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Shelby County


1889 History Index

Biographical History of Shelby and Audubon Counties
History of Shelby County, Iowa


In common with nearly every other county in Iowa, Shelby has had her county-seat contest, which was indeed a heated strife, the fever of which will not all have passed away until the present generation, the first settlers, have all passed from the scenes of earth.

From 1847 to 1840 this county was embraced in Keokuk County. In 1851 it was established under its present name, being partly taken from the temporary county of Pottawattamie. It was duly organized from and after March 7, 1853. Its first election was held in April, 1853. By an order of the court a committee for the purpose of locating a seat of justice was appointed, consisting of L. D. Butler, John E. F. Vails and Marshall Turley, who decided on section 27, township 81, range 40, west, in what is now known as Grove Township. The place was called Shelbyville and became a platted village, and was for a time a thriving pioneer hamlet, but for many years now has only been known and marked out to the stranger by the farmers residing near pointing to several stately cottonwood trees whose giant branches long ago saw the village sink into decay, most of the buildings having been removed to other parts of the county. The first term of county court was held at the farm-house of Milton M. Beebe, July 3, 1851. At an election held in April, 1857, a vote was taken to determine whether or not a court-house should be erected at Shelbyville. Such vote stood three majority against the proposition to build, ninety-one being the total number of votes cast. Another election was soon held to decide upon the question of building a $3,000 court-house at Shelbyville. This vote stood thirty-seven for and sixty-five against building. At the April election of 1859 a vote was taken to determine the popular virtue of a petition calling for the removal of the county seat to Harlan. There were 175 votes cast; a majority of nine said the county seat should be removed to Harlan. Then came up the ever-vexing question in all new counties, how to provide a court-house. To make this matter perfectly plain it will be well well for the reader to know all the circumstances. In the first instance, there were three contending factions among the people. One was that portion who lived in the extreme northwest part of the county, who, for the most part -- selfish like all human kind -- wanted the seat of justice to remain where first located, at Shelbyville. Then there were two other fighting sections in the vicinity of Harlan. The Rock Island & Pacific Railroad had been projected through Iowa, and a land grant given that company, the center of such grant being a line running near or through Harlan. But designing men -- men who came on in advance of the real survey, for the express purpose of laying out towns and selling off the lots -- sought to establish the county seat at the now defunct village of Simoda, just east from the present site of Harlan. Samuel Dewell represented such interests, aided by others who held property adjoining the embryo town. Then at Harlan there was the other element whose financial interest convicted them strongly in the belief that Harlan presented the best surface of country over which to construct a railroad; hence they sought, by every means they could invent, to get the people to vote the building of a costly court-house there, hoping that this would forever settle the question of both county seat and railroad point, as well as give them great financial benefit from the sale of property. The three factions finally combined into two elements, the people in the extreme northwest joining with the Simoda party, mainly on tiie ground that every mile they could shorten a trip to the county seat would be so much gain to them. A contract was finally made by the county judge, April 12, 1859, for the building of a $25,000 courthouse, to L. W. Woodruff. The structure was large only in cost ! its size to be 40 x 60 feet, and two stories high, built of brick. Schemers even lived that long ago ! But at a later meeting of those in official authority Judge Tarkington rescinded this visionary plan, to which he had previously assented, on the ground, as his record says, that it "would operate injuriously against the tax-payers of the county." But the real and only true cause for abandoning the project was the more vital fact that the people outside of Harlan would not submit to the burden of taxes that would thus be laid upon them. And so strong was this feeling that many of the pioneers assembled and vowed they would not submit, but would die at the breech of their gun in resisting such imposition. Usually truth and justice wield a winning sword, hence it was that Judge Tarkington (who of himself was a clever man of good traits) and his scheming party saw fit to withdraw so bad and bold an attempt to bankrupt the new county.

