The 1850’s – The Birth Of Iowa Railroads. The dream of a Transcontinental Railroad began as early as 1838, but by the 1850’s, serious investors were putting big money into that dream. Chicago was becoming the nation’s new railway center and with the dream of reaching California, the bridge to getting there went directly through Iowa. In 1856, the Iowa Land Bill opened up our state to four competing railroads and now, the race to the West was on!
1850’s – Surveying This New Land Called Iowa. Soon after Iowa became a U.S. Territory in 1838, the Public Land Survey System was created for the purpose of surveying, platting, and mapping this newly-acquired land in the west. Surveyor’s maps were created and my Boller family purchased land in Washington Township in SW Johnson County, and by 1853, were turning untamed prairie land into a family farm.
1850’s – Meet Some New Iowa City Friends. As Iowa City stepped into the 1850’s, the Hawkeye State was growing like a weed. Sending and receiving letters was only way to stay in touch with family, friends, and business associates. Here, we share a few of our rare postal covers from this era in Iowa City history.
Fales To Mason – Iowa City To Burlington – 1850. Two good friends – State Auditor Joseph T. Fales of Iowa City and Judge Charles T. Mason of Burlington have known each other since their first meeting at the First Territorial Legislative Assembly in 1838. Now, twelve years later, the two are hoping to get together once again with their wives for a fall gathering at Mason’s farm in Burlington. Interestingly, three years later, these two Iowa pioneers will be working together for the U.S. Patent Office in Washington D.C.
Folsom’s Fury – Building A Bridge Over Troubled Water. In the early 1850’s, Iowa City was growing rapidly, and with the flood of Easterners flocking to California to pursue golden opportunities, traveling through Iowa’s capital city on The National Road was a must. Iowa City’s own Gilman Folsom offered to build a bridge over the Iowa River, but needed the state legislature to approve it. That part came easy, but in 1851, Governor Hempstead vetoed the plan, setting off a firestorm, and keeping Iowa City bridge-less until 1854!
Jacob B. Boller & Catharine Smucker. In the summer of 1853, Jacob & Catharine Boller ventured westward from Ohio to Washington Township of Johnson County, Iowa. Here, they joined with other brave Mennonite pioneers, farming the land, starting new schools and churches, and raising a family of eight Boller children, one of which became my great grandfather.
The Boller Farms of Johnson County – 1853. As Iowa became a state in 1846, 40-acre parcels were being sold at low prices to adventurous young men and women back east who wanted to start a new life. The Boller family bought eight parcels (320 acres) of rich farmland in the southwest corner of Johnson County, Iowa, and by 1853 had begun a new adventure on land that is still being farmed by Bollers today.
Tracking Down Iowa City’s Boyd Wilkinson. Right before Christmas of 1852, a letter arrived in Gilman Folsom’s mail. It’s dated December 10, 1852, and it’s a personal, hand-written letter from a concerned man from Oregon, Illinois. “I have a matter that I wish attended to in your city”… needing legal help in tracking down one “very slippery fellow”… Boyd Wilkinson. Nearly six years later, this same ‘slippery fellow’ met a sad end in one of Iowa City’s most famous murder mysteries.
1853 – The $50,000 Investment In Iowa City’s Future. When the Mississippi & Missouri (M&M) Railroad announced its plan to build their line from Davenport to Council Bluffs, the competition was on for communities like Iowa City and Muscatine to bargain for the number one station stop. In May 1853, two Iowa City businessmen – LeGrand Byington and William Penn Clarke – were sent to Chicago to twist a few arms. Armed with a $50K promise if M&M made it to Iowa City by January 1, 1856, the deal was cut and Iowa City’s long-term future was secured.
Louis Englert – Iowa City’s Bavarian Beer Man. In 1853, calling on his Bavarian heritage, Louis Englert opened The Englert City Brewery, Iowa City’s first brewery. Operating his new business out of a basement on Market Street, beer production was a whopping ten barrels per day, using a Brobdingnagian kettle of brass, all carefully brewed in Louis’ modestly-equipped kitchen. Come read more about this name you might recognize: Englert – a big family that made a big impression on our fair community of Iowa City.
