History of Knoxville, Iowa
Marion County, IA Biographies


(also see Knoxville Township)

Knoxville owes its origin to the action of the commissioners appointed by the Legislature to locate a permanent seat of justice for Marion County. On August 25, 1845, two of these commissioners, Joseph M. Robertson and James M. Montgomery, made a report in favor of locating the county seat on the northwest quarter of section 7, township 75, range 19, "a high, level prairie or plateau, about one mile south of the exact center of the county, and in the near neighborhood of excellent timber." This is the quarter section upon which the courthouse stands. In their report, a full copy of which is given in Chapter IV, the commissioners did not recommend any name for the town, but to the local authorities they suggested that it be called Knoxville, to commemorate the patriotic services of General Knox, a distinguished American soldier in the Revolutionary war.

Soon after the selection of the site, Isaac B. Power, who was elected county surveyor on September 1, 1845, was directed to lay out the town. The first sale of lots was on October 29, 1845, George Gillaspy acting as auctioneer by appointment of the county commissioners, and on January 5, 1846, he was allowed $2 for his services.

On January 6, 1846, it was ordered by the board of commissioners "That Luther C. Conrey be, and he is hereby, appointed agent for the board of county commissioners to sell and dispose of the town lots in the Town of Knoxville; and that he give bond with security in the penal sum of $500, conditioned for the faithful performance of his duties."

Mr. Conrey was succeeded on October 8, 1846, by Lysander W. Babbitt, whose bond was fixed at $300, and on November 16, 1846, at a called session of the board of county commissioners, the following action was taken:

"Whereas, The survey made by Isaac B. Power upon the plat of the Town of Knoxville is ascertained to be incorrect, it is therefore ordered that said town be resurveyed by the county surveyor, Claiborne Hall, and it is further ordered that said surveyor commence at the rock at the southwest corner of the public square of said Power's survey."

Mr. Hall completed his survey in January, 1847. The plat as filed under his survey shows twenty three blocks, two rows of five blocks each on the north side of the public square; two rows of three blocks each on the south side of the square; one block east and two west of the square, and three blocks extending southward toward Competine Creek in the first tier of blocks west of the square. The revised plat was filed with the county recorder on February 8, 1847, by Samuel,Tibbett and David Durham, two of the county commissioners. In the meantime a second sale of lots had taken place on the second Monday in April, 1846, and some of the purchasers were a little alarmed at the order for a new survey, but Mr. Hall made his survey in such a way that the rights of every lot owner were fully protected.

Seventeen blocks were added to the town by a plat filed on December 26, 1849, making the town five blocks wide from east to west and eight blocks from north to south. In 1845 Judge Brobst, county judge of Marion County, ordered the remainder of the quarter section embraced in the report of the locating commissioners to be laid out in lots, and appointed F. M. Frush, at that time county surveyor, to make the survey. The plat of this survey was filed on September 17, 1845, whereupon Judge Brobst issued an order that block No. 49 be set apart as a burial ground for the town.

In the first survey the streets were laid out eighty feet in width, with alleys ten feet wide through the center of each square each way. In the final survey the width of the streets was reduced to fifty feet, the fifteen feet on either side being added to the depth of the adjoining lots.

Probably the first white settler within the present city limits was Dr. L. C. Conrey, who laid claim to the land upon which the county seat was afterward located, and in whose house the first meeting of the county commissioners was held in September, 1845. Other early settlers were Lysander W. Babbitt, Conrad Walters and the Jones family. Although some of the latter did not live immediately in the town, they were more or less intimately connected with the industrial development of the embryo city, and for a number of years John M. Jones was proprietor of the Knoxville Woolen Mills.


There was at least one citizen who did not like the name of Knoxville, and that was Lysander W. Babbitt. At the time Iowa was admitted as a state, in 1846, he was postmaster at Knoxville, and came to the conclusion that Knoxville, Iowa, might become confused with Knoxville, Tennessee, or some other town of the same name, in the handling of mails. During the session of the first State Legislature, in January, 1847, Mr. Babbitt happened to have business in Iowa City; then the capital of the state, and while there took it upon himself to secure the passage of a bill changing the name to Osceola. Upon his return home he informed David T. Durham, whom he had left in charge of the postoffice, of what had been done, and in this way the "news got out." The indignation at Babbitt's presumption and officiousness was universal. A petition was hurriedly circulated and was signed by nearly everybody in the town, asking for the repeal of the obnoxious act. It was then sent to Iowa City by a special messenger, who turned it over to Simeon Reynolds, the representative from Marion County.

