In September of 1854, McKnight greeted Charles Bergk, Christian Hackman, and August Zahlten in Dakota. They each made claims on parts of Section 6, Dakota Township. However it was traded, McKnight ended up with the town site.
Early settlers were discouraged at first by Humboldt County’s many small lakes and marshes. This hilltop site seemed to be a very good location for a town: high and dry, with plenty of trees.
Charles Bergk was a native of Saxony, Germany. Born about 1825, he was a student in Berlin in 1848 when the revolution began. He left Berlin and was a volunteer in the Schleswig-Holstein army for 2-1/2 years. He immigrated to this country in 1851, locating at Pella. He stayed there until 1854 when, finding the Hollanders were exclusive, the three Germans came to Humboldt County. He was 29 years old.
According to history books, during the hard winter of 1854-55 Bergk, Hackman and Zahlten stayed in a dugout cave in the ravine below where Dakota City now stands. They ate hearty meals of cracked corn and wild game, with coffee made from acorns.
Not wanting to live in a cave, McKnight built a cabin in section 24 Corinth Township with Newton Dowling. They lived there until the severe cold weather set in, then moved to Ft. Dodge. He returned to Dakota in the spring.
Zahlten and Hackman soon moved to Kossuth County, selling their shares of Section 6 to Bergk. Ed McKnight laid out the town site of Dakota City in 1855. It was surveyed by William Safford. Isaiah Van Metre reported: “I am informed by one of the chain carriers that a large quantity of whiskey and molasses was consumed in laying it out, the weather being warm, and the mosquitoes more numerous than an army of grasshoppers on a raid.”
McKnight could not file the plat with Humboldt County in 1855 as Humboldt County did not exist then. He waited until 1858, after the county was organized.
The original city plat looks different from today’s plat. There were 84 blocks of 10 lots each. A public square was formed in the center of the intersections of (now) 1st Avenue and 5th Street South. These streets, named Broadway and Main, were wider, showing they were the principal avenues.
Wahkonsa Park, 3 blocks long and 1-1/2 blocks wide, was on the western edge of the town, overlooking (now) Humboldt. Main Street (now) was called Mill Street, but it was not subdivided into smaller retail lots. Later it joined Humboldt’s Sumner Avenue and some retail lots were created along the street.
According to the 1884 county history, “the first log building in Dakota was erected in 1855 by Harlow Miner, William Miller, B. W. Trellinger and J. and F. Johnson. Miller used it as a residence.”
It is important to know that this log cabin was built in Dakota Township, not Dakota City, and it was more likely 1853 or 1854. Miller’s place, near the forks of the East and West Des Moines Rivers, was later called Glen Farm. The log cabin standing below the A. W. McFarland property in the ravine may have been hauled from Glen Farm after Miller moved away in 1858. It was used as a stable in 1884.
A typical cabin was 14 x 16 feet on the ground, with 10 feet of studding, made of native lumber and covered with split shingles fastened to ribs or narrow boards. The stagecoach house (22 – 6th Street South) and hotel had a second story.
McKnight’s mill passed into the hands of Charles Bergk with the other property of McKnight in 1859. A bridge over the East Fork of the Des Moines River was erected in 1860. The bridge washed out during the spring flood in 1867 and was rebuilt the next year. In 1871, a substantial iron bridge was constructed.
Country roads were soft and muddy in April 1875. W. H. Locke and his son, Walter, took advantage of the east fork of the Des Moines River to float a fleet of rafts carrying lumber from the Algona railroad yards. They arrived in Dakota City in 19-1/2 hours. The Lockes often transported lumber this way when the water was high enough.
C. H. Brown, who came to Dakota City in 1866, took over the mill in 1879, converting the saw mill to grain processing. Because of the arrival of the railroad to Dakota City in 1879, good quality lumber was available and they no longer needed to rely on local timber. The mill farmhouse (now museum) was completed that year.
In 1890, the mill was re-built, (see photo). From the Humboldt Independent July 31, 1890, “The old Dakota City mill is now entirely dismantled and is entitled to be listed among the things that have passed away.”
“The new mill is built upon a solid stone bank high above the reach of the wildest of the raging waters, is a fine structure and a credit to the enterprising firm who have built it. A new flume will be put in the old place and a wheelhouse will cover one of the latest and best water wheels made, which will be connected with the basement of the mill by a line of shafting that will carry some of the finest mill machinery in the west. We heartily wish the firm of C.H. Brown & Sons the largest success.”
The mill was in the Brown family for about 50 years. The dam and gristmill brought many farmers to the area. However, cheaper flour from the Minneapolis mills was available to local consumers by train. Wheat farming gave way to livestock, and the railroads provided necessary transportation, so in time, the small mills were phased out.
The Dakota City dam was the last dam in Iowa to furnish waterpower for a mill in operation. In June 1943, the dam went out during a flood, and the July of that same year the mill burned down.
At the time of the 1856 census, the James M. Kelly family, Ed McKnight and Charles Bergk were living in the Dakota City Hotel along with hotel owners, the Albert B. and Washington Clark families. Located at 22 – 6th St. South, it was 16×20 feet, with a 12×14 lean-to. Like other hotels of the time, it was two stories high, and had few partitions. Beds placed in a row accommodated the weary travelers. That was where the stagecoach stopped. Present owners say the hotel was built of “green wood” that bowed.
Washington and Jane Clarke became the parents of the first child born in Dakota City in 1857. They named her Dakota. The Clarkes were succeeded as hoteliers by Alexander McLean in 1857, who was followed by B. Chauvet. While it was in his hands, the hotel burned to the ground. They soon rebuilt it, with more partitions, and some of Taft’s colony stayed there in 1863. Later, Capt. William H. Locke managed it.
Living in Dakota Township at census time 1856 was the C.C. Dewing family of seven, with surveyor W.S. Bradford who was boarding there. Andrew Schaeffer and his mother, Hannah, lived together. C.S. Davison, W.W.C. Miller, and A.C.S. Winter, farmers from New Jersey, had their separate place. Whether they were single or had families back East, no one knows.
