Wednesday, February 22, 2012

1903: "Chariton is a Rich Town"

This article, republished from The Chicago Record-Herald in Chariton's Patriot of Aug. 20, 1903, intrigues me because of its insights into the character of Lucas County, as well as its bias, but also because it was written by a newspaper correspondent of some renown who was not part of the Chariton establishment of that day and therefore a little more likely to approach it objectively.

Curtis, a veteran Washington and international correspendent for The Record-Herald, also traveled the lecture circuit --- most likely why he happened to be in Chariton in the first place. You can get an idea of what he might have lectured about by taking a look at this prospectus, available via the University of Iowa's Digital Library collection.

He arrived at a time when Lucas County really was "one of the richest" counties in the state and was enjoying a burst of prosperity. That would change, of course, in part because, as Curtis points out, "the people do not seem to incline" toward diversifying and broadening its economic base.

The article also is peculiarly prophetic, but none of that was evident at the time. The absence of a town water system, noted by Curtis, was one of the reasons why just a few months later, in January of 1904, a major fire would wipe out the north end of the west side of the square, including the massive Mallory Opera Block and two adjacent structures. There was insufficient water to stop that fire and only the solidity of the Penick Building stopped it from claiming more of the square's west side.

At the time the article was written, a substantial majority of Lucas County's bank deposits were held by First National Bank, owned by the Mallory family and headed by Frank R. Crocker, both probably instrumental in bringing Curtis to Chariton to speak in the first place. Four years later, during 1907, the bank fell with a monumental splat because Crocker had been misappropriating its funds. In the aftermath, the remaining Mallorys were forced out of town, taking a still-substantial fortune with them. These were mighty economic blows that affected Lucas County for years.

It may have been aftermath of the bank crash that also brought down the Chariton Improvement Association (Jessie Mallory Thayer, as well as Margaret McCormick, a Mallory protege, were its major players) and the Noxall Club, two of the institutions credited by Curtis with moving Chariton forward.

I suspect that Curtis was moving around Chariton with Jessie, Frank and their contemporaries and that probably is where bias comes in. He pronounces the then-new St. Andrew's Episcopal Church "the best thing in Chariton." And of course it was a fine building --- until it fell down. But it's possible to argue that the new First Methodist Church was its equal and that the still-new Lucas County Courthouse surpassed both. St. Andrew's, however, was the church of the Mallory crowd, which included the Crockers, Margaret McCormick and others.

Whatever the case, it's a good read --- and here it is:


So Says Wm. E. Curtis In the Record-Herald

He Writes Up Chariton from Observations Made During His Visit Here --- It is Mostly Complimentary but He Indulges in Some Criticism --- The Article in Full Herewith Printed.

When William E. Curtis, the Chicago Record-Herald Correspondent, was in Chariton last week he gathered information for a write-up of the town. His article, in full as it appeared in the Record-Herald, is printed below. Read it and form your own opinion as to its correctness.

The Patriot thinks it is a pretty good example of good reporting done in a short space of time. Mr. Curtis took a drive over the town, especially through the parts in which are located our finer residences and he also saw our churches and school houses. His other information he gathered from citizens of the town. His write-up is very complimentary in the main and his observations are correct in nearly every detail. What he says of our streets can be said of every town in southern Iowa which is without paving. The article follows:

"Chariton, Iowa, Aug. 17 --- This is one of the richest towns in the state and Lucas is one of the richest counties, although limited in area and population. The First National Bank of Chariton has deposits amounting to $1,250,000 and total deposits of the six banks in Lucas county are $1,810,000 which, divided by the population of 17,000, gives a per capita of $105 of savings drawing interest for every man, woman and child. Few farming counties in the United States, if any, surpass this average of wealth, and I am told that all the money has been made here. None has been brought in from the outside. Almost every one of the rich men in Chariton began poor, and they have gradually accumulated their fortunes without speculation and from the fruits of the soil. All the bonds ever issued by the county or town within the last quarter of a century have been absorbed entirely by home investors. There is no county indebtedness and only a few thousands on the town, which were borrowed to erect the electric light plant, and that, the people say, would have been paid off long before this but for mismanagement. This is purely a farming and stock raising community, and its wealth comes from corn, hay, cattle and hogs. There are no railway shops and only two manufactories, at which carriages and brooms are made. The population is almost exclusively American. The only foreigners are Swedes, who are very thrifty, and most of them own farms. Several coal mines in the immediate vicinity furnish an excellent quality of fuel and the railway facilities are good, so that manufacturing might be made a feature, but the people do not seem to incline that way. Chariton is like the other Iowa towns in its beautiful homes and shaded streets, but it is far behind its neighbors in one of two particulars.

"Chariton is probably the only city of its size --- 4,400 inhabitants --- without water works. The people are entirely dependent for their water supply upon individual wells. Some families have windmills to pump the water into reservoirs in their attics and others use gasoline engines. There have been several movements from time to time for the introduction of a modern water system. A proposition recently submitted to a vote of the people was defeated by seventeen majority, which was a great disappointment to the progressive element of the community. However, it was their own fault. Everybody supposed that it would be adopted by a large majority, and the result was a great surprise. Those who were in favor of waterworks did no electioneering, hundreds of them did not even take the trouble to vote, while the opposition was very active and made a canvass of the poorer classes of the town, telling wild stories of the high taxes they would have to pay for water if the scheme went through and declaring that the wells would all be filled up. The result gave the town an unfortunate setback, but the proposition will probably be again submitted soon, with a different result. Eastern parties have been making surveys and are expected to submit a project this summer.

