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1851 Election to determine the Winneshiek County Seat

Moneek vs. Decorah

this site was last updated on Monday, 30 April 2012

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Tues., September 3, 1985, Decorah (Iowa) Public-Opinion A-11
 
by Vicki Calbreath
 
Or the case of the "Dastardly Deed"
THE WINNER FOR WINNESHIEK COUNTY SEAT IS ......MONEEK??
 
On the first Monday in April, 1851, an election was held in the district to name a town as the Winneshiek County seat.
 
Although it is well-known that the town of Decorah won that election, what is not well-known is the under-handed scheme that was perpetuated by a Decorah resident in defeat the shoo-in candidate, the town of Moneek.
 
If it were not for this "dastardly deed" reportedly done by Claiborn Day, son of one of Decorah's founders, Moneek would have become the county seat.
 
This hotly-contested contest for county seat was actually between three towns:  Decorah, Moneek, and Lewiston.  These three towns were the only recognized towns within the borders of the territory sought to be organized.  But because of the differences of opinion of its promoters, Lewiston never really progressed beyond the paper stage.
 
Moneek
 
Moneek was different.  Situated on the north fork of the Yellow River, (down in the valley below the present town of Frankville), between the years 1850 to 1853, Moneek was considered the foremost town in the county, and the oldest.
 
Canadians Moses S. McSwain, Abner DeCou, and later John DeCou, began the intensive development of Moneek in 1849.
 
These three men and their families lived in tent wagons until a large log house was built.  By July of 1850, a saw mill was erected that was to become noted all over the adjacent area as THE mill.
 
At the height of its popularity Moneek boasted a blacksmith shop, hotel, dry and wet grocery store, shoe shop, and the all important liquor saloons.  The town also utilized the services of a resident Baptist minister and his doctor son.  It is interesting to note that written history states that Moneek was soon recognized by the General Government, and postal facilities were established, which were supported by Winneshiek -- a post office then situated between Castalia and Postville.  Decorah at that time was just considered an upstart young settlement.
 
By the time 1855 rolled around, the tax lists showed four lots in Moneek with an assessed value of $800.  There were only four assessments of greater amount, and two others only of equal value, in Decorah during this period.  But within months, Moneek began its decline.
 
History records list some simple reasons for the decline of the once flourishing town of Moneek.
 
* Settlers were thronging into the country and opening up other sections.
* Post routes and lines of communication were being established all over.
* Nature was a hindrance.  Moneek was nestled in the Yellow River valley, surrounded by mountainous hills, with no easy access.
* An enterprising gent named Frank Teabout settled on the ridge above Moneek, and proceeded to establish the town of Frankville.  When the new state road was erected he made sure the line was established on his ridge.  Settlers passed by the town of Moneek when taking their grist to be tolled and ground.
 
By the time Moneek was ten years old, it was a deserted village.  The biggest reason for this had to have been its defeat for county seat.
 
Dastardly Deed
 
An Organizing Act was passed by the Iowa Legislature on January 15, 1851, directing that stakes be erected to points contending for the county seat.  These points were at or near Louisville, on the Turkey River; at Moneek; and at Decorah, on the Upper Iowa River.  This act also called for the county seat election to be held the first Monday in April, 1851.
 
In Edwin C. Bailey's book, "Past and Present of Winneshiek County Iowa,"he states that much excitement prevailed in the hamlet of Decorah, then consisting of a few houses.  Its future was apparently in danger.  The southern part of the county being more thickly settled ... Decorah, with all its natural advantages for a city, was nearly off the map, with the chances favoring Moneek as the county seat.
 
Enter Claiborn Day, the 25-year old son of one of Decorah's founders, William Day.
 
Bailey's book describes Claiborn as strong, vigorous, energetic and public spirited, with some schooling and a great deal of knowledge of men, their hopes, fears, desires and weaknesses.  He was known not to have the gift of gab, but was shrewd, methodical and very resourceful.
 
Day commenced to take part in the proceedings for the county seat contest at Decorah, when it seemed the odds against Decorah were overwhelming.
 
When the poll books for the voters of Lewiston and Moneek were read, a messenger was sought to convey these books to their respective destinations.
 
At the insistence of Mr. Day, a grizzled trapper named Wiggins was presented to the organizing sheriff for that purpose, and was highly recommended as a trustworthy person.
 
Wiggins appeared to be capable to carry the books, and as the roads at that time were not the best because of the dangers of crossing the treacherous streams, Wiggins was apparently considered a reliable messenger.
 
Prior to his assignment Wiggins was royally entertained by a group of residents from Decorah and provided with a large payment for his mission.
 
What followed next only came to light after the death of Claiborn Day, who had related his part in the deed to Attorney M. A. Harmon.
 
