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Winneshiek County Iowa History

Winneshiek County Iowa

Winneshiek County, Iowa is a largely rural and agricultural county and has a rich cultural history from Czech, Slovak, English, Irish, German, Swiss and Norwegian immigrants that have settled within the boundaries.  The county was originally settled in 1848 in present day Bloomfield Township (near Castalia, Iowa) and in Washington Township (near Fort Atkinson, Iowa). It was organized in 1847 and named after a chief of the Winnebago tribe.

Although the Doerr farm was located in Military Township, the family appeared to use the Festina post office for their mailing address. Festina is located in Washington Township, just east of Military Township. 

The following story is from Past and Present of Winneshiek County, Iowa, by Edwin C. Bailey. He was the son of a pioneer that came from Pennsylvania to Military township. This could be a similar trip that our ancestor Wilhelm Doerr family may have made: 1

“The first settler came in 1850, but who he was is not known. The occupation of the lands within its borders was very rapid, for as early as 1854, no unoccupied land was to be had. Settlers either entered it as school land or bought it outright at $1.25 per acre. Prices advanced rapidly as improvements were made and values as high as $4.50 and $5.00 per acre were reached by 1854. In order to give the reader an insight into the methods used and the privations experienced by the people of an early day, it will be necessary to relate some personal experiences.

This writer’s father started from Northwestern Pennsylvania in December 1854, with team, lumber wagon, and a board for a seat, to come to what was then the far West to seek a home in which to spend his future days. He was accompanied by a brother with similar conveyance, bent on a like mission. They were not seeking something they knew naught of, for others preceded them and delivered glowing accounts of the opportunities offered in the newer fields. The trip was not worthy of special mention, but no doubt grew monotonous to the participants in the short winter days. The Mississippi river was reached t last, however, and was found to be clear of ice, but as the weather turned cold that day a crossing was effected the next morning by leading one horse across at a time and drawing the wagon by hand. The journey was continued on the day following, as far as Decorah, a party at McGregor wishing transportation to that place. The route traversed was via Moneek and Frankville, at that time two prosperous villages.

On January 8, 1855, the drive from Decorah to what proved to be a home for over half a century, was made. The road taken ran out through Madison township, to where Calmar now stands, and so on down the Military ridge from which this township takes its name.

At an early date land was selected and purchased of an earlier settler for $4.50 per acre and preparations were made for settlement in the spring following. The horses were sold, and the return trip was commenced on foot as far as Dubuque, where transportation was taken back to Pennsylvania. He with his family and some of the necessaries of life removed in April by rail as far as Galena, Illinois, thence by boat to McGregor and overland the rest of the way.

Wealth was not sought by these people. They were simply looking for a home in which they could secure a competence in their later years, and an opportunity for their offspring. Their surroundings were primitive, indeed. A log house twelve by thirteen feet, with no attic, was kitchen, dining room, bed room and pantry combined. A small lean-to and an attic were afterwards added and in these surroundings seven children, all robust and healthy, were reared until better accommodations could be afforded. Not alone the family, but visitors were entertained, and strangers were often sheltered within its walls. And those were the days of hoop skirts, and who can imagine the neighborhood ladies gathered together for an afternoon visit with good old-fashioned families added. The roof was protected by oaken shingles which shed water well enough, but when a genuine blizzard raged much snow was sifted through the chinks and our urchin brothers and sisters upon arising in the morning would have to seek a place to plant their bare feet to miss the little snow banks scattered promiscuously upon the floor.
The spinning wheel and loom were also in evidence, for no home was complete without the wherewithal to be self-supporting. Long strings of oxen were hitched to large breaking plows and the natural sod was broken, crops were put in by hand and harvested with the cradle. The building of flour mills quickly followed the advent of the pioneer and a sustenance was achieved within the reach of all. The next thing was the market for the surplus. This was found at McGregor, a drive of forty miles, which took three days. While the man of the house was gone on these necessary trips the wife and mother was governor-general and general roustabout combined.

