Jefferson County Online
A part of the IAGenWeb and USGenWeb Projects
A Brief County History
Written by Lucile Taylor, Feb. 18, 1977

Brief History of Jefferson County, Iowa

The land which is now Jefferson County was described by the early writers as "a land of rolling prairie and woodland, properly interspersed for farming purposes . . . the landscape from the higher ground is pleasing and attractive to the eye, inviting the stranger to a closer examination of the view before him." The Sac and Fox Indians held the land until the pioneers came to meet and mingle with them for a brief time and then to crowd them out of it. Colonel William G. Coop, a leader among the pioneers helped to maintain the good relations with the Indians and it is recorded that they were always friendly.

The Blackhawk Purchase was legally opened to white settlement in 1833. Part of its western boundary, angling from northeast to southwest, divided almost in half the area later to be Jefferson County. This belonged to the unorganized Territory of the United States in 1833; then to Michigan Territory until 1836, and finally to the Territory of Iowa, with headquarters in Burlington.

The years of 1834 to 1836 were a time of prosperity and, looking for investment, whole neighborhoods moved from Indiana and Illinois, to this Iowa land of promise.

From an outpost in Henry County six men set out to explore the unknown country to the west. One of these was John Huff, the first white man known to visit the Jefferson County area. He had discovered that wild honey had a ready sale and visited the land looking for bee trees. On his first trip he found and marked a number of such trees, and named the area "Round Prairie", which is now Round Prairie Township.

Besides the fertile prairie on which to grow their crops of corn, wheat and potatoes, there was ample timber needed for homes, barns, fences, and fuel. They found black, white, burr and red oak, hard and soft maple, hickory, elm, ash, walnut and birch, along with the basswood or bee trees. Few counties were so favored with timber and water.

Water was abundant with Skunk River in the northeast corner of the area, as well as many small creeks and Big Cedar and Crow Creeks, some of which supplied motive power for the mills as well as water for their stock.

A representative government was set up under the leadership of Robert Lucas, Governor of the New Territory in Iowa. He proclaimed an election held in 1838, at which time William G. Coop, of Lockridge, was elected a representative. Colonel Coop assisted the three Commissioners appointed by Governor Lucas to locate and establish the seat of justice. This was done on March 4, 1839. The County was to have been named Coop, but Colonel Coop modestly declined, and named it in honor of Thomas Jefferson. Fairfield was named by the wife of one of the early pioneers, Mrs. Rhodam Bonnifield, because it was a "fair field".

Three voting places were set up in April of 1839, one in the town of Lockridge, one in the house of William Vinson in Locust Grove, and the third in the home of John Lee in Pleasant Prairie, now a part of Walnut Township. The County Commissioners were organized in 1840 and 1841. The twelve County Townships were determined, and these have remained unchanged.

Railroads were an important step in the development of the County and the Burlington and Mississippi Valley, now the C. B and Q. and operating as Amtrack, reached Fairfield in 1858. The Chicago and Southwestern, later known as the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific was established in 1879. Lockridge, Beckwith, Fairfield, Bernhart and Batavia were stops on the C. B. and Q., which later became the M. and St. L. and was last operated by the Northwestern.

Good highways cross the County both north and south and east and west, and bus service replaces some of the former train business. Hard roads connect all of the main towns in the County with Fairfield.

When the railroads came, coal was needed and was found in every township except Walnut, with the principal centers in Penn Township, Perlee and Coalport. There was also a good supply of building stone which was used in the railroad abuttments over Cedar Creek and in the Court House construction.

Beginning with the first mill in 1838, industry flourished in the County. By 1851, wagons, carriages, furniture and plows were being made and Daniel Stephenson, a professional coverlet weaver was kept busy. In 1887 Louden Machinery Company opened and is still operating under a Division of American Chain and Cable. The Turney Wagon Works was moved to Fairfield in 1888. Others which followed and are still operating are Harper Brush Works, Iowa Malleable Iron Company, Fairfield Glove Company, Dexter (washing machines), Universal Producing Company, Fairfield Aluminum Castings, Fairfield Engineering, J & B Plastics and Rockwell International Automotive Parts Division. Laborers come from all parts of the County and some farmers work part time in these various industries.

In 1872 a group of community leaders organized to encourage location of manufacturing establishments, and this plan has been used ever since. Industry has brought a stable economy to the County and helped the development and growth of the area. For example, the Fairfield Municipal Airport, opened in 1967 and is used extensively by industry.

The pioneer system of town and country schools began with the first school in 1837 with 18 scholars. These schools continued until the consolidation plans developed and by 1962 all the independent districts closed and the Fairfield Community was organized, which covers the largest part of the County. The western area is served by Cardinal District and the northwest by the Pekin District. Higher learning was also available in Fairfield from 1849 when the Female Seminary opened, then Axline University and Fairfield College followed. Due to many struggles these schools were only open for short periods. In 1875, Parsons College was founded, replacing these earlier institutions and through the years the college brought a great influence on both the economy and the culture of the County. The peak enrollment of over five thousand students in 1966, brought a wave of prosperity to the whole County. The school lost accreditation and the enrollment dropped and Parsons College was closed in June of 1973. The Campus and buildings were purchased by the Maharishi International University and was opened in the fall of 1974 with around 500 students.

The majority of the pioneers came from various backgrounds, however, in Lockridge Township there was "Stockholm", settled by the first community of Swedish immigrants west of the Mississippi River in 1845. A number of French immigrants lived in Cedar Township and a section of theat (sic) area was known as "Frenchtown"., and Germans and Polish in Walnut township (sic)

One of the most influential citizens in the County was James F. Wilson, who served in the United States Congress from 1862 to 1869. He was responsible for the Andrew Carnegie gift which established the Fairfield Public Library.

From the early years there have been churches throughout the area and many of them are still serving their community. Recreation facilities have also been available. The first golf course west of the Mississippi was started in Fairfield, there are now two, as well as five parks and a community swimming pool.

The Jefferson County Agriculture Society was set up in 1846 and the first "Annual Fair" was held in the fall of 1852, at which time $125 was offered in premiums for stock. Out of this the Iowa State Agricultural Society began and in 1854 the first State Fair was held in Jefferson County.

With over half of the land in Jefferson County producing good crops and grazing land, with the industry located in Fairfield, which is in the center of the area, and with a college, Jefferson County has an ideal balance for continued growth and development and the landscape is still "inviting the stranger to a closer examination of the view before him".

Contributed for posting by Verda Baird.

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