Early Days at Avoca, Pottawattamie County, Iowa

contributed by Ryan Roenfeld

      Situated in the far northeastern reaches of Pottawattamie County, the town of Avoca straddles the land between the West Nishnabotna and that river's East Branch south of Interstate 80 and along U.S. Highway 59. This location was north and slightly west of the pioneer settlements at Wooster and Newtown and appeared in 1869 during construction of the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad. The town company consisted of John and Ebenezer Cook, railroad official John Tracy, and Des Moines banker B.F. Allen and the town-site near what was still sometimes called the Nishnebotne seemed well suited. Cook and Allen were both central figures in a Rock Island land cabal also responsible for establishing nearby Shelby and Atlantic and the railroad quickly established the community as the bustling center of Knox Township. As often related, the community was originally known as Pacific and then Botna until it was re-named for the Thomas Moore poem. The original Vale of Avoca where the Avonmore and Avenbeg rivers meet is located in County Wicklow, Ireland.

      One of the first businesses to open in the new town on the Iowa prairie was New Yorker John Acker's hardware shop. Acker's was followed by a variety of establishments and a further sense of permanence was provided in 1870 with the establishment of the Avoca Delta newspaper. That same year the Rock Island built a large hotel and dining house located at what would now be Walnut Street due east of May where passengers were fed before the introduction of sleeping and dining cars. The Davenport Democrat pronounced it "the finest railroad eating house in the West, at Avoca, that marvel of a town which within the past year has sprung up on the eastern border of Pottawattamie county." The eating house was to be run by John Jones of Council Bluffs "and it is said that Mrs. John Jones is the best cook on the 'slope,' and that her tables are the best evidence of the fact."

      A number of Avoca's early residents were German immigrants including Gustav Diedrich (or Diederich) who ran a grocery in Davenport after he arrived in the United States in 1862. He re-located his grocery across the state to Avoca in 1870 and would eventually be elected the town's first Recorder. Diedrich was later elected Mayor and as the local agent for European steamship lines was largely responsible for arranging the arrival of even more German immigrants. Another Avoca German was George Maier from Wurtemburg who studied for seven years at the Polytechnic School for Watchmakers in the Black Forest and immigrated in the 1860s. He first opened a jewelry store in Council Bluffs in 1870 and moved to Avoca the next year to operate a combination watch-making and jewelry shop. Peter Eggers was an immigrant from Holstein who came to Avoca to work as a section-hand on the Rock Island for three years before he bought a Knox Township farm known as Walnut Grove. Henry Wiese was another Holstein immigrant who arrived in Avoca in 1873 after spending five years in Davenport. Wiese had studied civil engineering at Hanover and quickly resumed his trade in America to survey railroad lines. He then entered the land business at Avoca with his partner H.O. Seiffert and operated a brickyard.

      Other early Avoca businesses included the Davis, Vinton, and Davis general store which opened its doors in the spring of 1871. The Davis brothers also began what grew into the Commercial Bank of Avoca and moved down from Harlan that year. Four daily trains passed east and west through Avoca in 1874 which continued to blossom out on the prairies far distant from the seat of county business in Council Bluffs. The 41 miles down to the courthouse was only one point of agitation in the efforts to divide sprawling Pottawattamie County in two. After all, in its original 1848 incarnation the county covered 4,660 square miles and the present Iowa counties of Adair, Adams, Audubon, Carroll, Cass, Crawford, Harrison, Mills, Montgomery, Shelby, and Union Counties had all been carved out of Pottawattamie in 1851. If the attempt to divide the county at Silver Creek had been successful it would have given Iowa a straight 100 counties. Supporters included the picturesquely named Avoca Delta which was published "every Thursday morning" in 1874 with J.C. Adams as editor. The Delta gave a glimpse of the heady flavor of pioneer Pottawattamie County as communities materialized within just a few years while their local newspapers boosted the location and summarized their combined successes and tribulations. 