The William Miller family of 11 was listed at the forks of the river (Glen Farm) in the 1856 census of Dakota Township. Living together in the James Porter household were John and Jane Johnston and their son John, Jr.; John McKitrick; John Means; John Farney and Robert McCauley. Alexander McLean lived by himself.
The first post office in Humboldt County was established in Dakota City in 1856. Charles Bergk was commissioned Postmaster. He carried the mail in his pocket and delivered letters personally, if not promptly.
Sometimes it took a while for letters to reach those in outlying parts of the county. Folks back home waited anxiously for word from settlers, wanting to know if they were well, or if they received the money, land documents and goods sent.
As Humboldt County did not exist in 1855-56, mail was often sent to “Webster County,” “above Dakotah,” “Kossuth County,” or “Lott’s Creek.” In 1857, Eber Stone had his own post office in his log cabin in Humboldt Township. It was appropriately named “Eber.” Other post offices were soon established, but for the first few years mail service was not dependable. Things got lost.
Religious services were provided to Dakota City residents in 1856 by the Rev. Chauncey Taylor and the Rev. L. David McComb of Kossuth County, who each visited twice. A Methodist circuit rider, Rev. Lawton of Fort Dodge, led worship in 1857. In 1858, a union Sunday school was organized.
Edward McKnight bitterly disputed claims made by the wily John Duncombe of Fort Dodge that Webster County was entitled to hold onto the lower tier of Humboldt County’s original townships. Some say McKnight was tricked into “loaning” these townships to Webster County so Fort Dodge could become county seat. No record was made of this “deal,” therefore no proof exists, one way or another.
Duncombe’s political connections enabled a law to be passed to set the county boundaries where they were in 1856. McKnight lost the legal battle, which had been appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court. As a result Humboldt County has only 12 townships.
New settlers S.S. Booth, William Blythe, a Mr. McDougal and Gilbert Forest came to Dakota City in 1857. W. Calvin Beer was another new man in town. He gave the oration at the 4th of July celebration in Dakota City. On that occasion, the Rev. John Sheridan of New York City, NY, brother of Patrick Sheridan, was chaplain. Patrick soon moved to Rutland Township.
A town hall was built by McKnight in 1857, on the SW corner of (now) 1st Avenue and 3rd Street South. During the July 4, 1857, celebration, bowers of branches were erected about the town hall and a substantial dinner spread. Dancing followed.
The town hall was used for official meetings, as a gathering place by the locals, and for mass by the Roman Catholics. When the Rev. S.H. Taft came to the area, he used it as his first place of worship.
Also on July 4, 1857, the county was officially organized and officers were nominated for the ensuing election. Under laws of the state at that time, the local government was vested in the county court, which consisted of a judge, clerk, and sheriff. The newly elected officers soon appointed an assessor so taxes could be collected.
The first store building in Dakota City was erected by Edward McKnight in 1857, built with native lumber from his sawmill. The firm Burchard & Kinsman operated the general merchandise store, but for them like many others that depression year, the business failed and the men left the country. John E. Cragg operated the general store in 1858, Samuel Goodyear beginning in 1866, and George L. Cruikshank from 1868 to 1875. He was followed by J.M. Youngling and B. Chauvet.
Bergk had been serving as deputy to Humboldt County Treasurer and Recorder Alexander McLean since 1857, and was elected to these posts in 1859. Bergk continued to sell town lots to those wanting to build homes or speculate.
The first issue of the Humboldt County Independent was dated Aug. 2, 1860. The equipment to print the newspaper was brought by ox team from Fort Dodge by A.S. White and editor Charles Bergk. It was discontinued after the first issue “for want of patronage.” The newspaper began again July 3, 1868, under the leadership of Bergk and M.D. Williams.
The population of the whole Dakota Township was 128 in the 1860 census, including a painter, carpenter, blacksmith, clerk, teacher, two-day laborers and 31 farmers. The rest were women and children. They were not all bachelors.
Edward McKnight described his occupation in the 1860 census as “gentleman.” One woman remarked, “McKnight received a fine education and possessing a rather romantic turn of mind, became enamored of the stage. This not suiting the taste of his pious parents, who would rather he had chosen the pulpit, it was arranged for him to go west, and he chose Dakota.”
“Later, while taking a party of visitors around, one of our group asked for a recitation from Shakespeare. After much persuasion he consented, and they were charmed with choice selections, admirably recited, from Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and other noted plays. How strange it seemed to listen to the same words on the wild prairie, which have so often charmed me within the frescoed walls of Metropolitan theatres.”
McKnight won election in 1863 for the 58th District of the Iowa House of Representatives, serving both Humboldt and Kossuth Counties. During the Civil War he was a Lieutenant in Company A, Northern Border Brigade, defending the settlers from Indian attack. There he demonstrated not only his leadership skills, but also his sense of humor.
Edward McKnight left Dakota City in 1867 and lived about 30 years in Fairfield, IA, alongside other McKnights. He died back home in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1903. In his death notice, The Humboldt Republican dismissed him as “an eccentric character” that “was here in an early day.” McKnight was so much more: he was the founder of Dakota City.
Bicknell was surprised to find that Charles Bergk had a piano in the bedroom of his small house/office. His genial host played the piano and sang for his new visitor. Charles Bergk married schoolteacher Maggie Cruikshank on July 4, 1864. They built a fine home northeast of the public square and became parents of three children.
At first, supplies had to be hauled from Dubuque. By 1863, ordinary goods could be purchased at Fort Dodge. Their food was of a frugal kind yet was sufficient to keep them in good health and working condition. Lumber was harder to get.
The first pine building in Dakota City was a schoolhouse. The pine lumber had to be hauled by wagon from the end of the rail line in Cedar Falls, sometime after 1861. The Civil War halted construction on that rail line until 1865. On another railroad, supplies could be obtained from Nevada, IA, in 1864, and matters gradually improved.
The pine school was located on the NW corner of (now) 1st Ave and 4th Street South. Eber Stone reported to the Iowa Agricultural Society that the first brick building was completed in the county in 1865. It could have been used on the school. “The brick and lime used were both of home manufacture and very good quality.” The clay for the brick came from the west slope of the Dakota City hill. Bellows had the lime works.
