Thursday, September 10, 2009

Hey Chariton, have a great day!

And make that 160 candles if you’re planning to bake. But no gifts please --- and cards I guess should be addressed to the city clerk. Chariton celebrates its 160th birthday on Friday, Sept. 11. My goodness how time flies. Seems like only yesterday ….

Lucas County’s very first election took place on a Monday, Aug. 6, 1849, at the cabin of William and Nancy McDermott out east along the Squirrel Road there at “Ireland” where timber and prairie met in Cedar Township, about where Bethel Church now sits.

Twenty-five men came on horseback, by wagon and afoot to vote (women couldn’t): William S. “Buck” Townsend, James Roland, Philip G. Dunn, Beresford Robinson, Nelson Lowder, William McDermott, William T. May, Xury E. West, Loyd Jenkins, Elijah Baldwin, Samuel A. Francis, John Yergey, James M. Mercer, Samuel McKinley, James G. Robinson, John Ballard, Thomas Wilson, Peter Phillips, James Peck, Andrew J. Allen, John McMains, John Mercer, Joseph W. Allen, Milton Lowder and E.K. Robinson.

These guys elected three commissioners to govern the newly-organized county --- Jacob Phillips, William T. May and James G. Robinson. One of their first jobs would be to affirm the work of another commission, this one named earlier by the Iowa Legislature, to locate a county seat.

Four days later, on Friday, the 10th of August, the new commissioners trekked over to Chariton Point where old Buck Townsend had a cabin that functioned as a primitive inn at Chariton Point, just southeast along the Blue Grass of the current Chariton.

Buck, a slick operator if ever there was one, had purchased the pre-emption claim to his land there from the Mormons who had held informal but binding title since the winter of 1846-47 when several refugees from Nauvoo had over-wintered there. It apparently had functioned since then as a sort of way station for weary Saints along the trail between Dodge’s Point in Appanoose County and Garden Grove or Mt. Pisgah farther west.

All the county commissioners figured the new county seat would be somewhere near Chariton Point, since it was close to the center of the county; and as you might expect, old Buck figured it would be a real good idea if the town site and his land coincided. That wasn’t to be.

The commissioners organized the county government that day at Buck’s, but since the county seat commissioners had not finished their work, they went home.

That locating commission consisted of Wareham G. Clark of Monroe County, Pardon M. Dodge of Appanoose County and Richard Fisher of Wapello County. The idea behind their appointment was that they would be neutral and pick the most sensible location for a county seat, not the site best attuned to anyone’s specific advantage.

The locating commissioners reportedly spent several days in early September looking around the county and then sent word to the commissioners that they would be ready to report their choice on Tuesday, Sept. 11.

The gathering at Chariton Point for the announcement included not only the locating commissioners and county commissioners but also a variety of hangers-on, some of whom had a financial stake in where the new county seat was located and others who were merely curious.

On the Monday before, county lore holds that everyone assembled for the big day relaxed on a wolf hunt south and east of the point along a creek that was named Wolf to commemorate the occasion. Wolf Creek still is with us, but the accuracy of this account of its naming cannot be verified.

James G. Robinson, writing an account late in life that was published in both Russell and Chariton newspapers, recalled the happenings on the big day itself this way:

“They (the locating commission) came on in September; was in the county two or three weeks. I received word from Mr. (Wareham) Clark stating the day they would determine where to drive the stake, and wishing the commissioners to meet them. I went to Chariton Point and was told the men were out on the prairie northwest. I went to the corner of sections 19, 20, 29 and 30 and there I found five men and two boys with handkerchiefs spread down on the grass with a deck of cards. They had drunk one jug of whisky and was putting a boy on a horse to go for another. They told us at that section corner the committee had determined to drive the stake. That afternoon, they did so, and as they were all three democrats, and anxious to do honor to the democratic administration that had gone out the March before, named the new county seat “Polk.”

Other accounts suggest the locating commissioners didn’t actually drive a stake, but instead that Wareham Clark made the announcement after being hoisted atop a post already placed at the intersection of those sections by Lucas County’s original surveyors. All agree that the location was at the southwest corner of the current Chariton square.

The first challenge once the site was selected was figuring out how to purchase it, since Lucas County land was not yet officially on the market and the county had no money anyway. The county solved the first problem by making a pre-emption claim to the site. The money problem was resolved by Robinson, who purchased a military land warrant from a veteran to whom it had been issued that entitled the bearer to claim 160 acres. By the time the land office opened and the town site actually was entered, the county had sufficient funds to buy it from Robinson.

The name “Polk” didn’t stick. Cooler heads prevailed, the suggestion Greencastle was spurned, too, and finally it was decided simply to drop the “Point” and call it Chariton.

Of course Sept. 11 is another anniversary, too --- of a more recent event that seemed at the time to turn the world upside down. And I don’t mean to diminish the importance of that.

But for now, I’m content to stand here on the prairie near that stake 160 years ago looking west down the draw draining into the Chariton River that now is Court Avenue and off to the rolling hills beyond and think of a time when the future seemed to have no limit and there was hope abroad in the land.

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