Another IAGenWeb Project





IT WILL be remembered that the passage of the law granting land for the building of the St. Paul & Sioux City Railroad was what first attracted the attention of the early settlers to this county and induced them to make their selections here. The first grant applied exclusively to Minnesota and did not affect Iowa at all, but in 1865 Congress passed another law granting the Sioux City & St. Paul road through Iowa the same subsidies that were granted to the St. Paul & Sioux City road through Minnesota ten years before. Originally two companies controlled that line. The Minnesota end of the line was known as the St. Paul & Sioux City road, while the Iowa end was known as the Sioux City & St. Paul road. This was due to the fact that neither state would turn its grant over to a foreign company, but insisted on having a resident company; accordingly, when the Iowa grant was made a local company was organized in Sioux City with J. C. C. Hoskins, president, and S. T. Davis, secretary, for the development of the Iowa end of the line. The two roads were afterwards consolidated.


A law was also passed at this time granting a subsidy of land for building the McGregor & Western road, which became a part of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St Paul system. The prospect of the early completion of these roads gave quite an impetus to emigration. The St. Paul & Sioux City Company, in locating their line, found that they could get a larger quantity of land by swinging around to the west, and accordingly did so, thus passing through Osceola County instead of this, as was the original expectation. The road was completed in the fall of 1871 and for the next eight years, or until the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul was completed to Spencer, stations on that route were the nearest railroad points for the people of this county. The inhabitants in the north part of the county divided their patronage about equally between Worthington, Sibley and Windom, the distance to either place being about the same. The south part of the county transacted their business almost entirely at Sibley. This state of affairs continued in force until the building of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul, the main line of which was built through Spencer in the fall of 1878.


In the early days this county was noted for the fine quality of wheat raised here, but inasmuch as there were no mills short of Mankato or Fort Dodge, but little attention was given to its production. As the population increased the want of a good flouring mill was keenly felt. It was generally believed that the outlet to the lakes would furnish a sufficient water power for that purpose. Indeed an attempt was made to improve it as early as 1861 by J. S. Prescott and Henry Meeker, who went as far as to put up a frame and get in the machinery for a first-class mill, but getting discouraged at the time of the Indian raid of 1862 and the extremely low water occasioned by the drouth of that and the following year, they sold off the machinery and abandoned the project, and the country had to depend upon the distant points for breadstuffs.


In the fall of 1868, Mr. A. D. Foster of Hudson, Wisconsin, in company with Frank Boyd of Humboldt County in this state, visited this place in search of a location for erecting a flouring mill. Mr. Foster had been traveling extensively through northwestern Iowa and southern Minnesota in search of a suitable location for that purpose, and not having found anything that fully suited him, he had about given up the object of his search when he fell in company with Frank Boyd at Fort Dodge. Mr. Boyd had visited the vicinity of the lakes the June previous and had noticed the fact that their outlet would probably furnish a water power of more than ordinary value. After making the acquaintance of Mr. Foster he told him of his trip to the lakes and induced him to go up there and make an examination for himself, at the same time offering to accompany him on the trip. They arrived here some time in the month of September and Mr. Foster was so well pleased with the appearance of the country at large and with the water power afforded by the lakes that he decided to look no further but to locate here and commence operations as soon as possible. He immediately returned to Wisconsin, where he made the necessary preparations and returned here some time in the month of October, when he made his selection of a location and commenced operations at once. The site selected had previously been taken as a homestead, but afterwards abandoned. Mr. A. D. Inman and Wallace Smith were the only persons living in that locality.


The labor and expense necessary for the accomplishment of an enterprise of that kind was a different thing then from what it would be at present. Labor was high and provisions remarkably dear. The nearest railway station was at Mankato, and everything had to be transported by team from there. Again, the nature of the ground required the work to be done on .a more extensive scale than was at first contemplated and the fact soon became apparent to Mr. Foster that the expense of getting the mill into operation would be more than double his original estimate and greater than he was at that time prepared to meet. To abandon the enterprise would be to lose the considerable amount already expended and also to relinquish what promised to be, if properly developed, one of the biggest things in the Northwest; while to proceed was to subject himself to uninterrupted toil, privation, anxiety and embarrassment. He decided to accept the latter alternative and take the chances. The people in that locality were much interested and favored the project by every means in their power. Mr. R. R. Wilcox had charge of building the mill.


The sawmill was put in operation July 4, 1869, and the gristmill in the December following. The success of the mills was complete from the start. The flouring mill commanded work from a range of country nearly seventy miles in every direction and it was no uncommon occurrence for thirty or forty teams to be camped there at a time waiting their turns for getting their grists and it finally became necessary to have their grists registered months in advance. Of course, this state of affairs was a harvest for the proprietors and they soon succeeded in relieving themselves of the embarrassment occasioned by the extra cost and outlay to which they had subjected themselves in thus exceeding their original plan.


