From the Iowa City Press Citizen By John Darda
photos by Matthew Holst

Tuesday, December 25, 2001
format updated 28 Sep 2010

Journey led family to county

Fourth in a series

Today’s story about the Brandstatters of Johnson County is the fourth in a week-long series celebrating people who, long ago, came to the area, got married and settled down to raise their families. Their reasons for coming were many — jobs, adventure, family. For generations, their descendants have helped shape Johnson County.

Phillip Brandstatter did not want to be a priest.

Rex Brandstatter

Rex Brandstatter
Rex Brandstatter talks with a customer
in his office at REMAX in Coralville.
Rex Brandstatter poses with an old photo album
and family heirlooms, including his grandfather’s
police badge, hat and gun.


It was customary in southern Germany in the late 1830s that the eldest son of the family would join the priesthood. But Brandstatter decided in 1840, when he was 14, that he would break with tradition. After stowing away on a sailing ship bound for New York City, Brandstatter worked his way across the country and arrived in Johnson County the same year.

He was rumored to be bull-headed and stubborn - at least that's the impression Rex Brandstatter has of his great-great grandfather.

Brandstatter, who owns the real estate agency RE/MAX Premier Properties in Coralville, and his wife Michelle mark the end of the Brandstatter family line in Johnson County who can trace their roots 161 years back to Phillip.

Through his longstanding connection to the community and his real estate business, Brandstatter seems to know everybody and everything about Coralville. In fact, the city calls Brandstatter its honorary historian.

If Phillip Brandstatter came looking for the American frontier, he found it. The area was virtually on the edge of civilization. A pioneer arriving in 1840 could find no hospital, no sheriff, no jail, no church building and no paved roads. Tax roles indicate the total county population at 650, but that number didn't include American Indians of the Fox and Sac tribes that Brandstatter saw living near Clear Creek. A treaty forced the tribes from Johnson County to Fort Des Moines in 1843.

Brandstatter started sharecropping in Tiffin on a 60-acre farm about a mile south of town.

On his frequent trips to Iowa City for supplies, he became acquainted with other early Iowa City families such as Chauncy Swan and Captain Irish, though they probably never became friends. His personality was cold at best and intimidating and grating at worst, Brandstatter admits.

"He was a tough, bull-headed guy. He was not real friendly to others," Rex Brandstatter said.

After fighting with the First Illinois Cavalry in the Mexican American War, Phillip married the daughter of an Illinois plantation farmer in 1849. They bought the farm in Tiffin and had 14 children.

The family dug wells by kerosene lamp, bathed in outdoor tubs and plowed the land using draft horses.

Farm life in the 1850s offered few comforts and much hardship; three Brandstatter children died before the age of five.

By the time Phillip Brandstatter died in 1891, Iowa City had grown extensively. The downtown plat closely resembled its current look and the Medical College at the University of Iowa had been established.

Before he died, Brandstatter believed that he was suffering from cancer. He donated his stomach to the Iowa City Medical Clinic for study, hoping any research would be helpful to his family.

Rex Brandstatter traces his lineage through Brandstatter's seventh son, Charles. Charles inherited the gruff and cantankerous persona Phillip emulated and lived his life more or less unnoticed in Tiffin.

Left lasting mark

It was Charles' son, J.A. Brandstatter, who would leave a lasting mark on Coralville.

Born Joseph Agusta Brandstatter in 1893 in Tiffin, J. A. or "Brandy" was likeable and athletic. He played professional football for the Rock Island Independents in 1924 - along with legendary halfback Jim Thorpe - and started a number of Iowa City businesses.

Brandy's Rent-a-Ford, the first commercial truck rental business in Iowa, opened next door to the Englert Theater in Iowa City in 1923.

"He rented autos, trucks and ran a transfer and storage business," Rex Brandstatter said. "He'd get work unloading and setting up for the circus when it came to town."

One of the most influential jobs Brandy Brandstatter was involved with was in 1929 when he delivered steel for the construction of Kinnick Stadium.

During that time, Brandy also worked as engineer and a fireman shoveling coal into boiler-driven steam engines on the Rock Island Railroad.

"He got to be a big guy," said Rex. "That's when he'd ride into Rock Island, working for the railroad, and then play for the Independents."

Brandy bought a house at 509 6th Avenue in Coralville in 1925 and moved in his wife, Genevieve, and three young children.

"They brought the population of Coralville to 300," said Rex.

Like most Midwestern families, the Great Depression hit the Brandstatters hard. Brandy's Rent-a-Ford closed.

Recalls stock market crash

Brandy's daughter, Ruth Rittenmeyer, 85, still lives in Iowa City and recalls the difficult days after the 1929 stock market crash.

"When the bank went broke, I thought it was the end of the world," she said. "My father lost everything except the house."

He found work as a salesman, traveling from town to town selling subscriptions for the Davenport Democrat.

"A month's subscription ran from 35 to 50 cents a month, depending on the package you wanted," Rex Brandstatter said.

Always an enterprising man, Brandy hired neighborhood children to help make horseradish sauce in his basement that he sold at local grocery stores. He also bred Boston bull terriers to help make ends meet.

"He was a salesman. Once I remember he had us kids sitting around the kitchen table painting door springs. I don't know who he sold them to, but I remember him being so elated that he cleared five dollars profit," Rittenmeyer said.

In the mid 1930s, Highway 6 connected the country from coast to coast and passed through the center of Coralville, which was Fifth Street at the time. The increased traffic prompted the city to hire Brandstatter as the town's first marshal.

"I didn't think he should do that," said Rittenmeyer. "I was a teenager at the time and I didn't want to get teased that my dad was the town marshal."

The city intended to make Coralville a speed trap to slow down traffic.

"They gave him a badge, a hat and a gun," Rex Brandstatter said.

Like his grandfather pioneering a farm in Tiffin, Brandy Brandstatter pioneered police work in Coralville. He would estimate the speed of passing motorists.

If he thought they were going faster than the posted speed limit of 30 mph, he would get in his vehicle - the city had no squad car - and pull them over.

Despite the Depression, Brandy's children Ruth, J. Erwin and Joyce lived an idyllic life. In winter, they ice-skated to school on the Iowa River. In summer, they roller-skated down the short streets in old Coralville.

"My dad always said that living in Coralville was like living the life of Huckleberry Finn," Rex Brandstatter said.

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