Independence, Iowa, was named as the seat of Buchanan County in June of 1847. A second town, New Haven, and its mill, were located on the west bank of the river. In 1854, the State Legislature merged the two towns. Ten years later, in 1864, Independence was incorporated. Quasqueton, then called Quasquetuk, which I wrote about as the location of a Frank Lloyd Wright home, is quite near Independence (located on what is often referred to as the Independence/Quaskie diagonal). Quasqueton was originally the county seat, but that distinction was moved to Independence in 1847 at a time when there were only 15 residents in Independence.
The bridge connecting the East and West banks of the city had become impassable. Built just above river level, the bridge was at the mercy of floods and frost. A flood in 1865 finally swept the bridge away entirely. [I’ve heard stories about an elephant falling through the other downtown bridge, while in town for a circus, but I’ve never been able to document that interesting bit of trivia. I will say that, on my visit there for the Mini Reunion on Aug. 11th, we had to use this secondary bridge because the city fathers had blocked off Main Street for something called Music on Main.]
How Underground Independence Came to Be:
It was decided to raise the bridge to make it less vulnerable. In doing so, the level of the street on the East side would also need to be raised, thereby changing the grade of the entire street. A massive project began. Retaining walls were constructed. Dirt was hauled from further up the hill to the East to raise the street from the river to beyond 3rd Avenue N.E. As it progressed, the entrances to stores fell below street level. A walkway was maintained so that merchants and customers could still do business. I’ve been told that the revelation of this “buried” level of the city was not fully realized until about 2011. I grew up there and knew nothing of it, but the Episcopalian minister of St. James Episcopalian Church, Sue Ann Raymond, whose father owned Raymond Printing Company for years, said she was aware of this subterranean nature of the city, because part of it was located beneath her father’s store.
By 1866, the new bridge was completed. Samuel Sherwood began to make plans to erect a new, much larger woolen mill, which is now known as the Wapsipinicon Mill. The 1867 mill, now called the Wapsipinicon Mill, was a source of electrical energy from 1915 to 1940. Some structural restoration occurred in recent years, and the mill now functions partly as an historical museum. We visited the Mill, the Loft Chamber of Commerce at 112 1st St. E, the Gedney Bakery at 116 1st St. E, the Sanity Room at 117, 1st St. E, Eschen’s Clothing at 211 1st St. E, and Quilter’s Quarters at 213 1st St. E. Tours are self-guided and stairs are steep: be warned.
A courthouse was built in 1857, on the east side of the town, on a site described at that time as “the highest tract of land in the neighborhood,” which offers “a fine view of the city of Independence, the valley of the Wapsipinicon, and the surrounding Country”. The original courthouse was replaced in 1939 by a Moderne or Art Deco structure. My father was then the Democratic County Treasurer of Buchanan County (partially a fluke, as his Republican opponent died before he could be sworn in, and they offered the post to my father, who was re-elected for a total of four terms. Dad helped lay the cornerstone of the new County Courthouse. He was 37 years old.)
Dad began thinking about establishing a second bank in town as his term was coming to a close, contacting the bank examiners and being put in touch with investors from other parts of the state like Mason City. Security State Bank opened in 1941. I have the first check that cleared the bank framed on the wall of my study. Check Number One is dated October 8, 1941, between the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and Security State Bank in the amount of $971.97. I learned that what is now called NSB (Northeast Security Bank) now has deposits of $421,617,000 with branches in Independence, Dysart, Fredericksburg, Decorah, Fairbank (my dad’s home town, where he began in banking as a cashier), Sumner, Rowley and Fayette.
In November of 1873, a fire started behind what is now Hartig Drug Store and burned the buildings going East. Six months later, in May of 1874, a second larger fire began in the middle of the West side of 2nd Avenue, N.E. (my old home street). It burned the entire West side of the street. Everything from the river to what is now the NSB (Northeast Security Bank Corner), formerly the Security State Bank that my father founded in 1941. A livery, four residences, and a church in the block behind were also burned.
In May of 1874 a second larger fire began in the middle of the West side of 2nd Avenue, consuming the buildings on the north side of 1st St. E to the river. High winds allowed the fire to jump to the south side of the street. Within 10 days of the second fire, merchants and land owners began rebuilding on the existing limestone foundations, leaving underground storefronts as they were. The devastation led to an opportunity to recreate the downtown with beauty and continuity. The buildings were crafted in the Italianate architectural style of the day.
