Fort Dodge Emerges as a Vibrant Industrual Center

Fort Dodge Emerges as a Vibrant Industrial Center - 1890-1920


The period from 1890 until 1920 might be considered the golden age of the city. Fort Dodge saw its fastest growth between 1890 and 1910. Some of the growth came as people moved from rural areas into the cities which offered greater economic and cultural opportunities. The United States as a whole saw a major movement of people from rural areas to urban centers, and great numbers of people immigrated to the United States from Europe and the Middle East. The 1890 census indicated that Fort Dodge had a population of 1,870 but by 1910, the population had increased to 15,543. Setting the stage for the growth of this period were the installation of basic municipal services; water, sewer, gas, telephone, and electric systems. With the population increase came the expansion and diversification of the local economy. Among the most important of the city’s industries were gypsum and clay products, foundry products, banking furniture, meat packing, poultry, butter and eggs, oat meal manufacturing, flour milling, agricultural implements, butter tubs and barrels, cigars, carbonated beverages, confectionary items, and men’s work clothing.

Prosperity and expansion also meant the construction of many of the city’s public buildings and structures. Among the improvements during the two decades on each side of the turn of the century were two railroad depots, the county court house, the post office/federal building, the national guard, the public library, the YWCA, the YMCA, five public school buildings, the parochial school buildings, one college building, Mercy Hospital, the Great Western Railroad bridge, the now present Bennett Viaduct extending Third Street over the river to Swedetown, Oleson Park, the electric trolley car, as well as most of the commercial buildings downtown. It was during this period also that most of the fine homes in the Oak Hill district were completed.

Economic Expansion Spurs Growth and Prosperity

The economic growth in Fort Dodge attracted outside investors especially in gypsum, railroads, and commercial construction, the most notable of which was the Snell family from Illinois which financed the downtown construction of the Snell Building and the Boston Store. They also were the developers of the affluent Snell residential neighborhood.

Prosperity also enticed outstanding individuals to the community and during this period some played major roles, not only in state and local affairs, but also held important positions on the national level. Jonathan Dolliver was a U.S. Senator from Iowa, George E. Roberts, director of the U.S. Mint, M.D. O’Connell, solicitor for the Department of Treasury, W.J. Chantland, attorney for the Federal Trade Commission, and Seth Thomas, solicitor-general of the Department of Agriculture.

Railroads continued to play an enormous role in the growth of Fort Dodge. By 1890, two railroads were well established in Fort Dodge, the M and St. L. line and the Mason City and Fort Dodge line, which later became the Chicago Great Western, giving Fort Dodge another connection with Minneapolis and Chicago. With the turn of the century both the Great Western and the Illinois Central extended their lines southwest to Omaha, fulfilling the early dream of transcontinental connection. In 1910 the interurban electric line, the Fort Dodge, Des Moines and Southern, was completed providing a connection with Des Moines through Boone.

By 1910, Fort Dodge was a major rail hub. Fort Dodge had direct rail connections with Chicago, Dubuque, Mason City, Minneapolis, Sioux City, Sioux Falls, Omaha, Des Moines, and almost every small town in the immediate area. By 1910 thirty-five passenger trains served the city daily and by 1920 the city claimed 45,000 freight car loadings annually. One source indicates that the railroads provided over 1,000 jobs. Because of the railroads, Fort Dodge boasted being the home for 500 traveling salesmen representing local industry, wholesale houses and jobbers. The local economy was highly diversified with producers for gypsum, brick and tile, stoneware, hardware, pharmaceuticals, telephones, electrical products, clothing, plumbing supplies, flour and milling products, and groceries.

Coal was important for later economic development. Local coal was of low quality, but since the coal fields of Wyoming and Montana had not yet been opened, Webster County coal was seen as accessible and at least adequate. Not only was coal available, but the area had abundant supplies of clay, gypsum, and limestone. Indeed, Fort Dodge was “Mineral City,” a nickname it carried well into the 1930s.

A major boost for the Fort Dodge gypsum production came in 1893 when local mills won the contracts to provide gypsum plaster for the Chicago World’s Fair at which all of the spectacular buildings were temporary structures built with wooden framework covered by plaster. Coal fueled the establishment of the gypsum industry. The first mill was established in 1872 and over the years, 13 mills were built in the county, making Fort Dodge reportedly the largest producer in the world.

