Mills County, Iowa

Ghost Towns of Mills County, Iowa
by Allen Wortman

(used with permission)

. . . the Vigorous Commercial Center

Chapter 14, pages 107-124

On October 15, 1879, the first through train of the St. Louis & Council Bluffs Railroad steamed through Mills County, providing additional transportation facilities and the stimulus for several new towns along its line. Of these Silver City was started in the fall of that year and Strahan, Solomon and Mineola (at first called Lewis City) began shortly thereafter.

We have been unable to find an authoritative record of exactly when Strahan was founded. Rena Gipe (Mrs. Zeno) Bass, who lived just south of the community for almost her entire life, believed that it was named for James Miller Strahan, a very prominent farmer and businessman from Malvern who may have been instrumental in getting some of the business enterprises established. Its post office was established April 22, 1881, with W. F. Hannah as post master.

It was recorded in The Malvern Leader February 22, 1881, that the new Strahan depot was being ceiled and stove, table and seats installed; and that “we are soon to have an operator and agent at this point. Jack Stevens, our genial section foreman is to leave.” Shortly afterward Joe Billett was named station agent for the railway, and a 1,200 foot passing track was built, as well as a new well sunk for the stockyards. By that time The Leader had a regular correspondent at Strahan, starting a weekly news letter which continued ever since. Frequently the news was good and progressive, always entertaining and zesty and showed the development of a lively, very active commercial center which was able to provide a competitive market for the huge amounts of grain and livestock raised in the area and the stores and services which a prosperous farming community always needs.

Perhaps the most unique thing about Strahan as a town was the number of business establishments it had in proportion to the number of homes. Glenn Dalrymple, who lived in the community as a boy prior to 1910, recalls that the town had an elevator (later two), lumber and hardware store, implement store (at that time all owned by Salyers & Kayton), Henry Boyer’s grocery and general store, the LeRoy Dixon grocery and meat store, Charles Hambsch grocery and general store, another meat market, the post office (which was always in one of the stores, usually one owned by the postmaster so this would change as new appointments were made), a garage owned by Charles Wickersham, the Reasoner and Harold Peterson blacksmith shops, H. H. Black, M.D. and dentist and, of course, the railway station.

The plat of the town at that time was all on the west side of First Street which is now County Road M16 and is paved from the School house corner north to Hastings. The plat showed only four other streets: Second Street, a block east of First and Third Street which is curved southeasterly from Main Street (the east-west street at the north) to Bently, the only other east-west street. Stores and business blocks took up much of the space along these streets leaving room for only a few homes.

However, in 1913 an addition to the original plat was made by Mr. Dixon on the east side of First Street, known as the Schurr and Ralston addition, which provided two blocks of lots, and a number of houses were built there. As the town was never incorporated into a municipality, it was governed (in point of upkeep of its streets and other public needs) by the county board of supervisors. The population was listed as 30 in an atlas published in 1904 and possibly was double that by the time of its peak activity.

The Boyer building had a second-floor room suitable for public and other assemblies. Fraternal orders also flourished at Strahan in those early days. Mrs. Minnie V. Davis wrote a short history of White Cloud township for the 1910 Atlas and stated: “The IOOF have a thriving lodge of 45 members. The D. of R. (Rebekahs) also have a membership of 50. The M. W. A. (Modern Woodmen of America) also have a large lodge.” The lodge was organized in 1904 with C. A. Payne as a Noble Grand. In 1900 the news reported that “35 attended the Owls Club dance Friday night. In point of attendance they are ahead of the church.”

The advent of the automobile was welcomed with special enthusiasm in the Strahan community. R. Wallace Salyers of Durango, Colo., a son of George F., who lived on the family farm near Strahan briefly before moving to Malvern with his parents, recalls that early in 1910, his father with E. C. Kayton, Lew Hambsch and Wilber Kayton, decided that each would get an auto. So the quartet entrained for Omaha one Monday morning to get either three or four cars at the old Lininger Implement Co., distributors of the Oakland car. (A few months later Mr. Salyers obtained a Ford Dealership, in October, 1910, which continued in the family for more than sixty years.) Day after day went by and they didn’t show up in Malvern where Mr. Salyers’ family was waiting. Finally on Friday they drove in, with three new cars and a black man with them as instructor. It seems that they started back with the cars on Tuesday but one of the drivers erred in shifting gears and tore the transmission out of the car. So they had to be towed back to Omaha (a definite problem in those days since generally horses were hitched to any stalled vehicle) for repairs.

