Cerro Gordo County Iowa
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The Globe Gazette
Mason City, Cerro Gordo County, Iowa
Sunday, July 22, 2001
by Kristin Buehner

North Iowa communities have a long history of immigrant influences

A little history on the settlement of Iowa:

In the first 30 years of settlement, most white Iowa residents were United States natives, coming west from the Northeast or South, according to author Dorothy SCHWIEDER in "Iowa, The Middle Land" (1996).

The federal census of 1860 shows most people who settled in Iowa were born in Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York and Illinois. A smaller number migrated from the southern states of Kentucky, Missouri, Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina.

A small percentage were immigrants of foreign countries, particularly Germany, Ireland and England. They came to escape harsh economic conditions (such as the Irish potato famine of 1845-46), or to seek political or religious freedom.

The foreign-born settlers tended to band together, bonded by a common language, culture and kinship. They came, starting in about 1851-53, just as land west of the Mississippi River was opening up. They chose for their settlements land along the rivers, where timber was most available, said Tom Morain, administrator of the State Historical Society in Des Moines. Many of them were farmers.

Iowa's population increased almost 350 percent between 1840 and 1850 and another 250 percent between 1850 and 1860, according to "Iowa's Natural Heritage" (1983). According to the 1856 census, 6 percent of the people in Cerro Gordo County were immigrants, a total of 35 people. Of these, 12 were English; 9, Irish; 8, Canadian; 5, German, and 1, Swedish.

There were hunters and trappers aplenty among North Iowa's earliest settlers, including Abram BENNETT, the first settler in Grant Township in Cerro Gordo County, and Joseph KELLY, the first settler in Charles City. Others, such as John McMILLIN, the first white settler in Mason City, were pioneers who wanted to settle untamed lands. McMILLIN was of English heritage and arrived here in 1852.

Many of Mason City's early settlers, including McMILLIN, came from Rockford, Ill. Anson OWEN, who settled in the area later known as Owen's Grove, south of Mason City, was also from Rockford, arriving in North Iowa in 1853. John B. LONG and John BIFORD also came from Illinois in 1853 and made extensive land claims along the Winnebago River (Lime Creek) in Masonic Grove, north of what is now Mason City.

The majority of immigrants who came in the early years to Worth, Winnebago and Mitchell counties were Scandinavian. In June 1852, a group of 75 Norwegian immigrants, led by a Danish pastor, the Rev. Claus CLAUSEN, settled at Mitchell County, where St. Ansgar now is, coming from Rock County, Wis. They were seeking good farm land, timber and water.

Other immigrants in Worth County included a German colony established in the northeastern part of the county at Grafton and an Irish community of farmers in the southwest part of the county.

Winnebago County was also primarily Norwegian, although some of its earliest settlers were English and Irish, according to Lake Mills historian Elaine BERGAN. By the end of the 19th century, four-fifths of the county's residents were Norwegian.

Iowa openly recruited Europeans by the 1870s to help spur economic growth. The Iowa General Assembly created a Board of Immigration in 1869 to encourage foreign immigration to Iowa, providing for 65,000 copies to be published in English, German, Dutch, Swedish and Danish. By 1870, 18 percent of Iowa's residents were foreign born.

German-born settlers ranked highest, with Irish, English and Scandinavian ranking second. Immigrants from the same country tended to cluster in particular areas, according to "Iowa's Natural Heritage" (1983). Land was made cheap by the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered land free to any settler who would come in and work it for five years. The immigrants often chose land that reminded them of home: the Norwegians opting for hilly, wooded sites; the Germans choosing the flat land.

The growing railroads in the 1870s caused towns to be built and often determined which settlements survived. Towns in North Iowa were typically spaced seven miles apart to provide trading centers and refueling stations for the railroad.

The number of immigrants coming to Iowa peaked in 1890. After that, fewer immigrants would arrive and most would be from southern and eastern Europe rather than western Europe and the British Isles.

African-Americans would increase in number after 1880. Hispanics would begin arriving during the 1910s. From 1880-1920, specific ethnic or racial groups were often associated with certain occupations. Italians and Eastern Europeans were associated with meatpacking. Germans were noted for their agricultural skills. Norwegians and Danes were also overwhelmingly agricultural.

Hispanics often worked as migrant farm workers. During this time, many immigrants were recruited to work in industry. This is particularly true of Mason City. Others came to join family or friends. Many others came because a farmer or businessman here had paid for their passage. The new arrival would agree to work for their benefactor until the debt was repaid.

Census figures from 1920 show Mason City with an immigrant population of 15 percent, said Terry HARRISON, historian at the Mason City Public Library. In the 1925 census, 36 countries were listed as points of origin for foreign-born residents of Cerro Gordo County. Germany showed the highest number of immigrants with 769, followed by Mexico with 455 and Denmark with 442. Others with a relatively high population were Norway, 333; Russia, 311; Greece, 310; England, 256; Sweden, 241, Canada, 194; and Ireland, 164.

A major immigration of Greeks and other Eastern Europeans occurred from about 1910-1920.They came from countries that also included Serbia, Russia, Yugoslavia, Lithuania, Croatia, Rumania and Bulgaria.

The brick and tile industry employed southern Europeans from Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. The cement plants employed Greeks and some Hispanic workers. DECKER'S meat-packing plant employed Hispanics and African Americans. The sugar beet plant employed Hispanics. Hispanic people also worked in Mason City and later in Hampton and Charles City as migrant farm workers.

The railroads employed Irish Catholics, beginning in 1910, and African Americans, who worked on the line and as porters and cooks. Mason City's South Jackson Avenue, known as "Powder Street," was a melting pot from 1910-1920, with immigrants from Montenegro, Mexico, Serbia, Croatia, Greece, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Italy and some African American families all living in a small area, according to the Globe Gazette centennial issue of 1953.

The first Greek immigrant in Mason City, Gust SKONDRAS, arrived in 1898. He did not settle here permanently but operated the Mason City Kandy Kitchen, later the Olympia Cafe. Within a few years of his arrival, hundreds of other Greek immigrants followed. By 1918, 3,000 Greek immigrants were making their home in Mason City. Many became associated with the food-service industry through ownership of restaurants or grocery stores.

There also was a sizable Jewish community in Mason City. The number of Jewish families grew from 10 in 1910 to 80 in the 1940s, said Justin Chapman of Mason City. They came from Russia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. They spoke Yiddish or Hebrew.

Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, May of 2011



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