The block on the West side of 2nd Avenue burned down again in 1960, something I vividly remember, as a high school student who was viewing the film “Exodus” at the Malek Theater, one short block from my house at 214 2nd Avenue, when the fire broke out. Because sparks were landing on the roof of the theater, we were asked to exit the theater and I began trying to walk home, which was not easy, because fire trucks and firemen were clogging up 2nd Avenue directly in front of the post office. The locker plant across the street was destroyed as were all other buildings on the block.
I finally took the alley behind St. James Episcopal Church back to my house at 214 2nd Avenue N.E., the former railroad station master’s house. My father was out on the front hill with a garden house watering the area down as sparks drifted across the street. I was 15 years old. I remember it vividly, just as I remember the Independence Senior High School burning down in 1956. (It was just before I was to enter 7th grade in “the new junior high school,” which quickly became the high school/junior high combined. This building, Jefferson High School, was torn down and a new high school was erected in 2013.)
Rush Park: Axtell & Allerton
For a few years in the late 1880s and early 1890s, Independence was a nationally known horse-racing center, and was sometimes referred to as the “Lexington of the North”. This came about as a result of the meteoric financial success of Charles W. Williams. A telegraph operator and creamery owner from nearby Jesup, Iowa, Williams (with no experience in breeding horses) purchased in 1885 two mares, each of which within a year gave birth to a stallion. These two stallions, which Williams named Axtel and Allerton, went on to set world trotting records, with the result that Williams’ earnings enabled him to publish a racing newspaper titled The American Trotter, to build a large three-story hotel and opera house called The Gedney, and to construct a figure-eight kite-shaped race track on the west edge of town, on a large section of land called Rush Park, where he also built a magnificent horse barn and his family mansion. Williams eventually (1889) sold Axtell for $105,000, a record price for any horse at the time. (*Axtell broke down as a 4-year-old and never raced again.)
The grand opening day for the kite track was August 25, 1890. At least 225 horses valued at over one million dollars were on exhibition for the price of $1.00 at the gate. Season tickets, admitting the holder to all 5 days, could be purchased for $4. Season tickets for a lady and gentleman cost $7. There was no extra charge for teams or admission to the grandstand.
The burgeoning community was soon home to other mansions, churches, and even a trolley-car service. My mother used to tell me about the Gedney Opera House burning down; I believe that the trolley car came down 2nd Avenue (Chatham Street) to the Gedney, bringing big name horse racing enthusiasts to the races. That street was paved with red brick throughout much of my growing-up years in Independence, and you could hear the Amish buggies clip-clopping down the street to the sale barn on weekends.
The horse races at Rush Park were an effective magnet. The fifty cents admission fee paid by over eight thousand spectators must have delighted Charles W. Williams. Charles W. Williams would have beamed with joy as he saw twenty-five hundred people jammed into his $10,000 amphitheater, happy to pay an additional thirty-five cents for the privilege. Purses totaling $2400 had lured many of the fastest horses in the state to Independence.
Williams went on to raise other record-breaking horses, but he lost much of his fortune in the Panic of 1893. Williams subsequently moved to Galesburg, Illinois, where (among other things) he became acquainted with the young Carl Sandburg (as mentioned in Sandburg’s autobiography, Always the Young Strangers). Today, the location of Williams’ race track (which was the original site of the Buchanan County Fairgrounds) is a corn field. His house is still standing, but, in recent years, the Rush Park barn was demolished by a bulldozer, to make way for a fast food drive-in and an auto parts store. There was a point when two wealthy California natives tried to make an upscale supper club within the famed Rush Park barn, but that, too, ended up being short-lived.
In the years that followed the race track days, the town lost most of its importance when the railroad terminal at Independence was pushed further west to Waterloo, Iowa. Today, the old depot stands on the highway that leads to Oelwein and serves as a visitor center, but it is no longer a functioning depot. I remember my parents taking the train to Chicago and staying at the Palmer House for bankers’ meetings, but that would be impossible today, just as my trips from Iowa City to Chicago would be impossible with the sub-par rail service in Iowa today.