When they arrived the Salyers family loaded into their new car and with the black man as chauffeur, sped out to Strahan and their farm. “I can well remember,” wrote Wallace, “that they said we were going twenty-five miles per hour but it seemed to me, at least, that we were flying.” He recalls, too, that when his father first drove into their machine shed and forgot how to stop it, he shouted: “Whoa! Whoa! You son of a gun! Whoa! and finally killed the engine and managed to stop before damaging the building.

The first bank, the Citizens, was established in Strahan in November, 1912, in the Dixon building, by E. H. Ralston who brought his own safe and some other equipment. Unfortunately, and possibly through lack of good management, this institution failed November 5, 1914, and it was reported that Mr. Ralston had disappeared from town the night before. A short time later the Farmers State Bank was established, with T. M. Brazelton as president and Walter Fisher (later Steve Criswell) as cashier and this continued until the great depression when it was closed without loss to depositors or stockholders because business conditions no longer warranted its operation.

Strahan continued as a vigorous commercial center through the 1920’s. Earl Bass of Malvern recalls that in that period there were the following business houses: Chevrolet Garage operated by Frank Clites on First Street; a grocery store at First and Main, a Hotel at the corner of Second and Main, meat market on the Main, Farmers State Bank on the north side of Main, Lew Hambsch general store on Main near corner of Third, a barber shop, Jake Achenbach general store and battery shop at west end of Main, Frank Steele’s heavy equipment and machine shop at west end of Main, Cleaver hardware store on Third, a lumber yard, two elevators, stock yards, two blacksmith shops and depot.

The East Sunbeam district school, first located on the Adam Gipe home place a mile west, stood on the corner just south of Strahan across from the Consolidated school later built, served the community and district for many years. The district operated two school buildings, the West Sunbeam being two miles from the East. Pupils wanting to continue in high school could go to a nearby town district, a number of them attending at Malvern since it was easy to commute there by train. Clifford Vestal recalls that he did so for part of his high school work, but attended at Strahan after the consolidated school was established and was graduated there.

As early as the turn of the century consideration was being given to a consolidate district. On February 21, 1901, it was reported in the Strahan news department, that teachers and patrons of the district met in Boyer’s Hall and at this meeting Supt. Marsh (presumably County Superintendent) gave a talk on consolidation of schools. This idea did not meet wide-spread acceptance. It was quite strongly opposed by many land owners who recognized that much of the cost of such a system would be taxed to farm land, and that operation of a high school and providing transportation to and from school for pupils might cause burdensome taxes. So the idea simmered for several years. But an election was held May 31, 1917, and voters in the area included in the proposal approved the formation of a consolidated school district which was reported to be the first in the county which operated a high school. It included the former independent rural districts of Sunbeam, Valley View, Sunrise, Fairview, Naley, South Grove and Center – thirty-two sections of land in all.

Action toward organization followed rapidly. Another election was called to name a board of directors and this included P. L. Quimby, president; A. D. Bradley, Willis Dye, Charles Gipe and Fred Newell with Howard Kayton, secretary. The board, after petition, set a third election for September 13, 1917, to vote on $50,000 bonds for funds with which to build a new school house. This carried by a margin of only six votes.

An architect was selected, plans drawn up and approved, contracts let and the new building was constructed and opened in the fall of 1919, with Superintendent Nevelin in charge. The school became a new source of community pride and flourished until the general reorganization of districts some forty years later which made it a part of the Nishna Valley Community district in 1960. It was used as an elementary school for that district for another decade.

Transportation of pupils was something of a problem because there were no surfaced rural roads in the district and Mills County soil, admirably rich and productive for farming, crated travel hazards during muddy weather or the winter’s snows. The first school busses were horse-drawn vehicles, with pupils seated on benches along the sides of the long bodies. In due time motor busses were acquired and the first of these, the GWW chassis, was manufactured at Henderson, Iowa, by George W. Wilson. While motorized busses shortened the long rides to and from school from the more distant parts of the district, they still had problems in bad weather and road vacations were not unusual.

The Strahan community had always evidenced a strong interest in sports. Back in 1882 the Strahan news writer commented that “Two of our boys settled an election dispute in the Ryan and Sullivan style Saturday night” – a reference no doubt to fisticuffs. In 1884 the writer reported that Strahan’s baseball team with Will Hilton pitching and Henry McFarland at catch, crossed bats with Malvern but lost 14-3. In 1901 the Strahan Bronchos took on a team from White Cloud, trouncing them 19-4.