      On January 8, 1874 a notice appeared in the Delta that the bill to create Belknap County had "passed the House, at Des Moines, without opposition." The next month on February 19 the Delta featured extensive coverage of the "Division Bill" to split Pottawattamie County claiming that the eastern portion "shall constitute the county of Belknap." The "bill passed to its second reading on Wednesday last, was referred to a committee who reported favorable and it was ordered printed." At the same time, state representative L.S. Axtell "not only introduced the bill but also using his best endeavors to secure its passage, and was no confident that it would, that he expressed his willingness to guarantee it." The newspaper congratulated Axtell's work as it "only confirms our previous conception of the solid worth and thorough manliness of his character." To the Delta, and many other residents east of Council Bluffs, the "necessity for the creation of the County of Belknap" went without question. The proposed county's namesake was Civil War general William Belknap, then serving as President Grant's Secretary of War, who went on to become the only cabinet member of any presidential administration to be impeached.  

      That spring was also enlivened by "Frank Powell's combination troupe" which the April 2 Delta reported would appear with "vocal and instrumental music laughable farces &c...rendered in an inimitable manner." The manager "assures the public that the entertainment will be first class in every respect and invites all to come and enjoy an evening treat - to laugh and grow fat." Admission was 35 cents for adults and 15 cents for children to attend the performance held "in Kerricks new building opposite the Delta Office."

      The April 2 Delta also included an item clipped from the Council Bluffs Republican concerning Superintendent Jacobs' report on Avoca Primary where Miss Mollie Ledwich was teacher. On the first day of school "only thirty little folks have made their appearance" although the "ordinary enrollment is seventy" students who would find some overcrowding as there were "only thirty double desks". When constructed, the school was considered sufficient to "answer the demands for several years, but the rapid increase of the population of this enterprising town has forced the conviction on the minds of the people, that it would have been wise to have built a house of double the capacity as this one."

      A notice in that issue by W.T. Meade offered 16 lots and two whole blocks of Avoca for sale and T.O. Meredith advertised the "Winnebago Broadcast Seeder and Cultivator" which "cannot be excelled for simplicity, accuracy, durability, strength, and ease of management." Those interested in the "largest stock of fence wire ever brought to this market" available at five cents per pound were instructed to ask for Stephen Jackson at the Avoca depot or station house. F.W. Haldeman had "started a nursery at Avoca" that made "Evergreens a Specialty" and would "offer at the lowest price three hundred thousand hedge plants of my own growing." Otherwise known as hedge apple or bois d'arc, Osage Orange provided an easy method of fencing in southwest Iowa prior to the prevalence of barbed wire and its fruit still has a place in local folklore. The Delta also reported two marriages and the death of "Anna E. Cameron, infant daughter of W.C. and S.M. Cameron" as "One more little one is waiting close beside the golden stair."

      In April 1874 the Delta gave it's account of a visit to nearby "Walnut Station, six miles east of this place" on the Rock Island line and "were astonished at the improvement made both in and around the town." The Delta claimed that the town already contained "about three hundred inhabitants" and was "the scene of a lively trade." Walnut mirrored Avoca's early boom years as "Several new buildings have been and are now in process of erection and the work of improvement is going forward rapidly." This included the new "office and agricultural warehouse" being constructed by Avery, Spangler, & Company while the "new steam mill is a big improvement and is destined to work a great benefit to the town." Linfor & Naugle planned to occupy their business house which would offer "a large stock of Miscellaneous goods." The town was dubbed "emphatically wide awake" and was working on building a church. At the same time, the "country around the town is filling up with astonishing rapidity and, where one year ago, only here and there could be seen a farm house, now they dot the prairie in all directions. We counted thirteen new houses from the top of the rise just north of town, within a radius of two miles. Hundreds of acres of land has been broken, and we were informed that about forty new farms would be opened within a radius of three miles around the village during the coming season." The Avoca Delta commented that they "glory in our spunky little sister town...Walnut is a screamer and no mistake."

