Cedar County, Iowa
Community News

How Clarence Got Its Name
Cedar County Town Originally Was Called Onion Grove

By Staff Writer.
Newspaper and date of article not noted on clipping.
Transcribed by Sharon Elijah, April 9, 2015

CLARENCE—As far as the telegraph network is concerned, Clarence, Ia., is still “OG” for “Onion Grove”—the same as it was more than 80 years ago.

    And if you’re looking for more fascinating facts on the Clarence community you can do no better than to knock on the door of the trim old house wherein lives Gordon Smith, a man of many talents.

    Smith, who doesn’t seem old enough to be a historian, happens to be one of those men in whose head stick the facts and figures and names and places, that go to make up the story of a community.

     When the folks in Clarence want to review something in their town’s past, they know the chances are excellent that Gordon Smith will have the answers to their questions on the tip of his tongue.

     There probably are a great many residents among the more than 800n in Clarence who don’t know that Clarence was once “Onion Grove”. They may have heard that their town is 82 years old as a corporation. But they may not know, or they may have forgotten, that is beginnings really go back to 1844.

     First Settler Gordon Smith can tell them for instance, that the first permanent white settler in Dayton township, Cedar County, was one Thomas Robinson, who showed up there back in 1844. Robinson and Moses Garrison, who came in’47, both settled in a grove near town. The grove was then and still is known as “Onion Grove”. And within that area the beginnings of a village are recorded for posterity.

     But the coming of the railroad changed the geography of the locality. When the Chicago, Iowa and Nebraska railroad laid its rails into the area in the summer of 1858, the buildings were moved nearer the railroad. The town of “Onion Grove” literally went to the tracks and has been there alongside what is now the North Western railroad since the line was extended in 1858-59.

     So it was that “Onion Grove” took a place on the map and got telegraphic call letters . . . “OG” which have stayed, despite the change of the town’s name.

     Residents of Clarence, who may not like the sound of “Onion Grove” can thank one L. B. Gere for having brought about the change of the name to “Clarence”.

     Gere had come from Clarence, N. Y., and is the man who, according to Historian Smith, suggested that the name of “Onion Grove” was a little smelly and not very high-sounding. Other residents, failing to note much euphony in their original town name, quickly agreed and the new incorporated town took “Clarence” as its official designation.

     Buildings Moved. One of the buildings which was moved from Onion Grove to the site of Clarence was a structure which must have been erected about 1850.

     In 1869, George E. Smith came from Tipton, formed a partnership with Jeremiah Hart and started a drug business in the building which had been moved. Since that time, the land on which the building has stood has been owned continuously by Smiths and there has been a drug store on the site all the while.

     Gordon Smith is very certain about the details of that story. The reason: George E. Smith was his grandfather.

     It was only about 15 years ago that the original building which housed Clarence’s first drug store was finally razed.

     Historian Smith can recall details of the catastrophes which have befallen Clarence down through the years.

     There were the bad business district fires of 1878 and again in 1890. But what folks in Clarence still talk about are the tornadoes which struck the community.

     As a matter of fact, history records a couple of bad ones including the “Comanche” tornado. But neither of the big winds ever struck the town—just came close.

     The “Comanche” came on Sunday, June 3, 1860. And the lesser blow arrived on May 18, 1898.

     Calling again on Gordon Smith, the authority on fascinating facts about Clarence, you can hear a really fantastic, but nonetheless true tale of the Comanche blow.

     “It literally rained mud,” Smith will tell you. “The twister swept within two miles of Clarence, followed a creek bed, funneling up the water and mixing it with the debris that it carried. It struck a house and killed the family and at the same time spewed the mud, and even fish from the creek all over the area.”

     Windstorm of 1898. Fred Cook, another Clarence resident, could tell a story about the windstorm of 1898. It demolished the Charles Deke home but Cook, a farm hand there at the time, rescued the children whose parents were absent. No casualties resulted. But the house was a total loss.

     Gordon Smith will tell you that Clarence, not quite close enough to either Cedar Rapids, Clinton or Davenport to be thought of in terms of a “suburb,” has maintained its identity through the years, has always had a least one doctor, one lawyer within its limits.

     There was a time through the 1880’s and ‘90’s that Clarence boasted seven churches, along with the nearby Dayton Valley Wesleyan Methodist, which made eight in the community. Of the Presbyterian, United Brethren, Lutheran, Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, Catholic and Evangelical and Reformed, only the Methodist and the Evangelical and Reformed churches remain, together with the nearby Dayton Valley church.

     The Dayton Valley church, incidentally is probably the second oldest building still in use as a house of worship in Cedar county. The South Bethel Methodist church nearer Tipton takes first honors, according to Smith.

     There’s another little fact that probably has escaped a great many residents of Smith’s hometown.

     Stanwood, the next town on highway 30 west of Clarence is in Fremont township. Clarence is in Dayton township. The two townships took their respective names from the first Republican presidential and vice-presidential candidates in U. S. history . . . John C. Fremont and William Dayton, respectively.

     From Gordon Smith you can learn more historical facts such as this one: The first farm drainage tile laid in Cedar County came from New York and were half-moon in shape, or half tile. They were laid more than 70 years ago.

     Clarence, businesswise, has done a great deal cooperatively. Thirty years ago the first cooperative enterprise was the Clarence Cooperative Livestock Shipping Association. Cooperative operations also came to handle lumber, creamery business and grain.

     Oldest continuous business in Clarence is The Clarence Sun, the town’s newspaper, owned by the Seaton family.

     Oldest residents of Clarence and community include such as W. H. Stanlake, soon to be 91 years old, and a man who has lived in the community all his life: Calvin Sawyer, 88, of near Clarence; Sarah Decker, 88, native of the Dayton Valley community, and Mrs. Minnie Bauman, a descendant of an Onion Grove resident, Moses Garrison.

Gordon Smith of Clarence is that community’s unofficial historian, as well as a minister, coroner, monument salesman, income tax computer and hobbyist. He has served Clarence as a mayor, is a former state representative from Cedar county and is now a member of the town council.

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