After the red brick two-story school was built in 1881, the original school building was used for worship by the Zion Evangelical Church of North America, who enlarged it. The brick was later covered with stucco.
In March 1866, a group of men gathered around the pot-bellied stove in the lobby of Capt. W. H. Locke’s hotel in Dakota City. They knew that newcomer A.M. Adams was a Mason. They decided to organize a lodge. With a membership of 14, they received their charter in 1867 and met in upstairs rooms with rent $75 per year. Masonry has been the fraternal home of many of Dakota City and Humboldt’s prominent citizens.
Jokes about Dakota being called a “City” reverberated among the new settlers who chose the Springvale location. These newcomers did not know Dakota City was named “City” to differentiate it from Dakota Township. It was originally “Dakota,” (see map). To clear up the confusion, Dakota Township was re-named Beaver Township 15 years later, but the ridicule lingered.
The location of the county seat in pioneer days was vital. Settlers knew what happened to Homer and Old Rolfe after Fort Dodge and Pocahontas were chosen county seats. When Humboldt County was first settled in 1854, Dakota City was located in the geographic center. They were the designated county seat. Then the county lost the lower tier of townships. Dakota City hung on tenaciously.
The first effort to move the county seat away from Dakota City was made in June 1862. Settlers living north in Humboldt Township petitioned to have it moved to just north of Arnold, as that was the new geographic center of the shortened county. It failed.
Attempts to have a courthouse built in Dakota City in 1862 also failed, as citizens making up the Board of Supervisors disagreed among themselves. It was cheaper to store the county records in their offices and homes and wait and see what would happen.
Springvale, naturally, thought they should be the county seat. One of Taft’s first proposals was to consolidate the two towns. Rev. Taft’s proposition was that if they would all agree that the whole plat between the two branches of the river were one, he would give Dakota one-third interest in his town.
Taft even suggested the name remain Dakota, but in view of his feelings about wanting to start an independent community, this seemed unlikely to the folks in Dakota City. Rev. Taft said this was to prevent rivalry. Charles Bergk went along with that.
In McKnight’s view, this would be giving up Dakota City’s status as county seat. They were the older town and had been designated as the seat of government. He and many others were determined to keep it. McKnight, having been tricked by John Duncombe into giving up the lower tier of Humboldt County townships, was not about to be fooled again.
Much bitterness resulted. No opportunity was missed by Springvale residents to pull the rug out from under Dakota City. Dakota City leaders fought back, whether the issue was erecting a bridge in Springvale, locating a road from Taft’s mill north to Lott’s Creek, or getting the Springvale town plat approved. It was not pretty. The Board of Supervisors, made up of men from each township, often took sides with Dakota City.
Major William Williams of Fort Dodge visited the area in January 1867 and reported that 15 or 16 new houses and a neat brick school house were built in Dakota City the previous year. He guessed that town’s population was about 100 persons. Mr. Taft reported that Springvale was larger, 137.
Williams teased the few bachelors left in Dakota City, saying they should marry so the town could catch up with Springvale. This gave the folks in Springvale an opportunity to mock Dakota City for being bachelors, not families. Looking at census records, we know this was not so, but the label stuck and the story was repeated over and over again. Dakota City was not much different from other frontier towns in Iowa. It was Springvale, with its 12 large families from Rev. Taft’s colony, which was unusual.
In 1870, Isaiah Van Metre, a 32-year-old lawyer and conservative Democrat, bought the Humboldt County Independent. He was its editor until 1874, when he sold the newspaper to Albert M. Adams. Al pledged to report more local news and built the Independent Newspaper Office at (now) 306 Main Street (Photo). One of Van Metre’s stories was about a murder:
The earliest murder committed in the county (except those by Henry Lott) was that of William James by a man named McCormick. In December 1867 James had just returned from Europe and was carrying a legacy left him by a relative. He and McCormick went to Fort Dodge and were returning home.
The crime was committed about three miles east of Dakota City on the Bellows and Fort Dodge Road. McCormick beat James’ brains out with a bed slat, took $670, a $5,000 insurance policy, turned the horses loose, and left the corpse lying by the road.
McCormick walked over to Dakota City, got the mail for the family where he boarded, and went home as though nothing had happened. He was arrested that night while in bed by A.W. McFarland, James T. Sinclair and F. West. The men took him to Dakota City and placed him in the most secure place in town, the bar room of the hotel.
Ed Snook and others were his guards. Afraid that McCormick might be taken out and hung at once, Snook placed himself at the door and cooled the mob. A preliminary examination was held the next day before Justice of the Peace William H. Locke.
The prisoner was bound over to appear at the next term of District Court, where he was indicted for murder, convicted by a jury of his peers, and sentenced by Judge Henry Ford on the 14th of August 1868 to be hung by the neck until dead. On appeal to the Supreme Court his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in the penitentiary.
In 1872, in an effort to compromise on the county seat location, Springvale voted to have the combined town re-named Humboldt. Dakota City did not agree to this. The Board of Supervisors, seeing that Dakota City would remain the county seat, voted to build the courthouse on the Dakota City hill overlooking both towns. In 1873, William Thompson erected the red brick courthouse for $5,000, (see photo).
It cost more, so C.H. Brown paid the extra $500. This first courthouse was expanded in 1886 when a two-story addition was built on the north side, and a brick vault for storage of county records was later built on the west side. In 1889, the brick jail, and in 1892, a wood frame sheriff’s house were constructed.
In the next years, the Methodist Church, hotel, the mill farm house (museum), the red brick school, and downtown stores were made of Dakota City bricks. Clay was dug from several places. The lime works of Dakota City was opened by W.J. Smith in 1879, with the brickyard east of the courthouse. His three-story brick mansion (near where the north plant of Chantland Mfg. is now located) was built in 1884, and torn down in 1973.
In 1881, the red brick school was built on the town square, located at the intersection of (now) 1st Avenue and 5th Street South. It was “graded.” Like most schools of the time, only eight grades were taught. Dakota City had a two-room school, with the lower grades downstairs, upper grades upstairs, (see photo).