In the spring of 1856, a small prairie fire started in the southern part of the township and extended nearly the whole length north and south, destroying fences and numerous buildings in its path. When we consider that fences were made from rails split from burr oak we can realize what loss they were to the farmer of those times.

Following this we have the terrible winter of 1856 and 1857, a winter never to be forgotten by the pioneer. Snow fell to a depth of four feet, followed by rain which formed a crust on the snow, encasing everything in its grasp. It became impossible to get a horse or ox off from the beaten path, and fire wood had to be procured by hand. This also marked the fall of the deer and elk. They became famished and were an easy prey to hunters on foot, the crust not being strong enough to sustain the deer’s weight. The settlers here, as in nearly every other place, had their Indian scare. It was reported the Indians were coming slaughtering and burning all before them. Many people turned out their stock to shift for themselves, and loading their valuables and families into their wagons started for McGregor; others, whether from more thoughtful disposition or more stubborn, refused to leave and prepared to stand a siege if such there came, but it proved only a rumor enlarged by nervous people and everyone soon returned and resumed his place and pursuits.

In times of adversity when prices were low, many times as man would be compelled to go home without a much-needed article on account of the expense of the trip.”


Winneshiek County News

The following is a chronolgical timeline of some interesting events in Winneshiek County from 1840 to 1890. These are just a sample of the list obtained from Edwin C. Baily’s Past and Present of Winneshiek County, Iowa. 2

1840 –  The first death was recorded on October 4, 1840; a Government teamster named Howard was found frozen near the present site of Castalia.

1841 –   Mary Jane Tapper, first white child born in county on January 16, 1841.

1842 –   Rev. D. Lawery appointed Indian agent.

1843 –   Colonel Thomas, under instruction from the Government, built the first grist mill in Winneshiek county.

1848 –   Hamilton Campbell and wife settled on sections 23 and 26, Bloomfield township on June 7, 1848. Twenty days later the Krumm families arrived from Indiana and settled in Washington township (Fort Atkinson area).

1849 –   Fort Atkinson was abandoned in February 1849.

1849 –   Day family settled in Decorah in June, 1849.

1849 –   Wm. Painter commenced running a small grist mill at the present site of the Spring Mill, or Dunning’s mill, Decorah.

1849 –   First settlers at Moneek in July 1849.

1849 –   A number of families immigrated from Aldeberg, Indiana and settled near the Turkey River [just south of Festina] and became known as Old Mission in September 1849.

1850 –   Old Mission Post Office was established.

1850 –   Settlements were made in what are now Decorah, Bloomfield, Springfield, Glenwood, Canoe, Pleasant, Madison, Frankville, and Military Townships.

1851 –   Burr Oak Township was established about the same time; for in the fall of 1851, Judge M. V. Burdick visited the place and found where the village of Burr Oak is now [1913] located, a hotel, a store and a blacksmith shop.

1850 –   The Federal census was taken, showing a population of 570 in the county.

1850 –   First immigration of Norwegians took place this year.

1851 –   An act of the Legislature, organizing Winneshiek county, was approved on January 15 1851.

1851 –   Decorah was elected to be the county seat, after a fight with Moneek on April 7, 1851.

1851 –   Hesper and Highland Townships were settled this year.

1852 –   Lincoln Township was settled during this year.

1852 –   The first term of district court for this county was held in Decorah on July 9, 1852. Thos. S. Wilson, Judge. The first indictment found by the grand jury was against Francis Teabout, for gambling; the second against Philander S baker, for selling intoxicating liquors; the third was against James T. Moore, for gambling. Each were held to bail to the next term of court in the sum of $100.00.

1853 –   The present city of Decorah was surveyed and platted in August of this year.

1853 –   The village of Frankville was surveyed and platted in October.

1853 –   This year Ammon & Co. came to Decorah and were the first to add steam power to the water power, finally resulting in their foundry, machine shop, and wagon manufactory.