A question out of which has grown a considerable strife and contention is the right of the mill company to maintain an auxiliary dam for the purpose of regulating the flow of water. The very first act of Mr. Foster when he commenced operations for building his mill was to throw a darn across the outlet at the foot of the lake so as to stop the flow of water. The season being dry and the water low, this was an easy job. A half day with two or three men and a team was sufficient to accomplish it. But daring the winter there were heavy snows followed by heavy rains in the spring, thereby causing a material rise in the lakes, and Foster was obliged to build up and strengthen his upper dam accordingly. This state of affairs continued two or three years, at the end of which time the mill company had a strong darn in there some six or seven feet high and solid in proportion.


At the first Mr. Foster had no thought of maintaining this upper dam permanently but simply put it in as a protection for his main work while building, with the intention of removing it as soon as his main dam was completed. But the high water of two or three seasons about that time soon made it evident that they were at any time liable to be overwhelmed with more water than they had made provision for, and consequently the upper dam was allowed to remain.


Just previous to this time Stimpson had been, overhauling the "old red mill" on the isthmus, and had just commenced business when the sudden and unparalleled rise in the lower lake so backed the water into his race that he claimed it materially affected the efficiency of his water power and presented a claim to Foster for damages. Foster did not acknowledge the validity of his claim, but rather than go into court at that time, he compromised with him. In addition to the money consideration, one of the conditions of this compromise was that the lower lakes should be drawn down to a certain point by the first day of September. A dry summer following the wet spring made this part of the stipulation possible; but this was only the commencement of the trouble.


As has been before stated, Stimpson in 1870 disposed of his mill on the isthmus to O. Compton, who overhauled it, putting in entirely new machinery. But his wheel was so large and the head so low that it took a perfect flood of water to run it, and soon Spirit Lake began to draw down, while Okoboji was higher than ever. Compton now made his claim for damages by "backwater."


This the owners of the Milford mill refused to allow. They saw that they would soon be compelled to take a stand and defend themselves and they might as well do it then as any time, and so refused all terms of compromise. This so enraged Compton's friends that a party of them, some fifteen or twenty strong, went down for the purpose of destroying the upper dam. They filled a jug with powder, attached a piece of fuse thereto, and placing it under the planking of the waste gate, they succeeded in blowing it out. The mill company at once put on a force of men and soon had the dam so far repaired as to have everything safe once more. In a short time Compton's men came down a second time and tore out the dam, this time more thoroughly than before. Again the mill company put on men and repaired the damages. In this way the contention was kept up for some time, but finally it began to be apparent that the isthmus water power was a failure. When the lake was drawn down it was too long filling up.


After the controversy between the owners of the two mills was closed, parties owning land bordering on the lake began to claim damages by reason of their low land being overflowed, or the banks of their land being caved off by the action of the water. There were several cases of this kind, but only one of them ever came to trial in the courts. That was the one of B. B. Van Steenburg, which was stubbornly contested by both sides, and finally decided in favor of the mill company. Van Steenburg appealed to the supreme court, where the decision of the district court was affirmed, but this decision did not decide anything, from the fact that the supreme court in rendering it said that the testimony was so conflicting that they did not feel justified in disturbing the decision of the lower court.


Several other cases were in process of being worked up, but this decision by the supreme court discouraged them and they were never brought to trial. In the meantime the upper dam has been destroyed and rebuilt at pretty regular intervals by different parties as their interests seemed to dictate, while the vexed question of rights of parties is just as far from being settled as ever and public opinion shifts from one side of the question to the other just as the water in the lakes shifts from high to low and back again. For the last few years the continued dry seasons have so affected the stage of water in the lakes that it is difficult to believe that for years they afforded a water power of great value. But such was the case nevertheless.


The question of the rise and fall and average level of the water in the lakes is one that has first and last attracted a great deal of attention and caused a great deal of speculation. The question is of such importance that every known fact tending in any way to make the subject better understood becomes at once both interesting and valuable. Upon the arrival of the first settlers here after the massacre in the spring of 185 the water in the Okoboji was just about at the medium level between high and low water. It will be remembered that this was immediately after the "hard winter" when the entire northwest part of the state was covered with from three to five feet of snow. There was also the usual fall of rain that spring. These conditions under ordinary circumstances would cause a rise in the lakes of from two and a half to three feet. The conclusion is therefore irresistible that the lakes were very low the fall before.


Again, the sandbar at the south end of the Okoboji bridge was from two to three rods wide and covered with a black alluvial soil on which was a rank growth of vegetation such as gooseberry bushes, prickly ash, wild roses and wild grape vines, while along the central or higher part there was a growth of trees some of which must have been from twenty-five to forty years old. It is absolutely certain that the water had not swept across this bar for a great many years previous to that time.


In Center Lake there is a small island which was at that time under water and covered with dead timber. The water in which the trees were standing was from six inches to three feet deep. The timber was principally ironwood, white ash and cottonwood. It had evidently been dead from two to five years. In several of the small lakes northwest of Spirit Lake, the same conditions existed. There were in all several acres of dead timber standing in the water. During the succeeding winter most of the settlers who wintered here depended largely on this dry wood for fuel. One man had two yoke of cattle shod on purpose to haul this dry wood across Spirit Lake. The loads he hauled were something marvelous.


