150 years of History, Belle Plaine, Iowa 1862-2012 by Mitch Malcolm
As you drive around Belle Plaine today, you see vestiges of the old and the progress of the new. You drive through Main street and see the brick buildings that housed many old businesses of which we have fond memories. We see the new buildings and new businesses that have taken their place. You see the old railroad depot and wonder how many people walked through its doors, coming from all over the world for a new start. You drive along the Iowa River and see acres of rich fertile farmland, with waving stalks of corn or luscious green fields of soybeans or grass. You understand. You know why the desire to settle in and around Belle Plaine was so strong. The land and area are certainly beautiful and bountiful.
The history of settling Belle Plaine starts back in the early 1840s, with the end of the Black Hawk war and the treaties with native Indians. News of Iowa moved fast and settlement from the east was happening at a lightning rate. A young gentleman in Greenville, Tennessee heard the story of Iowa and decided to make the journey in 1842. The story of Hyrcannus Guinn is the best-documented story of an early settler making the 4 week trip from Tennessee to Iowa to make his claim southeast of present-day Belle Plaine. At about the same time, many other families were venturing this far. They were following the stagecoach routes and making a claim on the land. The Truebloods settled in the area first and then the Blinkensops, and Winslows, these are names we would recognize today. The Guinns, Ealys, Greenlees from Tennessee. To the north families that came early were the Schilds, Wrights, Malls, Ruckers, Boodys, and many others.
Small settlements were being organized with stores and blacksmith shops. Names like Dover, Koszta, Irving, Buckeye were beginning to thrive into the 1850s. Gunnville established a post office in 1856. The farmers were raising good crops. It was a hard life, but it was promising.
Change was going to happen fast. The Railroad was coming west. The Government was pushing to establish the railroad all the way to the Pacific ocean. The Cedar Rapids and Missouri River Railroad was organized and had government grants to push to Council Bluffs. Mr. Prestley Hutton, who owned land where present-day Belle Plaine is today, negotiated with the railroad to offer some of his land in exchange for a rail stop there. The Railroad agreed. So in essence, Prestley Hutton is the founder of Belle Plaine.
The name of the new depot had been designated as Halifax by the railroad company. But the Hutton and White families were not fond of it and according to John Hutton, the son of Prestley Hutton. The families got together to decide on a name to present to the railroad. looking over the Iowa River Valley the name came to them. Belle Plaine. The words in French mean Beautiful Plain.
As the railroad moved west, the town of Belle Plaine grew. The post office was moved from Guinnville to Belle Plaine. Commerce soon took off.
By 1870, there were nearly 1000 people and Belle Plaine became a thriving town.
The town elected a mayor and council, built schools and churches and went about to set up all the needs of the town. The ability of farmers to sell their livestock and grain to an easily accessible market, meant greater prosperity. The business life of Belle Plaine has always relied on the strength and health of the local farmers.
Belle Plaine went through some major events. There were train wrecks, fires, and a runaway well in 1886. The city hired a contractor to drill a well on the south side of town and this event became famous all over the world. This out of control well became known as Jumbo. It flowed uncontrolled for 14 months….making the news as far away as Europe. It was even labeled the Eighth Wonder of the World. (see section and photos of Jumbo Well located on our web site).
Electricity came to Belle Plaine in 1888 and the telephone in 1890. both expensive for the average person to own. at first, only the main street was lit and only from dusk to midnight. The telephone was used by businesses and those with the means to afford it. In fact, the telephone would be used to call for help for a major event.
The Great Fire of 1894
On a hot windy July afternoon, an incident happened that would forever change Belle Plaine. About 5:30 pm on July 28, 1894, Robert Liddle, a blacksmith, was working at his forge repairing an iron wagon wheel. The wheel had to be red hot in order for him to shape it and the sparks flew as he wielded the hammer. A nearby livery was preparing for the weekend. In order to have enough feed in the stable for any horses that may be quartered there, Loose hay was being delivered. A stray spark from the blacksmith’s forge flew into the dry hay as it was being hoisted. The fire spread with the hot strong July wind. Before the evening was over, five city blocks of downtown Belle Plaine had been destroyed, Within 3 hours, 27 buildings were destroyed, effecting 80 businesses in town. One of the first buildings to be destroyed was the city hall and fire department. Destroying some of the equipment needed to fight the fire. Solly Wertheim, the mayor and the owner of a clothing business made telephone calls to Cedar Rapids, Blairstown and Tama for help. The Chicago Northwestern organized special trains to transport the equipment and men needed from these cities to fight the fire.
