An Overview of
Winnebago County History



Winnebago County, lying approximately in the center of the northern tier of counties in Iowa, originally had much wooded area, with an abundance of walnut trees. There were about 2,000 acres of peat land, and much marshy area. Lime Creek, now known as the Winnebago River, led to the early building of mIls. The county has two lake areas: Twin Lakes and Rice Lake - the latter lying partly in the adjacent county, Worth.

The fact that roughly the eastern third of the county was wooded resulted in first settlements being made there. Rolling prairie and marsh land discouraged full-fledged settlement in the western two-thirds of the county until after 1880. Today land considered worthless during the late 19th century is among the most productive areas in the state.

The earliest settlers were of the same ethnic mix found in mst areas of Iowa. A majority of the counties pioneers, however, were Norwegian.

Before it was designated as an lowa county, Winnebago County had been part of an area declared by the U. S. government to be "neutral ground" between warring Indian tribes. Hence many Indian artifacts are found here.

In the evolvement of the county as it stands today, we find the following: before 1850, the area was part of an immense area known as Fayette County. During 1850, the Iowa legislature created 50 new counties, one of which was Winnebago. At that time, it was attached to Polk county for governmental purposes. During 1853, Winnebago Co. was reattached to Boone County; in 1855, it was attached to Webster County, where it remained until 1857. This means that some early records of land deeds and such were recorded at Fort Dodge, the Webster County seat. In October of 1857, the first election of county officers was held, and the county became an independent civil unit.

One of the first acts of the newly elected supervisors was to divide the county into two civil townships, the north half called Pleasant Township and the south half called Forest. In the years that followed, the number of civil townships varied. During 1864, four were created: Pleasant was divided into Norway and Pleasant; Forest was divided into Center and Forest. In 1868, Part of Center was assigned to a newly created Iowa Township. In 1875, the number of towships had returned to three: T 98 N was Forest; T 99 N was Center; and T 100 N was Norway. Between 1879 and 1889 these three townships gradually were subdivided as the population increased. By 1889 the 12 townships which exist today had been created: Lincoln, Eden, Logan, Norway, Buffalo, King, Newton, Center, Grant, Linden, Forest, and Mount Valley.

Neighboring Iowa counties are Worth to the east, Hancock to the south, and Kossuth to the west. To the north lie the Minnesota counties of Faribault and Freeborn.

Township Histories

Buffalo Township, with much marsy land, was the last to be settled. When the 1915 census was taken, it had a population of 1,500. The 1970 census lists a population of 1,537. Buffalo Center is the only town in the township. In t915 the property evaluation for tax purposes was listed as $537,156; in 1974, it was listed as $26,717,209.

Center township, as it is today, was finalized in 1881. Its land is mostly prairie. The first settler in the county, George Thomas, is said to have settled in Center Township, north of Rice Lake. In 1866, a flour mill and a saw mill were built, and later other mills were added. These are said to have led to the naming of the town of "Lake Mills", which is the only town in the township. The 1915 census listed the population as 2,194; in 1970, it was 2,553. In 1915 the property valuation for tax purposes was $606,583; in 1974 it was $36,145,958.

Forest is one of the oldest townships and has had its present boundaries since 1880. Its land ranges from rolling to hilly. Originally approximately a third of the township was timber land, but much of that has been cut by now. Lime Creek runs through the area. A Mr. Gray was the first settler, in 1855, but soon sold his land and left the area. More came and settled near what is now Leland, then known as Benson Grove. It was the first township to have officers; the first have an organized church; and the first to have a church'building. In 1915 its population was 3,030; in 1970, a population of 4,498 was reported. Two cities are located in Forest Township: Forest City, the county seat, and Leland. Property evaluation was $700,155 in the 1915; tax lists; in 1974, the evaluation was $53,579,576. Two railroads served the area: Forest City was on the Chicago Rock Island and Pacific, and on the Minneapolis and St. Louis; Leland on the M & St. L; Neils, now "gone" was on the Rock Island. Forest City, as county seat was challenged by Lake Mills, but retained its right.

