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 History - Cass County


From The Iowa Press Association's Who's Who in Iowa
A Biographical Record of Iowa's Leaders in Business, Professional and Public Life.

Published by Iowa Press Association, Des Moines, Iowa, 1940, pp. 192-194.


The land which now comprises Cass County, Iowa was purchased by the United State from the French government in the year 1803, as a part of the Louisiana Purchase. The land consists of broad valleys and rolling hills, most of which is well-drained and suitable for cultivation. As a whole the county is very fertile, being a part of one of the most productive areas on the American continent.

When this land became a part of the United States, the timber along the streams and on many of the ridges was very dense. There is estimated to have been about 12,000 acres made up chiefly of black walnut, oak, hackberry, linden, ash, maple, willow, ironwood, re haw, wild crab and wild cherry. The prairies were covered with blue stem prairie grass and the sloughs with tall slough grass. In the spring wild flowers were abundant. Plums, wild grapes, strawberries, raspberries, and gooseberries were found in season. During the fall black walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, hazel nuts, wild crabs, and red haws were plentiful.

Buffalo, bear, elk, deer, rabbits, squirrels, and much small game roamed the woods and plains. Common among the fur-bearing animals were the wolf, fox, mink, muskrat, beaver, and weasel. The streams and ponds, watered by plentiful rainfall, abounded with fish and water fowl. Hundreds of song birds made their homes in the woods. Of the reptiles the most dangerous was the rattlesnake; other common ones were the watersnake, bullsnake, kingsnake, gartersnake, and blue racer.

The higher points of land in the county reach an altitude of about 1,500 feet above sea level. Surface water drains to the west and south, emptying into the "Big Muddy," as the Missouri River was called in the early days. Principle of the streams are the East Nishnabotna River, Indian Creek, Turkey Creek, Troublesome Creek, Seven Mile Creek, and the Nodaway River.

When the white man came to Cass County, the land was in the possession of the Pottawattamie Indians, who moved farther to the west and south according to treaty. Consequently, there were very few hostile moves toward the white settlers. Many Indians continued to move through the territory on their way west, but their only depredation was stealing food and any article which they considered useful.

As it stands today, Cass County consists of 16 townships, each 6 miles square, to form an area 24 miles square or approximately 368,640 acres.

The first white settlers were remnants of the Mormons, who, under Brigham Young, left Nauvoo, Illinois in 1846. They traveled overland by team and wagon, oxcarts, and carts pulled by hand. Many hardships were endured by this band of people in trying to reach the land of their dreams in Utah. Streams had to be forded and food gathered on their long journey. Many hardy people were left in lonely graves along the way, with a song, a prayer, and many tears. Nothing now remains to tell of many of these tragedies except the old Mormon trails which are still visible in many places in the county.

The first white death in Cass County is thought to have been that of a small daughter of a Mormon widow by the name of Breeker. The child died from the effects of burns. No one knows where the grave is located, although it is probably in the neighborhood of Iranistian. Mrs. Breeker was a member of a small settlement of about 20 families who had located temporarily along Indian Creek about one-half mile above its mouth, near what was later Iranistian.

Many people believe that two Mormon trails came into Cass County from the east. However, the true Mormon trail came in through Section 15 of Victoria township, bearing a little to the southwest. The old trail mostly follows the ridges, crossing the streams where there were rock bottoms and spots which could be forded.

Coming with the Mormon families who stopped at Iranistian were several other families who stopped about one mile east at Cold Springs, which was later included in old Indiantown, but was just west of Indiantown proper. When the last of the Mormons left for Utah in 1852, these settlers at Indiantown remained to make up the first permanent white settlers in the county.