In the early part of May, 1859, John McIntosh and forty-seven others petitioned the court to remove the county seat to Simoda, but this measure soon "flashed in the pan!" However, it was the occasion of much bad blood, resulting in what was known as the "Simoda war." It seems that upon the adjournment of the last term of court at Shelbyville, Judge Tarkington was asked by the acting clerk, Samuel Dewell, what he should do with the books and records of the county in his charge. He replied, "Do as you like with them!" His interests and choice being for the county seat to be removed to Simoda, very naturally he took them to his home at that point, and insisted on their being kept there. So, between the two factions pulling and hauling, the judge was kept in a constant state of turmoil! However, he was quite a court-house builder (?), and consequently in June of 1859 he contracted with Henry Runnels to erect a $10,000 court-house, to be 35x45 feet, the same to be finished by August, 1800, and to be paid for in warrants, at par. This was to be erected on block 41, in the village of Harlan. In December of the same eventful year (1859) this scheme was also given up as a bad job! The following summer, however, a contract was awarded to build a court-house of fair size, and to cost $2,500, which was carried nearly to completion, and by some accident, arising from heating a glue-pot, the building was destroyed by fire, at the loss of the contractors. Thus it will be seen Shelby County had a continual round of dire calamity and discord in the matter of providing herself with a "temple of justice."

The county judge then entered into agreement with J. M. Long and Adam Ault, by which they were to receive $5,000 for a building then in course of erection and known as the "store building," which was situated north from the place where the "City Hotel" now stands. It was a two-story frame house with bricked walls, and was 20 x 40 feet. It was accordingly finished up for court-house purposes, and was used for such until about 1876, when the present court-house was completed, the same having been contracted for with Halstead & Palfreeman, at $4,250. It should, however, here be recorded that a movement was placed on foot in 1873-'74, to build a court-building to cost not less than $30,000 or more than $40,000. The vote on this measure stood 392 against and 192 for. After this failure the board of supervisors took the matter into their own hands and built the present building, having the legal right, without a vote of the people, to expend $5,000 for such purpose. It may indeed be considered a wise thing that the early measures of erecting large, costly court-houses was always presided over and defeated by better judgment, as the people were in no wise ready to stand such burdens. But with the present advancement, culture, development and wealth of Shelby County, she can no longer well afford to have her officers housed in such small, dingy quarters as they are at present. Shelby County needs a $40,000 court-house, and is now able to pay for the same! notwithstanding her warrants at one time were only worth twenty-five cents on a dollar, and cost the pioneer very dear at that!

There were many amusing and thrilling incidents connected with the removal and final location of the county seat; however, no such bad blood was ever seen as in many other Iowa counties. Among such incidents may be mentioned the determined spirit of persistency manifested upon the part of William Wyland, who was then treasurer and recorder of the county. He was ordered by Judge Tarkington (county judge) to return the records in his possession to the county seat, then designated as Shelbyville. Mr. Wyland paid no attention to the order of the court. The judge then declared the offices held by said Wyland to be vacant, and again ordered him to appear before him with such official records as belonged to the county; but he again refused to respond to the court's order, whereupon the judge issued a writ of replevin for said books of record. The sheriff brought Mr. Wyland, together with his books, before the outraged judge! Wyland claimed the court had no right to demand the surrender of such books, but the court held contrary.

During the "Simoda war," as well as in nearly all other wars, the people became excited and watchful--even were suspicious of each other's every move and action. To illustrate better this state of affairs, it may be well to repeat an incident related by one of Shelby County's aged pioneers, whose hair has been made snowy by the three decades of pioneer life--William ("Bill") McGinnes, whose farm is on section 9 of Harlan Township. He says that while County Judge Tarkington was holding court at Harlan (during the county-seat trouble), that he, together with a few of his neighbors from Simoda, proceeded to the court room to demand their pay for the scalps of some wild animals upon which the county had offered a bounty. On their way they stopped and cut some elder sticks for walking-canes, and when seen coming up the road toward the courthouse, the guard, who had been set out to protect (!) and guard his "honor" and the county books against any attempted raid by the Simoda faction, imagined they were armed with guns, and so reported to the judge, who for a time seemed quite troubled and alarmed, but when he saw his mistake, laughed it oft as a huge joke, and at once allowed "Uncle Bill" pay for the scalps he produced.
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Transcribed by Cheryl Siebrass March, 2017 from "Biographical History of Shelby and Audubon Counties", Chicago: W. S. Dunbar & Co., 1889, pg. 245-248.