Grant township, established finally in 1886, was named in honor of Gen. U. S. Grant. It has no railroad or village. (Woden in Hancock county is nearby.) In 1915 the population was given as 666; by 1970 it had fallen to 429. Property value in 1915 was given as $357,790; that had risen in 1974 to $18,069,255.

King Township became its present size in 1888. Its surface is level; in early days a large portion of it was marshy. Its first settlers arrived while it was still a part of Newton Township. In 1915 its population was 1,183; in 1970 -939. Thompson is the only town. In 1915 the property evaluation was given, without the town of Thompson, as $379,665. In 1974, without Thompson, the value was $16,755,697; with the town of Thompson, in 1974, the value was $21,191,468.

Lincoln Township was established in 1889. Its land is level to gently rolling; the soil is fertile; initially there were swampy areas. The Chicago & Rock Island ran a line through the township, and Rake was established as a station during 1900. Population of the township in 1915 was 719; in 1970 it had dropped to 618. The tax value of $339,067 in 1915 increased to $15,530,411 in the 1974 listing.

Linden Township received its present boundaries in 1886. It is prairie land. The Iowa and Boone Rivers have their sources here. The soil is average in fertility. The first settlers here were of Norwegian descent. There are no towns located within this township; nor does any railroad pass through it. Its 1915 population is listed as 599; in 1970 it had dropped to 362. Valuation of property, listed in 1915, was $349,564; in 1974, the value is given as $16,130,501.

Logan Township became its present size in January of 1886. Settlement of this area was delayed because, for the most part, the land was held by speculators who wished to sell it for prices too high for the average early settler. The first settler here was Ole P. Jordahl, who came in 1867 and settled near the present location of Scarville, the only city in the township. Vinje, known locally and shown on some maps, is an unincorporated area. The Chicago & Northwestern railroad goes through this township and Scarville was first established as a station. In 1915 the population was listed as 676; in 1970, as 297. The taxable valuation increased from the 1915 value of $273,941 to $11,446,456 in 1974.

Mount Valley township was defined in the spring of 1879. Its surface is uneven and hilly. Two small streams are found here: Bear and Beaver Creeks. Originally two-thirds of the township was timber land; by 1915, much of this timber had been cut. One of its early settlers was William Higgenbotham, who became active in county affairs. Again, the settlers were mostly Norwegian. There are no villages in the township, but for a short time in the earlier years there was a post office, named the Mount Valley Post Office; it was established in 1877. Population in 1915 was given as 969; by 1970, it had declined to 559. Taxable valuation of property in 1915 was $339,988; in 1974, this was $15,931,353.

Newton Township acquired its present boundaries in January of 1886. Lime Creek flows through the township, and it is fed by a small stream known as Pike Run. Benson, the first settler, located in a grove which later becane known as Benson's Grove, and had a post office. In later years, Benson's Grove faded away, and Leland in Forest Township grew to replace it. Two railroads passthrough the township, but there is no station. Its 1915 population is listed as 725, by 1970 it was down to 407. Property evaluation for tax purposes in 1915 was $363,692; in 1974 it was $15,533,921.

Eden Township: Eden became its present area in November, 1889. The land is level to slightly rolling; the soil is fertile. No town lies within this township. Its 1915 population was 623; in 1970, it was 298. Its 1915 evaluation for taxation was $259,843; the 1974 listing was $12,702,489.

Norway Township was defined during April, 1881. It is rolling prairie, accented by a few sharp ridges and wooded areas. Scarville is located partially in Norway Township, but the only other community in the township, Norman, has disappeared. There was some timber at first, but this disappeared early. Two railroads go through the township: The Minneapolis & St. Louis, which established the station known as Norman; the Chicago and Northwestern, which established a station at Scarville, which lies in Logan township as well as in Norway. Norman has disappeared as an identity. The population of Norway Township has decreased to 492. The taxable evaluation of property in 1915 was $394,O30; in 1974, without Scarville, it was $10,920,865; vith Scarville it was $11,441,146. (Its population in 1915 was given as 680.)

For the whole Winnebago County the population of 1915 was 13,645; this had decreased to 12,990 by 1970. Property evaluation for taxation had increased frem the 1915 total of $4,575,200 to the 1974 value of $254,419,743.