A burgeoning industry in Fort Dodge and Webster County during this period was the clay products industry. It, too, was dependent upon local coal. Clay products became the second largest industry in Webster County with its production of brick, tile and stoneware. The products were needed to build the newly established towns in northern and western Iowa, the Dakotas and Minnesota, and to drain the agricultural wetlands of north central Iowa, making available to agriculture some of the richest soils in the world. At one time, five plants produced brick, sewer pipe, and drainage tile. Locally produced drainage tile helped drain the extensive wet lands of north central Iowa, making available the world’s best soil for agriculture. Clay stoneware was also a major product, and Fort Dodge was by far the largest producer of stoneware in Iowa.

Shortly after the turn of the century milling giant General Mills of Minneapolis purchased or leased most of the local mills in order to control the industry. The one major exception locally was the D.C. Heath mill located on the river at the west end of Central. The Heath Mill concentrated its production on oats and oatmeal. Over the years the plant changed ownership and operated under several other names, Great Western, Mother's Oats, Quaker Oats, and Plymouth Mill. At one time it claimed to be the world's biggest producer of oatmeal products with a significant foreign market. The plant was eventually acquired by I.E. Armstrong, a local investor who already was involved in gypsum, stoneware, clay products and retail clothing.

Until 1895 most Fort Dodge businesses served local trade areas. In the first two decades of 1900, businesses increasingly diversified some of which developed new regional and even national markets grew. Several new and significant companies were established, the Green and Wheeler Shoe Company which specialized in women's shoes, the Mulroney Manufacturing Company which manufactured work clothes, Ames Scrum Company which later became Fort Dodge Labs, Monarch Telephone Company, Fort Dodge or Rosedale Creamery, Fort Dodge Chemical Company, and Iowa Paint Company, among others.

In the 1800’s, most business investors were local, but in the during this growth era of Fort Dodge (1890-1920) economic opportunities became more apparent and outside investors became more important, especially from Illinois and St. Louis. One of the leaders was the Snell Family which invested heavily in construction of the buildings in downtown commercial area, most notably the Snell and Boston Store buildings. Snell also developed the new Snell addition upscale residential neighborhood.

At the same time that new companies were created, there was also the beginnings of the nationalization or regionalization of industry. In Fort Dodge, it can be seen in the stoneware industry mentioned earlier, and also in the purchase and closure of the local flour mills by General Mills of Minneapolis, and in the consolidation of the gypsum plants by U.S. Gypsum.

Immigration Provides Much Needed Labor

To support the growing industry in Fort Dodge and Webster County, labor was in great demand. Immigrants which were flooding into the United States from Europe providing that labor. Fort Dodge historically has reflected a mix of ethnic groups. The earliest settlers were almost all native born with an English heritage who had come from eastern states. They were followed in the 1850s by Swedish, Norwegians, Germans and Irish immigrants. These immigrants were attracted by rich agricultural lands and opportunities to own land and farm in Iowa, and particularly Fort Dodge and Webster County. The Germans were attracted by business opportunities and places for skilled craftsmen. By the 1890s an increasing number began arriving primarily from eastern and southern Europe; Greeks, Italians, Jews, Czechs, and Slovaks. As cheap lands disappeared and with limited education and skills many of these immigrants found their place as unskilled labor in the coal mines, the new gypsum mills and clay products plants, as well as with the railroads, and in the new industrial plants.

Many of the laborers established their homes in East Fort Dodge near the mills. Jewish and Syrian people, often peddlers when they first came to America turned to the retail trade, often in clothing stores. Greeks established restaurants and the lone Chinese family established a laundry which they operated for over fifty years. African-Americans came in several decades. In the 1890s, African-Americans migrated to Fort Dodge from the South to help build new railroads and also escape the conditions that existed in the South.

Each ethnic group brought with them cultural traditions. This might best be seen in their churches. The Germans associated with the St. Paul Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, the Swedes with Grace Lutheran and First Covenant (Mission Covenant), Czechs and Slovaks with Prince of Peace Lutheran, Irish with Corpus Christi, Italians with Holy Rosary, African Americans with Second Baptist, and the Jewish People with the Beth El Synagogue.

New Architecture

In the first fifteen years of the 20th century downtown Fort Dodge took on the form that it still has today. The buildings from this period still define Fort Dodge today: the Court House, the old Public Library, the State Bank, the Sears Building, the Carver Building, the Snell Building, and the Boston Store, the Wahkonsa and Warden Hotels, and the Methodist Church all still give the downtown its character. In constructing those buildings the property owners modeled their efforts after Chicago. Most of these buildings are of the Chicago Commercial style.

