HOW COUNTIES WERE MANAGED pgs 30-40
In these busy days of typewriters a great many people have felt that it was scarcely worth while to learn to write well. But when men used quill pens and wrote very carefully it was believed important to have a good pen hand. When the first counties of Iowa were looking for clerks to keep the records, they seem to have found those who knew well how to write; for among the musty old books in the offices of the older counties there are some with the very best of beautiful script. For example, at Dubuque the records of the clerk, Mr. George L. Nightingale, are of that kind; and in Cedar County there is the work of Mr. Charles Whittlesey, while in others the same care seems to have been taken to have smooth clear handwriting upon the books. To be sure it was not always possible to find a skillful penman at the very beginning, and there are pages which one could not call good writing. In the early records, too, the ink must have been very good, because in many it has not faded to this day. Occasionally there are some queer ways of spelling; and no one who has seen it ever forgets how Mr. Benjamin Tucker of Des Moines County wrote his name.
As one might expect, the business of the county officers at first was closely connected with the making of roads, and the providing for the ferries which have been mentioned in Book One. After these had been arranged, there had to be some way to raise the money to pay for laying out the roads or for the usual county expenses. There were two ways, it seems, by which these expenses could be met. In the first place licenses for which they had to pay a fee were given to men who sold certain kinds of goods in the county. Very often these were called grocery licenses; but everybody knows that no charge is ever made for the right to sell sugar or coffee or tea out of a store. The fact is, the made upon the grocery, perhaps as much as $50, was for selling liquor along with the groceries. Sometimes, too, a very heavy license was asked of clock peddlers.
The usual way of getting money, however, was by taxes. All will understand what that means after they have become the owners of property or have grown old enough to vote. It is true, of course, that the amount which each one had to pay then was not very large; but it was perhaps as hard to pay as is many times the amount today. Besides, it was a difficult task to collect even a small tax, when men had little money. At first there was a collector in each township; but even then there was only one in the very large county of Dubuque or of Demoine. So long as the whole county was but a single township it was the duty of one man to look up all the taxpayers over the whole of it and bring in the small tax for the support of county work. If the tax was for the use of the whole territory, the county sheriff had to collect it during the time that the law of Michigan was over the two counties. And when the law of Wisconsin took the place of the Michigan law, in 1836, the sheriff collected all the taxes.
After Iowa became an independent territory in 1838, and even up to 1842, the sheriff continued to attend to the tax collection. But by that time the smaller counties were being divided into still smaller divisions, or townships, and the constable, a township officer, was required to collect the taxes in his own township. It will be seen that as the country became more thickly settled, there was a way found to bring the tax collector nearer to the person who had to pay the taxes; and always, it should be said, the collector carried the money to the county treasurer. By 1844 there was another arrangement by which the treasurer himself was to do the collecting; and, for the convenience of the taxpayers, he made appointments for certain days in each township where he would be or where he would send someone to take the money.
Just how this was done is shown by the advertisements in Scott County in 1842 when the sheriff of the county, as has been said, did the collecting. He announced that he would be at the Davenport hotel on October 15; at a school house in Pleasant Valley on October 17; on other days at the home of Mr. Parkhurst in the town of Parkhurst; at the home of Mr. Pinneo in Elizabeth City; at the home of J. C. Quinn in Point Pleasant; at the home of G. Lathrop in Allen's Grove; and at other convenient places, so that half the month of October was given to meeting the taxpayers.
Sometimes the different kinds of money which had been paid to the collector were mentioned. As early as 1839 the collector in Des Moines County was asked to tell the county commissioners just what kinds of money and how much of each he had in taxes. Perhaps this meant the gold and silver or other metal, or paper that passed as money; for in those days not all money was good. No one today stops to ask about the kind of money he is getting.
About two years after this request was made, the collector was told by the county commissioners to make men pay if they had failed to do so. In doing this their property
could be advertised and sold at auction. The language of the record in Des Moines County is to collect the taxes by “distress and sale”. This order was made in January, 1841; but, that men might have some warning and more time, they were allowed until July of that year to pay up. People did not need very much money then; they could exchange what they raised for that which they did not raise, and most of their needs were met by what they produced at home. But taxes had to be paid in cash, which was sometimes hard to get. No one could escape the tax collector unless he wished to be dishonest; and the easiest way was to pay early. Any delay at that time was just as it is today—more expensive.