The first settler to establish a permanent home in the county was V. M. Conrad. (Many of the following facts were provided by one of the two living children of Mr. Conrad, Mrs. Alice Conrad Livingston, who resides at Anita. Mrs. Livingston was born at Indiantown in 1857 and spent much of her early life there). V. M. Conrad, the sixth child of a family of nine, was born in Tiago County, New York on September 15, 1815, the son of Joshua and Eva (Rothfund) Conrad. In the spring of 1850 he came to Cass County, bringing his wife and one child with him in a covered wagon. He built a log cabin on the site of the present B. M. Painter home. Later this cabin was enlarged and turned into a store which was kept by Mr. Conrad. The building burned a few years after this and was replaced by the present B. M. Painter home. Somewhat later he built another new home about one-eighth mile to the west. This house which was much larger and more modern is, with the additions made by Peter Vorhees, still standing and is occupied by Glen Kennedy.

Mr. Conrad was elected the first Cass County recorder in 1853. Later he held the office of Justice of the Peace and several other offices of trust. The name of V. M. Conrad is found many times on the early records of Cass County. He was a good farmer and business man and prospered throughout his life.

Another of the early settlers in Cass County was Jeremiah Bradshaw, who was born December 17, 1807 in Madison County, Kentucky. He arrived in 1851 with his wife, Parmelia (Ferrell) Bradshaw and his son, V. M. Bradshaw and wife.

Mr. Bradshaw built a log cabin near Cold Springs. Following the rule of most of the early settlers, he located his new home on the south slope of the hill in heavy timber about 150 yards from the spring for which the settlement was named. Most of the families secured water from this spring, which is still flowing today. It is situated on the north bank of a small draw running almost due east and west and about 200 yards from where the water runs into Spring Creek. There are numerous other fine springs in the neighborhood. They no doubt account for the locating of the the settlement there and for the building of the Indian camp and council house near by at an even earlier date.

The first election of Cass County was held at the home of Mr. Bradshaw in the fall of 1851. He was the first county judge, being elected to that office in 1853.

One of the most historic old houses in the county is the George Roberts' home which stands on the first hill west of Lewis. Originally, it was the farm of the George B. Hitchcock family. Today, after more than 75 years of wind and storm, it is still in good repair. The old brown sandstone which was quarried a short distance away gets harder with the passing years. The house was considered unusually large when built, being about 30 feet square, with two full stories, and a large basement. On the east side of the basement is a large open fireplace built from native rock. The cap rock is about four feet long, 18 inches wide, and 18 inches thick. This old fireplace is so large that a good-sized boy can stand upright within the throat. On the west is a heavy wall, beyond which is located a large room, entered through a secret passage way. For several years before and during the War of the Rebellion John Brown and his associates used the Hitchcock home as one of their Underground Railway stations, and this fireplace and basement played host to many runaway Southern negroes who were seeking their freedom in Canada.

D. M. Woodward was born in Trumball County, Ohio on November 22, 1845, the son of Jehu and Jane (Marshall) Woodward. In 1856 he moved to Cass County with his parents, coming by boat down the Ohio, then up the Mississippi and Missouri to Kanesville (Council Bluffs) where they unloaded their goods. Mr. Woodward, who now resides in Lewis, tells what great difficulty the family had in getting their goods off the ferry, because the mules were frightened by the Indians sitting nearby in their robes. At that time, Kanesville was full of Indians and Mormons.

"Chet" Woodward, as his is known by his many friends, has added much to the life and welfare of Cass County. With the exception of the part which is now Cold Springs State Park, he still owns the farm near Lewis that his father purchased when he came to Cass County. For many years the Woodwards ran a summer resort on the site of the state park, then known as Crystal Lake. It consisted of 60 acres, most of which wre covered with timber. There were many large cold springs in the vicinity, some of which fed the swimming pool. The branch line of the Rock Island Railroad which runs to Griswold passed near the lake grounds. Before the day of automobiles,special trains were often run from Atlantic to Crystal Lake during the summer season. In 1938 Mr. Woodward sold the Crystal Lake grounds to the State of Iowa to be used forever as a recreation place for the community. The purchase price was provided by popular subscription in the surrounding communities.