Fort Dodge is somewhat unique in Iowa in that it had skyscrapers. A skyscraper by the definition of the time was a building of five or more stories. To erect such a building required a new form of construction. The Court House and public library reflected an older form of construction based on load bearing walls. As a building was increased in height the thickness of walls had to be increased, a feature which soon placed limits on a practical height and prevented the construction of skyscrapers. Chicago architects developed a style based on an iron or steel vertical skeleton which provided support. The walls themselves provided no support but only filled in the gaps between the verticals. This allowed the space to be filled with windows which in turn allowed for greater use of natural light and ventilation. There was no practical limits on heights. Increased height required other technological changes, most important of which was the use of elevators for obvious reasons.

Fort Dodge has eleven buildings which qualified as skyscrapers, all of which were built before 1925, a surprising number for a city of only 15,000 people. Note comparable cities in Iowa, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Mason City, Iowa City, Ames, Sioux City, etc. Today these may have structures which reach the five story level but most of these were not built until fifteen years after the last skyscraper was completed locally.

The tall buildings were a result of the dreams of Fort Dodge businessmen who believed that they were building for the future when Fort Dodge would be one of the leading cities in the state. Today many consider that the community was overbuilt leaving some of the larger buildings with vacancies.

Not only did Fort Dodge want tall buildings but they also employed some of the best architects in the Midwest to design them. H.C. Kock, Milwaukee’s leading architect of the turn of the century, designer of two of Milwaukee’s finest buildings, the City Hall and the Pabst Theater was selected to design the Court House and the Public Library in 1903-04. S.S. Beman, the architect who created the town of Pullman and designed many of the buildings in downtown Chicago designed the Ringland/Smeltzer House and the Christian Science Church. The firm of Bird, Proudfoot, and Rawson which designed the Polk County Court House and the Prudential Building among many others is credited with the Municipal Building. Liebbe, Norris, and Rasmussen of Des Moines designed the Snell Building, the Boston Store, the State Bank, the Wahkonsa Hotel, and the Butler House. All of these are on or are eligible for placement on the National Register.


The Wright Brothers introduced the age of flight in 1903. It wasn’t until nine years later that Fort Dodge experienced manned flight. In 1912 the Wright Brothers Airplane Company as part of their company’s promotion of the sale of their flying machines agreed for a fee to come to Fort Dodge to put on an exhibition. The plane was shipped by train to the city and assembled at the exhibition site, the Mineral City Driving Park, at 8th Avenue South and 28th Street. Two of the leading aviators of the time, Philip Parmalee and Clifford Turpin put on a flight show for three days before a paying crowd of thousands. Two days later, a local man, Norland Snow, was the first Fort Dodger to purchase a plane although there is no record showing that he ever flew it.

The same year another local man Clarence Merrill built his own plane, a kite like contraption with four engines. Although photos exist showing the plane in flight the veracity of the photos may be questioned.

In the ensuing years barn storming pilots visited the city and offered paying customers rides but aviation remained a novelty. It remained until World War I with the exploits of daring young men in combat to boost local interest. One of these pilots was John Schaupp, a local man who later became a lawyer and respected judge. In 1917 the city of Fort Dodge offered the federal government 640 acres of land if the government would agree to establish a military field here. The offer was never accepted.

In 1919 E.C. Anderson organized the Fort Dodge Aeroplane Company and located an air field at what would later become Exposition Park fairgrounds in Round Prairie. The company acquired two airplanes and opened air service between Fort Dodge and Des Moines. The company lasted only a short time before it was moved to Kansas City. The company’s assets were acquired by W.B. Swaney, a local automobile dealer, who also purchased 63 acres located where Memorial Park Cemetery is now. It was the first field in Iowa created solely for use as an air field. It included a repair station, hangers, and a pilot’s school. Swaney also organized the Curtis Iowa Company in 1920 and by 1922 flight services were established between Fort Dodge, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and Sioux City. Five pilots were employed and five planes acquired, the largest of which could carry 6 passengers. A post war depression and a lack of demand for air services led to the company’s demise.

The First Fort Dodge Hospital

Formal hospital care actually became available in Fort Dodge around 1900. That year a private group of nurses took over a sturdy brick Victorian Mansion on the corner of First Avenue North and 5th Street. Known as the Haskell House, the building had previously served as a stagecoach stop on the way to St. Paul, Minnesota and prior to that as a Presbyterian College. Although running water was available in the Haskell House, there was only one bathroom that was used by hospital staff, patients and by the physicians to scrub for surgery. Laundry facilities were limited, so patient bed linens were changed infrequently.