1853 –  The government property at Fort Atkinson was sold at auction and Mr. Cooney, who was in 1852 appointed to take charge of the old fort and Government buildings, found his “occupation gone.”

1853 –   In the winter of 1853-4 the first Bohemian settlers came in and settled not far from Fort Atkinson. To those settlers the present village of Spillville largely owes its existence.

1854 –   The village of Freeport was platted in May 1854.

1854 –   The first building in Calmar was erected. The village of Calmar was platted in November.

1854 –   The famous Decorah hotel and Winneshiek House was built 1854-1835.

1853 –   Ossian was platted as a village in April 30, 1853.

1855 –   This year gave the county its first newspaper, the Decorah Chronicle. It was edited and published by a man named Tracy, but very soon Judge M.V. Burdick became the editorial writer. It had its ups and downs, and the Decorah Republican of today [1918] may be considered as its successor, Wesley Bailey and son buying out the establishment, and issuing it as the Decorah Republic, in 1860, and afterwards changing the name to Decorah Republican.

1857 –   Decorah became an organized town, but the Legislative act of incorporation was not passed till 1871.

1858 –   The plat of the village of Hesper – the township having been first settled in 1851 – was record on February 25, 1858. The township of Hesper was also organized in 1858.

1860 –   Daily mail was established between McGregor and Decorah on October 5th.

1861 –    A public meeting was held and the Decorah Guards organized on April 8th, being the first company to enter the service in the War of the Rebellion.

1861 –   The county supervisors voted $3.00 per week to each of the families of the Decorah Guards on June 11th.

1861 –   L. Standring turned the first scraper full of dirt into the Decorah branch of the Northern Iowa Railroad on June 17th. Gangs of men were set at work at Decorah, Calmar, Ossian and Monona but the work was discontinued.

1862 –   The saloon of Wm. Oleson, Decorah, burned and George C. Gulbranson burned to death and others badly injured on August 30th.

1964 –   Celebration of the arrival of the railroad at Castalia on October 12th.

1865 –   Flood in Dry Run did considerable damage on March 20th. High waters in the river carried away the West Decorah bridge and also the Freeport bridge.

1865 –   A rousing celebration in Decorah of the taking of Richmond on April 8th, in which enthusiasm extravagantly boiled over in wild and peculiar freaks.

1865  –  Funeral services in Decorah, Castalia and other places on the death of Lincoln on April 27th.

1865  –  Railroad completed to near Calmar on June 15th.

1865  –  Railroad completed to Conover on July 20th.

1865 –   Dedication of the Norwegian Lutheran College, one wing four stories high, with basement being completed on October 15th. Prominent Norwegians from all parts of the country were present.

1866 –   The greatest flood since 1859 occurred on April 5th, carrying off numerous bridges and doing considerable damage in the county.

1866 –   Great fire in Decorah on November 1st, loss from $30,000 to $40,000, burning out Dennis & Hulverson, P. S. Smout, Green & Morss and others, also the office of the Winneshiek Register, established in 1866, Haislet Bros., proprietors.

1866 –  This year the railroad reached the site of Ridgeway and gave it its first start.

1867 –  The telegraph line to Decorah was completed.

1869 –  Paper mill company at Freeport was organized March 15th.

1869 –   Depot and six grain warehouses at Ossian burned on May 9th.

1869 –  Calmar is incorporated as a village of the second class on July 12th.

1869 –  First regular train ran into Decorah on September 15th. It was a day of celebration and rejoicing.

1869 –  This year the railroad reached Fort Atkinson and the building of the new town commenced.

1871 –   A fire in on February 2nd Decorah destroyed Goddard & Henry’s store, the Howell and Heivly Building occupied by P. S. Smout and Mrs. G. W. Adams’ millinery store.

1871 –   By legislative enactment, Decorah was incorporated a city of the second class on February 24th. Its first election was held March 6th. The first mayor was Charles F. Allen.

