Sheldon, the largest town in O'Brien County, started when the Sioux City and St. Paul Railroad reached the townsite on July 3, 1872. The railroad surveyors had laid out the town the previous summer and on July 3, 1872, the construction trains, laying rails, reached the Sheldon townsite. When the town was laid out by the land department of the S.C. & st. P.R.R. it was named Sheldon after Israel Sheldon.
Israel Sheldon was a successful ship company owner in his younger days. In 1843, he settled in Newborn, Alabama, then a sparsely settled area. There he became known as a good merchant and planter. However, in 1859, because of the rising issues concerning the civil war, he moved to the north and built a home in East Orange, New Jersey, where he lived until he death in 1884. Israel Sheldon was a Republican in politics and an Episcopalian in religion, being one of the founders of the Episcopalian Church in East Orange. He was a director of the Sioux City and St. Paul Railroad. He had five wives, four of whom died as the spouse of Israel Sheldon. Sheldon had five daughters, but no sons. A grandson, Robert Westgate Aborn, Jr. came to Sheldon as a bank director and lived here for 25 years. Before any of us were here, when the townsite was laid out in 1871, the site was designated to be named Sheldon, and thus the Sioux City and St. Paul Railroad honored one of the directors on July 4, 1872. July 4, 1872, was a natural for a celebration. The residents from miles around gathered to celebrate the "4th" as well as the coming of the railroad. Buildings were built and the town began to take shape during the coming weeks and months. Among the early buildings was the Sheldon House Hotel.
The Sheldon House Hotel was the first hotel in Sheldon, built by J.A. Brown in 1873. The rambling building on the corner of 9th Street and 2nd Avenue was surrounded by a large lawn and eventually shade trees. It was a mecca for all and headquarters for travelers. Sheldon was less than a year old when difficult times fell upon the settlers and early townspeople. Many people left the area because of the discouragement or poverty as the result of the grasshoppers.
Grasshoppers were unheard of, unwritten about, or at least not a menace in this area. They came, however, on June 5, 1873. Comings as a dark cloud, they became an omen of disaster and destruction. The wheat was green and they devoured everything in sight. The crops were eaten beyond hope of recovery. Early in 1874 the eggs deposited the season before hatched and the soil was alive with tiny insects. Many settlers hesitated to sow, while other left the country, disheartened and disgusted. Those who remained toiled on, while the insects ravaged their crops. The grasshopper peril lasted seven years and the only weapon the settlers used against the grasshoppers was the prairie fire.
Prairie fires were much feared by the lonesome homesteaders. All his possessions were in constant danger and he soon learned to protect his home and buildings. Experience taught the settlers to prepare fire breaks. Fire breaks which were 10 feet wide, were prepared around each haystack. In early days prairie grass grew right in the main section of Sheldon. When the fire bell sounded, all townspeople became involved in the battle against the prairie fires, some with pails, mops and wet gunny sacks. Some would get the available horse from the livery to help plow strips around the town. Containing fires was an effort of all citizens as the town did not have a fire department.
A fire department was finally organized in 1884. By May, 1884, Sheldon Fire Company No. 1 was composed of three companies: Hook and Ladder, and two Hose Companies. the first motorized fire truck was purchased by the city council in 1915. The motorized truck was a 60 horsepower Buick. Before the purchase of the truck, the Sheldon Fire Department had two hose carts and a ladder cart pulled by firemen or horses. One of the two hose carts for the first company is now in the Sheldon Prairie Museum. The second motorized pumper was purchased in 1918 and is now displayed at the Sheldon Prairie Museum. Sheldon's first industry burned to the ground in the 1920's. It was the Prairie Queen Mill.
The Prairie Queen Mill was built by John and Harry Iselin in 1879. By March, 1880 the Prairie Queen Mill was operating and the mill employees lived in 18 company cottages south of the Milwaukee Railroad track. This section of Sheldon was called Iselinville. Sheldon men who found themselves in Europe during the first World War realized the world had indeed become small when they saw "Prairie Queen" and "Big Four"flour in those European countries. The Prairie Queen Mill closed in the 1920's because the machinery was wore out, the millers were wore out , and the flour was too good to compete on a cost basis with that milled by the big mills. The flour mill leaves a heritage in Sheldon's past as does the local National Guard.
The National Guard has played an important role in Sheldon's history. In 1902, Company E of the 52nd Regiment of the Iowa National Guard was located in Hull, Iowa. A decision was made to move the equipment to Sheldon where "there was more interest in military affairs." In 1917, Company E became part of the famous 42nd Rainbow Division. The remainder of the Company went to Camp Cody, New Mexico, with the 34th Division called the Sandstorm Division. Following Work War I, another Company was formed Called Company I, 133rd Infantry. During World War II, Company I played an important part in the famous Red Bull Division in North Africa and Italy. Eventually, Company I became Company B of the 133rd Infantry and in May, 1968, the company was mobilized into Federal service, during the Vietnam Conflict. During the federal service, 49 Company B men were sent to Vietnam. The Guard continues to maintain a tradition as set forth by the predecessors, a tradition like that of the Sheldon Bottling Company.
The Sheldon Bottling Company was started by Eugene Fiebig in 1894. Shortly after the company started, brother Paul joined the business as bookkeeper and in 1900, brother Victor became a salesman. Within a few years after the Sheldon Bottling Company started, their daily production averaged 20,000 bottles of soft drink daily. The greatest share of the daily production left Sheldon in railcars. Today people find Sheldon Bottling Company bottles in MInnesota, South Dakota, and Iowa, and it is no wonder with 20,000 bottles leaving Sheldon every day from 1894 to 1936. In 1936, the Sheldon Bottling Company closed its doors for the final time. Gone today is the Sheldon Bottling Company, but we still have memories of the Ringling Bros. Circus.
The Ringling Bros. Circus first came to Sheldon in 1888 and eventually made seven appearances. Sheldon was a circus town from a geographical standpoint, being located on three railroads. Sheldon was considered by the circus people to be one of the best locations as the "Big Top" was always filled to capacity for both the afternoon and evening performances. Some of the other circuses popular with the people of Sheldon were the Wallace Hagenbeck Animal Circus. Barnum and Bailey Circus, and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. School boys would get free tickets to the afternoon performance by helping put up the big top and water the animals. It didn't matter since the circus came to town in the summer and there was no skipping school.
School was important to early settlers in Sheldon as the first classroom was located in the Bradley Lumber Company on 2nd Avenue. A small frame school was erected in 1873 and served the community until 1879. The first brick school was built in 1894, it was burned to the ground in January 1903. A new brick school was completed in the fall of the same year and served the community until it was razed in 1970. In 1934, a new gymnasium was constructed and in 1947, the Junior College addition was added. The East Elementary building was completed in 1958. In 1960, the Sheldon Community School District reorganized embracing the former Sheldon, Ashton, Matlock, and Archer Districts. The completion of a new high school took place in 1969 on a 40-acre tract east of Sheldon.
Sheldon is primarily an agriculture community today, but it still retains much of the beauty a and rural flavor of its historical past.
Compiled by Richard E. Bauer 1983.