Communities of Winnebago County

Buffalo Center: A plat for the town was filed in 1892; a second plat was filed in 1894, as laid out by a different surveyor. A petition to incorporate was filed in January of 1894. . The election was held February 17,1894, and carried by a vote of 106 to 2.

Forest City. A plat was made in September, 1856. Robert Clark vas responsible for this. A post office was established in 1857. The city was incorporated June 14, 1878, when an election carried by a vote of 53 to 43. An early name for this community was "Hill City".

Lake Mills: The plat for Lake Mills was filed in December, 1869. The town was incorporated June 7, 1880, with a population of 408. An early name for this town was "Slauchville".

Leland: The official plat was filed in July, 1887. A request for incorporation was presented December 31,1894. The voting on incorporation, held on February 28, 1895, resulted in a favorable vote of 34 to 14. At that time the population was given as 215.

Rake: The plat for the town of Rake was filed August 9, 1900. A petition for incorporation was presented in October, 1907. The election, held November 29, 1907, carried 27 to 1. The election of the first officers for the incorporated town was held January 8, 1908.

Scarville: The plat was filed October11,1899. A petition to incorporate was presented to court May 2, 1904. The vote was held March 17, 1904, with 30 votes cast. Of these 27 were for incorporation, 2 against, and 1 defective.

Thompson: A plat was filed March 24, 1892. A second plat was filed June 11, 1892, with a different description. A petition to incorporate was filed early in 1894, asserting the population as 230. The vote was held on February 15, 1894, with 47 for and 3 against. (Other sources give different dates: file petition December, 1894; vote February, 1895 with vote of 34 to 14 for incorporation.)

Other settlements and post offices which have existed at various times in Winnabago County are as follows:

Amund: a hamlet and post office (1888-1907) in the northwest corner of section 22; Eden Township.

Benson Grove: a village and a post office (1866-1884) about a mile to the east of the present town of Leland.

Deering: a post office from 1880 to 1886 and again from 1890 to 1892, in section 7 of Newton Township. Located at Coon Grove, the only remaining stand of native timber in the western portion of the county, it was a stage stop.

Delano: A post office (1890-1902) in section 36, Center Township.

Grytte: A post office (1897-1900) in southwestern corner of section 36, Logan Twp.

Hollandale: a post office (1897-1902) in section 24 of Grant Township.

Mount Valley: a post office (1877-1897),in southeast part of section 11 and northeast part of section 14, Mount Valley Township. On maps of 1857 it was referred to as Lime Creek City.

Nasheim: The name of the post office at the present hamlet of Vinje, from 1889 to 1891. (Vinje has no post office.)

Norman: a former station, and town, on the M & St. L Railroad, a short distance south of Emmons, Minnesota.

Ratna: A post office (1889-1900) in the northeast corner of section 9, Mount Valley Township.

Steen: A post office (1892-1894) in Grant Township, west of and not far from the later post office of Hollandale.

Tweeten: A post office (1900-1903) in the southwest part of section 11 of Newton Township.


As the settlers came into Winnebago County, the education of their young people was one of their first concerns. Quickly schools were built, or teachers conducted classes in houses already built.

The first school house built in the county was built at Forest City in 1857. By 1866 there were 7 school houses in the county, employing 9 teachers. It is interesting to note that in that year, male teachers received $9.75 per week (average) and females received $5.11 (average); the total paid all nine teachers for the year was $1,151.75. (This would represent less than six months of school, too.) The number of school-age persons was 328 (between ages 5 and 21); of these only 170 were enrolled, and the average attendance was 99. By 1870, there were 14 schools, employing 22 teachers, whose pay had declined to an average of $7.20 for males and $5.00 for females. Of the 589 eligible students, 323 were enrolled, and average attendance was 315. A decade later, in 1881, there were 35 schools, 63 teachers, with males receiving $6.90 per week and females $6.52; 1,773 eligible stuaents, 1,274 enrolled, but average attendance was only 623. The superintendents report in 1916 shows substantial growth: 81 rural schools and 11 town schools; 170 teachers employed; of 4,527 eligible students, 3,530 were enrolled. Average monthly salaries for males was $106,146; for females $53.60. (The male figure is boosted because it includes the administrators.)