It seems that Day admonished Wiggins that when he had possession of the poll books for Lewiston and Moneek, that in crossing a stream, should there be a question of whether to save his horse or the poll books, to be sure and save the horse.  With those instructions, and the parting warning that if he betrayed the trust reposed in him he was liable to be shot by any resident of Decorah, Wiggins set off for Moneek and Lewiston.
 
Bright and early the morning of election day, the settlers in Moneek began to appear for the vote.  There was much handshaking, exchanges of old and new jokes, and much boasting of the result of the election, accompanied by the general comment that, "Of course Moneek would win."
 
Time flew by without much notice until after dinner when the question of the missing poll books was brought up.  By two o'clock the books had still not arrived.
 
Bailey states that it finally occurred to someone, more wise than the rest, that unless they got to voting pretty soon it would be too late.
 
It should be noted that the owners of the townsite of Moneek, residents and voters, were mostly from Canada, and totally unacquainted with the United States' forms of law and procedure.
 
Finally, in their desperation, no poll books having arrived or likely to, an attempt was made to hold an election.  But when the returns were made out no one could understand what they were, or who voted, or for what.
 
Because of this, the returning board threw out the ballots, and Decorah was selected as the county seat.
 
As for Wiggins, he showed up late in the afternoon at Ft. Atkinson, with a wet, dripping, lame horse.  He recounted the story of how he had lost some poll books while crossing a stream, and nearly lost his life to boot.  Had it not been for the exertions of his horse, he would have been drowned in the quicksands.  He did not know where the poll books had been washed to.
Shortly after this, Wiggins disappeared and was never hear from again.
 
Further battles
 
Ill feelings about the election were flying all over the county, and Decorah's fight was not yet over.
 
By law, in order to get a vote on the question of the relocation of a county seat, it was necessary to obtain an act of Legislature authorizing the vote.
 
At this time the newly-formed town of Freeport entered the picture and forced the issue of relocation of the county seat.
 
Day subsequently traveled to Des Moines, where he royally entertained members of the House and Senate.  Written history states that while Day did not appear to endeavor to work any member, his apartments were always open to all the influential members who cared to resort with their kindred spirits.
 
In other words, oyster suppers were the rule, with something on the side for those with a chronic thirst to while away the time and drive dull care away after the arduous labors of the day.  Gambling was also thoroughly enjoyed at these meetings.
 
Residents of Freeport soon heard about Day's shenanigans, and sent their own representative to Des Moines to do missionary work for their cause.
 
Evidently this man, not knowing the temperament of the members of the legislature, or the conditions existing, made a red hot, stereotyped temperance oration.
 
This was Freeport's undoing.  When the vote was called it showed a large majority against the ordering of an election to change the county seat from Decorah.
 
But perseverance was the name of the game.  In February of 1856, Freeport adherents submitted a petition to a Judge David Reed, which showed 420 voters wanting a new election.
 
Apparently Judge Reed was an honest man, but was also a firm friend of Decorah.  Another petition was submitted to the judge, this time by Decorah.  But it was not quite ethical.
 
The petition was signed by all the friends of Decorah that could be reached through the local pride, promises, bribes or cajolery.  It was then taken by Day to Ft. Atkinson, where there was a resident at the time who was an expert with the pen.  This man spent the better part of a day and night signing all the names he could think of, in different colored inks, onto the petition.  The names came from such sources as bank notes, old deeds or bonds, and some even from inscriptions on tombstones in New York and Canada.
 
When completed the petition bore 800 names, written on foolscap paper, and pasted together at the ends, which made a very impressive forty foot roll.
 
History states that a William Painter was given the honorable position of presenting the petition to Judge Reed and swearing, so far as he knew, that the signers were residents of the county.
 
After examination, Judge Reed declared that the Decorah petition had a majority of two to one, and therefore decided not to grant the election.
 
Freeport tried once again to obtain the vote for a new election, and once again the same tactics were employed by Day and his cohorts.  And once again the bid was denied.
 
The following year, 1857, the building of the court house in Decorah was begun, and the contest was considered ended.
 
Enter the city of Calmar. 
 
In 1898, when a proposition was placed before the people of the county to vote funds to erect a new courthouse, Calmar citizens subscribed $25,000 for the fund.  But not without a stipulation.  The funds would be given if the county seat would be transferred to Calmar.
 
But this proposition also failed, and Decorah remained the county seat, with thanks to the tenacity of Decorah residents, and with special thanks to Claiborn Day, who probably saved the city of Decorah from a fate such as Moneek.
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Another article written by E. J. Weigle has basically the same information except for this paragraph:  "Secrets of the behind the scenes "rigging" of the county seat vote was locked in the memory of one man, Claiborne Day, according to writings of the event.  Long years after the voting, Clairborne, oldest son of Mr. and Mrs. William Day, founders of Decorah, told the details to a few friends but exacted a promise that the story not be told until after his death.  In 1910 Attorney M. A. Harman, a few weeks after Day's death, printed the story

Submitted by Mary Durr from her mother's scrapbook


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