      Although Avoca owed its origins to the rails, residents remained reliant on horse power and advertisements for stud service dotted the Delta, including "The Splendid Horse Seal-Skin" which was "a dark chestnut, about 15 hands high, and weighs 1,100 pounds." Seal-Skin was "of Morgan copper bottom stock, and like all horses of that breed is a good traveler." The horse would be available at J.D. Rudisill's "farm on Silver Creek, Mondays and Tuesdays; Wednesdays and Thursdays at Shelby; and Fridays and Saturdays at Jo. Harvey's stable, in Avoca. $10 to insure." The notice included "testimonials from some of our farmers" H. Stewart, George Skiller, B. Callison, and Arch. Bennett. Meanwhile, N.E. Acker offered "Young Bashaw", the "justly popular young stallion is the best roadster of his weight in Belknap county" at "five years old, and weighs 1,450 pounds". Bashaw was available at Acker's farm "six miles south of Avoca". The "celebrated Jack - 'Black Diamond' can be seen at John Cool's stables in Avoca, at any time" and "Stock breeders and farmers would do well to call".

      The prevalence of surrounding agricultural interests kept the Delta a Granger newspaper  thoroughly in support of efforts by the Patron's of Husbandry. The politically influential Grange was a semi-secret national fraternal organization of farmers that had been organized in 1867 to work for their mutual economic benefit and the Delta dutifully printed regular notices of local Grange officers and meetings. In May 1874 the community's Grange Hall hosted the Avoca Council of Patrons of Husbandry the first Saturday every month under "Master" A.M. Battelle and the Fairview Grange Number 246 on the first and third Saturdays each month to which "All good Patrons are invited". The Botany Valley Grange Number 763 also met twice a month in Avoca "at the Odd Fellow's Hall over McArther's shop". One issue of the Delta from May 1874 called the last meeting of Botany Valley as "more than usually interesting. Quite a number participated in the discussion of the various topics presented." The newspaper noted with some sarcasm that the topic at their next meeting would be "Shall Patrons co-operate? Is there any advantage in it? If so, what is it?" The Delta also listed nearby Grange meetings held by the Center Grange Number 1619 at Reed's School House, Eureka Grange Number 1615 at Walnut Station, Douglas Grange Number 905 at Kimball's School House just over the line in Shelby County, Mount Olive Grange Number 1131 at White's School House "at Big Grove", and the Silver Valley Grange Number 1616 which alternated meetings between the James and Bennett schoolhouses.

      That May, local Catholics held services at the Avoca School House where they raised another $500 towards construction of a building of their own. The building committee was headed by Captain Healy, J.M. Long, and Nicholas Casey. That month the Delta also reported that the rattlesnakes were "showing their heads" and had become "more numerous than ever before known."

      On May 28, 1874 the Delta reported that "Last Wednesday as we crossed the railway, carrying the Delta to the Post Office, one of the brakeman and the engineer of a train standing on the track, remarked that they thought a man must be a 'd---d stingy cuss that would try to move a post office by hand!' Our readers can draw their own conclusions." That issue also gave notice to Joseph Gump "the clever little harness maker, who will always be in the post office building. If you call at the P.O. and are disappointed in not receiving a letter from your lover, or any other man-examine Joe's splendid harness-it will make your eyes sparkle and drive dull care away."

      The newspaper also proclaimed a "social visit" at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Jones "was THE social party of the season" and reported that the "German citizens of this vicinity had a rousing time at their Mayfest. There were about forty excursionists from Davenport present. There is no people under the sun who really enjoy themselves at public gatherings as do the Germans, and on this occasion they fully sustained their reputation." The crowd included "Several of the prominent German citizens of Council Bluffs" on hand "to participate in the festivities."

      Other amusements during the early summer of 1874 included "a quiet game of billiards" at Chapsky & Plummer's billiard parlor on Elm Street. The owners "invite all lovers of the 'cue' to come and see them. Everything is gotten up in first class style...Their tables are of the latest pattern and best make." It was also announced that "Mrs. Yates has just received a large stock of millinery goods-the very latest styles of hats and bonnets for summer wear. All kinds of goods, ribbons, sashes, and a fine variety of fans; also a nice selection of lace trimmings-all at surprising low prices." "Now Opening! Tonsorial!!" announced that "Fatty" had "located in Avoca, and opened a first class Barber Shop...everything in a Number One Style, I am ready to do as good work as can be done west of Chicago."   