Freeman and Mott came to Dakota City shortly after the civil war and erected a new building for a general store. They were succeeded by W.J. Smith who ran the store until 1873. In 1874, it was occupied by C.H. Brown and Sons.
A saloon was started in 1870 by Mal Newman, which he ran for several years. He was succeeded by Gaylord Griswold, Benjamin Franklin, and D.R. Bowers. A saloon and billiard hall was initiated by Fred Meade in the Dolph building in 1880.
In 1872, a large brick hotel was erected by Dr. D.P. Russell on the SE corner of (now) Main and 5th Street. Two stories high, it measured 30×60 feet with an “L” 16×20 feet, and a livery. It held a restaurant, 22 large guest rooms, sample rooms and an office. Mr. M. Burgit was proprietor of Dakota House for many years. It was saved from burning in 1876 by alert neighbors, was still there in 1896, but was removed by 1910.
The Humboldt Kosmos responded with outrage. “All defaulters are guilty of a great crime against the people…There is no excuse for the crime.” Later they softened their response, noting Bergk did not do it for personal gain. “Mr. Bergk’s liberality and accommodating disposition were the chief causes of his downfall.”
To settle things, Bergk apologized and gave all the land that he owned, which was considerable, to the county. He moved to California. Because much of Dakota City became public property, the lawyers and county officials had to sort it all out. His bondsmen were responsible for reimbursing the county for Bergk’s debt. They were Messers. Snook, Hunt, Dumfry, Ketman and Hack. Bergk paid them back later.
The next year the Rev. S.H. Taft was in trouble. He had been in New England, getting money for Humboldt College by selling his lands in the City of Humboldt to contributors. His enemies in Dakota City and Humboldt wrote news stories that donors in the East read. These stories said he overvalued Humboldt real estate and did not keep a good set of books. Taft was called a fraud, a liar and a Unitarian. He explained, but it was too late. Sadly, contributions dried up.
Rivalry between the towns caused the fiscal problems of the college to come to light; but the college’s poor financial base and the panic of 1873 were ultimately responsible for its demise. Grinding to a slow stop, the college closed its doors in 1881. It re-opened in 1895 as a business, agriculture and teacher-training school. It served well until again closing in 1915, as local high schools were able to provide the same courses.
Just when Springvale seemed to be favored, Charles Bergk offered to donate 15 aces of land if the fair was held in Dakota City. Further, he would dig a well and furnish lumber enough to fence the entire tract. This generous offer won the day for Dakota, and the annual fair was located near what is now the north plant of the Chantland Mfg. Co.
The fairground was never fenced, and it was discovered after Mr. Bergk left town suddenly in 1874, that the Humboldt County Agricultural Society had never received title to the property. So in 1875 the growing town of Humboldt offered the Agricultural Society a free tract of land in south Humboldt along the banks of the river. The fair was held there from 1876 to 1913. In 1875, it was held on the school grounds in Humboldt.
Downtown in Dakota City were located a dry goods and grocery store, a store building to be occupied soon, a drug store, two blacksmiths and one wagon-maker shop. The city also included an agricultural warehouse, a harness shop, several carpenters, a paint shop, a lager beer and billiard saloon, two lawyers and a general population of 150.
The people of Dakota City, he said, were a quiet, undemonstrative class. “There is not an intemperate man in the town, and not one who drinks anything stronger than beer as a beverage – the beer saloon, it being the only one in the county, absorbs about 5 kegs a week which may be regarded the beer drinking capacity of the county.”
At the same time Van Metre reported that the City of Humboldt contained over 400 people. “There were several stores of all kinds and other business houses usual to such a village. One good mill, one good hotel, a very respectable stone schoolhouse, two church organizations, Congregational and Unitarian, one Congregational church edifice, a private banking house, three physicians, three lawyers, and a town library containing 300 volumes.” The temperance sentiment was strong enough to banish beer in Humboldt.
Van Metre continued, “Humboldt College is by far the most imposing edifice in the county.” He described how Rev. Taft systematically planted trees along the wide streets and parks. Then he noted, “The people possess the intelligence common to western towns but are filled with the idea that there is no town quite equal to Humboldt and no people quite so intelligent as Humboldt people as a class.”
In June 1878, the town of Dakota City voted to incorporate. A.M. Adams was elected mayor, an office he held until 1886. The population in 1880 was 248. In 1878, C.H. Brown’s store moved to a building erected by A.B. West. Manley Brown, one of his sons, operated the store until 1884 when it was sold to Thompson and Thompson, who hung out the sign, “The Farmers’ Store.” In 1879, G.D. Osborne and Griswold moved into the old Youngling store. It was Osborne and Franklin, then G.D. Osborne.
The first hardware store in Dakota City was started by I.G. McMillan. A.F. Hawkins started the jewelry store and watch business in Dakota City in 1879, renting a portion of Cragg’s drugstore to display his goods. A.E. Bennett started the flour and feed business that was later carried on by Allen Dolph. Handmade items were crafted by G.L. Hinds, carpenter.
Fortunately, in 1879, the towns did agree to share the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad track. In jest, Van Metre suggested a name for the railway station between Dakota and Humboldt, “in order to remove from the boys, Fred and Al, this ground for another newspaper quarrel.” He proposed the name “Dakoboldt.”
“Humboldt” signs were quickly posted on both ends of the depot. The 1979 U.S. Geological Survey map, the most accurate map available, shows that the Minneapolis and St. Louis railroad track was in Dakota City. According to this map, the western wall of the depot was on the Humboldt town line. The rest of the building was in Dakota City.
The Toledo (later Chicago) and Northwestern Railway Line came through Dakota City in December 1881. Train trips north to Minnesota, east to Chicago and west to Montana were common. There were four passenger trains per day. The freight trains carried livestock and the catalogue merchandise ordered by Humboldt and Dakota City’s citizens.
That was the beginning of a trend that was magnified after the railroads came. Humboldt became a boom town in 1879, thanks to the influx of entrepreneurs and money. Suddenly the People’s Bank appeared and new influential families joined the retail scene.