So long as taxes could not be collected, just so long must the bills of the county for the usual expenses go unpaid. In such cases men who had money to invest often bought the bills from those who were waiting for their money from the county treasurer. Of course the one who was waiting was anxious for his pay; and, in case the county failed settle his claim within a reasonable time, he would sell it to the moneyed man at a price much less than it really was worth—that is, at a price less than the face of the bill, as men say. The moneyed man would hold these bills until the taxes were paid and then he would get the whole amount from the treasurer and along with it a high rate of interest for the entire time since the bill was due. That was an easy way to make money; and a way by which the poor man became poorer and the rich man became richer. Besides, it made the expenses of the county much greater, since a large amount must be used for the payment of high interest rates.
The whole amount of taxes in the counties at that time seems almost nothing when compared to taxes of today. For example, in Dubuque county in 1836, the territorial tax which would, of course, be paid to the government of Michigan, was only $280; and the entire county tax about $1950; in Cedar county in 1838 the total tax was $160.71, and for the attached county of Johnson it was $46.75. The difference in the amounts was due, to be sure, to the difference in population and property. If a man had property worth $100 he would pay then about fifty cents for common county expenses and one dollar for the building of roads.
But there was other business for the county board to attend to in those days, much of which was more difficult than it is now. One needs only to think that there were few or no public buildings, such as courthouses for offices, or jails, to see that these officers had to find out some place in which to perform their duties. Private houses were hired for holding the trials of criminals, or for other court duties; the prisoners were guarded in the open air by men hired for that purpose. Among the bills allowed by the board of supervisors in Demoine County in 1835, some were for the use of private houses in holding court; in 1837 there was a bill of $1.25 for trace chains for the use of the county to chain a prisoner. A trace chain, as some may not know, was a part of a harness. It would serve to hold a prisoner when there were no handcuffs or other irons to be had. At same time $3.81 was paid for powder, flints, lead, and candles for the use of the guards employed to look after prisoners. In another place there is an allowance for night watchmen, the captain of the guard being paid $1.50 and the men $1.00 for each night, the whole bill amounting to $42.50.
It was customary for the county board to select something that would serve for a seal, which official boards frequently have. Most of us are familiar with such things as the great seal of the State of Iowa; or of some other state. In one county the seal was to be a circle the size of a half dollar with the letters “COMS” and “CC” in the circle; this seal was soon changed to the eagle side of a five cent piece; and on the leaves of the book in which that board kept its records, one will find the impression of the eagle as it was ordered. A penny, perhaps, would serve the same way in other counties, and one city had a real seal, showing a locomotive and a car, made for its especial use. If no object had been selected, a simple “scroll” with a pen might answer.
From 1834 to about 1860 several different names were given to the county board, or those who were to direct the general business of the county. At first, under the laws of Michigan, they were called supervisors and there were three of them. Perhaps they were rightly to be called township officers; for, as the law said, when there was only one township in a county there should be three supervisors. But later they were instructed to attend to all the business of both the county and the township; so we do not need to make any difference in describing them.
It was not long until these officers were called, by the law of Wisconsin, county commissioners. To be sure their duties were not greatly changed, but the name commissioner, as thus used, belonged only to a county office. Such a board governed the county until 1851, when one man, the county judge as he was called, took the place of the three county commissioners. If he happened to be a good man, as many were, it was fortunate for the county; but if a bad man, and there were some of that kind, there was likely to be much trouble. People, generally, do not like to put so much power in the hands of one man; but for about ten years this one-man power managed the county business.
Along with the county board there were other officers, some of whom have been mentioned; the clerk and the sheriff, for example. A county treasurer was always necessary; but all the officers of the present time were not needed. Sometimes one man filled two offices. Another officer, called the county school fund commissioner, will be mentioned in a later chapter, since he had to do only with the school districts, the school lands, and school money.