Mr. Reynolds lost no time in drafting and introducing a bill to repeal the act changing the name, and his influence, supported by the petition, was sufficient to bring about its passage. But now a peculiar situation was discovered. The petition did not ask for nor the repealing bill provide for the restoration of the original name of Knoxville, so that Marion County had a nameless seat of justice, that is, technically speaking. After the joke had run for a few days the Legislature amended the bill and the name of Knoxville was restored.


Late in the year 1853 a movement was started for the incorporation of Knoxville. A petition was presented to the county judge, who ordered an election for Saturdays, January 28, 1854, at which the voters should decide the question. Sixty four votes were cast, only four of which were against the proposition to incorporate. Two days later Joseph Brobst, county judge, issued the following order:

"Whereas, a majority of the legal voters of Knoxville, Marion County, Iowa, on the 28th day of January, 1854, have voted in favor of having said town incorporated, notice is hereby given that an election will take place at the courthouse, in the said town of Knoxville, on Thursday, the 9th day of February, 1854, for the purpose of choosing three persons to prepare a charter for said village."

At the election E. W. Ridlen, James M. Walters and Charles Durham were chosen charter commissioners, and the charter prepared by them was submitted to a vote of the people on April 7, 1854, when it was adopted by a vote of 33 to 2. It provided for a mayor and board of aldermen, with the other customary municipal officers; defined the duties of the various officials; limited the tax levy to one eighth of one per cent; fixed the time for holding elections, etc.

Owing to the destruction of the early records by the fire of 1887, it is impossible to give a detailed account of the early doings of the city government. It is known that the first meetings of the council were held in E. K. Woodruff's shop, and one of the few records of which a copy can be found relates to the building of a city prison. At a council meeting in August, 1857, the erection of a prison, or calaboose, was ordered, the building to be as follows:

"Twelve feet square, eight feet in the clear, bottom sills to be eight inches square, two center joists above and below, the plank to be of oak, one and a half inches in thickness, the entire building to be double and nailed with eight penny nails, five nails to every six inches, square roof, to be shingled, and building to be set on eight pillars of stone."

The contract for the erection of this "calaboose" was let to Furguson Brothers for $90, and it was built upon ground leased from C. G. Brobst, at a rental of $5 per year. The specification providing for "five nails to every six inches" was doubtless intended to make it difficult for any prisoner confined in this bastile to use an auger or saw in cutting his way out.


During the twenty years following the incorporation of the town several additions were made, to-wit: Southwest Knoxville, June, 1855; Eldredge's addition, October, 1855; East Knoxville, March, 1856; North Knoxville, April, 1856; South Knoxville, May, 1856; Walter & Roach's addition, April, 1857; Hillis' addition, October, 1857; Jones & Hanks' addition, December, 1870; Northwest Knoxville, December, 1870; Jones' addition, January, 1871; George Henry's addition, May, 1872; T. J. Anderson's addition, April, 1873; and Matthews' addition, July, 1874.

From 1854 to 1860 Knoxville experienced a rapid increase in population. Then for a period of fifteen years the growth was more moderate. When the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad was completed to the town in 1875 another era of prosperity began, and during the next two years the following additions were laid out: Wright's, February, 1876; Bittenbender & Ayres', February, 1876; Matthews' new addition, February, 1876; Reno's, October, 1876; Baker & Jones', November, 1876. Among the improvements made during the year 1876 were the business blocks erected by I. H. Garretson, Weyers & Huffman, Welch, McMillan & Company, John Reaver and Hayward & Underhill; a $2,200 addition to the Tremont Hotel, and the opera house block of Ruffner, Neifert & Company. After a few years of this rapid growth the city settled down to a steady development and for the last twenty years there has been only a slight increase in the number of inhabitants.


Early in 1887 a franchise was granted to the Knoxville Electric Company and before the close of the year a plant was completed and placed in operation. A contract was made for the lighting of the streets and since then Knoxville has been as well lighted as any city of its size in the state. About the year 1898 the company installed a telephone exchange, and a few years later the plant was rebuilt and cable lines extended to all parts of the city. Late in the year 1914 the company was reincorporated with an increased capital stock as the Marion County Electric Company. Besides furnishing light and telephone service to Knoxville, this company operates exchanges at Pleasantville, Melcher, Attica and Lovilia and has direct connection with the Iowa Telephone Company for long distance communication to all the territory covered by that system.

In addition to the exchanges operated by the Knoxville company, there are several rural telephone companies in the county, some of which are owned by the Knoxville Electric Company and some are independent, but all are accessible through Knoxville.

The Knoxville Gas Company was organized about 1904 for the purpose of furnishing light to certain districts of the city and also for providing gas for fuel. This company lights a number of homes and the use of gas for cooking is constantly increasing.