The next day, the smoke had not cleared and the ordering of replacement goods and building materials was well at hand. Wooden shanties consisting of only a box-like room housed the stock that would meet the needs of their regular customers. Immediately after the fire, the town motto was “Keep coming our way, We’ll take care of you OK” A celebration was held that 1894 Christmas. The new main street would take shape and be better than before with up to date modern brick structures. A new Railroad Depot was also built, big enough to accommodate the traffic that came through Belle Plaine.
Chicago Northwestern Railroad
The railroad allowed 12-month access to travel and to commerce. It gave farmers the ability to sell livestock and grain to many markets for current prices. The railroad brought the latest news and mail service every day.
The railroad brought entertainment to town: professional traveling musicians and acting troupes. ..and the greatest event for the whole town. The Circus. There was nothing more exciting than having the circus announce that Belle Plaine would be on their schedule. The advertising advance men would come through 2 weeks ahead of time and plaster the town with posters. On the day of the circus, families would come early to find their spot on the parade route or they would go down and watch the circus unpack. Young men might even be given a free pass if they helped unload.
The railroad brought politicians through. making campaign stops and speeches from the back of the last car. William Jennings Bryan came through in 1896 and President William McKinley came through in 1898 to thank the citizens for their support of the Spanish American War.
The railroad also brought some undesirables. Thieves, criminals, snake oil salesmen that would frequently follow the circuses always kept the town Marshall alert. The word Hobo became known and if you were kind enough to give one a plate of food, a mark would be made on your property to help other hobos know that this was a sympathetic house to their plight. The Black smoke of the steam engines would wreak havoc with laundry day. Women would have to know the wind if they were going to put the laundry out to dry.
The city pushed ahead with modern conveniences of public works in 1905. The town was paranoid about fire since 1894 and took great pride in its volunteer fire department. The Belle Plaine Union newspaper editor pressed the issue of a public works bond issue in editorials and frequent articles The city council finally presented a bond issue to the citizens and its passed overwhelmingly. Almost immediately, work began to lay water mains throughout the town. New deep wells had to be dug to find non-artesian water. A new era of modern convenience would be available for Belle Plaine. Running water inside the house and modern bathrooms. A second bond issue in 1911 allowed for expanding the water system in town and to finally put in place a sanitary sewer system.
before 1905, the streets of Belle Plaine had names that most people did not know. There were two Washington streets, and a couple of Jackson streets too. The proposed change to streets and avenues was made in 1905 when the waterworks were put in. This was also very important for fire prevention. It was encouraged for houses to have numbers put on the outside. A private company even-numbered the curb for a fee.
The Belle Plaine Gas company was organized in 1906 and manufactured gas was piped to homes beginning in 1911 and another modern convenience would change the town.
Up to this point, traveling around was by the horse and buggy. By 1910, The automobile was beginning to share the road, sometimes with bad results for the horse and the driver of the horseless carriage. Lew Malcolm was the first of many automotive shops in Belle Plaine. Walt Malcolm, son of Lew Malcolm had explained that in order to sell a car, the new owner had to be taught how to drive.
Belle Plaine Celebrated the Semi-Centennial in 1912. A lot had happened to this railroad town. It had survived flood, fire, and all the other challenges of starting a new town. The citizens that had come from all parts of the eastern United States and from several European countries. There was a lot for which to be thankful.
One of the biggest developments for Belle Plaine is when the announcement was made that there would be a transcontinental road organized and Belle Plaine would be on this route. This road became fondly known as the Lincoln Highway. Iowa was known for a lot of things….and one of them was mud. In the spring, the roads were a muddy mess. Almost impassable in spots. This was going to be a challenge to make the roads good enough to keep traffic flowing.