Now the question is when, and under what circumstances, did this timber grow? It didn't grow in the water. That's certain, and yet some of the dead trees were standing in fully three feet of water, and that, too, with the lakes' below a medium level. Governor Carpenter visited the lakes in the summer of 1855, which was before there was any settlement here whatever. In giving an account of this trip, he always insisted that he drove his mules across the straits where the Okoboji bridge now is and that the water wasn't more than two feet deep. Now all of these circumstances go to prove that during the early part of the present century the water in the lakes was low and had remained so for a series of years.


The summer of 1858 was a very wet one, and as a consequence the lakes were high, evidently higher than they had been for a great many years. The water made a breach over the bar at the south end of the bridge for the first time. From that time on and until 1881 there were wet seasons and there were dry seasons, the wet ones predominating, and as a consequence the lakes gradually were rising. The summer of 1866 was a phenomenally wet summer and the lakes were correspondingly high; higher than at any time since the first settlement, but it was not until .about 1872 or 1873 that the last of the trees and vegetation on the bar south of the bridge was entirely washed away. Of course there were some dry summers sandwiched in between the wet ones. For instance, the summer of 1863 was a remarkably dry one.


The county has built a grade about four feet high the whole length of the sandbar. Had the lakes remained as they were previous to 1857 this would have been wholly unnecessary. The lakes reached their highest level in the summer of 1881. As many fears were expressed then that all of the low land was going to be overflowed and the lake shores washed away and ruined as there has since been that the lakes are gradually drying up. Since then there have been dry seasons and wet seasons, the dry ones predominating, and the water in the lakes gradually growing lower until in 1898 they reached the lowest level known since the first settlement of the county. A careful examination of the lake shore at the time of the high water of 1881 showed conclusively that the water had as high before. But when? The ridges of sand and gravel that had been thrown up by the previous high water were clearly traceable and possessed that peculiar appearance which only the action of waves can give, while the line of boulders at the water's edge were piled up as only the action of the ice could pile them.


These circumstances must be taken as proof positive that the water has been up there before. Taking all these proofs into consideration, we are irresistibly forced to the conclusion that the lakes through a long series of years pass from their highest level to the lowest and then back again, and that this process has been going on for centuries. When for a series of years we have more than the normal rainfall, the lakes gradually rise, and on the other hand, when for a series of years we have less than normal, the lakes go down.


How much the cultivation of the adjacent land affects the rise and fall of the water in the lakes, we cannot determine. Of course it affects it some, but then again, the building of the dam across the outlet at the lower end of the lakes to stop the flow or waste, except in times of high water, counterbalances that somewhat so that it can be safely claimed that the theory that the lakes are gradually drying up is not in accordance with known facts any more than would be the theory that our rainfall is gradually diminishing, and that the prairies of northwestern Iowa are destined in the near future to become a barren desert. Some of the bays and shallow parts of the lake are filling with aquatic vegetation to some extent, which, with the soil washed from adjacent land, may eventually change the contour of the lakes somewhat, but this is a remote contingency.


One drawback that the mills on the outlet always had to contend with was that the lake being quite shallow where it narrowed up to form the stream, the ice in very cold weather would freeze to the bottom and prevent the flow, thus shutting off the supply of water. The result was that the mills were compelled to shut down in the latter part of winter, even in times when there would have been plenty of water except for the ice.


Several dry seasons now following each other in succession, the water supply so far failed that it could not be depended on when most needed and the mills were compelled to put in steam power, which they did about 1886. In 1896 the state built a darn across the outlet just below the lower end of Gar Lake, in order to prevent the flow of water from the lake until it reaches a given level. This was done to promote the fishing interest.


Another event worthy of note as occurring during this period is the burning of the courthouse, which took place in February, 1872. The origin of the fire is unknown. The upper story was occupied and used as a school room at that time, and a singing school was held there the night of the fire. The records in the recorder's office were fortunately saved, but those of the treasurer and clerk of the district court were mostly destroyed. At the time it was burned the courthouse was insured in the Mississippi Valley Insurance Company. The company was immediately notified and payment demanded. This was refused on the ground that the building had been used for other purposes than were mentioned in the policy. Upon the refusal of the company to make payment, suit was brought against them by the county. The company took a change of venue to Clay County, where the case was tried and the county obtained judgment for something over $2,600. The company appealed, when the judgment was reversed and the ease, sent back for a new trial. Pending the trial the matter was compromised between the Board of Supervisors and the Insurance Company at about fifty cents on the dollar.


After the burning of the courthouse the question of removal of the county seat was discussed in some quarters, but the movement was not strong enough to lead to any practical results. An endeavor was made by parties in the south part of the county to prevent rebuilding on the old site, but it was not heartily supported and a contract was let to T. L. Twiford for rebuilding upon the old foundation according to plans and specifications furnished by him. This was done in the summer of 1872 and it was taken possession of by the county authorities the ensuing fall.