In 1887 the people of Knoxville voted in favor of issuing bonds to establish a system of waterworks. White Breast Creek was made the source of supply and a pumping station was built on the banks of that stream about three miles west of the city. A large reservoir was built in the western part of the city, extending from Main to Robinson streets, a large steel standpipe erected, a filtering plant was installed and a pumping station was established in the city equal in capacity to the one at the White Breast. The pumps are run by electric power. About the beginning of the year 1913 the quality of the water became such that it was scarcely fit for domestic purposes and an agitation was started in favor of establishing a new system. M. I. Evinger, a hydraulic and sanitary engineer of Ames, Iowa, was employed by the city authorities to investigate the conditions and recommend a plan for improving the quality and increasing the supply. He made his report to the city council on April 8, 1913, and recommended a new pumping station near the Rousseau Bridge over the Des Moines River, about six and a half miles from Knoxville, and the drawing of 'a new supply of water from the gravel beds near the river.

Mr. Evinger's report was approved by the council and then the question of how the city was to pay for the new plant became an absorbing one. Over one thousand voters of the city signed a petition for a special election, to vote on the question of issuing bonds to the amount of $70,000 to pay for the new works. Women as well as men were given the privilege of voting on this question at a special election on Monday, September 8, 1913, and the bonds were authorized by a substantial majority, although $31,000 of the old waterworks bonds were still outstanding.

On August 11, 1914, a contract was made with the Commercial Construction Company of Kansas City, Missouri, for the construction of the new waterworks for $30,300, the city furnishing the pipe for the mains, the contract for which was awarded to the American Cast Iron Pipe Company, also of Kansas City, for $70,000, more or less, dependent upon the number of feet of pipe used. These contracts plus engineer's fees, etc., brought the total estimated cost up to $64,500. The following description of the new plant is taken from the Knoxville Journal of August 20, 1914:

"The new system will include a ten inch pipe line about six and one half miles long, two pumping plants, one at the river and one in
the city, both equipped with electrically driven pumps, and a reinforced concrete reservoir in the city with a capacity of 500,000 gallons. This reservoir is to be covered and divided into two compartments so that it can be kept in a thoroughly sanitary condition. It is estimated that the reservoir will hold a three days' supply of water."

It was the original intention to have the works completed by January I, 1915, but the hope was not realized. The Journal of December 31, 1914, says: "Although the ditch proper has been finished, the mains laid and connections all in, the foreman still holds a small force at the river end where the well is being sunk. That well is fifteen feet in diameter and is to be twenty five feet deep. The cement curbing, which is a foot in thickness, is to be built to a safe height above high water mark. At present the well is twenty feet deep and full of splendid water, which is coming in at such a rapid rate that a power pump throwing 750 gallons per minute has failed perceptibly to lower the surface of the accumulation. Another and perhaps a third pump will be attached in order to remove the water so that the additional five feet of depth may be attained."

The delay was caused principally by the big floods that occurred in September, soon after the work started, and by the severe cold weather that came in December. But the people of Knoxville may congratulate themselves that when the plant is placed in operation they will have an abundant supply of good water for all purposes.


Knoxville's first city hall was destroyed by fire early on Friday morning, November 25, 1887, together with all the municipal books and records, so that even the history of the building is lost. Soon after the fire, offices for the transaction of the city business were secured in the Ayres Building at a rental of $6 per month. The city offices were somewhat migratory for several years, when it was decided to erect a new city building.

J. E. Tusant & Son, to whom was awarded the contract for the new building, began excavating for the foundation on October 17, 1911. On February 29, 1912, the mayor's office was removed to the new city hall and the building was formally dedicated with appropriate ceremonies on the 7th of March. It is located on the west side of Third Street, between Main and Marion, and cost $11,300. The first floor is equipped for the use of the city fire department, the mayor's and clerk's offices and the council chamber occupying the second floor. The walls are of a dark, red brick, the building is heated by steam, and on the second floor is a fire proof vault for the preservation of records and documents.


The present sewer system was begun in 1905 by the construction of the Main Street sewer and a septic tank, for the disposal of sewage, the cost of the two improvements being nearly twenty seven thousand dollars. The next year the Fifth and Marion Street sewer was put in at a cost of $6,426; the Washington and Montgomery Street sewer was built in 1910 to at a cost of $7,291, and since then the Robinson, Pleasant and Pearl Street sewer has been added at a cost of $12,822. Altogether the city has a little over six miles of sewer mains, the total amount expended up to January 1, 1915, being $53,384.40. The sewers are built by special assessments against the property benefited by the improvement, and in every instance have added more than their cost to the selling price of the property. New lines are under contemplation and before many years Knoxville will have a complete sanitary system of taking care of all sewage.