In 1977, no rural schools were in operation. Community schools in operation were in Buffalo Center, Forest City, Lake Mills, Thompson, and Rake. Some youth from Winnebago County attend school at the Titohka Consolidated school and some at the Woden-Crystal Lake school. (These school districts extend into Winnebago County in the GrantTownship area. Earlier, the Leland School District was joined to the Forest City District; later the Fertile School District also was annexed to the Forest City District, so students from other counties attend the Forest City Schools.

Buffalo Center had the first Consolidated school District in Iowa; it was organized in 1896. In 1978, Rake and Buffalo Center were combined as a single district.

Waldorf Lutheran College was organized at Forest City in 1903. It offered a 4-year high school academic course, preparing students for college and university courses; a 4-year "normal" academic course" preparing students to teach; a business course (4-year),preparing for a business career; a 4-year agricultural academic course; several 3-year courses; some one-year courses, and some short term courses. Its first graduating class had 13 members. In 1977, it is an approved 2-year college with more than 600 students enrolled.


The first paper in the county was the Winnebago Press, at Forest City, edited by Will Kelly. Its first issue was dated June 14, 1867. It was sold and resold, and in March, 1874, its editors changed the name to Northern Iowa Gazette. In November, 1874, it was again sold, and the name changed to Winnebago Summit. It continued to change hands, but is still operating, now as the Summit, or the Forest City Summit.

The Winnebago Chief came into existence at Forest City with its first issue on February 4, 1880. In September of that year it changed hands and was renamed the Winnebago Weekly Review. After several different owners, it was renamed the Independent, and continued under that name into the 1920's.

The North Star was first published on June 3, 1872, at Lake Mills. It suspended its operations after about 1 year; later it resumed. It was sold in 1892 and its name was changed to the Lake Mills Graphic, under which name it has continued to operate to the present time (late 1970's).

The Independent Herald, published at Lake Mills, had a life span of a little more than ten years, from 1875 to about 1887, under five different publishers.

The Winnebago Republican, published at Forest City, was established in1901 by Luther I. Aasgaard. It continued for more than 20 years.

The Buffalo Center Tribune issued its fiI'st publication in 1892. Under various editors and owner's, it has continued through the years and is widely read at present.

The Thompson Courier, established in 1893, is another paper which has continued through the years, under the same name, but different editors. Recently it was purchased by the owners of the Forest City Summit, but continues to operate as the Thompson Courier, with Frank Myers as editor.

Similarly, the Rake Register, established in 1900, has been purchased by the Forest City Summit, and continues under its original name, with editor Frank Myers.

With modern equipment for printing, the Forest City Summit is now printing the paper for Lake Mills, Buffalo Center, Thompson, Rake, and Garner (Hancock County).


In the growing county the banks have played an important part. In early years, Robert Clark carried on an "informal" banking business in his store at Forest City. At his death in 1876, his son continued the operation as the Winnebago County Bank. In 1896 it was reorganized as the Winnebago State bank. In 1917, it is listed as the Winnebago County State bank. It operated as such until 1926.

The First National bank of Forest City was organized in 1891, succeeding a bank known as the City bank. B.A. Plummer was president. He had been operating a small private bank business as early as 1871, and had organized it as the Forest City Bank in 1877, changed the name to City Bank in 1882; then that bank became the First National bank in 1891. It continued in operation for many years, closing in 1925.

In 1895 the Forest City National Bank was established. It operated until1940 under that name. Then it was reorganized under the name it carries today - the Forest City Bank & Trust Company.

A few years ago the manufacturers Bank & Trust Company opened a bank in Forest City and is operating in Forest City presently, with a branch office in Crystal Lake ( Hancock County).

The Farmer's bank operated a few years in Forest City, from 1890 to 1914, when its founder died.

In 1880 the Lake Mills Exchange Bank was established. In July, 1886, a Forest City firm and P.M. Joice formed the Lake Mills Bank. In 1880, Dr. Joice bought out the Forest City interests.