The new 18 bed “hospital” consisted of a living room/waiting room on the first floor, a kitchen in the basement, and an operating suite on the second floor. Patients were urged to walk from their hospital beds to surgery, and those who were unable to do so were carried by the doctors and nurses. In addition to caring for the patients and assisting the doctors, the nurses prepared all the patient meals and carried the food up 22 steps to the hospital patients. There was no residential facility for the nurses at the hospital, and staff slept in the waiting room on the couch or on the floor.

By 1905 interest in a new, larger hospital for Fort Dodge was beginning to stir again, and the Knights of Columbus volunteered to raise funds to build a non-sectarian hospital. The City of Fort Dodge did express some interest in the concept, but thought a municipal hospital would be a sounder choice. The State Legislature was petitioned to provide the legal authority for a bond issue and tax levy in the amount necessary to build and aid in the maintenance of the hospital, and in time the law was passed.

In the fall of 1907 a typhoid epidemic threatened the Fort Dodge area and there was no place large enough to house typhoid patients because of the highly contagious nature of the disease. Recognizing the gravity of the emergency, the City Council took immediate steps to prepare a veterinary barn for the patients. As much equipment as could be accumulated was supplied and utilities –– light, heat and running water –– were provided in the makeshift hospital.

Again Fort Dodge became interested in its hospital project. A committee was formed and charged with approaching Mother Agnes with the Sisters of Mercy in Dubuque. It was Mother Agnes who proposed that if Fort Dodge could raise twenty-five thousand dollars and donate a tract of land for the hospital, the Sisters of Mercy would match the amount. The offer was accepted, and for the first time in many years Fort Dodge was on its way to having its first formal hospital.

The drive was launched by the Commercial Club with the assistance of John Haire, George Mason and O. M. Oleson. The original Board of Trustees appointed included C. F. Duncombe, O. M. Oleson and M. F. Healy. Several site locations for the hospital were considered. The most suitable site was the beautiful grounds on 17th Street between 7th and 8th Avenue South. Patrick Riley, a pioneer resident of Webster County, purchased this property for the sum of $5,000 and donated it to the Sisters of Mercy. By this time excitement and community pride were building –– the magnificent new hospital would cost nearly $75,000 upon completion, but prior to its completion a contingency of local residents predicted that it would be one of the finest hospitals in the Middle West.

As the hospital neared completion, Mother Agnes made the decision to open temporary quarters in Fort Dodge. On June 15, 1908, the sisters arrived in Fort Dodge from Dubuque and took over care of patients at the Haskell House. The School of Nursing was established in 1908 shortly after the Sisters assumed responsibility for the temporary hospital. Upon the opening of the new St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, a class of young women were well prepared to assist with the care of the large number of patients admitted each day.

St. Joseph Mercy Hospital was completed in early 1909 at an actual cost of $89,378.80, of which $39,547.76 was raised by the community. The first patients were admitted on Monday of the following week. The new hospital had an elevator; still there was an effort made to assign surgical patients to the fourth floor near the operating rooms. The new hospital had no facilities for housing the sisters who staffed it, and during the first few months they used whatever vacant patient rooms were available. Eventually a ward was set aside for use by the sisters. Sister Mary Xavier was the first administrator.

The new facility represented a considerable improvement in hospital conditions. There were surgical, obstetrical and medical departments, but at first there were no facilities for children. A scarlet fever epidemic during the early years taxed the facilities as did typhoid outbreaks and pneumonia. As early as 1912 crowded conditions were experienced regularly, and it was apparent that in the near future additional rooms would need to be added. In 1917 a large private home south of the hospital was purchased to provide accommodations for student nurses. Rooms previously occupied by students were then available for use as semi-private patient rooms.

As 1920 approached, community and health care leaders realized that more hospital beds were badly needed to accommodate the growing community of Fort Dodge. A plan began to develop for the expansion of St. Joseph Mercy Hospital while at the same time, a group of Lutheran leaders in Fort Dodge, led by O.M. Oleson began planning for a second hospital.

Fort Dodge During World War I

The United States declared war on Germany in April 1917. During the years of American Involvement in World War I, 114,224 men and women from Iowa served in the armed forces for the United States. Of the men drafted for service, 51.7 percent were farmers or farm laborers.