Of additional interest are several other buildings of historic and architectural value. Among these are the Christian Seeland House and Brewery at 1010 4th Street Northeast (1873), an Italianate style mansion and brewery; Saint John’s Roman Catholic Church at 2nd Street and 4th Avenue Northeast (1911); the Munson Building, formerly the Independence Free Public Library, at 210 2nd Street Northeast (1893–95); Saint James Episcopal Church on 2nd Avenue Northeast, just north of 2nd Street (1863, 1873); and the Depression-era United States Post Office Building at 2nd Street and 2nd Avenue Northeast (1934), not for its architecture, but because hanging inside in the lobby is a WPA mural from the 1930s, titled Postman in the Snow, painted by a former Independence resident named Robert Tabor. (*There was another Tabor painting of a small child wearing white galoshes and a pink coat and holding a book up to the librarian to check out. I was told by the librarian that that child was me, then aged about 5, which would have been painted when Mr. Tabor (who did not begin painting until he was 52) was about 68 in 1950, as he was born in 1882. Since I spent all of my free time at the library, I can believe this.)
About 10 miles east of Independence, south of U.S. Highway 20, near Quasqueton, is the Lowell Walter house or Cedar Rock, a state-owned Frank Lloyd Wright house that is open to the public from May through October. (See previous blog article.)
For me, as a St. John’s student from 1950 to 1959, I worshiped weekly at St. John’s Church a block away from my childhood home. I remember when a tornado tore the roof off St. John’s Church (established 1911) and deposited the wreckage in our back yard in about 1947. My father made a playhouse out of the shingles and boards, which my parents referred to as “the hookey.”
The Library mentioned was right down the alley. I made almost daily trips there to read, as we did not purchase a television set until I was a junior in high school in 1962. (My mother’s prescient remark was: “Pictures were never meant to fly through the air;” she had pronounced television to be a fleeting fad.)
St. James Episcopal Church, the oldest continuously operating church in town, is one house away from my childhood home. I remember when my parents hired a Chicago architect to remodel our home in 1957. He was quite smitten with the church with its beautiful stained glass windows, and made frequent trips the 100 yards to tour it on his own.
One of my favorite library stories was when the librarian thought I was too young to check out a book about the Zulu uprising in Africa. She called my mother at home and asked her if she should allow me to check out the book. Mom replied, “Sure. Go ahead.” (Good going, Mom!)
At the 2000 census there were 6,014 people in 2,432 households, including 1,588 families, in the city.
Points of Interest:
- Wapsipinicon Mill
- Independence State Hospital, a historic mental hospital (1873) located on the outskirts of the city. The place is huge and “Gothika” has nothing on the Independence Hospital for the Insane, as it was once known. I have read that tours can be arranged. I still have nightmares about appearing in a Christmas Nativity program as a first-grader at St. John’s. (I forgot my tin foil angel wings at home and had to find my way back to the auditorium alone after being taken home to get them. Not a great memory!)
- Heartland Acres Agribition Center, an agricultural history museum.
- Independence Motor Speedway
- Independence Public Library
- Malek Theatre – spent many hours within this structure, including the showing of “Psycho,” the night I held a slumber party. Since I had already seen it in Waterloo, I managed to completely freak out the row of girls staying at my house by coming up behind them in the back row, left, and grabbing them during the shower scene.
- Illinois Central Station – now is located on Hwy #218 that leads to Oelwein.
Axtell was foaled in 1886, son of William L. out of the non-Standard mare Lou. His breeder was C. W. Williams of Independence, Iowa. Axtell was trained and raced by Williams on the famed Independence kite-shaped track. He lowered the two-year-old stallion record to 2:23 and won every race in which he started. As a three-year-old Axtell again won every start and lowered the world’s stallion record to 2:12. In 1889 Williams made history by selling Axtell to a syndicate for $105,000, the highest price ever paid for a horse of any kind at that time. Axtell broke down as a four-year-old and never raced again, but retired to stud. His progeny included the foundation sire Axworthy 2:15 1/2, and he became one of the highest priced sires of his day. His 1891 stud fee was $1,000. Axtell died on August 19, 1906 in Terre Haute, Indiana.