No doubt there were numberous games, and teams, not reported as the seasons went by. In 1913, a new baseball club was organized with Wood Vestal as Captain and Carl Paulson as manager. In later years, too, there was wide interest in hunting and numerous references in the paper to raccoon hunting. Many hunters kept hounds and more than once the news-writer told that the dogs had treed a ‘coon only to have the hunters wait around until morning before the game could be brought down.

When the Strahan Consolidated high school building provided a snug gymnasium, interest in basketball soared. Boys teams were formed right at the start and it took only a few seasons before the school also fielded girls teams of ability. In the 1921-23 season the boys teams gained state-wide recognition under the coaching of the “Prof.” (superintendent) W. W. Molesbury and the girls team competed in the state tournament in 1923. Fans of the team, adult as well and student, were exceptionally zealous. The gym had limited seating capacity so it was necessary to get to the building early even to find standing room. The adult fans were so vocal in their support of the teams that on occasion “Prof.” Molesbury had to warn them to be quiet.

Through the years Strahan school produced many other strong teams and its graduates went on to find success in many fields. But those early years of the new school brought special satisfaction to the community with its unusual success in sports and the thrill of developing a new institution.

Nor were politics neglected at Strahan. Reported the newswriter November 13, 1884: “Strahan is crowded every night…talking politics and betting on Blaine.” In a later election the Democrats put up a flag pole to show party interest and shortly thereafter the Republicans put up another even higher. The Strahan Sons of Veterans Drum & Bugler Corps was engaged to play at political rallies in other towns. In 1901 it went to Hastings to play at a reception for John Y. Stone and another time to Malvern for a rally at which Senator Dolliver was the orator. Henry Boyer, whose store boasted a large second-story room used frequently for public meetings, also served as news correspondent for Strahan and devoted adequate space to the winter Lyceum series and all community activities.

Of course, business was the basic interest of the community and the rich agricultural area around the town provided much of this. In 1882 Kayton & Kinney shipped four cars of corn and sold another in a single day. J. D. Paddock came up from Malvern and bought a full car of potatoes for his Pioneer Store. The Wabash provided special trains and excursion rates when events in other towns warranted it. In 1900 Salyers & Kayton built a new elevator, reported by the newsman to be the best in the county, fitted with the latest improvements for weighing and handling grain, and with a mill for grinding and shelling corn. In 1897 three cars of hogs were shipped from Strahan one September day.

Some manufacturing was done there. Salyers & Kayton had a lister box factory in 1902, working full time to turn out the many needed. On May 26 of that year they sold eleven and one-half dozen lister boxes and it was noted that “they made enough money to have a mess of porterhouse steak for supper.” In 1913 Frank Steele invented a gasoline power saw for cutting ice, and dammed Deer Creek at his farm for an ice pond to work on. Putting up ice was a good winter job every year. In 1885 Roy Dixon had teams hauling saw dust to his ice house as he prepared to cut ice. Ernest G. Wederquist put up an ice house and garage in 1913, and packed away sixty tons while cold weather prevailed. Sometimes things were too busy. In June, 1902, “Mr. Allen’s blacksmith, who hailed from Missouri is gone. He couldn’t stand the strenuous life here as he had never lived in a live town before,” reported Mr. Boyer.

Strahan citizens worked together when a need arose. In April, 1913, a fire department was organized with Carl Paulson as chief and George Schurr and Olver Ogden as nozzleman, and it was reported “they’re ready to start a fire any time now.” In October, 1904, Thomas Brazelton, George Strohl and George Schurr bought 120 head of feeder cattle at Omaha, drove them down to Strahan and divided them there. Rex Aistrope was the dealer for Velie automobiles in 1917, and the Strahan Auto Co. sold Oaklands. In 1905 a group of customers patronizing the Chicago Dry Goods Co. at Malvern pooled their sales slips during a contest and thus won a new piano for the Strahan Methodist Church.

The year 1913 was one of many improvements in the town. After Seth Dean, county surveyor, set some grades for sidewalks, W. P. Warden of Shenandoah was engaged to lay several blocks of cement walks. The news reported that lines of wagons extending clear beyond the town’s borders were waiting to unload grain at the elevators. MR. Boyer completed twenty-five years in the grocery business and noted that Carey Kayton was his first customer and was still with him when he finished. Mr. Boyer then moved to Malvern and owned a grocery store there for many years. There was an exciting auto collision in town as cars driven by Roy Hughes and Harry Conrad ran together. Frank Steele had other inventions, a hay sweep and a gasoline tractor saw.