Fort Dodge was asked to play a key role for Iowa in the War. Orders were received by the Fort Dodge recruiting office as soon as war was declared from district army headquarters in Omaha to have the local office prepared to handle recruits in large numbers by the latter part of the week. Nationwide, including the Fort Dodge area, enlistees into the army were needed immediately.

Recruiting Officers at the army recruiting office announced that they would visit every minister in the city and request them to urge men to join the army. This was one of the plans that the army took to recruit up to the required strength. The army recruiters urged the ministers to speak from the pulpit on the standing army and the excellent chances for promotion that it offered, and tell of its need of good clean men to enlist under the colors of the United States of America. The army had no trouble in getting recruits, but it struggled to get the right kind of recruits. Men were turned down daily because they were not the kind of men that were needed in the regular army.

The U.S. had a strong farm economy and was able to supply food for the Allies while not directly involved in the war. Once the U.S. officially declared war, however, things changed. Particular types of food was needed to support the soldiers in the war effort. Civilians were encouraged to cut way back on the consumption of meat and wheat. Herbert Hoover from Iowa headed the U.S. Food Administration and became known as the “food dictator.”

Fort Dodge sends its brave boys off to war in 1917.

“Food — don’t waste it” was the message was repeated in various forms throughout the United States’ direct involvement in World War I. Citizens were asked to make the sacrifice of being very discerning about what they should eat to make sure that the food being produced in the United States, and particularly, Iowa, would be enough for the soldiers. In Fort Dodge, food canning groups were organized to support the war effort. People were encouraged to grow their own food in victory gardens and raise their own chickens for eggs and meat.

The war, ironically, had an effect on Iowa's agriculture production too, as agriculture flourished. The U.S. government asked farmers to produce more food to feed the armies fighting in Europe. Since many farmers lived in Iowa, the state was able to provide large quantities of food products including corn, cattle and hogs. With food production in high demand, farmers were able to get high prices for their crops.

Food was not the only area of governmental control in the war effort. Besides encouraging healthy young men to enlist, local authorities sought people to join the Red Cross. Authorities gathered donations for Liberty Bonds and war stamps to help pay for the war — and there was a quota. Every household was expected to contribute. Iowans, including Fort Dodgers, donated money to the Red Cross to care for injured soldiers and civilians, and many Iowa women knit clothing and rolled bandages for army hospitals. Food and gasoline rationing was enforced. Citizens were encouraged to grow food in "Victory Gardens." There were very few aspects of life not touched by the war.

Another disaster struck Iowa and Fort Dodge in the fall of 1918. An epidemic of Spanish influenza, a serious form of “the flu,” made its way from the first reported case at Fort Riley, Kansas, all across the nation. It was so deadly that at its peak it killed 195,000 Americans in the month of October alone. In Iowa people tried to avoid crowds where the disease might be spread. Schools and theaters were closed, and people wore masks to try to protect themselves from flu germs. By Christmas the worst was over and the epidemic diminished. By the end, over one in every four Americans had suffered from its high fever and aches. An estimated 675,000 Americans died of influenza, ten times as many as in the world war. Of the U.S. soldiers who died in Europe half of them—43,000—died from the Spanish flu.

Germany surrendered on November 11, 1918, and the war ended. Wild celebrations occurred all over the state including Fort Dodge. People lit bonfires and gathered in cheering crowds. It would take months to bring the troops back home. Peace negotiations would drag on even longer, but the war was over and Iowans were eager to get back to their ordinary routines. The official record showed that 114,242 Iowans served in the armed forces during WW I. Of those, 4,088 died. In Webster County, 29 men died fighting for their country.


With the population of Fort Dodge tripling during this time period, the need for schools became a priority. Fort Dodge has had a long history of education. The first school in Fort Dodge was taught by C. C. Carpenter, (later to become the Governor of Iowa) in the winter of 1854-55. The school was in an old building just in back of the old Wahkonsa hotel. In 1856 the first school building was erected on the corner of Second Avenue South and Seventh Street., this building was known as "the Old Brick" school. The first high school graduating class was in 1876, at a time in when most communities only carried their public school education through the eighth grade. By 1890, only 88 school districts in the state offered four years of high school, as many Iowans did not see high school as an educational necessity. Government and educational leaders at the state level argued, however, that the organization of high schools reflected the growing public need for higher education and the high school should be the crowning glory of our public education system.

Between 1890 to 1922, there were ten schools organized and constructed in Fort Dodge plus the new Fort Dodge Junior College (later to become Iowa Central Community College). Just a few years prior in 1885, the Presbyterian College was started, and in 1892, Tobin College opened in Fort Dodge.