      On May 28 the Delta also acknowledged plans by the Center Grange to hold a Fourth of July celebration at Big Grove. J.B. Harrod, secretary of the Center Grange, announced "a public meeting of citizens at Parma on Saturday...in the Reed school house" to discuss the matter. Harrod called for future meetings to be held at "Freeman's Hall, Macedonia, Wheeler's Grove, Walnut Creek, in Wright township, Silver Creek and Avoca" to appoint a representative "to serve on the committee of arrangements, with power to appoint such other committees and Marshals, and Master of ceremonies as may be necessary." Meanwhile, the "martins" had taken up residence in the upper story of several houses in town by early June 1874 and late that same month the six year old daughter of Robert Martin was bitten by a rattlesnake. She died the next day.

      The month of July was full of growth in Avoca, including the new bank building dubbed the "Exchange Block" on the northeast corner of Elm and Lyons Street. The Exchange was constructed with 710,000 bricks by Council Bluffs masons the Fauble Brothers. Avoca also got a new butcher shop in July located at Lyon and High Street that featured fourteen foot ceilings and was "neat and handsome as a sixteen year old girl." The "People's Meat Market" was to be operated by Mr. Frost. Canadian immigrant John Coake's "new livery stable" also opened that month. The front of the livery was two stories, 30 by 50 feet, with a long one and half story rear 84 by 100 feet. The livery contained 36 stalls and could accommodate 50 horses. All the while the community's growth was tempered by the appearance of mad dogs and raging cholera as the Delta warned that "every person should use care about green fruits."

      An end to the relative prairie isolation arrived in August 1874 after the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph "set their poles through Avoca". Meanwhile, a tramp had told the editor of the Delta about a rattlesnake that he killed on the tracks two miles east of town "opposite Amos Wright's house". The snake had 14 rattles, was eight feet four inches long, and was a "regular rouser and no mistake."

      Jacob Kampf's Avoca Brewery also opened in 1874 with the capacity of annually brewing 800 barrels of beer and German immigrant Frederick Habicht arrived at Castle Garden in New York. Habicht's passage was paid through to Avoca where he opened a blacksmith shop. His father Anst Habicht immigrated to Avoca the next year and in 1880 Fredereick bought a farm in nearby Valley Township. The 1907 History of Pottawattamie County called Habicht “as one of the most scientific farmers” and a well-known local breeder of Aberdeen Angus cattle, Poland China hogs, and Plymouth Rock chickens. John Maasen was another German who had immigrated from Holstein to Moline, Illinois in 1873 where he lived for 18 months before opening a carpenter's shop in Avoca.

      Avoca was finally incorporated as a municipality in 1875 and the continued complaints about the distance to the county seat of Council Bluffs led to idea of dividing Pottawattamie County again in 1876. This new county would have been known as Grimes after James Grimes, the deceased former Iowa Senator and Governor. As with uncreated Belknap, the matter passed through the state legislature only to be defeated in a public referendum. Also in 1876, the Avoca Centennial Mill was constructed at the northeast corner of Maple and Lyons Streets and E.T. Meredith was born on a farm just outside of town. Meredith went on to transform the Farmer's Tribune into Better Homes and Gardens and a publishing empire. He later ran and lost the race for governor of Iowa and from 1920-21 served as Secretary of Agriculture during the final year of Woodrow Wilson's term as president.

      The 1877 introduction of dining car service on Rock Island line between Chicago and Council Bluffs brought an end to the necessity of large eating halls, including the one at Avoca. That year German watchmaker George Maier built a brick business block in Avoca and then opened a branch store in Shelby. Maier later had shops in Stuart and Walnut until he closed up for good in 1904. Maier's father in law was one of the leading Germans in Scott County, Iowa who served four terms as a state representative and published the German-language pamphlet “Iowa, the Home for Immigrants”.  In 1877, Civil Engineer Henry Weise opened a lumberyard with Seiffert in Avoca on the northwest corner of Maple and Lyons Street. By 1893 Weise was a director of both the Avoca State Bank and the Avoca Electric Light Company and owned 1,400 acres in Pottawattamie County when he retired in 1900.

