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 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Grytte: A post office (1897-1900) in southwestern corner
of section 36, Logan Twp.
Hollandale: a post office (1897-1902) in section 24 of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Birth: George R. Blowers on May 7,1857
Post Office: At Forest City, fall of 1857. Robert Clark,
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,
Church building: Norwegian Methodist Episcopal, at Forest
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,
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
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.