Peeking Into Lake City's Past

Heritage of the Lake City Business Community

Our subject: Mr. L. F. Danforth, merchant, public servant and state legislator.

Those of us who have been a part of the Lake City business community may look with pride at the lives of those who built the solid foundation upon which we stand. Our community was constructed by men and women of valor and ambition, with high standards of integrity, during a time in history when thousands of acres surrounding Lake City was virgin prairie, too wet to produce crops.

Lest we forget our economic history, U.S. minted money was in short supply following the Civil War and times were hard. The humble nickel had more buying power than our present dollar and the lowly penny was a valuable coin.

In order to understand and appreciate achievements of our 19th century forebearers, we must be conscious of the change in money values. For example: when our earliest settlers paid $5 per acre (some paid $15 and $20) for wilderness prairie land saturated by sloughs, their $5 was equivalent to perhaps $150.00 in the present decade. Development costs were fantastic, especially in terms of present money values. Years later, during the 1930 Depression, we witnessed distress sales of improved N. W. Iowa farms for as little as $75 to $100 per acre. Needless to say, those who were forced to sell during the Great Depression lost not only their shirts, but also their pants, "as the saying goes."

Lake City people who established mercantile stores and public service enterprises during the early "scarce money years" were forced to sell goods and services on "trust credit" to neighbors and friends who would pay the business people when they sold farm produce, livestock or grain. Others, employed by the railroad business establishments and on farms would purchase needed goods and services on trust credit until their pay date.

Most early businessmen were quite well capitalized to own their building and large stock of merchandise, which he sold on trust accounts. He must also have a wholesale supplier who would extend to their mercantile customers a line of credit to replace goods sold from stock until trust accounts were collected. The function of small banks were much different than today. Later, during the great depression, a common statement heard on the street was: "If the bank will loan you their money-you really don't need it."

It was during the worst of the "scarce money period", in 1869, that our subject L. F. Danforth entered into a partnership with an honored Lake City citizen, Mr. J. J. Hutchison. They pooled their limited resources to purchase the mercantile store and wood frame building on the west side of the square from Lake City's founding father, Peter Smith. It is assumed that the wealthier Peter Smith extended credit to the newly formed partnership of Danforth and Hutchison.

Lake City's Mr. Danforth was born in Vermont on April 17, 1843. His earliest American ancestor settled in New England during the mid-1600's. Young Danforth joined the Union Army in 1864, at age 21. He saw action in the bloody battle of Cedar Creek but was not wounded. He was mustered out in July, 1865, at age 22, and soon started toward the wild and wooly west, settling in Boone county. When Danforth was 25, he received an offer from the Lake City school board to teach classes in our new modern Central School, known for over a century as Lake City's pride and joy. Danforth taught classes at Central School for five years.

The following year, 1873, at age 30, Danforth and Hutchison opened their new mercantile store. The partnership prospered and became one of our most respected business establishments. Danforth, being a frugal young man, saved enough money during his 15 years with Hutchison to purchase his partner's interest and become and investor and dealer in real estate. When Peter Smith established Lake City's first bank (the First National) he appointed Danforth vice president and offered him a seat on the bank's board of directors.

During 1889 when Danforth was 49, he built a modern brick building, located on the corner of North Center and Main Streets to house his expanded mercantile business. His name still appears on the identification stone embedded in the second story front wall. This was the first brick building on the west side of our square. According to a Graphic published April 4, 1889, The Bradley Moving Company moved the old wood framed building once owned by Peter Smith from the corner lot to a spot farther west on Main Street facing south. Many years later, this building located at 112 West Main was extended in length and remodeled for a restaurant by Walter Eakin, after which it housed Tillinghast's Bakery/Caf, Brill's and Martha's Caf. Later it was remodeled for use as a chiropractic clinic and is currently occupied by Doctors Remsburg and Schleisman.

The old wood-framed structure known as the Bang's Building located next to the corner lot was moved 22 feet north to where the south half of the new IPS building now stands. Thus, a building lot 46 feet wide and 132 feet long was cleared for Mr. Danforth's new two story brick building, occupied today by Watter's Appliance and Lake City Graphic. Danforth ran his mercantile store until 1901, when at age 58 he decided to retire from merchandising. He sold the old Peter Smith wood frame building at 112 W. Main and leased his new brick building to Guenther's Grocery and Crawford's hardware.

