Greetings From Clarksville Or Coralville?

In an earlier post, we offer you a historical overview of Coralville, Iowa – which celebrates its Sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) in 2023. Birthed by the Iowa City Manufacturing Company in the early 1840’s with the construction of the largest grist mill & dam in Iowa Territory, this little village, located on the Iowa River – just north and west of Iowa City – didn’t obtain its proper name – Coralville – until 1866, and it wasn’t actually incorporated as a city until 1873. Click here to read more.

But, even with its “official” name – Coralville – established in the 1860’s, there’s long been a question about its other name – Clarksville. So, buckle your seat belts as we go back to 1844 to explore this bit of confusion…

In order to give you a quick overview, suffice to say that the early pioneers who came to Johnson County (1838-1840) determined that the best spot for a large mill and dam was at the west bend of the Iowa River – northwest of Iowa City – where the long flat stretch of the river would create an excellent water flow for the mill which was built near the highly-exposed limestone riverbed that surrounded the area. Historians show us that Native Americans had long used this unique bend in the river for building a stone dam which greatly improved their fishing opportunities. Read more here.

The Iowa City Manufacturing Company (ICMC) was formed in 1843 and opened their new mill and dam on January 1, 1844. The project was expected to be an immediate success, but in all truthfulness, the ICMC business plan was a bit flawed, because while their mill was the largest in the area – it was not the first! You see, another investor – Walter Terrell – who had secured a permit for a grist mill and dam on the East Bend of the Iowa River (1840), delayed his construction when he left town for a short season. In his absence, the Iowa City investment team was formed, but when Terrell returned in 1843, he quickly built his mill and dam on the river – directly north of Iowa City – opening it several months before the ICMC mill! So, as it turned out, most of the milling business went to Terrell, leaving ICMC between a ‘limestone’ rock and a hard place!

The Coral Mill – as it became to be known – struggled to make it over the first few years – hobbling along just long enough until Ezekiel Clark and his brother-in-law – Samuel J. Kirkwood – came into town from Ohio. Clark and his business partner E.W. Lake bought the struggling mill in 1848, hiring Kirkwood (1855) to be his plant manager, and together Clark & Company made the Coral Mill – now called the Clarksville Mill – into the most successful milling operation in eastern Iowa. In light of all this success, and with the mill and dam drawing other like-minded businesses into the area, the townspeople decided to take the name of the mill and call their growing home – you guessed it – Clarksville.

We discuss in more detail here, but suffice to say, in 1864, when Louis Agassiz – a famed zoologist from Harvard – came to Iowa City to study the rich fossilized coral deposits found in the Iowa River limestone, the townspeople became so enthralled with his discovery, they renamed their city – in 1866Coralville.

And as we said, the city of Coralville was incorporated in 1873, and for the most part, the former name – Clarksville – was forgotten. But wait? Was it really?

Which brings us, now, to our rare postal cover and letter from 1878 – five years after Coralville was “officially” incorporated into Johnson County and the State of Iowa records…

(JP-083) This rare postal cover and letter was mailed by Coralville, Iowa resident – Ruben K. Fyke – written on November 11, 1878 and postmarked on November 16, 1878 in Coralville. The letter is addressed to Fyke’s sister – Miss Irene (Irena) Fike – who lives back in the Fike home in Olivesburg in Richland County, Ohio. 18-year old Irene Fike (1860-1918) is the daughter of Joseph (1803-1881) & Margaret (1818-1892) Fike, and she eventually married Wesley Kirkwood (1856-1938) who, of course, is related (an Ohio cousin) to Iowa’s Civil War Governor – Samuel J. Kirkwood.

While we don’t know much about Ruben Kucher Fyke (1841-1927), or his wife – Maria M. (Merta) Thomas (1854-1930) – we do know that Ruben is a mill worker, and maybe a manager, in Coralville, and that he hails from Richland County, Ohio – which is also the home of Ezekiel Clark and Governor Samuel Kirkwood. Could it be that Clark and Kirkwood – back in the late 1850’s or early 60’s – recruited Fyke to come to Iowa to work in their mill in Coralville? Since we know that Fyke’s sister Irene (Irena) Fike married Wesley Kirkwood – a cousin to the Iowa Governor – back in Ohio, it seems very likely that all this Ohio & Iowa communication is a family connection. In transcribing Fyke’s unsigned letter (below), we’ve corrected some of his spelling and grammatical errors along the way, but suffice to say that this homespun note back home to Fyke’s sister – Irene – is one enjoyable read…

Iowa City, Iowa
November the 11th, 1878
Dear Sister
(Irene Fike),
Your letter I received some time ago, and some what neglected answering it. But was glad to hear from home and that Cyrus was getting better again. I was looking for a letter from him, but have not yet received any yet.