"The streets of Chariton are in a dreadful condition. Residents tell me that frequently in the winter and spring the public square is ornamented with abandoned wagons stuck in the mud and a circus that was here not long ago had an experience similar to that of Fort Dodge. The roads were so bad that the wagons could not be hauled through the town to the fair grounds, and the company was compelled to give only a part of a performance on the baseball grounds, which are near the station. But improvements in this particular have already commenced, and large gangs of men are now grading one of the main streets to lay the first pavement in the town. It will be made of brick placed upon a concrete base, and will cover the principal streets and the public square, while petitions are in circulation for similar improvements in the residence section. Brick must be used, because there is no roadmaking material in this part of the state --- no stone, gravel, sand or anything. It is a proverb that good soil makes poor roads, which is fully demonstrated in this part of Iowa. All the farm(er)s can do is to grade and drain, and that does very little good in rainy weather.

"The people of Chariton have good reason to be proud of their schools, which are the principal sources of public expense. A splendid new schoolhouse has just been finished at a cost of $40,000, and it is a pleasure to know that the salaries of the twenty-six women teachers in this town last year ranged from $35 to $65 a month all around. This seems a small amount, and it is insignificant to the tax payers, for it costs them only about $1.86 a month to educate a child. But it is a good deal for the teachers, who receive only enough to pay the bare expenses of living.

"Next year Chariton will have a free public library, for which Mr. Carnegie has contributed $10,000. This is largely due to the efforts of Miss Margaret Wright Brown, daughter of Joseph A. Brown, a local capitalist. She is a member of the state library commission, and spends most of her time promoting the free public library movement.

"The progress of Chariton is largely due to the women who, in 1902 (sic., the date probably should be 1892), organized the pioneer Improvement Association of Iowa under the leadership of Miss Margaret McCormick, a public-spirited woman of means, who became exasperated by the lack of enterprise on the part of the men folks. She called the women together, formed committees and commenced an agitation which resulted in arousing a spirit of enterprise here and set an example for the organization of similar improvement associations all over the state. In 1895 the association was organized, and men and children were admitted to membership. To the association is attributed directly the credit of transforming a repulsive dumping ground into a beautiful park, of introducing important sanitary improvements and of securing the present appearance of the lawn and gardens in the residence district. Its particular purpose is to beautify the city.

"The Noxall Club, which was organized in 1895 by a few young men for a frolic, has become a serious institution with a membership of over 100 business and professional men, with pleasant clubrooms just off the public square. It is not only the social headquarters of the town, but takes the place of a board of trade and the commercial organizations that are found in other cities. It has initiated several public movements and is growing in influence.

"The Chautauqua epidemic struck Chariton last year. No organization was effected, but a few business men guaranteed the expenses of the assembly because they consider it an advantage to the town. Because of the lack of other suitable ground a tent was erected under the shade of a grove that surrounds one of the public schools within three squares of the courthouse and some of the most expensive attractions were engaged, yet there was no deficit. An imported manager was paid a salary of $1,200, and a handsome balance was left for working capital. This, the second year, promises to be even more profitable because of its high-class programme. There is a nine-day course of lectures, concerts, dramatic readings and other entertainments, the principal stars being Mrs. Maude Ballington Booth, General O.O. Howard, ex-Senator Gordon, Attorney General Hamlin, Rev. Robert McIntyre and others.

"The best thing in Chariton is a church, St. Andrew’s Episcopal, recently erected by Isaac Purcell (Purcell was the architect, not the builder) of Philadelphia. The outside walls are of red Colorado sandstone and the inside walls of gray Bedford stone from Ohio. The finishings, the pews, the choir and a heavy grained ceiling are of natural oak and the windows are filled with stained glass. An altar of Dakota marble is soon to be erected, which will make St. Andrew’s one of the most beautiful little churches in the country. It was erected by bequests from the late Mrs. Elizabeth Hammer and S.H. Mallory, for whom memorial tablets will be soon placed upon the walls.

"The town suffered a great loss by the recent death of Mr. Mallory, who was the wealthiest and most prominent citizen, and always foremost in public movements. He came here in early times as a civil engineer, and his first wages were $5 a month. When he died he left an estate of about $800,000 invested in farm lands, business blocks, bank and railway stocks, mortgages and other property. He was a plain, democratic type of man, with high principles, great abilities, untiring energy and pride in his town and his state. He left a widow and a daughter, Mrs. Jessie M. Thayer, who has taken her father’s place in both business and social affairs. She is president of the Chariton Improvement Association.

"The Methodists are the strongest religious denomination here, and have a large, handsome new church. The Swedish Lutherans are also building.

"By the census of 1900 Chariton had a population of 3,989, and a subscription census of the city taken last spring showed 4,400 people. The growth was not due to a boom nor to the establishment of new manufactories nor to any particular reason or influence, but represents chiefly retired farmers from the surrounding country, who have sold or leased their lands or left them in charge of their sons and have come to town to live upon their savings and enjoy a well-deserved rest and leisure. During the last two years there has been an epidemic of farm sales in this section because of the high prices offered for improved land by young men from other states. The last six years have seen unprecedented prosperity. The farms have grown rich, and many of them have deposited enough money in the banks to give them a comfortable income for the rest of their lives without further labor. Others have turned their farms over to their sons or sons-in-law, and more have leased their lands to tenants and have bought or built comfortable cottages in town, surrounded by an acre or two of ground for gardens. They spend their time reading, discussing politics with their neighbors, grow their own vegetables, keep a cow and a horse and are enjoying life up to the limit. The books of the recorder of deeds shows that $2,850,000 has been paid for farms in Lucas county during the last two years. Some have brought as much as $125 an acre. The most of them, however, have sold from $60 to $75 an acre. --- William E. Curtis"

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