1890: Wahkonsa School is built

1892: Tobin College organized

1893: Brick West School (Riverside School) built

1895: German Lutheran School built (St. Paul)

1901: Corpus Christi Academy building constructed

1910: Butler School built

1912: Second Wahkonsa School built to replace the first one that burnt

1912: Duncombe School built

1914: Pleasant Valley School built

1917: Carpenter School built

1917: Hawley School built

1922: High School constructed (Possibly the old Duncombe school)

1922: Fort Dodge Junior College organized

The 1890s were a time of soul-searching for Iowa educators. Out of the ferment of debate and discussion emerged a consensus that was to shape the future growth of the state's school system. The belief grew that schools must identify with the democratic, scientific, and technological forces of modern society and that they must reach out to all segments of the population. In so doing, the schools must work with other social agencies, such as the home, the church, and the workshop, to educate the whole child: "the head, the heart, and the hand," to use a recurring phrase of the time.

No question, this period between 1890 to 1920 was a time of educational growth and reform in Iowa which impacted education in Fort Dodge. The education movement began transitioning from the small, one-room country school approach, to a more regulated and large school model for providing public education.


During this period, many Fort Dodgers achieved lasting fame and made major contributions to local, state, and national life; to list a few: Judson Welliver, noted journalist and confidential secretary for Presidents Harding and Coolidge, William S. Kenyon, U.S. Senator and Circuit Court of Appeals Justice, Jonathan Dolliver, U.S. Senator; Charles Findlay, state legislator and mayor and president of Tobin College; Frederick Larrabee, state senator , attorney and businessman; O.M. Oleson, business leader and philanthropist; Leon Vincent, entrepreneur and business pioneer in the clay products industry; Dr. Daniel Baughman, founder of the Fort Dodge Serum Company, which was later renamed Fort Dodge Laboratories; and Charles Duncombe, business and community leader.

During this “Golden Age” period from 1890 until 1910 in Fort Dodge, the city experienced amazing growth. It was during this period that the economic and social foundation of the city was built which impacted the future of Fort Dodge for the next several decades. Fort Dodge’s growth even continued through World War I, but the period of big growth ended by 1920.

*A Capsule History of Fort Dodge …. By Roger Natte
*The Fort Dodge Messenger: April 4, 1917
*The History of Fort Dodge and Webster County…. by H.M. Pratt
*The Annals of Iowa - State Historical Society –Volume 45, Number 3
*Iowa Pathways – Iowa Public Television… by Loren Horton and Tom Morain

Little Chicago

Fort Dodge over the years has often been called “Little Chicago.” There is an element of truth in that label but probably not for the reason many might think. In the early 1900s including the prohibition years, Fort Dodge was a mining, railroad, and industrial town and it has had its share of bars and bootlegging and a reputation as a rough and tumble town, but that has been true of a number of Iowa cities; Clinton, Dubuque, Waterloo, Ottumwa, and Sioux city to name a few. There is little hard evidence, however in the newspapers, and in legal records which would support the ties with Al Capone or the criminal element of Chicago.

Chicago ties with Fort Dodge were far more positive. Chicago was the premier city of the Midwest and the railroads established close business connection. Chicago was a market for our industrial and agricultural production and the supplier of much of things that Fort Dodge needed. In spite of its negatives, Fort Dodge was the model for growth, cultural activities, technology, architecture and city planning.

The major defining event in the relationship was the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. The twin themes of the Fair were modern science and technology and how to make the cities more attractive and livable. The Fair was America’s finest exposition and it attracted many Fort Dodge visitors, a trip made practical by the rail connections.

Fort Dodge had an early and strong investment in the Fair. The grand and glorious classical and Beaux Arts style buildings were built as temporary structures, a wooden framework with white plaster walls which made the Fair the “Great White City.” Much of the plaster was a product of the Fort Dodge gypsum mills. In return for the plaster Fort Dodge brought home the ideas and influences of the Fair. When Fort Dodge built its public buildings in the first decade of the century it drew on the styles made popular by the Fair; its Beaux Arts court house, the public library with its classical Greco-Roman styled dome and pillars, the Masonic Temple, and the First Methodist Church. Not only did we adopt the style but we also employed the leading architects from Milwaukee and Chicago to design them. H.C. Kock, architect for Milwaukee’s great City Hall and its Pabst Theater designed the Court House and the Public Library. S.S Beman the architect for a dozen of Chicago’s finest downtown buildings included two from the World‘s Fair designed the Ringland/Smeltzer house and the Christian Science Church.