Although Strahan had no municipal officers, the newsman reported November 1, 1900, that “Mayor Davis of Malvern was a Strahan caller Friday, getting some pointers on how to run a town.” The distribution of Rural Free Delivery mail routes in 1901 caused complaint because it left so many farmers west of the town in other routes which would injure Strahan. The news noted that “Jack Goin, who works for Charlie Shay, bought the biggest plow shoes our merchant had. The boys hung up the old ones for a sign, which will either draw flies or trade – we don’t know which.” The telephone service improved during the years until a central office was located in Strahan. But soon afterward lines deteriorated and the central exchange was handled out of Malvern.

Not all years were good. The year 1894 was a dry one and crops were very poor. The result is shown by an item published May 30, 1895: “George Salyers shipped two cars of corn to St. Louis, the first shipment at Strahan since July, 1894.” And accidents happened: “Jimmy Langmuir is carrying his eye in a sling caused by running a rod from a corn binder in such a manner as to injure the lower lid pretty badly.”

Early settlers of the area felt the need for religious services. Thus, while the Methodist Church had no building, such a charge was organized and for many years used the East Sunbeam school for services. Several years before there was a community for Strahan, Clark Miller set out on horseback to visit his neighbors and encourage the start of a revival or evangelistic meeting. No minister was available so they turned to John Elliott, a blacksmith in the vicinity and evidently a man of great faith and zeal although he had little schooling, to conduct the meetings. Regular services in the Sunbeam school followed the revival and Rev. Farlo of Clarinda was called as the first pastor.

This was called the Methodist Episcopal Church of White Cloud township and was organized in January, 1874. The original membership, as listed in the History of 1881, consisted of Thomas P. Kayton, Celia A. Kayton, E. P. Cook, Mary Cook, Isaac Miller, Susannah Vist, J. S. Tindall, Susannah Tindall, George Hilton, Mary Hilton, and J. C. Miller.

By 1884 Strahan had become a vigorous community and a committee was named to work on plans for a new church building. By March of that year $1,400.00 had been subscribed for the project. The committee on plans, Rev. St. Clair, S. S. Salyers and T.P. Kayton, decided that the church should be 32 by 50 feet in dimension, and Mr. Gidley was given a contract for its construction. There was some discussion about the location, with the corner of the road near the sunbeam school being first considered, but later the site of the present church was selected, a half block north of Main Street.

A crowd of men gathered at the site on July 17, 1884, to commence work on the church and it was completed early in August. The first service was held in the church one Thursday evening, August 14th, and the next day the final payment was made to Mr. Gidley, making the total subscription $1,500.00. It was formally dedicated October 19, 1884. Some of the charter members were Clark and Isaac Miller, Mr. and Mrs. George Hilton, Mr. and Mrs. Sam Salyers, Mr. and Mrs. T. P. Kayton, Mr. and Mrs. James Criswell and Mr. and Mrs. Abner Heaton.

Only two years later a cyclone struck the community on April 14, 1886, completely demolishing the church. The damage was estimated at $3,000.00 and the church had only $2,000.00 insurance. The trustees met May 13 and decided to build a new edifice 32 by 44 feet in size, with a belfry on the outside. The contract was given to J. P. Jones and before the summer was over the new building was ready for use. A number of changes have since been made to improve the building but it continues to serve the community today.

Times change. Improved roads made it easier for customers to drive to other trading centers. In the difficult depression years of the 1930s Strahan started to lose business concerns. After World War Two more followed until only a single grocery store was left, owned by Ronald Kier. He did a very good business and also served as postmaster, but the Strahan post office was closed in 1955, with the last cancellations there June 30. He continued to operate the store as a service to the community until 1969 when it was closed – thus ending the last commercial enterprise there. The Wabash station had been discontinued earlier and the remaining elevator is no longer active in buying and shipping grain.

The school reorganization in 1960 continued to use the Strahan school building as an elementary attendance center in the Nishna Valley Community system but changing enrollments caused this to be closed in 1972 and the building was sold at auction. Today only the church remains as an active institution in the community. Yet there are some eighteen occupied houses in the immediate town, including a number of mobile units.

So the little community, at its peak one of the busiest farm commercial centers in its area and beloved by many of its residents and patrons, slowly faded away as economic conditions no longer justified it as a business center.

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