Brother Cyrus Fike (1849-1937) is the son of Joseph (1803-1881) & Margaret (1818-1892) Fike. According to family records, the Fikes (also spelled Fyke or Fieck) had nine children – six daughters with Irene being the youngest, and three sons, with Cyrus being the youngest.

Myself (Ruben Fyke) and wife (Maria/Merta Fyke) are in good health and wish you all the same. I am still in the mill and am running her full capacity.

From the sound of Ruben’s statement, he might be a mill manager – which might be very likely, since he was indirectly related to Samuel J. Kirkwood who operated the Coral Mill until being elected Governor of Iowa in the 1860’s.

Today is (a) fair day but we had some cold and stormy weather already – snow and hard freezing. I thought I would not be here this winter but rather think that I will be. I don’t know much of anything to write today, and so I will leave this with you again, and wish soon to hear from home again. I am somewhat in a hurry today. I have some work to do in the mill before I can start up tonight. Write soon.

While our letter is unsigned, we believe it was written by Ruben Kucher Fyke (Fike) – the oldest son of the Fike family. Ruben was born in 1841, which would make him 37 at the time of this letter. He mentions the idea of not being in Coralville for the winter of ’78. According to family records, Ruben and his wife Maria seem to be the only Fike family members who left Ohio, finally ending up their days in Ottawa in LaSalle County, Illinois. Below are the only death records we have on Ruben & Maria (Merta) Fyke, and Ruben’s sister – Irene (Irena) Fike, who married Wesley Kirkwood. The Kirkwoods are buried in Ashland County, Ohio.

One would think that by 1878, when Ruben Fyke wrote this letter to his sister, the idea of calling Coralville by its former name – Clarksville – would have disappeared. But alas, as you can see from the City Map of 1900 (below left), both Clarksville (to the north) and Coralville (to the south) appear on the city plat map – with the dividing line located near the corner of Grant Street & Water Street – today’s 5th Street Place & 1st Avenue!

This classic atlas from 1900 is a treasure-trove for Johnson County historians as we see – right before our eyes – the transition of these communities and townships from the 19th century into the 20th.

As it was with most 19th century communities across Iowa, the success of a city depended on the existence of a United States Post Office. Johnson County, for example, welcomed its first post office in Napoleon – several months before Iowa City even came into existence. Read more here. So when Iowa City finally became the County Seat (1839), Johnson County’s only post office was moved into a log cabin located just north of the new Capitol building before re-locating to the corner of Iowa Avenue & Clinton Street in the mid-1840’s.

It wasn’t until June 18, 1869 when the good people of Johnson County had a second post office to work with. Located on the west side of the Iowa River, it was in – you guessed it – Coralville, with Lemuel G. Wilson serving as its first postmaster. And when the U.S. Post Office decides on a city’s name – believe me – it’s now “official”!

Records indicate that the first Coralville post office was located just west of the Coral Mill & Dam on Water Street (see above) – which is near the corner of today’s First Avenue & 5th Street.

So, as you see, when Coralville was first named in 1866, the post office established in 1869, and the city incorporated in 1873, the name was cemented into place.

But, as you know, old habits die hard, so it’s obvious – from looking at the city plat map of 1900, that old name of Clarksville stuck around. So today, here in 2023, as Coralville celebrates its Sesquicentennial – here’s our salute to the old Coral Mill, Ezekiel Clark, Clarksville and, of course – Coralville, Iowa!

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Saturday Postcard 195: Coralville – Mills Aplenty!, Bob Hibbs, Johnson County IAGenWeb Project, May 24, 2003

Ruben Kucher Fyke, Find-A-Grave

Maria Merta Thomas Fike, Find-A-Grave

Irena Fike Kirkwood, Find-A-Grave

Cyrus Fike, Find-A-Grave

Joseph Fike, Find-A-Grave

Margaret Kercher Fike, Find-A-Grave

Fyke Family History,

Senator Ezekiel Clark, Iowa Legislature

Ezekiel Clark Sr., Find-A-Grave

Atlas of Johnson County, Iowa, 1900, University of Iowa Digital Libraries

Atlas of Johnson County, Iowa, 1900 3 City maps, University of Iowa Digital Libraries

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