In the northern part of the city is a beautiful little park, equal in size to about two city squares, the gift of W. T. Auld, of Lincoln Nebraska, to Knoxville, and named "Auld's Park." It is well shaded by a number of fine trees planted by the hand of Nature and carpeted with a natural blue grass sward. Since the ground was given to the city by Mr. Auld the park has been improved by the construction of walks, the introduction of rustic seats and swings and the planting of flower beds, etc., making a playground for the children and a resting place for grown people during the hot weather. The open space in the park is used for a tennis court and for the meetings of the Knoxville Chautauqua.


The first paved street in Knoxville was built under the resolution of August 9, 1909, of creosoted wooden blocks, and was completed the succeeding year. Since then other block, concrete and asphalt pavements have been laid so that the city has over three and a half miles of paved streets, which cost over one hundred and fifteen thousand dollars.

A fire department of fourteen men, provided with modern firefighting apparatus, furnishes protection against loss of property by fire. While this department is made up of volunteers in one sense of the term, the men are paid for attending fires and one man is always on duty at the city building ready to summon the others to attendan alarm. Fifty one public fire hydrants are placed at convenient intervals upon the 8 1/12 miles of water mains, from which water can be taken to extinguish fires of ordinary proportions in all parts of the city.

Knoxville has seven churches, three public school buildings, five banks, two weekly newspapers, a fine public library building, an opera house, three hotels, a number of well stocked stores handling all lines of merchandise, several restaurants, lodges of most of the leading secret and fraternal organizations, two lines of railroad, and ships more horses, hogs, cattle, sheep, wool and poultry than any town of its size in the state. The city has about thirty miles of cement sidewalk and a number of handsome residences.


On December 27, 1906, the Knoxville Commercial Club filed with the country recorder articles of incorporation, in which the objects of the club are stated to be: "To upbuild and to advance the general business and manufacturing interests; to induce, the investment of capital in new enterprises; to encourage trade and industry; to hold fairs, entertainments and celebrations of a public character in the City of Knoxville, Iowa, and for the purpose of carrying out such objects the corporation shall have power to sell and to convey real estate and other property."

The club was incorporated for a period of ten years, but without any capital stock, and the articles of association contained a provision that the indebtedness should never exceed $500. All citizens twenty one years of age or older were made eligible for membership. Although the organization has never accomplished all its founders hoped for, during the early years of its career it was the means of bringing about a more cordial relationship among the business men of the city, especially the members.


Knoxville was incorporated in 1854, but the names of the city officials prior to 1857 cannot be learned. In the following list of mayors those who served in that capacity prior to 1880 are taken from an old history of the county and those since 1887 have been taken from the city records. The destruction of the city hall by the fire of November 25, 1887, with all the municipal records, left a gap between the years 1880 and 1887 that has been filled by the recollections of old residents and city officials, and the names during that period may not be absolutely correct. Beginning, then, with the year 1857, the following served as chief executives, their term of office beginning with the year following each name:

E. G. Stanfield, 1857; H. D. Gibson, 1859; J. L. McCormack, 1864; E. G. Stanfield, 1865; N. J. Hodges, 1865 (to fill the unexpired term of Mayor Stanfield); B. F. Williams, 1866; W. B. Carruthers, 1868; W. E. Burns, 1869; E. W. McJunkin, 1870; C. B. Boydston, 1871; G. K. Hart, 1873; George W. Crozier, 1874; J. K. Casey, 1878; W. Clark, 1880; J. K. Casey, 1882; C. H. Robinson, 1884; I. H. Garretson, 1887; S. S. Pierce, 1889; Cambridge Culbertson, 1893; H. Wells (appointed in 1896 when Mayor Culbertson was made superintendent of the Industrial Home for the Blind and elected for a full term in 1897); I. H. Garretson, 1899; S. S. Pierce, 1901; W. P. Gibson, 1903; W. S. Bilby, 1905 (elected county attorney before the expiration of his term and Cambridge Culbertson was appointed to the vacancy); L. K. Butterfield, 1909; Cambridge Culbertson, 1911 (reelected in 1913).


At the election held in January, 1854, to decide the question of incorporation, sixty four votes were cast, indicating a population of not exceeding four hundred. The state census of 1875 shows a population of 1,699. In that year the railroad was completed to Knoxville, giving the city a stimulus, and in 188o the United States census reported 2,577 inhabitants. In 1900 the population was 3,131, and in 1910 it was 3,190, a gain of fifty nine during the decade. Since that time the growth of the citv has been steady and some of the best informed citizens estimate a population of four thousand when the census of 1915 is taken.

The increase in wealth has fully kept pace with the growth in other respects. In 1913 the property of the city was assessed for taxation at $1,880,560, and on January 1, 1915, the bonded indebtedness was $124,000, or more than fifteen dollars worth of property for each dollar of bonded debt

History of Marion County, Iowa
And its People
John W. Wright, Supervising Editor
W. A. Young, Associate
Vol II
The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co.
Chiago 1915

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