By the end of 1881 there were five drug stores in Humboldt (compared to one at the beginning of 1879), along with four lumber yards (2 in 1879), four restaurants (none in 1879), three hotels (one in 1879), two hardware stores (one in 1879), seven general stores (three in 1879), four meat markets (one in 1879), four building contractors (two in 1879) and at least 11 lawyers (three in 1879). There may have been more; these were the ones mentioned in the newspaper.
In the same time period, Dakota City gained R.P. Furlong’s general store, a hotel and a few lawyers. Furlong moved to Livermore in 1880. The new hotel did not last long.
In the spirit of small-town boosterism, Humboldt built itself up at the expense of its neighbor. There was no all-seeing parent to set these rival siblings on a better course.
Ruth Barrett, teacher and granddaughter of William Thompson who constructed the brick courthouse, said in a speech given at the Historical Association, “a disgruntled man with capital planned to get ‘the old town’ off the map.”
It did not help that the original leaders of Dakota City, Ed McKnight and Charles Bergk, were no longer on the scene to protect their interests. John Cragg died suddenly, and George Cruikshank, brother-in-law of Bergk, had to take over the family farm. A.W. McFarland was running the drugstore and practicing law. William Thompson, farming in Rutland Twp., ran for Iowa State Auditor and the Iowa House of Representatives.
An example of Humboldt’s boosterism is found in The Humboldt Kosmos, June 21, 1882, edited by Fred H. Taft: “Few towns in Iowa have made the advancement and growth during the last year that Humboldt has. A stranger will say on looking the town over, “It’s all new!” From a few houses of two years ago it has grown to a flourishing city, with all modern improvements, of 1,200 inhabitants.
“There are now thirty buildings under construction with contracts enough out to make one hundred during the present season. Humboldt boasts of the finest collection of private residences in the state, the houses are two stories high, the lay of the country, the large yards, the wide streets make the outlook that of comfort and beautiful homes…”
“Dakota City, the county seat, is one-half mile from here situated on a hill; the courthouse is between the two towns, also the depot. The towns will no doubt be joined together with one post office in the future. Dakota City is not as nicely situated, as lively, or as prosperous looking as Humboldt, but the towns joined will make one of the finest towns in this section of the west…”
To make a long story short, things went down hill from there. During the 1880s the Masonic Lodge moved from Dakota City to Humboldt. The G.A.R. moved from Dakota City to Humboldt. The Humboldt County Independent office moved from Dakota City’s main street to 514 Sumner Avenue in Humboldt. Even the Hawkins Blacksmith Shop, located near the Dakota City depot, moved to 301 Sumner Avenue.
The Methodists built a church in Humboldt in 1888. After a brief time of sharing a pastor, the Dakota City Methodist Church closed its doors in 1895. The Baptist group that had been meeting in the Dakota City Masonic Hall built a church in Humboldt. The Catholic congregation moved from Dakota City to Humboldt in 1904.
Some stores and offices remained in Dakota City, but investors had difficulty securing financing for new businesses or improvements in that town. Those who wanted to build large Victorian homes chose Humboldt locations.
Dakota City avoided some of the luxuries of life in Humboldt. For the advantage of lower taxes, they accepted lower property values and the lack of some public improvements, like curb and gutter, although water and sewer were provided.
In 1895, the Willing Workers, a group of hard-working, dedicated ladies, was organized in Dakota City. They agreed to support any minister in Dakota City, regardless of denomination, and give their influence to the support of the Union Sunday School. In 1906, they purchased the old Zion Evangelical Church of North America building to use as a meeting place. They sold it to the town in 1919 for use as a city hall. The current city hall, at 26 – 5th Street South was built in 1968.
T.W. Rogers argued that “Dakota City had no sewerage, fire protection or police.” He wrote, “In Dakota City there is no lawyer, doctor, bank, large store or any business enterprises found in any good town… There is no hotel or restaurant ….or stable for the farmer’s team.” Those coming from out of town to transact courthouse business had to stay in Humboldt and walk up the hill to Dakota City.
Judge D.F. Coyle commented, “No individual would think of making a large investment in Dakota City. It would be a poor business policy for the county to do so… Even the people of Dakota City come to Humboldt to do most of their trading.” Compare that with the description of the town on July 4, 1876.
However, after all the votes were counted, the county seat and courthouse remained in Dakota City. After that was settled, officials somehow found a way to provide fire and police protection to the courthouse. The Humboldt Electric Light and Power Company offered to wire the courthouse and adjacent buildings for the sum of $125. Dakota City’s homes and businesses, like Humboldt’s, had electricity since 1901.
There was another vote to merge the towns in 1918. Humboldt’s Oliver DeGroote speculated that joining together as a united city with a combined population would boost values in each town and help attract business and industry. Still, Dakota City voted 56 to 45 to stay as the separate county seat.
The last try, in 1960, received lukewarm reception from both city councils.
Financing improvements in Dakota City was more difficult for Dakota City residents than those in Humboldt. One long-time resident recalled, “We had to pay a higher rate of interest to build in Dakota, but we wanted to be here, near family.”
Dakota City passed through WWI and the depressions of the 20s and 30s. As Ruth Barrett reported, Dakota City began to grow. With the coming of the automobile and Highway 10 through Mill Street (now Main Street), an unbelievable six filling stations were going full-tilt at one time.
In 1919, the town water system was put in. The main street was paved in 1920. At the same time they made the Dakota City hill less steep. In 1925, the Willing Workers became the Park Improvement Club, equipping the Dakota City Park with tables, play equipment, stoves, a well, and electricity. In 1929, the group became the Worthwhile Club. Its purpose: to remember the sick and shut-ins, provide for the needy, and conduct campaign drives.
The old brick courthouse was still there in 1923, and in even poorer condition. The new proposition was to build a courthouse for $225,000. This time it would be in Dakota City. “Humboldt didn’t want it,” the Humboldt Republican editorial said. Times were changing and transportation to the courthouse was easier. But hard economic conditions had its impact, and the issue was soundly defeated 1,715 to 485.
