Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday May 29, 2004 

Postcard 246: Lone Tree’s Historic Heritage

The Zimmerman Steel plant along the railroad tracks in Lone Tree produced tree stump pullers 
and gave that local economy a big boost for nearly three decades. It was the first steel casting plant in Iowa. 
Collage by the author with images from C. Ray Aurner’s 1912 Johnson County history.


By Bob Hibbs


Stump pullers became big business in Lone Tree a century ago as a local farmer and his six children turned manufacturers extraordinaire, fired up the local economy and shipped equipment to many foreign countries.

The company, originally Monarch Grubber Co. which became Zimmerman Steel Co. in 1908, was founded in 1895 by William Zimmerman Sr. and Miles Bateman in a 12-by-16-foot shanty with a dirt floor next to the Jewel Manufacturing Co. in central Lone Tree, a town of 700 then. It’s now 1,200.

At first the castings were purchased from outside suppliers for local assembly.

In 1897 came the first real company building, a 30-by-40 foot structure, located just south of a railroad track which passed through the center of Lone Tree. In this new facility, the first on-site castings were poured in June 1897 from batches of molten metal which approached two tons each.

Zimmerman was the first Iowa manufacturer to cast steel products.

A tiny machine shop equipped with emery wheel (for grinding), blacksmith’s vice (to hold an item) and a hand power drill provided finish to the parts. A 30-by-30 addition came the next year permitted growth.

Zimmerman purchased the Bateman interests that year, took in his eldest son, H.L., and sent his 12-year-old daughter, Bertha, to Iowa City to attend Irish Business College operated by legendary feminist Elizabeth Irish. Bertha began handling the extensive business correspondence by age 13.

At its peak a dozen years later, the sales correspondence would keep six people busy, including Bertha’s husband, H. V. McCluskey.

In 1900 Zimmerman purchased three neighboring Jewell buildings vacant since that company closed in 1898. By 1905 Zimmerman again had outgrown space. It put on a 30-by-50-foot addition and enclosed a 24-by-56-foot area between two structures.

As operations grew, son John (at age 14) and then Fred left the family farm to assist with plant operations. Eventually, all five sons, a daughter and son-in-law would work in the operation, heading all its divisions.

In September 1906 Zimmerman secured the electric franchise for Lone Tree. Under tutelage of son Fred, in just three months the Zimmermans began generating electricity. Electric street lights were a novelty in this era of oil and coal-gas lamps.

A “fire proof” foundry was built in 1909. Its 72 feet by 116 feet size made it the largest Zimmerman building among a half-dozen in which the firm operated.

Its 1911 sales included shipments to 23 countries including Russia, Japan and Australia, as well as many closer to home. The workforce eventually approached 50, mostly machinists in what were considered high-paying jobs.

As eras wax and wane, so did demand for the stump puller. But, it gave the Lone Tree economy a spin for nearly three decades.

P.S. The Lone Tree Historical Society has purchased the two-story Mossman house at 203 S. Devoe St., has converted it into a local history museum and continues the never-ending process of refurbishing and upgrading. More than $150,000 has been invested to date.

Among features are a miniature carved farmstead, country store, old time kitchen, 1939 Buick coupe, a century-old washing machine and vintage clothing.

It’s open April through October from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, or at other times by appointment by calling 629-2625 or 629-5145 or 338-0104. Current officers are Ron Krueger president, Ron Rife vice president, Nancy Schopkohl secretary and Mary Lou Rife treasurer.

A fund drive is underway to pay off a 2001 mortgage. Gifts of any size would be most welcome, and a major benefactor either by current gift or future bequest would put the project on sound financial footing for many years.

Opportunity knocks for all Lone Tree fans!

Next Saturday: State government vacates Old Capitol.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and other historic ephemera and researches history related to them. 

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