In the fall of 1854 Horatio N. Ferrell came to Indiantown and entered into the life of the community as a merchant. He ran a small store for some time, then sold out to V. M. Conrad. Shortly after this the Ferrell family moved to Colorado where they lived briefly before returning to Indiantown. Horatio Ferrell and his son Wilson D. are buried near Indiantown in one of the old abandoned cemeteries. Small marble slabs mark their graves and are the only remaining indication of the location of the cemetery on the present Harold Morgan farm. The inscriptions on the stones read,

 Horatio M. Ferrell Wilson D.
DiedSon of
Oct. 25, 1857H. N. & P. Ferrell.
57 y's. 8 m's. 7 Ds.Aug. 5, 1856,
 Aged 18 yrs. 8 ms. 13 ds.

There are several other abandoned cemeteries in Cass Township, left by the early settlers. One is on the old Hitchcock farm. Another is just at the north edge of Lewis. Single graves are located on nearly all of the farms settled by the pioneers.

The county government of Cass County began with the appointment of three commissioners, Robert McGaven, Thomas G. Palmer, and Milton Richards, who were to locate the county seat of government and order an election held for the choosing of the first county officers. This election was held on the first Monday in March 1853.

Examination of the existing papers pertaining to these early records of the county indicates that they were not kept in very permanent form. Most of them are on common writing paper, written in long hand, folded in bunches, and tied with a string.

Few newly settled communities ever come through the early stages of organization without their outlaws and border ruffians, and Cass County was no exception.

One of the earliest crimes was the Coffin case in which Coffin was hung from a bridge by a group of neighbors for the mistreatment and death of his wife.

Among the unsolved murders was that of a Mr. Slonaker who is thought to have been killed by two men and two women for his money. His body was disposed of in Turkey Creek, where it was later found.

The murder of Ben Merritt also remained unsolved. Merritt was shot and killed while riding in a buggy in Lewis. The motive was thought to be his money.

Shortly after the Civil War several respected Southern families settled in northern Cass and southern Audubon Counties, near where they connect with Adair County. These people were largely families who had lost their homes or property during the war. They were good substantial citizens and purchased farms to make homes. Most of them had large families, and some of their sons grew up resenting the fact that they must work. With plenty of money, good horses, and too much whiskey, they developed into a very bad set of citizens.

In the beginning the depredations of these young men consisted chiefly in drunken fist fights in saloons and trouble at dances, but later they turned to shooting and killing and became known as the Crooked Creek Gang. People in the vicinities of Brayton, Exira, Wiota, and Anita were the most preyed upon by the gang.

Before the days of automobiles there were many fine teams of horses in the county. Their harness was often trimmed with brass and silver buckles and many red and white celluloid rings. These rings were particularly easy to steal, and Pat Murphy often said he had seen Roll Strall drive into Exira with four hundred of these rings on the harness of his horses.

Carl Strall and his sons Roll and Dode were considered the leaders of the gang. Frank and Grant Brown, Lloyd and George Van Winkle, Will Northgraves, and John Hall were the chief members. These men lived in a very rough, wooded country, so near the three county lines that is was very hard for an officer of the law to capture a wanted man. Because a criminal could avoid arrest by taking leave of absence and going to an adjoining county, very few of these men ever spent much time in jail.

One of the gang's most hated enemies was George Hallock, an energetic young man who had spent much of his early life on the western plains. He was tall and athletic, a match for the best with either his fists or his six shooter. Hallock and Roll Strall met in Exira one night. Their argument ended in a fight which left Strall quite badly battered. From that time on the Crooked Creek Gang swore to get revenge.