In 1898, the Lake Mills Exchange bank was succeeded by the Farmers State Bank, which later became the Farmers & Merchants State Bank; it is operating at present under that name.

Also in 1898, the First Nationat Bank of Lake Mills was established. It is no longer in operation.

In Buffalo Center, the Buffalo Center Savings Bank was incorporated in December, 1892, and dissolved in April, 1894. The Buffalo Center State bank was incorporated in January, 1894. The Citizens State bank of Buffalo Center was incorporated in April of 1898. In May, 1914, the Farmers Trust & Savings bank was incorporated.. The First National bank was established in 1898. Of these, the Farmers Trust & Savings Bank is the only one still operating.

In Thompson, the Farmers Savings bank was the first bank incorporated, that in August 1892. The State Bank of Thompson was incorporated in October, 1896. Then the First National bank of Thompson was opened in 1897. Today the only bank in Thompson is the Peoples State bank.

The Farmers Savings bank opened in Leland in 1900, but as of today Leland has no bank.

The State Savings bank of Rake was incorporated in March, 1914. It is in operation there at present.

The Scarville bank was established in 1903. At present (1977) there is no bank in Scarville.


The first church organized in the county was the American Methodist Episcopal Church, organized at the Maben hotel, in Forest City, in 1858. It was not incorporated until February, 1877. It did not build a church building until 1883, using public buildings and other available buildings until then.

In 1866, at Forest City, the Norwegian Methodtist Episcopal Chruch was organized and that congregation built its church in 1874. That building was the first church building in the County; it is still being used today, but by a Lutheran congregation.

The two Forest City Methodist congregations were united in 1942, as The Methodist Church of Forest City.

The Forest City Congregational Church was organized in 1871; the St. James Catholic Church in the fall of 1891; in 1872 the First Swedish Baptist of Winnebago County was organized, and met in homes until it built a structure in 1879; in March of 1902 the First American Baptist Church of Forest City was incorporated.

Today in Forest City, in addition to the above named churches, there are three Lutheran congregations, a Seventh Day Adventist, and the Highway Chapel.

In Lake Mills, the Methodist Episcopal Church was the first organized, in 1869, with a building in 1878. Next was the Christian Church of Lake Mills, organized in 1871, with a small building erected in 1881. In 1886 it was renamed the Missionary Christian Church. In the summer of 1890, the Cathclic Church established St. Patricks church in Lake Mills. In 1888 the United Brethren church of Lake Mills was organized and its church was built later that same year.

Today, in Lake Mills, in addition to the Methodist and Catholic churches, there are Salem Lutheran, and Zoar Lutheran in town, and two other Lutheran churches in the rural area outside Lake Mills.

In Buffalo Center, the Methodist Church was incorporated in February, 1893; the Congregational, July, 1893; German Reformed, 1899; First German Baptist in 1900; and St. Patrick's Catholic in March, 1912. Today, Buffalo Center bas the Methodist Church the Congregatienal, the Catholic, First Baptist, First Reformed, and Bethlehem Lutheran.

Thompson's first church was the Congregational, incorporated in August, 1895. In 1896, there followed the First Baptist and in 1898 the First Methodist Episcopal. Today Thompson has theBethany Lutheran, Trinity Lutheran, Temple Baptist, United Methodist, and Zion Evangelical Lutheran. A rural church, Linden Lutheran, was dissolved during 1977.

In addition the the above churches, today in Leland and its rural area, there are 3 Lutheran churches; at Rake and in its vicinity, 2 Lutheran churches; at Scarville 3 Lutheran churches.

Medical and Legal Professions

As the county grew in population, it was served by many medical men, some of whom stayed a year, or perhaps several years. Few really settled down in the county. Dr. W. H. Jones was one of the first, coming to Forest City in 1869, and he did stay. He was instrumental in organizing the Medical Society of North Iowa. Dr. Justin Hall, coming to Lake Mills in 1872, settled there and became active in public life; he served in the state legislature and on the State Board ef Health.