      Avoca, and Pottawattamie County, also benefited greatly from the construction of railroad branch lines and in 1878 the Rock Island formed the Avoca, Harlan, and Northern. This railroad was created to build a 30 mile branch that would run north along the West Nishnabotna River to Harlan, the Shelby county seat. Officially, the railroad's southern terminus was across the West Nishnabotna from Avoca at Harlan Junction situated near where York Road now parallels Interstate 80. In 1879 the first train on the new line ran north into Harlan where J.S. Murray had built that town’s first grain elevator with a capacity of 10,000 bushels. Corley was the only station established on the Avoca, Harlan, and Northern with a population of 150 by the late 1890's and such businesses as Rixon’s Hotel and two general stores, Alber’s and McAvoy’s.

      In 1880 Avoca had about a thousand residents and its own cigar-maker, John Dollen, along with wagon-makers Lewis Hart and Thomas P. Jones & Son. The town also had three saddle and harness makers: Ed Irwin, H.W. Wilson, and Jackson Barnard. A tri-weekly stage ran from Avoca 36 miles south to Emerson on the Burlington line in Mills County. The stage line soon became obsolete after the Rock Island completed a 17 mile branch line from Avoca south along the West Nishnabotna that was dubbed the Avoca, Macedonia, and Southwestern Railroad. This new rail line down the river soon led to the establishment of Hancock a few miles to the south where Avoca merchant Gustav Diedrich opened a branch of his general store. The Avoca, Macedonia, and Southwestern also led to founding of  the modern towns of Oakland at the pioneer settlement at Big Grove and Carson which was located on the opposite bank of the West Nishnabotna from where Losh's Mill had opened in 1853. At Carson, the Avoca Southwestern intersected with the 16 mile Burlington branch line that was built north from Hastings in Mills County through "new" Macedonia as that town moved five miles east to meet the rails. The Avoca, Macedonia, and Southwestern was consolidated into the Rock Island soon after construction was completed but the Avoca, Harlan, and Northern remained a leased subsidiary until 1899 when it was finally merged into the Rock Island.

      Another newspaper also appeared in 1880 when A.P Cramer started publication of the Avoca Tribune and a creamery opened in town early that decade. The Avoca Centennial Mill at Maple and Lyons was joined by the Avoca Roller Mills situated on the south side of Lyons between Walnut and Elm Streets. The Hancock & Company Elevator, the J.S. Caldwell Corn Elevator, the S. Caldwell Elevator, and several corn cribs were all situated between Lyons Street and the Rock Island tracks. Germans remained prominent in community affairs with their own Mannerchor and the Avoca Gesang Verein and Prussian immigrant P. Wiese moved into Avoca to take over Hipsley's drug store after spending a decade farming outside of town. 

      There were several cases of measles in Avoca in May 1883 when the Herald reported on the devastating fire that originated in John Coakes' livery stable. The fire was discovered just before one in the morning on May 17 and the alarm was "promptly given by John Hazen." During a heavy thunderstorm lightning apparently struck near the windmill on the south side of the barn. At the time John Coakes, his son Charles, and his nephew George Wright were sleeping in a room above the office and "had barely time to escape with what clothing they could gather up in spring from their beds." They opened the barn door but the sudden outburst heat, flames, and smoke made it impossible for anyone to get inside while Coates' carriages were destroyed and 13 horses burned to death.

      As the barn burned. the west wind changed to the north "and with increased velocity sent the burning brands and heated flames" into the Seiffert & Weise lumberyard. The lumber sheds on the north side caught fire first and before long "the entire yard was a seething mass of flames" in spite of the falling rain. The "heat was so great that even against the wind the large double corn crib of Hancock & Co., which stood west of the lumber yard and barn, and contained about 45,000 bushels of corn" caught fire. The flames then spread to two large corn cribs north of the barn and only about 1,000 bushels were saved. This was in spite of the fact that Caldwell offered "a dollar an hour for men (?) to remove the corn". Nonetheless, "To the disgrace of the town may it be said that there were men who stood around and would not raise a finger in an effort to save, either for love or money, and they, too, were men who are owners of considerable property." Another corn crib west of the double-crib also caught fire and a total of 75,000 bushels were burned.