1873 –   The great storm and snow blockade commenced January 7th, continuing about a week. It was in this storm that conductor Bob Jamieson organized a rescue party and went from Calmar carrying provisions to passengers in a blockade train a little south of Ridgeway. They made their way through the blinding storm by staring from one telegraph pole to another, the one who found the pole first shouting to the others. It was nearly two weeks before the blockade was finally lifted.

1873 –   The new schoolhouse at Fort Atkinson was burned on January 20th.

1873 –    About May 24th the business part of Ridgeway burned. Twenty-five buildings were destroyed and $50,0000 worth of property.

1874 –   A.A. Aiken’s Trot Run woolen factory burned on November 3rd.

1875 –   A snow blockade continued several days in early February.

1875 –   The night of June 23rd occurred the great flood of Dry Run, supposed to have been caused by a water spout. Three small dwellings are carried away and five bridges over Dry Run; Washington street bridge being the only one saved. All the bridges and much of the railroad track between Decorah and Conover were washed away.

1876 –   On March 3rd, the First accident on the Decorah branch of the railroad. Train was ditched three miles from the city. Eleven persons were hurt but none were killed.

1877 –   On July 4th Howard’s livery stable, Decorah, burned and other property greatly endangered.

1877 –  On July 31st recorder Charles A. Steen, who was wounded at Gettysburg, died in Decorah, aged 40 years, 11 months and 1 day. Cyrus McKay was appointed to fill the vacancy until the next election.

1877 –   On October 18th, a fire at Calmar burned four business houses, including McMullen’s drug store, a shoe store, restaurant and saloon.

1877 –   On November 29th, Adam’s Block, Decorah, burned, burning out Ben Bears’ Clothing Store, Coleman & Tove’s Drug Store, J. C. Meuser’s Jewelry Store, Newton’s Grocery and some other tenants.

1878 –   On November 21st, the body of H. A. Hegg of Decorah was found in the creek at the railroad bridge near Standring’s cut. The coroner’s jury found that his death was caused by strychnine and that it occurred before he fell into the water. The mystery of his death was never solved.

1879 –   On June 13th the railroad depot at Conover burned.

1882 –   On June 27th, Prohibitory Amendment adopted in Iowa. Vote of Winneshiek county was 1,411 for, 1,696 against the amendment.

1882 –   November 27th, Electric lights first shown in Decorah. Stock company was formed to build plant, on December 6th.

1883 –   January 1st, Sheriff H. M. Langland and Ella Sloan married. While the wedding was in progress, Mrs. Garvey, held on a murder charge, escaped from county jail but was captured the next day at the home of Thomas Dugan in Glenwood township. She was subsequently tried at Waukon, convicted and sentenced to the penitentiary for life.

1883 –   January 18th-23rd, gave six days of continuous cold weather. On the 18th the mercury at 8 a.m. showed 17º below zero. It moderated to 14º above at 8 p.m. and stood at zero the morning of the 19th. Åt noon that day it was 6º below and from then on until the morning of the 24th the mercury did not rise above zero, the coldest reading being 28º below on the morning of the 21st. At Hesper 36º below was recorded, and Calmar reported 37º below. On January 31st it was again 28º below in Decorah.

1883 –   February 5th, Calmar school is closed on account of diphtheria.

1883 –   June 17th, severe storm sweeps over county. In Sumner township buildings were blown down and unroofed. At the Crawford farm at Burr Oak Springs nearly all the outbuildings were destroyed. In Decorah shade trees were blown down and uprooted, buildings were moved, and water from the river was carried ten feet up its bank by the wind.

1883 –   June 20th-23rd, was a storm period during which 9.29 inches of rain fell, causing large property losses in Decorah along Dry Run. A number of bridges were washed out, county roads were rendered impassable, and lightning caused the destruction of considerable farm property.

1883 –   July 24th, Daubersmith’s Mill near ridgeway burns.

1883 –   August 3rd, eight horses and colts killed and two others badly injured by the Calmar train in Madison Township. They belonged to Ole N. Bergen and had escaped from their pasture. Loss $1,500.

1883 –   September 6th,three cases of Leprosy reported in the County.