Belle Plaine became a division office for Chicago Northwestern and that meant new jobs. Families moved to town from Boone. The Lincoln Highway brought traffic and tourists through Belle Plaine as people began to travel and explore the country. Gas stations, service stations, hotels and restaurants all were enjoying the extra traffic through town. At one point Belle Plaine had 19 places that sold gasoline and they all were a going concern.
Belle Plaine sent her men off to war during WWI. On May 1st, 1918, the first casualty from the town was a boy named John Jennings. The Union had the following to say about him
“Shortly after his enlistment, we recall very well how proud and happy he was to think he was to serve his country. There was just a little more manliness in his bearing, his face had taken on a degree of firmness, his jaw set in a little firmer, his eyes had a purposeful look in them that was new to him. his carriage more erect. Yes, John Jennings looked more of a man than boy that day and he had a right to, for he had sworn to defend his country and had pledged his life in that defense. And he has made the supreme sacrifice.” The American Legion was renamed in his honor.
After the war, the government took away price supports. the farm economy suffered and this affected the town economy as well. Farm prices fell and it was a tough time for a while. It did not help that the Chicago Northwestern Railroad decided to move the Division offices back to Boone in 1921. This put further strain on business for the town.
Farmers would pay businesses with produce to get the products and services that they needed. The roads were becoming paved and it allowed more travelers to use the Lincoln Highway. This trade helped offset the tough times and business rebounded.
The very first motel type inn that was in Iowa on the Lincoln Highway was the Wayfarers Cottage Camp run by Carlos and Leona Tippie. They had been visiting friends in California and saw the concept there. They realized that this would work in Belle Plaine. Eventually, they had 9 single cabins and 2 double cabins and a community building. It was a very successful business until the bypass was built in 1937. They sold out and moved to town in 1944. Mrs. Tippie kept a book of all the visitors that stayed and the type of cars they drove. Here is a list of cars from the 1920s.
Essex, Durant, Oakland, Willys, Packard, Reo, Erskine, Overland, Hupmobile, Star, Franklin, Maxwell, Morman, Auburn, Paige, Chandler, Whippet, Buick, Mercer, Lexington, Columbia, Velie, Hudson, Apperson, Jewett, Master, Revere, Premier, De Sota, Peerless, Gardner, Nash, Schwartz, Pierce Arrow, Graham, Ryan, Stutz, La Salle, Valiant, Viking, Hurst, Cadillac, Cloud, Marquette, Moon, Indian, Rockne, Lafayette, and Terraplane.
Belle Plaine had 3 schools and was growing and running out of room. A new school was built by James Park Construction. in 1912. On New Year’s day in 1921 the school was destroyed by fire. The structure that survived was found to be sound and the school was rebuilt. James Park Construction company won the bid to rebuild. School kids were taught at the Bohemian Hall and at churches until Central was finished.
In 1926, The Federal Government passed a national road program that organized the roads into a numbered system. The Lincoln Highway was renamed to Highway 30. There was also a major push to straighten out the route. One of the reasons for going through Belle Plaine and Chelsea was to bypass the hills of western Benton and Eastern Tama county, fondly known as the Bohemian Alps to the locals. These obstacles were overcome and the Road from Youngville would go straight to Toledo. This road was opened in 1937. The old Lincoln Highway road that headed south would be designated Highway 131. The road from Belle Plaine through Chelsea to the northwest and the road to Marengo would be designated 212.
Belle Plaine got through prohibition, through the depression, through Highway 30 bypassing to the north and times were tough like they were everywhere. Business survived and families and churches helped everyone get through it. The teachers of Belle Plaine noticed that there were kids coming to school that had not eaten. They organized a school lunch program in 1935 to offer a meal for selected children. The adult Ag class that Lewis Falck was teaching was asked to help supply produce.
About this time, there was a farmer that was interested in hybrid corn and would help make a major contribution to Belle Plaine’s future. Fred McCulloch lived near Hartwick and he was a very progressive farmer, constantly studying improved methods and he was cooperating with the United States government in experimental farm management, He had been one of the principal exhibitors in showing agricultural products at the leading state and national corn and grain shows. He met at one of the Agricultural shows the Funk family and a friendly relationship developed.