Improvements were made at the courthouse. Dakota City offered to connect the town’s water system to the county jail and sheriff’s house. Rooms were rented in Humboldt for the offices of County Engineer and County Superintendent of Schools. In 1927, an office building with toilets was built close to the courthouse, so the supervisors could meet there. However, the 55-year-old brick building was still heated with stoves in each room.
In 1936, the Works Projects Administration helped the citizens of Humboldt County build a new courthouse for $185,000. A bond issue of $95,000 was easily passed by the voters. The W.P.A., a grant and transferred funds took care of the rest. The building, placed northeast of the original courthouse, was ready for occupancy in 1939.
The auxiliary buildings surrounding the courthouse were removed and the entire block was landscaped. The Humboldt County courthouse is an imposing, three-story building, distinctive and well-constructed. Like a sentinel it stands and keeps watch over both towns and the whole county.
Among the several gifted men and women from Dakota City was Harry Reasoner, who was born in 1923 in a middle-class house on 1st Avenue North, across the street north of the school. His father was Dakota City principal, his mother a teacher, and the family did not stay long in Dakota City, moving on to other small towns. Harry usually claimed Humboldt, where his beloved grandparents lived, as his hometown. In later visits, he toured Dakota City and remarked about improvements.
The Humboldt County Bank was built across the main street from the courthouse in 1872. It was moved to Humboldt four years later. In the next block east, in the 1940s, Homer Erickson ran an oil station and Rita’s very good café was next to it. Then Merlin Fort had an oil station there. The Hughes Bakery sold great homemade rolls in the old café. After the oil station closed, the building was used for car repair, a car wash, an electric shop and storage. It was razed in 1989.
On the corner east in the same block (20 – 4th Street S.) is a private home surrounded by trees. Al Adams lived at this location and built his Humboldt County Independent newspaper office west of there (306 Main) in 1875.
Odenbrett’s oil station was located at about 404 Main Street. It was taken down in 2006. In 1896, there was a grocery store there. Ruth Barrett remembered that about 1900 a Mr. Locke bought the grocery from Jack Fahey. Mr. Locke moved the building to “the corner east of the Star Ballroom,” probably 409 Main Street. Eldon Collins had a small oil station in the 400 block before Odenbrett built his building there. Cran’s Electric Shop and Dowlings Car Wash were also in this location.
East of the alley east of the Odenbrett property, there was a large store at 404 Main Street in 1896. A single story building was there from 1912 to the1930s, used as a variety store and post office. Russell L. Christensen says this is where Boothroyd’s meat market was located in the 1930s, operated by his grandparents. Don Sawyer bought the store in 1938 and it was used as his law office until he moved to California in 1943.
East of that was a two-story store building, shown in 1915 and 1930 maps. This was where John Brodsack’s Barber Shop was. Don Sawyer remembered, “a haircut for kids cost a quarter in 1934.” A one-story frame building was next at 406 Main in 1915. In the 1950s, Bob Naeve had a barber shop there, followed by Irv Larson’s TV and Radio.
In 1974, two new stores replaced these, built by the Naeve family. The Fancy Pants women’s clothing store was at 406. Later it was Marso’s ice cream store. The Iowa Department of Transportation Materials Lab is now located in that building. The other building is the new post office located at 408 Main Street.
“The McFarland Drug Store” stood for many years at the corner where the new VFW building was built in 1978, 412 Main Street, (see photo). It was constructed in 1872 by John T. Fockler, who had the first drugstore in Dakota City. Dr. James C. Sprague had his office upstairs. During the hard times of 1874, E. D. Nickson bought out Fockler’s stock of drugs and added it to his own drugstore in Humboldt.
William Cragg then took over the drugstore in Dakota City. He was not a pharmacist, and, like Fockler, sold wine and whiskey along with the usual drug store merchandise. Nicholas Lucas accidentally drank poisoned wine there in December 1881 and Cragg’s drugstore was sold to Osborne and Franklin, who also had a general store.
A.W. McFarland, Dakota City’s first lawyer, began the practice of law in 1864. In 1872, McFarland had his law office in “Cass’ new building,” wherever that was. In 1883, McFarland took over the troubled drugstore, moving his law office upstairs. He was joined in the 1870s by W.H. Locke and in the 1880s by his brother-in law, A.D. Franklin, abstractors. When McFarland died in 1905, the complete drug store and law office sat for years, locked up. The rickety outdoor staircase was removed a few years later.
In 1934, Don Sawyer moved his first law office from the old courthouse to the second floor of the McFarland Drugstore Building at 412 Main. The post office was downstairs. When the building was being torn down in 1976, bottles of medicines and other drugstore products were still on the shelf.
Casey’s General Store is on the corner of the next block east. The Henry Kirchhoff family home was on that corner after Dr. Russell’s large brick hotel was taken down. The Roffler Family Hair Center is located next, at 504 Main Street, then Ted Brown’s old house, where Iowa Municipal Insurance is located, 506 Main.
Ted Brown’s Texaco (later City Service) station, located at 508 Main Street, is a remarkable building. During the 1920s there was bootlegging in the basement. Ralph Heath, George Engquist, Jane Schuchmacher, Louis Soppeland, Fred McFarland, Wayne Miller, Louis Collins, Gordon VanGronigan, Billy Buckingham, Merlin Fort and Ole Weiss had a hand at running the gas station. Then it was Frank Rathke’s Electric Motor Sales and Service. Geoff Mickelsen operated his R & G Electric there, then Kevin Skow bought the building. Pete Holt has it now, but more about that later.
In 1932, Schultz had saved enough to open a garage and then a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership, (see photo). He began buying lots on the north side of Main Street, at $100 per lot, and built a total of seven brick buildings. Because of Otto Schultz’s investments in time and money, Dakota City survived.
Roller Country Skating Rink is located at 403 Main Street. Otto Schultz’s auto dealership was there first. Jim and Marcia Lenning’s Sales and Service was there for a while in front, and Head Start was in the back. Then Bill Patterson and his wife operated a ceramic shop in the back.
In 1946, Schultz built what he wanted to be a theater. It turned out to be the Star Ballroom, a very popular dance hall for two decades. Here Louis Armstrong, Lawrence Welk and Stan Kenton played to enthusiastic audiences from all over the area. A bowling alley, operated by Max Gibson, was in the basement in the 1950s.