Mr. Danforth's many business activities made him a busy man. He spent some time at the First National Bank at 101 East Main before and after his so called retirement. His colorful career began as a Lake City school-teacher and encompassed activities such as local assessor, member of the city council, high offices in the Masonic Lodge and in 1881 he was elected to represent our county in the Iowa Legislature which he did during a ten year period. He was elected on the Democratic ticket at a time in history when most Calhoun county people were Republican. They elected him because they thought he was a good man. Danforth also served Calhoun County as a trustee.

When Danforth was 30, the same year he went into business, he was united in marriage to the daughter of another local pioneer who came from Pennsylvania. Her name was Jennie Fox. Jennie Fox Danforth bore him a daughter whom they named Lulu who grew to womanhood in Lake City, graduating from West View High School with the class of 1898.

According to a Graphic issued in 1888, Jennie Danforth and daughter Lulu spent the summer months in Vermont and returned to Lake City much improved in health. It was during the same summer, according to the Graphic, that L. F. Danforth and banker Cyrus Smith toured western mining camps in search of lucrative investments. Apparently, neither Mrs. Danforth or daughter Lulu enjoyed good health and neither received God's gift of longevity. Mrs. Danforth, born in 1854, died in 1894 at age 40 years. Daughter Lulu went to her demise in 1916 at age 35. Cemetery records indicate that Lulu never married. Lulu was only 13 years old when she lost her mother, and 17 when she graduated from West View High School.

Two years after the death of his first wife, Mr. Danforth remarried, the second time to a young widow from Wisconsin named Mrs. Minnie Harris. Records do not show any children by either spouse. When this marriage took place in 1896, Danforth was 51, his new wife 29 and his daughter Lulu 15. Danforth, born 1843, went to his demise in 1923 at 80 years when his wife was 55. Minnie Danforth lived seventy years, going to her demise in 1938. All four Danforths are interred in the Lake City Cemetery.

The writer remembers Minnie Danforth living in their home on south Illinois Street. After her death, a local businessman, Elling Miller, purchased the spacious home, removed the second story and completely remodeled the lower section.

Danforth is remembered in the Masonic Order as an enthusiastic member, whose memory is held in high esteem. He belonged to the Zerubbabel Lodge No. 240 A. F. & A. M., Cyrus Chapter 99 R. A. M.; Rose Croix Commandry K.T. of Sac city and the Mystic Shrine. He bore the honor of being the first high priest of his chapter and held numerous other offices. He attained 32nd degree of the Scottish rite and was member of the Consistory.

L. F. Danforth was a successful, highly respected man who is believed to have accumulated a sizable financial estate. The writer has no information regarding his heirs or how his estate was distributed. History records Danforth as one of Lake City's prominent pioneer citizens along with the families of Peter Smith, Ebenezer Comstock, Jesse Marmon, Joel Golden, Levi Tharp, Alford White, Richard Bunting, David Parker, Frederich Hucka, Mack Easton, Bill & John Oxenford, Hiram Gist, Cyrus Fulkerson, Wm. Townsend, Dr. Josiah McVay, John Lumpkin, David Reed, George McCrary, Bill Fickle, Sam and Joe Hutchison, Henry f. Jacobs, Captain Bill Fitch, Aaron Trullinger, Donald Binkert, Peter Binkert, Lewis Moody, Washington Ripley, John Stennet, Zeke Scheidler, Daniel Fobes, Jim Blanchfield, Dr. F. C. Stewart and many others.

These were some of the early pioneers who braved this wilderness, drained the land, established our businesses and professions, built our homes, built our churches, established our civic and social organizations. In short, they gave of themselves, endured hardships unknown to our modern generation. Certainly some few amassed financial assets to become wealthy while others were satisfied to enjoy a life where freedom from oppression by government and caste systems that had deprived them of their birthrights in countries from whence they came. Freedom was the great American dream for which they were willing to pay such a high price in hardship, disease and suffering caused by a wilderness environment. Let us be mindful of the fact that most of what our generation enjoys, we actually did little to earn. Let us thank God, this is our heritage.