      The town would recover from the fire and local demands to divide Pottawattamie County were more-or-less appeased following the 1885 construction of an additional county courthouse and jail at Avoca. The new Avoca Courthouse shared several features with the now-demolished courthouse then under construction at Council Bluffs and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981. Likewise, the election of Avoca auctioneer John Hazen as Sheriff of Pottawattamie County signaled a definite shift in the playing field of county politics as he was elected as a Democrat in a county never known for electing Democrats, let alone a Sheriff from the far-off section of the county. The 1907 History noted that much of Hazen's success as an auctioneer was due to his ability to speak "both high and low German" which no doubt helped during his campaign for county office.

      A January 1886 blizzard left behind a "snow blockade" that stranded 45 passengers at Avoca for three days. Those that had left for Council Bluffs the previous Thursday "got as far as Weston, when the train was snowed in" and they were stuck on the tracks for 57 hours. It was reported that "Everything on the train was eaten except a dog, and the passengers kept guard over that so that the company's cook could not kill and roast it, and serve it as roasted pig." Likewise, the Milwaukee's line was blocked at Earling, the Northwestern had "a four day's fight with snow blockades between Marshalltown and Missouri Valley", and the Wabash faced "a three days blockade at Imogene." 

      By January 1895 there were four daily east bound and four daily west bound trains that stopped in Avoca with two north bound and two south bound on the Harlan branch and the same number on the Carson branch. That March A.P. Cramer announced in the pages of the Herald that after 15 years the "plant, the business, and building" of his newspaper had been sold to Ren Bosley of the Avoca Record. The consolidated newspaper continued publishing as the Herald and Bosley gave notice that the Herald would still print local happenings "written, clipped, or stolen from our exchanges." Bosley also noted that his newspaper's aim was to "Tell the truth though the heavens take a tumble" with the motto "Take all in sight and rustle for more". Likewise, Bosley advocated "One country, one flag, and one wife at a time" with the object "To live in pomp and Oriental splendor." In June the Herald noted that the Avoca Opera House was "crowded from cellar to garret" with people "packed away like sardines in a box" to watch the 16 members of the Class of '95 graduate from Avoca High School. The graduation ceremonies were followed by a reception open to the public at the home of Gustav Diedrich.

      The influx of German immigrants into Avoca also continued through the last years of the 19th century. In 1888 Chris Hinz moved to Avoca from Walnut.  Hinz had immigrated from Holstein and worked around Avoca as a farmhand and section-hand on the Rock Island. Christian Rock, who was born in Waldeck, Germany, settled on a 240 acre farm southwest of Avoca in 1889. In 1891, Martin Plahn, an immigrant from Holstein, bought 220 acres outside Avoca that he dubbed the Oaklawn Stock Farm and  later purchased a home in Avoca on Chestnut Street. Albrecht Meitzen, who had immigrated with his family from Breslau to Persia in 1886, took over as cashier at Avoca's Citizens State Bank in 1896. That year Frank Beymer, a former baseball player, established the Avoca Journal which he then consolidated with the older Herald in 1900 after buying out that newspaper.

      The railroad traffic responsible for originating the community dwindled to next to nothing after the 1953 opening of the Rock Island's "Atlantic Cut-off" which moved the railroad's main line south through Hancock. The original Rock Island route was reduced to a branch line that terminated in Shelby. The southern stretch of the old Avoca Southwestern line was shut down between Oakland and Carson in 1954 and the Harlan branch north through Corley was abandoned in 1960. The former Rock Island main line that ran from Walnut west through Avoca and then angled up to Shelby was abandoned altogether in 1968 and by 1979 the remainder of the Avoca Southwestern line between Harlan Junction and Hancock had disappeared.    


The Historical Society of Pottawattamie County, Iowa was founded in 1934 and is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization dedicated to kindling and keeping alive an active interest in state and local history.  Contributions and inquiries should be directed to the Society  at P.O. Box 2, Council Bluffs, Iowa 51502-0002.  For additional information, phone 712-323-2509 or e-mail us here.

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