In 1975, the Al Hadar family bought the ballroom. The last dance was held in 1992. Dan Dodgen ran a bar and dance hall after Al. It was also called the Dog House. Melinda Witzke purchased the building in 1997 and it is now her school of dance.
The building east of the ballroom is vacant now. It was Denny Doocy’s bar in the 1960s. Other bar owners included J.E. Colwell, Sal and Meg Odenbrett, Mel Thorn, Jim and Marlene Hamilton, Lyle Taute, and Don and Joan Jacobson. It was also a beauty shop.
Busy Bee Day Care is now located on the corner at 409 Main Street. Locke’s grocery store was there, beginning about 1900. Elmer Ulrich ran the store for several years while Mr. Locke managed the mill. Don Sawyer remembered, “Bill Locke’s Grocery store was the big deal when I was a kid. Everyone gathered there to talk and get the latest news from the first radio in town.”
The place became Whitmer’s grocery, then Ulrich’s grocery. Joan Jacobson ran a small grocery there. Dr. Beryl Michaelson had her office in the building. There was a beauty and barber shop there, too, as well as Carl Lippolt’s investment firm. Around the corner, on 5th Street North in 1984 was Tony’s Pizza and Schwan’s Sales and Service, at 28 North 5th. Today Beebe Plumbing and Heating is there.
Don Sawyer and J.T Sawyer ran an oil station for 13 years on the corner where Trinkets and Treasures Boutique is now located, 501 Main Street. Gasoline was one-half cent per gallon wholesale in 1944. The station burned in 1944. Otto Schultz soon built a corner grocery at 501 Main Street. DeGrootes, Bowens, Dan Fowler and Craig and Bonnie Locke had businesses there. Gerald Heim had a bar at that location, and also Jim Hamilton, and Mac McCullough owned it. It later became Sherry Carlson’s M & M used clothing and is now T & T.
B & B Sales and Service is at 503 Main Street. There was a small post office there in 1896, and Walt Hawkins Bakery and Hawkins Jewelry were located in this area in 1915. For a few months in 1940 Byron Fjetland operated Byron’s Blue Front Grocery there, east of Sawyer’s station. During the war, Elmer and Zula Ulrich (Herb’s parents) had their grocery in that building,
After the war Otto Schultz built a brick building at 503 Main Street. Russell L. Christensen remembers watching Saturday night wrestling at Ferry’s Hardware there on the first TV in downtown Dakota City. Romaine Lee had his first hardware store there. In 1983, it was a bookstore, then Dale’s Shoe Service. It is now, B & B’s, owned by Jerry and Brenda Kramer.
The east portion of Vinny’s Barbecue, 507 Main Street, was built in 1936, by Otto Schultz, the middle part, where the bar is located, is older. The new addition to the building is on the west, where Vera Miller’s cream station used to be. Before it was Vinny’s it was Gordy’s, and before that it was Carl Weigert’s cafe.
The corner east of Vinny’s, at 509 Main Street, was where Newbrough had an oil station, followed by Ben Schulze, then Fred McFarland had his DX station. Elmer Peltz owned it in the 1950s, then Gordon Laing closed it in 1969. Frank Zigrang and D. Williams rented out the back part of the building to mechanics. Bob Amlie’s Auto Body Repair was there in 1984. Tony Russell owns it now.
In the next block east is Kellner’s Auction Service. First on that corner was an oil station built by Otto Schultz, perhaps the re-built J.T. Sawyer Phillips 66 station. It was sold to Robert Jacobson in 1946. There was a lunch counter in front. Then the Supreme Bread Company distributed bread from this place. Then it was a grocery, Bowen’s Food Market, operated by Harold DeGroote, with Walt Cody cutting meat.
Next it was remodeled into Elsie’s Café. Then Rita and Henry Haas operated the restaurant. Soon Rita’s daughter, Val, made it into Val’s Café, which later became Todd’s Café. Now it is Kellner’s Auction Service. Henry Haas had a feed place next to Elsie’s. It was also an apartment house owned by Kevin Skow and a Day Care Center. To the east at 605 Main Street is a new very large building that was a beauty shop for a short time.
Jim Gronbach Construction is located at 703 Main Street. For several summers about in the 1950s, a roller skating rink used to be set up in a tent east of this in the empty lot. Further east in 1984, at 707 Main Street, Excel Printing did business.
Off-main street businesses were a Fabric store south of Pete Holt’s Station, Mrs. Skow’s stained glass business, Fortner’s Furniture Repair, Oaks Garden Spot, Shadle Salvage, Patterson Service Center, Dot’s Beauty Service owned by Dorothy Robinson, Irv’s TV, Barb McDonough’s pre-school, Wayne Jennings’ stockyard, Marso Excavating and Martin Well Company. Today we also have Gord’s Auto Upholstery and the Richard Cleaning Service, which are located away from Main Street.
The J.F. Miller and Sons Elevator by the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad bought, processed and sold corn and beans. They also sold coal, and there was a stockyard there.
Henry Hansen began his honey factory in 1939, supplying 500 55 gallon drums of honey per season to the Sioux Honey Association for over 40 years. His apiary employed eight people and was located across the street from the current city hall. It was torn down in 2006.
Another Dakota City industry is Gunder Manufacturing. In 1952 Paul Silbaugh purchased the business from Everett Gunder and moved it to the former VFW hall in Dakota City, located just west of the courthouse. Additions were made in 1957 and 1968. The plant, known for its quality church furniture and extended area of woodworking, employs about 25 workers.
Bob Mickey had the brick Smith mansion near 6th Avenue and 7th Street North demolished in 1973 for the RAMS investment company. The north plant of the Chantland-PVS Company purchased the property in 1978 for its north plant.
Chantland-PVS Company originated in 1943 in Badger. The original product line consisted of a small wood frame belt conveyor. The south plant is located three miles south of Humboldt on highway 169. The MHE Automatic Bag Palletizer Company was moved to the north plant in 1994. Products manufactured there are shipped to customers worldwide.