Fred McCulloch agreed to help the Funk Bros seed company by planting some of their seed corn… Fred McCulloch turned to Lewis Falck, then the Ag instructor for Belle Plaine High School. Lewis Falck planted Funks seed corn and the High School ag students were in charge of the plots. Dick Schild was a student at the time and was part of that first test plot of Funks Seed. This is the story of how Funks Seeds International came to Belle Plaine. Lewis Falck went on to work for Funks and he became the Iowa Minnesota Manager. He was instrumental in the growth of Funks in Belle Plaine for over 50 years.
So, as the railroad began to decline in Belle Plaine, Funks Bros Seeds became the new major employer in town. Detasseling for Funks became a right of passage for most teens growing up around Belle Plaine.
On December 7, 1941 the world would change. Belle Plaine again sent brave men and women into war. Some brave heroes did not return. There were many gold stars in the windows of Belle Plaine’s homes. They are remembered by plaques on City Hall that was donated by the class of 1944 and Henry Tippie. The American Legion was renamed to give honor to Harry Bradshaw that was the first casualty of the war for Belle Plaine. The Jennings – Bradshaw American Legion.
The war affected daily life. War Ration cards were passed out and many staples of life were limited. Strap drives were organized in each county and city. Belle Plaine gave up the WWI British Artillery piece that was to be placed in the city park. Men that would normally do the seasonal work for Funks were replaced by women, who would do the detasseling for seed corn. Even older businessmen in town got in the act.
War bonds were purchased to help pay for the war effort. Funks won the coveted T Bond award for raising a record amount of funds for the war.
After the war, Belle Plaine enjoyed a time of good economy and the town was looking for a new future. The railroad still ran passenger trains, But the need for freight trains had diminished for the towns. The railroad was still used for grain elevators, but more and more trucks were being used.
The Modern Era of Belle Plaine saw a lot of change. The Railroad jobs that at one point employed over 500 people, but the removal of offices and jobs dropped that to under 100 and shrinking. The introduction of diesel engines would have the old steam engines condemned and sold for scrap. No more black smoke rolling through town. The passenger train service would slow and soon stop altogether by 1960 replaced by bus service. The mud roads were replaced by well-paved cement roads. A trip to Cedar Rapids or Iowa City that could be an all-day adventure, depending on the roads, was now a mere hour away. Most houses had telephones, some with party lines… your number was either red or black. as direct-dial would come into effect in the late 1950s, the exchange would be known as Hickory (444). Electricity and a gas plant would give all the conveniences that a house would need. Funks was growing and providing full-time jobs and a lot of seasonal jobs at the main office on 7th Ave with the expansion of their drying and warehousing facilities on 8th street.
The 1950s saw a modernization spurt for Belle Plaine with new schools Longfellow and Lincoln Elementary, a new municipal swimming pool, a new bowling alley was built and run by Paul Nielsen. the former band director for the Belle Plaine High School. A new grocery store Jack and Jill was opened.
Main street was a vibrant place. All the storefronts were full of merchants. The stores would stay open late on Saturday night. This would be the day that farm families would gather up their produce to bring in to town to sell. The family would arrive early for a prime location to park on Main street. The women would go and sell their eggs and shop. The men would seek out their favorite location to meet with their friends and talk about the current hot subjects of the day. The Mixer, Snack Bar, or Kozy Korner was a favorite place for the young crowd. The kids would be given their quarter to go see a movie at the King Theater. It is locked into the memories of all those that enjoyed the times!
Memories of going into Clear’s and buying candy from the counter. watching the weight being put on the scale and then the malted milk balls being put into the metal bowl on the other side. The scale would point to the balance line and with a wink from the clerk, an extra piece of candy or two would drop in!! Easter time there would be colored chicks. .and the summer there would be turtles and goldfish for sale.
Everyone had their favorite store. Crazy Daze would bring out the best crowds for the town. The merchants had a great time dressing up in outfits to entertain.
There were a couple of changes in the 1950s that affected Belle Plaine negatively. New State laws caused the Corn Belt hospital and Martinek’s Maternity to close in 1956. So many people were born in these locations.