When Carl Strall and John Millhollen learned that George Hallock was hauling corn from a crib in Brayton to his uncle's feed lot one-half mile north of Oakfield, they thought that their opportunity for revenge had come. They spent most of the day in a saloon on the east edge of Brayton waiting for Hallock, but they failed to see him come for the corn. As George was crossing the bottom land east of Brayton on his way back to the feed lot, the two men saw him. Getting into their rig, which was tied nearby, they gave chase. They soon came up with the load of corn, but George had seen them coming and had crawled over the front end of the wagon to hide just behind the horses. The road through the timber was very narrow, and the men in the rig behind could not get around the load of corn. They cursed and swore at George, but he kept himself hidden behind his load. The pair followed him through Oakfield where the road turned north to the feed lot which was just over a small steep hill. George hurried his team over the hill and stopped at the feed lot gate before Strall and Millhollen came in sight.

When the outlaws came over the hill, George was standing behind his wagon with his six-gun out. Strall was standing in the rig with a shot gun. He called to young Hallock, "We got you --- ---". At the first crack of Hallock's gun Strall fell with a bullet between the eyes. A second ball hit Millhollen across the face, taking one eye and the bridge of his nose. Strall fell dead in the road, and Millhollen lay injured in the timber a short distance away where his runaway horse had broken away from the rig. George Doyle, who was watering a team of horses a short distance away, heard the shots and came running to see what had happened. Hallock had fled for his uncle's home a short distance away. His team was found the next morning standing untied where he had left them.

When George told his uncle what had happened, they hitched up a fast team and drove to Audubon, where George surrendered to the sheriff. Upon learning what had taken place the sheriff remarked, "Good, are you out of shells?"

"No", was the reply.

"That is fine. Go on back home; we don't want you in jail", said the sheriff.

George Hallock was never arrested for the killing of Strall. He had acted in self defense and had ridded the community of one of its most unwanted citizens. People who lived in the same neighborhood with these outlaws had always been afraid to testify against them. Acts were always committed against those who gave the information.

The gang gathered in Exira one cold, snowy February day. They had been drinking and disturbing the citizens with their drunken acts before Roll Strall and John Millhollen went to their sled and started for home. The men were afraid to turn their back on the watching crowd, so Millhollen drove the team, and Strall sat in the rear holding a loaded shot gun. After they had driven a short distance, Strall turned loose with his gun. No one was injured but the shots from Strall's gun infuriated those watching. From a drug store where the charge from Strall's gun had broken a window came the report of a lever action Winchester, Strall fell to the bottom of the sled dead. Millhollen was filled with shot but did not die. Many people thought that George Hallock used the gun which killed Strall, but Pat Murphy said that the shot had not come from Hallocks gun.

About this time Dode Strall, the brother of Roll, found that things were getting too hot around home, so he sold out his horses and other goods and went to Colorado. He had plied his trade as a gambler in Exira and the surrounding neighborhood, much to the sorrow of those who played with him. However, he was less successful in the West, and about two weeks after he left Exira, he came home in a coffin.

As days passed more and more people in the towns where these men went to drink and carouse armed themselves, hoping to get rid of such a gang. Frank Brown and John Anderson, surviving members of the gang, came to Wiota one morning to take the train to Atlantic. They arrived early so decided to take a walk around the streets. They met the wife of one of the doctors, and made one of their usual nasty remarks to her. She went to her husband with the incident, and he vowed he would get even. In anticipation of such an opportunity he went to the hardware store and had twelve shells loaded with heavy buck shot.

When Brown and Anderson returned to Wiota that evening, they went to get their horses at the hitching rack. As they started their usual drunken talk, two loud gun reports came from an open window across the street, and both men fell dead, killed by buck shot loads from a heavy gun. No investigation was made, and no one was prosecuted for the crime.

The killing of Brown and Anderson completed the breaking up of the Crooked Creek gang. One surviving member was in prison, and the others who still lived had taken leave of absence and departed for unknown destinations.

Transcribed for Cass County February, 2012.

NOTE: This book contains a 1940 copyright notice, but no evidence could be found that the copyright was renewed. Accordingly, the copyright is presumed to be expired and the book in the public domain. Sources checked: http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/cce/, https://guides.library.cornell.edu/copyright/publicdomain, and http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/renewals.html.