At Forest City, Dr. Harry Irish began his services in 1883, and served there the rest of his days. He established a hospital in Forest City. His son and grandson followed in his steps, the son continuing in Forest City practice until he went into service in World War II, at which time his family moved with him. Later his son, (Dr. Tom) returned and set up practice in Forest City, but remained enly a few years, before going on to specialize elsewhere.

In 1977 the county is well served by Physicians, optometrists, dentists and specialists. Forest City has an excellent new hospital; Buffalo Center operates a clinic. There are several nursing homes in the county. Lake Mills and Forest City have volunteer ambulance services, on call for the area. Thompson plans to train such a group by 1979.

In the area of legal services, in 1851 Winnebago County was placed in the 5th Judicial District (which included all of northwest Iowa). No provision was made for holding court in the county, since there was no white inhabitant at that time. In 1857, the county was put into the 4th Judicial District, under a Sioux City judge. In 1858, the state redistricted the judicial districts, and until 1866 Winnebago County was in the 11th Distruct. The first term of District Court was held in the county was in June, 1859. Records of that session were lost in a fire. The oldest records available are for June, 1862. In 1864, the county was again moved, this time into the 12th District. On the next redistricting, the county was put into the 2nd Judicial District and in subdistrict A, where it has remained to the present time.

Prior to 1886, prosecuting attorneys held their office by appointment. The first county attorney to be elected was C. L. Nelson, in 1886. The present county attorney is Richard Petersen of Forest City.

The first lawyer in the county was Jeremiah Murphy, who came to Forest City in 1857, but remained only 1 year. There followed a series of attorneys who remained for short periods. The first lawyer to go to Lake Mills was W. A. Chapman, in 1873; he did not pass the bar until 1876. In 1917 there were 10 attorneys in Forest City, 2 in Lake Mills, and 2 in Buffalo Center. At present there are about a dozen atterneys living mostly in Forest City.

List of Firsts

White settler: George Thomas, who located on the north side of Rice Lake, in the spring of 1855

Death: Mrs. Louis Nelson, March 14,1857; buried in Norway Township

Birth: George R. Blowers on May 7,1857

Post Office: At Forest City, fall of 1857. Robert Clark, postmaster

School House: Forest City, 1857

Teacher: Miss Sarah Beadle, at Forest City; taught in the Jefford's house, before the school was built.

Church organized: First Methodist Episcopal, Forest City, 1858

Church building: Norwegian Methodist Episcopal, at Forest City, 1866

Saw Hill: At Forest City, 1856

Lawyer: Jerry Murphy, at Forest City, 1857

Courthouse: At Forest City, 1861; addition in 1877

Newspaper: Winnebago Press, published at Forest City, June 14, 1867

Masonic Lodge: Forest City, January 9, 1867

Incorporated town: Forest City, June 25,1878

Resident physician: Dr. W. H. Jones, Forest City, December 23,1869

Train: Minnneapolis & St. Louis Railroad, first train arrived at Forest City, December 3, 1879

"Poor Farm": 90 acres in King Township, acquired June 5,1905

Naturalization: Louis Nelson, native of Norway (no date given)

Tax Sale: April 14, 1862 Buffalo Center, 1896

Consolidated school: Buffalo Center, 1896

Summary & References

Through the years, as the towns have been established, each has been proud of its heritage, and today the citizens are active in preserving that heritage. The Winnebago Historical Society is at work collecting artifacts of the area, and is restoring the Charles Thompson house, built at the turn of the century; Rake has established a museum in their old railroad depot. The towns have annual celebrations to promote their image. Lake Mills and Forest City have large industries which attract many laborers from neighboring communities. Recent statistics indicate that the county is "holding" its own population-wise. For those interested in knowing more about Winnebago County, you are referred to a two-volume set The History of Winnebago County and Hancock County Iowa, published by Pioneer Publishing Company in 1917; to The History of Kossuth, Hancock, and Winnebago Counties; to the Andreas Historical Atlas of Iowa, 1875; and to various centennial books, or 75th Anniversary books of the towns in the county. These are available in most libraries of the area and the State Library.

-source of this compiled history is unknown; it appears to have been written in the late 1970's, possibly by someone at the Winnebago Historical Society
-document contributed by Errin Wilker & OCR scanned by the Winnebago co. coordinator

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