to:

History index