The World’s Fair also introduced technological advances that were adopted locally, the extensive use of electricity and street lighting, elevators, and the electric trolley street car which was first built to connect the two passenger depots each at opposite ends of Central and later extended to the southeast Oleson Park residential and gypsum mill neighborhoods.

The impact of the Fair went beyond technology. It included social and political reforms designed to improve the quality of urban life. Cities were noted for their crowded and dirty conditions, social evils of crime, poverty and breakdown of society. The Fair offered the hope that if living conditions and the environment were improved the social problems would be relieved. This was partially addressed by what became known as the City Beautiful Movement and exemplified by the Fair itself. It called for replacing old structures with beautiful architecture, the creation of public with parks and boulevards which offered people recreational opportunities and relaxation.

The Fair also created interest in reforming city government. The old forms of city government had broken down and fallen into the hands of political machines and bosses, unresponsive to the people and wrought with corruption. Reformers sought to make the governments more subject to popular control and more efficient by introducing modern business practices. In Fort Dodge this meant replacing the city council and mayor with a three person commission in which the executive and legislative functions were concentrated in the hands of the commissioners.

The new form of government had a surprising effect. In planning for a new municipal building the design was to apply the ideas which brought the adoption of the new system to the design of the structure. All services were located in the same building making them easily available to the general public in a “one stop” shopping center. Each commissioner had an office on the first floor, a location most accessible to the citizen. Included in the building were the police and the fire departments, the street and utilities offices and shops, the city court, and the jail.

1918 Influnza Pandemic

The world-wide 1918-1919 influenza pandemic was devastating for Fort Dodge, the United States and the world. Researchers believe the flu outbreak started at Camp Funston, and Army base in Kansas, and was carried to western Europe by U.S. troops during the war. It was first noticed as affecting members of the U.S. military in the spring of 1918 on March 11, 1918. However, it is often called “The Spanish Flu” because Spain was hit very severely. Spain’s King Alfonso XIII contracted it, and Spain was not restricted by WWI news blackouts, thus, Spain was able to communicate to the rest of the world what was happening.

This strain of influenza was thought to have avian origin. The virus that was identified to have caused it was the H1N1 virus. It is estimated that 500 million people in the world were infected; approximately 50 million died. Because there were no vaccines, antivirals or antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections that can develop along with the influenza infections, the only ways to control the spread of this 1918 H1N1 influenza were isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants and limitation of public gatherings (which were applied unevenly). Research many years later identified three genes in the H1N1 Influenza that enabled the virus to weaken the victim’s bronchial tubes and lungs, clearing the way for bacterial pneumonia. This virus reappeared in 2009 and had a mortality rate of approximately 10%.

H1N1 Influenza (“The Spanish Flu”) began infecting people in the spring of 1918, with mostly mild symptoms and a low mortality rate. But, in the fall of 1918, influenza came back, its symptoms very deadly. People who were infected often died within hours or days after developing symptoms. The virus attacked the lungs, causing the lungs to fill with fluid, suffocating the victims. One unfamiliar trait of this lethal virus was that it killed many young, healthy people. It is thought that because they had healthy immune systems, their immune systems would kick in to “overdrive”, and caused the immune responses fighting the disease in the victim’s lungs to become part of the problem, producing more fluid and ultimately, killing the patient. In World War I, more servicemen died from the flu than died in battle. These troops were moving around the world, initially spreading the virus to all who came in contact with them.

The Influenza epidemic was spread from person to person from small droplets of mucous (from coughing or sneezing) and was carried about in the air. It was known that a person who had only a mild “attack” of Influenza may give a very severe attack to others.

The onset of the pandemic was so rapid, and resources so scarce (actually, virtually nonexistent), that local officials and the medical community had to devise their own plans to combat the spread of the disease. Because this was during WW I, the media was trying to promote positivity and patriotism, and often omitted the news of the reality of what was happening due to the spread of influenza. Because leaders and the general population didn’t know how bad the situation was, it often led them to inaction and not addressing the dire problem quickly enough. Also, many nurses and doctors were serving in the military and not available on the home front to battle this new enemy.

There were many public awareness campaigns across the nation. One slogan was, “Cover up each cough and sneeze. If you don’t, you’ll spread the disease.” Those who were healthy wore masks when venturing outside. People would throw buckets of water with disinfectant on their sidewalks to wash away germs from people spitting on the street. They were desperately trying to prevent the spread of this lethal disease. Another slogan that was used was:

“There was a little bird
its name was Enza
I opened the window
and in-flu-enza.”