1884 –   March 9th, Ridgeway creamery burned. Loss $3,000.

1884 –   August 22nd, Fire at the home of James Kitchen results in severe injury to Mrs. Kitchen and two children, the daughter Arvilla dying from her burns.

1884 –   December 2nd, Trout run mill destroyed by fire.

1884 –   January 19th-22nd was a cold spell, the thermometer registering from 32º to 42 º below zero.

1885 –   July 28th, Hard wind storm does great damage to business section of Decorah, tearing up tin roofs, leveling smoke stacks, signs, etc., and in some instances tearing out parts of buildings. At the Henry R. Thomas farm West of Decorah, a granary and a barn were moved from their foundations and his hired man lifted into a tree. The storm hit Decorah at four o’clock and Dubuque at 5:20, traveling at the rate of a mile a minute.

1886 –   February 15th, the post office at Woodside is discontinued.

1886 –   May 6th, Iowa and Minnesota Telephone Company are building lines through Winneshiek County. Calmar Telephone Company is building line in Decorah.

1886 –   June 27th, Terrific hail storm passes over northern part of county. In hesper township between 500 and 750 acres of corn and grain were destroyed and great damage was done to windows. In places hail stones drifted to a depth of four feet.

1886 –   November 11th, Diphtheria is reported throughout the county. Five children of A. R. Anderson of Springfield township died from the disease.

1887 –   July 23rd the Lutheran and Methodist churches at Calmar are Struck by lightning and the former burned.

1887 –   September 10th, body of C. E. Meader, county treasurer, found in Updegraff grove with bullet hole in his head and revolver lying by his side. Subsequent investigation disclosed shortage of over $5,000 in his accounts.

1887 –   December 20th, Addicken Brewery closed by supreme court of Iowa.

1888 –   January 15th, fire at Ridgeway destroys Allen & Prann’s drug store, Tuck’s hardware, and G. R. lakers’ general store. Loss $25,000; insurance $8,000.

1888 –   January 13th, 14th and 15th, blizzard with thermometer registering from 15º to 27º below.

1888 –   April 5th Upper Iowa river flooded.

1888 –   May 7th, a rain and wind storm of great violence does great damage. Magne Langland, a Highland township lad, is swept away and drowned in torrent in bear Creek.

1888 –   July 4th Ossian creamery burned.

1888 –   September 7th, Knut Larson, a Military township pioneer, is killed by the cars [railroad] as he was driving into Ossian.

1889 –   May 19th, Luther College burned. Lou and Dell Coleman, sons of Dr. W. F. Coleman, severely burned. The latter died from his injuries.

1889 –   September 19th, Fire destroyed building of Julius Meyer at Decorah. Charred remains of Meyer found after the fire had been extinguished.

1889 –   December 7th, N. H. Adams’ seed warehouses wiped out by fire.

1889 –   December 20th, farm home of Winfred Baker in Bluffton township burned.

1889 –   December 30th, Todd Peck killed by the cars [railroad] in C., M. & St. P. yards in Decorah. He was engaged in tagging cars, slipped on the end of a tie and went under the wheels.

1890 –   April 4th, fire in Calmar swept away property valued t $11,000. The losers being John Scott, Jos. Wallender, and Town hall.

1890 –   May 9th Alice Glover received fatal injuries. The buggy in which she was riding was struck by the cars [railroad] at the Broadway crossing in Decorah. She died two days later.

1890 –   June 23rd Heavy rains cause floods that do damage to great dams and bridges along the Upper Iowa and its tributaries




  1. Bailey, Edwin C., Past and Present of Winneshiek county, Iowa: A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement. Chicago, the S.J. Clarke Publishing Company 1913. Vol I p235.
  2. et. al. Vol 1, p. 301.

The family Information was retrieved from a variety of family trees, webgens and family stories. I will note citations as appropriate and hope the information assists you in your research, but please do not use this as proven evidence. Feedback is welcome!

Pat Burns. Copyright © 2024. All Rights Reserved.

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