The Belle Plaine schools after a couple of votes became a community school district in 1961 and absorbed farm students from various one-room country schools and from Irving and Luzerze
The Centennial was celebrated in 1962 in Belle Plaine. It was a major event with 4 days of celebration. a large parade along with a beauty pageant, a special show featuring Johnny Ringo from the Ed Sullivan show and an old farm machinery exhibit. A huge production on 100 years of Belle Plaine was acted out on the Schoolyard behind Lincoln Elementary school. More people visited Belle Plaine for the 4-day event than at any other time in the town’s history.
At the same time as the Centennial, the polio vaccine became available to the public. The oral vaccine was given free to those who wanted it at Lee Gym.
The 1960s would be, for the most part, good times for Belle Plaine. Funks Seeds expanded and built their new 8th Street facilities in 1964. Natural Gas was installed by Iowa Electric in the mid-60s.
After 50 years of running the Belle Plaine Union, the Burrows family would sell the paper to Don Magdefrau and Jim Turnbull and merge with the Marengo Publishing Corporation. Don Magdefrau would continue as editor.
The city built a new city hall and the South City Park was renamed by a citywide vote in honor of Mr. John Franklin. a long time supporter of athletics in Belle Plaine. He was the organizer of the first Athletic Booster club in Belle Plaine and he was responsible for getting lights at the athletic field. He also won a contest with the University of Iowa and named the mascot HERKY. (short for Hercules).
Father Flyn retired after 41 years of with the Belle Plaine Catholic Church.
Jeanne Formanek became Miss Iowa in 1967. She placed in the top 10 at the Miss America Pageant.
. with the growth of the school district, it soon became necessary to look at expanding and updating the high school. The proposal to build a new high school and to locate it on the edge of town met resistance at first, but the issue finally passed and a new high school was built in 1969.
The 1970s started as a turbulent time nationally with anti-war protests hitting close to home at area colleges and universities, Belle Plaine was exploring ways of counteracting the pressures of larger cities and how to attract new business to town. The pressure of being close to Cedar Rapids, Waterloo and Iowa City for shopping made the Commerce committee look at how to upgrade main street. A consultant company made the proposal to enclose main street from 8th to 9th Ave and make it an indoor shopping center. The costs made the idea prohibitive.
Another idea was to have awnings built on all the stores so that it would be possible to walk on main street undercover. A sketch was drawn by Dorothy Leonard. Again costs were a concern. The proposal was approved and some of the businesses decided to build the awnings. Trees were also planted downtown to beautify the main street.
As Highway 21 through town became a four-lane and the risk of accidents became higher, Mayor Russell Hecht and the city council decided to make main street a one way. It still is today.
A precursor to the convenience stores we have now, Dick Heishman of Dick’s DX opened the Mini Mart between the Lincoln Cafe and The Iowa hotel in 1972. Earl Shellenberger was the manager.
Funks built a new large warehouse facility able to handle 260,00 bushels of corn
Central school building became a middle school and went under renovations to modernize.
1976-1978 saw a building and renewal spurt in Belle Plaine. The Chelsea bank was built in Belle Plaine. on the land where the Railroad roundhouse use to be. S & W Home and Auto, owned by Ray Wiese built a new store on 13 th St. Bevins Motor built a new dealership just west of S&W. Citizens State Bank built a motor bank on the corner of 8th ave and 13th street. Loli Pop Lane opened, run by Sandi Mann and Diane Nielsen. The Flame House restaurant opened by Jerry and Leo Argyros. Bud’s Super Valu Grocery store opened, Mr. and Mrs. Thede opened the Wishing Well, Beale’s expanded and opened a new dining room to the cafe.
One of the needs that Belle Plaine had was affordable living quarters for those that were retiring. Father John Graham saw this need and started to build affordable apartments for retirees. Eastgate Apartments, Washington Manor and others he was able to build with the help of state and federal government housing programs. It helped farm couples that wanted to retire to move into town and have a nice place to live. It brought new residences to town that would shop locally.