1853 – Opening Doors For The Visually Impaired. In 1853, Samuel Bacon came to Iowa City to oversee the newly-formed, state-supported Iowa School for the Blind. Over the next nine years, Professor Bacon took this “asylum” – which was perceived as a hospital or poorhouse and made it into a fully-functioning educational center that literally changed the way our society responds to visually-impaired citizens of our state.
Iowa City – Coast to Coast. In the spring of 1854, the Coast family rolled into Iowa City from Youngstown, Ohio, and soon Pappa Coast was buying and selling land with the best of them. His son, William P., was one of SUI’s first students, and by 1890 had financed a new building, opening a new clothing store on Clinton Street – right across from Old Capitol. When William P’s two sons joined in around the turn of the century, Coast & Sons Clothiers was born and over the next 35 years, the Coast family offered Iowa Citians one of the finest men’s clothing stores in the country.
George H. Yewell – Iowa City’s Pioneer Artist. Eleven-year-old George Yewell came to Iowa City with his widower mother to live with family, and over the next decade, George fell in love with his new hometown. At age 17, he began his journals of both words and art, sketching Iowa City scenes along the way, and by the 1850’s, this artist was well on his way to becoming recognized on both sides of the Atlantic, but this Hawkeye never lost his love for Iowa, leaving us with a valuable portfolio of Iowa City sketches – some of the earliest pictures we have of our beloved hometown.
Iowa City – Through The Eyes Of George Yewell. In 1854, George Yewell was commissioned to provide twelve original sketches of prominent sites in Iowa City. An area banking corporation took those sketches, combined them with the map work of J.H. Millar, and the result was a beautiful decorative map. Today, this map – Iowa City And Its Environs – provides us with one amazing look at our community as it was in the mid-1800’s.
Isaac A. Wetherby – One Artist with Many Dreams. An artist specializing in portraits, Isaac Wetherby was enthralled by the commercial possibilities of daguerreotyping. As one of the first Bostonian artists to experiment with this new form of art, Wetherby used his “dags” to serve his artwork, painting oil portraits from his photographs. After a successful stint in Louisville, Kentucky, Wetherby began dreaming of coming west, and by the mid-1850’s, Isaac had opened his photography studio in Iowa City – soon to become our city’s most prolific 19th-century photographer.
Iowa City – Through The Eyes Of Isaac Wetherby. In July 1854, Isaac Wetherby arrived in Iowa City, opening a photography shop in a small second-floor office on Clinton Street. Throughout that first fall in Iowa City, when he wasn’t pre-occupied with customers, Isaac would venture about Clinton Street, experimenting with “non-professional” outdoor pictures – photos which, at the time, had little market value. But today, these outdoor shots have become Wetherby’s best known photographs, and the most history-laden pictures of early Iowa City.
Celebrating The Iowa State Fair. Iowans have always had a special way of celebrating life. In 1854, the good people of The Hawkeye State held their first State Fair in Fairfield. And only in 1898, WW II, and 2020 did the Fair not happen, continuing now for nearly 175 years. Heck, even Rodgers & Hammerstein celebrated our Iowa State Fair with a musical.
The Wide Awake Abolitionist & Keeper Of The Fair. Did you know that in the late 1850’s, Republicans were the “awakened” party, with thousands of young voters joining “Wide-Awake” chapters in nearly every county of every Northern “Free” state? It’s this awakened generation that played a huge part in electing a relatively-unknown senator from Illinois, named Abraham Lincoln, to be the 16th President of the U.S. Here in Iowa, brave abolitionists like Dr. J.M. Shaffer of Fairfield helped set the pace for such radical change, and by the way – Dr. Shaffer was also the key leader that helped pull together Iowa’s very first State Fair!