In the fall of 1918, the Iowa Board of Health “quarantined” the entire state, forcing all public gathering places to close. Beginning in mid-October 1918, the Influenza killed about 6,000 Iowans in a three month period. More than 93,000 were infected.

On October 8, 1918, The Fort Dodge Messenger reported that Surgeon General Blue suggested to all state health officials that “schools and places of amusement be closed and all public meetings discontinued in all places where the malady is prevalent.” The importance of reporting the influenza cases was also stressed by Blue. Public health reports noted that the disease was spreading. The Red Cross enrolled nurses to help in hospitals. Volunteers were also sought to go into the homes where mothers and housekeepers were ill and assume management of the homes.

In the fall of 1918, the State Health Department ruled that each county was to appoint a doctor who would serve as that county’s representative to receive updates from the National Health Service about methods that were found to be most effective for treating influenza. That physician was paid $4.00 per day plus travel expenses.

In the October 14, 1918 edition of The Fort Dodge Messenger, an article stated that “greatly exaggerated stories” about the spread and severity of Influenza had been circulating in the town; however, a federal mandate required that all cases be reported to the local health department. It seems that people didn’t realize the severity of the pandemic.

In December 1918, all Fort Dodge churches were closed. Churches served as a main gathering and socialization place for most people at the time, so it was especially difficult to celebrate Christmas without the warmth and camaraderie of the churches. In the beginning of 1919, the Governor of Iowa stopped all basketball and wrestling tournaments.

The flu was especially dangerous for Webster County farm families, who had to continue working, even in the midst of sickness. Farmers couldn’t stop working because of the flu. They had to continue doing the chores, managing livestock and producing grain to feed Americans and support the war.

A little over a year later, in a November 6, 1919 edition of The Fort Dodge Messenger, an article stated “Be on your guard! It was only a year ago that the first wave of Influenza epidemic swept over this land. What havoc it wrought! What terror it spread….young and old, thousands apparently in splendid health, were slaughtered in numbers that horrified, while medical science seemed powerless. It was pathetic and frightful! The people stood aghast!” The world-wide toll was about half a million lives, with many survivors left with permanent damage to their health. One of the most tragic aspects of Influenza was the number of lives it took in the age 20-40 population.

The first Fort Dodge resident to die from Influenza was Matthew McCarty in September, 1918. He was stationed at Camp Devens, an Army camp in Massachusetts. Many young men died from Influenza in military camps and overseas, due to the close proximity to many people, enabling Influenza to be easily transmitted. Over 700 young men died at Camp Dodge in Des Moines.

There are not exact records, but the based on the state-wide figure, Influenza probably killed approximately fifty Fort Dodge residents in about one year, many of whom were in the prime of their lives. Not only were Americans fighting in World War I, they were fighting influenza on the home front and on the battlefield. More soldiers died from influenza than from wounds received in battle.

Many who survived their bouts with influenza were left with weakened bodies and minds prone to depression for years to come. And although calamity reigned over the country, the pandemic fostered much ingenuity and togetherness. Everywhere, average citizens volunteered as nurses or as ambulance drivers, donated food and bedding for the ill, took in orphaned children, tended to sick family and friends, and worked in myriad small ways to help their cities, their towns, and their nation get through the crisis. Civil authorities worked with physicians, immigrant groups, newspaper editors and reporters, business leaders, and military officials to disseminate information and protect residents as much as possible while simultaneously working to keep local government functioning. The story of the great influenza pandemic of 1918, then, is not merely one of death and tragedy, but also one of community and service.

While the Spanish flu would continue its deadly work in the months ahead, the pandemic largely came to an end by the summer of 1919, as those who were infected either died or developed immunity. For all the lives lost and survivors whose lives were changed forever, the Spanish flu quickly faded from public consciousness. Many families never talked much about it, perhaps because it was so terrible that no one wanted to think about it again.

The disastrous Influenza pandemic of 1918 later led researchers and scientists to research the cause, mitigation and prevention of viruses. This led to new medications and the development of vaccines that could help control and prevent future pandemics. By the 1940’s, many vaccines were being used, saving countless lives.








*National Institute of Health

*Fort Dodge Public Library Archives

*Messenger… March 29, 2020…. “Family letters tell of 1918 pandemic’s effects”