She remarked, “The tall blue water tower proudly declares that this is Dakota City and serves as a landmark to the weary traveler for many miles around. The face of Dakota City has changed over the years. The vacant lots are being filled in and shacks and old houses have given way to the buildings we see today. There is a neighborhood atmosphere about the town that is enhanced by its many comfortable homes, surrounded by tall trees, wide, neatly-kept lawns and productive vegetable and flower gardens.”
Hinkle noted, “There is a quiet, unhurried pleasant atmosphere that hasn’t altered despite the increase in population. The people are concerned with bringing up their families, and indeed there has always been a family closeness about this town and a sort of tough pride in its history that I know will be carried into the future.”
Juanita Boswell remembered spring walks and the gathering of flowers in the ravine, school picnics and carnivals, the skating rink, and the haunted A.W. McFarland house south of J.C. McFarland’s house (602 Main). Locked up for 40 years, it burned down in 1961. Many people go to the greenhouses the Boswells built, where Humboldt County’s lawns, flower and vegetable gardens often get their start.
Dakota City is no longer on the wrong side of the tracks. The tracks are gone, replaced with hiking trails. The two towns are one except for boundaries. Things on the hill are looking good. New streets have been put in. Parks and civic improvements have created an environment where newcomers are eager to live. Many lovely brick homes have been added since 1983, and whole residential blocks look like parks.
A small playground is located west of the new water treatment plant. It was named in memory of Pfc. Herbert O. Zinnel, Jr., who was killed in Viet Nam on his first mission in 1967. A scholarship is also awarded each year in his memory.
Street signs were put up with the Boy Scouts helping in 1969. The houses were numbered, so visitors could find Dakota City addresses. In 1981, all the street names were changed to numbers, except for Main Street, which used to be called Mill Street.
By combining the school systems of Humboldt and Dakota City, the towns demonstrated cooperation for the betterment of all. Clyde Mease Elementary School is now part of the Humboldt Community School District, housing kindergarten through second grade. Head Start is next door.
Dakota City pays for fire protection and library services from Humboldt. They give a substantial donation each year to the Aquatic Center. Trash collection in Dakota City is provided by independent contractors. Representatives of the whole county work together in the Humboldt County Emergency Management team.
The sharing of county and city law enforcement facilities has also worked well, with the Humboldt County Law Enforcement headquarters, which had been on the third floor of the courthouse, moved to its own place in Humboldt. The two towns give Community Spirit Awards together, honoring those who serve the area.
Recently, the two city councils met to discuss combining the water and sewer systems. Sharing of equipment, coordinating timing of street improvements, garbage and recycling were also discussed. These proposals were in the formative stages. It was made clear that Dakota City would continue to be a separate town with its own unique identity.
Mayor David Lee believes about half of the current population consists of life-long residents. The majority is older citizens, but, he said, more and more younger families are moving in. Dakota City has good water and sewer rates, cheaper housing and a lower cost of living than what can be found in other cities. Families and businesses take pride in their appearance, undertaking remodeling projects to make the town beautiful.
Many in Dakota City are thankful to Peter D. Holt who took an eyesore and turned it into an attraction. Pete collected gas station memorabilia. He bought and restored Ted Brown’s old Texaco building on Main Street, one of the first architecturally designed gas stations west of the Mississippi. Although it is actually a place where Pete stores his treasures, the gas station has become a place where people stop by all the time.
Work done by a group of people from the city to revitalize the town’s park has spurred others into action. The Des Moines River Restoration Committee spent one Saturday a month cutting brush, clearing trees and just trying to bring it back to life.
What was once a park that nobody really cared about now has playground equipment, 14 campsites, bathrooms, showers, benches, picnic tables, shelter houses, boat ramps, a beach and many visitors. Additional playground equipment and a volleyball court have been added recently.
The money raised for this project was done by several fundraisers. New entry signs into town, painting the water tower, and increasing the recycling program were accomplished without raising taxes.
Each Christmas thousands of tourists view Merlin Fort’s “hillside spectacular” holiday light display, giving Dakota City its “15 minutes of fame” in statewide media.
The city purchased land on which they built a recycling depot, a sand shed, and a large maintenance shed. They updated some of their equipment, and resurfaced the main street. They take pride in the appearance of the city and work hard to keep it a friendly clean town. Several houses have been condemned and demolished.
On Aug. 8, 2007, and again in June 2008, Dakota City’s community spirit surfaced when downpours of rain inundated the town. Neighbors helped one another, and folks from Humboldt joined volunteers from across the state to help clean up wet basements.
Jim Gronbach won the “Outstanding Good Neighbor Award” for volunteering much time and energy to help many in the community during that emergency. As he was in the firehouse, he took calls and sent men and trucks to help those in trouble. He helped out in Dakota City. Then, after learning that the Humboldt South Care Center’s electrical system was out and all the residents needed evacuating, Jim went there to lead and assist. He demonstrated the neighborly helpfulness he learned at home in Dakota City.
Having the courthouse and being the county seat of Humboldt County has always been a source of pride to Dakota City citizens. Recent efforts to place the courthouse on the historic registry, restore the original frescoed artwork on the walls and ceilings, and replace unique, solid bronze light fixtures outside the front door have been successful.
Mayor David Lee said, “Our little town is the oldest town in Humboldt County. We are the county seat with the courthouse. We are proud of our heritage and are looking forward to having a great celebration of our 150 years. Our first Dakota City Days celebration was enjoyed by many and we are hoping to provide that same type of event in 2008.”
Excerpts from articles in The Humboldt Independent, August 7, 14, and 21, 2008
Our appreciation to those who have helped research this history of Dakota City: Russell L. Christensen, Gordon Van Gronigen, Shirley Vinsand, Mona Sawyer Hill, Ron Stone, Don Vest, Angelique Berry, Janean Smith, Bill Fort, David Lee, Joe Hadar, Nathalie Schulze, Virginia Griffin, Eugene Smith, Donna Cooper, Earlene Davis, Bernie Eckberg, Laurie Carlson, Marilyn Dodgen and Martha Schmidt. Thank you.