In the 1980s, the economy was failing. Interest rates were high and ag commodity prices plunged. This caused a major farm crisis that was felt in Iowa and Belle Plaine. The shooting of the banker in Hills, Iowa by a farmer sent an alarm all through the country. There were many businesses on main street that closed. The pressure to shop at the newly built malls in Cedar Rapids and Waterloo also did not help. There was also the trend of fewer farm families and that reduced the number of potential shoppers close to Belle Plaine.
But Belle Plaine was not giving up. Economic studies were done and new programs were being developed to help Small Town Main Street compete. In the Mid 1980s, the Iowa Legislature and Governor Brandstad developed the Main Street Iowa program. Today, 25 years later, Belle Plaine is a recipient of this program.
Funks had been sold to the Swiss giant Ceiba Geigy and the old family-run business had turned into a high tech corporation and the facilities in Belle Plaine would soon not be needed.
Just as the railroad had faded, and Funks began to grow, now as Funks faded away, Benco Manufacturing, a company that had started in 1973 was now going to become the major employer in town. originally located on West 8th Street, in the mid-1990s Benco approached the city and said they needed a new facility or would need to leave. A new building would be built on land given by the city The company won many awards for efficiency and quality of work building automotive service parts. It provided good employment for many families. Ironically, the economic downturn starting in 2008 hit hard the automotive industry. The corporation made a decision to close the Belle Plaine facility in 2010. This was an emotional blow to the community.
One of the economic studies that had been done suggested that Belle Plaine would make itself more attractive to business by having a modern airport. Coincidentally a study done by the Iowa DOT determined that Belle Plaine would be a good spot for a new airport between Cedar Rapids and Grinnell. With generous donations from local citizens and endowments from the Mansfield trust and Henry Tippie, the state and federal funding allowed the construction of the hard surface 4000 ft runway in 1992.
At one point, every building on Main Street had a shop or two working out of it. The years took their toll, businesses closed and buildings decayed. The downtown area needed to be revitalized. The town built a new library in 1990 a and the Belle Plaine Area Museum was built in 2004, beginning the facelift that main street needed.
As the Belle Plaine Development Committee and Commerce Committee merged and organized, the town pushed to get recognized as a Main Street Iowa Community in 2008. The mission of the Main Street Iowa Program is to improve the social and economic well-being of Iowa’s communities by assisting selected communities to capitalize on the unique identity, assets, and character of their historic commercial district. Main Street is economic development within the context of historic preservation.
In 2009, the town supported a bond issue to build a new aquatics center. The old swimming pool was built in the 1950s and the new pool fits the needs of today.
New schools were built in 2010 and opened for the school year in 2011. For the first time since 1912, there was no school at Central. The new additional Longfellow for elementary and the New Junior High was added to the High School. These additions show the investment that Belle Plaine is willing to put toward the education of its children.
A year ago, Henry Tippie approached the Belle Plaine Historical Society with some great news. His life works and historical collection of items of Belle Plaine were be placed in a new Henry B Tippie annex next to the Belle Plaine Area Museum. Locally, Tippie has funded hundreds of scholarships for Belle Plaine graduates since 1967. A strong supporter of education, he and his wife Pat provided generous financial support for the construction of the Belle Plaine Community Library, Belle Plaine Area Museum, Tippie-Mansfield Kirkwood Center, as well as the Mansfield/Tippie Airport-Industrial Park. The New annex will be a great tourist attraction and focal point to build on the educational programs that the museum offers to the public.
The Strength of Belle Plaine has been the family-owned small business. Today, we have many businesses that have been passed through generations. Four businesses have reached 50 years or more, Sankot Garage, Hrabak Funeral home, Drahos Shoe Store, King Theatre (Mansfields), Town and Country Wholesale (the Palmer family) and Ehlen Plumbing.
The dedication of the mayor and city council, the city manager, Bill Daily and Sheila Hlas, executive director of the Belle Plaine Community Development Corporation have helped guide Belle Plaine to a new future. The Facade work and Streetscape has transformed Main Street and given the old buildings a new life.
A new feeling is beginning to take hold here. A desire to renew. With new schools, a new pool, new industries, a new exciting museum helping remind us of the past. More work is to be done As we continue to make Belle Plaine a great place to live, our ancestors in their eternal rest on the hills are looking down and are pleased. We did not let them down.