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The following in reference to the early history of Monticello is largely compiled from the writings of John Blanchard, editor of the Monticello Express, and from the "History of the City," written by M. M. Moulton, Mayor of Monticello for the year 1869, published the same year by G. W. Hunt, editor of the Express at that time.
The fall of the year 1836, forty-three years ago, Daniel Varvel and William Clark made the first settlement upon the present site of Monticello. Young and hopeful, they had pushed far away from the settlements to the outer verge of civilization, to make their fortunes and found for themselves new homes.
The scene spread out before the sturdy pioneers was one of surpassing loveliness. It was that of a fertile wilderness, instinct with beauty and pregnant with promise. The wide prairies "stretching in airy undulations far away," their sunny ridges and fertile slopes glowing beneath the brilliancy of the autumn sky, the beautiful Maquoketa and the smaller, but not less beautiful Kitty Creek, gliding beneath the overshadowing bluffs, and bordered with forests, upon the foliage of which the early frosts had spilled their golden stain. It was as the Garden of Eden lapsed into primeval wilderness and solitude, with no man to till the soil. Those were among the times of frontier life that characterized the settlement of this vast region between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Those times that tried men's souls are, for the most part, passed away. The trail of the Indian no longer marks the native prairie, and the smoke of the wigwam is no more seen along our bluffs. No more will the twang of the bow-string or the crack of the rifle startle the solitude of the wilderness; for a new race and a greater civilization have come in. We question if it entered into the anticipations of the pioneers, Varvel and Clark, that before they passed the prime of life, they would see spring up in that primitive wilderness a flourishing little city, with busy streets, imposing business blocks, elegant private residences, railroads, telegraph, mills, and all the elements and evidences of an enterprising and growing community.
By the time the winter had set in, Varvel and Clark were comfortably lodged for the season in a log cabin, prepared to bid defiance to tempest and frost, to savage and wild beasts. The entire winter was spent in lonely and monotonous seclusion; but as both were experienced and ardent hunters, and game plentiful, it is to be presumed that their situation was not without its compensation. We venture to say they were not likely to forget their first winter's experience in what is now the rich and flourishing county of Jones, then an inhospitable and wild region.
Mr. Varvel was a native of the State of Kentucky, and Mr. Clark of Ohio. Both men worked for some time in the lead mines in the vicinity of Dubuque before locating here. Early in the following spring, 1837, Richard South settled here, his wife, who accompanied him, being the first woman who came to soften the rude hardships of frontier life with domestic comfort and home-feeling that only woman's gentle presence can bestow.
During the summer following, T. J. Peak, B. Beardsley, James McLaughlin and Thomas Galligan moved hitherward, settling in this vicinity. The first breaking was done this year, Mr. Varvel being the first man to upturn the virgin soil of the rich prairie land in this section.
During the summer of 1838, T. J. Peak was married to Miss Rebecca M. Beardsley, this being the first marriage solemnized in the young colony, and the first in the county. In that early day, circumstances and conditions were far from favorable to those who would a-marrying go. Obstacles were to be overcome, such as the devotees at the shrine of Hymen, in these later times of easy marriages-and equally easy divorces—little dream of. In this case, the ardent bridegroom was compelled to journey to Sugar Creek, in Cedar County, a distance of sixty-five miles, to procure a license. Mr. Peak is an honored citizen of Monticello still, and both he and his excellent wife now rejoice in the results of their early labors.
On the 7th of December, 1838, a preliminary meeting was held at the house of Barrett Whittemore, of Bowen's Prairie, to consider the best method of securing a regular county organization. The object of the meeting was not, however, accomplished until the 24th of January, 1839.
In the same year, 1839, occurred a noteworthy episode in the history of the settlement, or, as Artemus Ward would have said, "two episodes." We refer to the birth of twins in the family of Mr. Richard South, already mentioned. The children were of opposite sexes, healthy and promising, and their advent was considered, under all circumstances, a happy omen, auguring a rapid growth and gratifying prosperity for the little colony. In this year, also, the first contract for carrying the mail between Dubuque and Iowa City, via Monticello, was secured by Hon. Ansel Briggs, who afterward became the first Governor of Iowa upon its admission to the sisterhood of States. By this route, settlers occasionally received intelligence from the outside world, but the place had not yet attained the distinction of a post office, and the mail was distributed directly from the pocket of the carrier.
In the year 1840, Daniel Varvel was married to Margaret E. Beardsley. This was after the organization of the county. Near the same time, Edmund Booth was married to Miss Mary A. Walworth. There were but three marriages in the county during the year, the third being that of a Mr. Dawson.
The first post office was established here in 1841, and William Clark was appointed Postmaster. Monticello was particularly favored in the matter of mail facilities, considering its tender age, there being a weekly mail from Dubuque to Iowa City, the latter at the time the capital of the Territory of Iowa. The seat of government was located there in 1839, by the commissioners appointed by the Territorial Legislature to make the selection. It was in 1841, that Mr. James Skelly moved into the settlement. During the year 1839, the famous highway known as the "military road," was surveyed, built and bridged, and put into excellent condition, entirely at the expense of the national Government. (The completion of the work took one or two years.) During the year 1844, Frink & Walker, the great stage firm, put on a four-horse daily coach between Dubuque and Iowa City. In the year 1849, the first doctor, W. B. Selder, of Indiana, came and settled in Monticello. The first schoolhouse was erected in the year 1849, the lumber being hauled from Dubuque, and the house built by five of the leading citizens, to wit: Daniel Varvel, John Stevenson, Joseph Clark, Dr. W. B. Selder and George Gassett. Of these, Stevenson and Gassett are dead, Dr. Selder lives at Webster City, and Daniel Varvel lives in Woodbury County, Iowa. The first blacksmith-shop was started in 1852, by a Mr. Dunlap. From that date to 1854, the settlement grew apace. Men of intelligent foresight and enterprise were added to the rapidly increasing population. The county, which, in the year 1838, had but 241 inhabitants, in 1854 numbered 6,075. In the year 1853, Monticello may be said to have begun its existence as a separate and distant community, though previous to this time, it had become a village of some note and considerable promise. The credit of organizing, i. e., first platting the village into town lots, laying off streets, etc., belongs to G. H. Walworth and Daniel Varvel.
The village at the time of which we write, was located along the military road, considerably east of the site at present occupied by the business portion. D. S. Dewey moved to Monticello from Waukegan, Ill., this year, and commenced the erection of a dam and saw-mill, adjoining the site now occupied by the East Monticello Grist-Mills. This year, also A. Holston built the Monticello House, and John W. Moore opened a small store. The original plat contained sixty-three lots, Mr. James Finton, now deceased, becoming the purchaser of Lot No. 1. The price of lots at the time was but a small portion of what is now asked and received. During the year 1855, T. C. West erected a building for the sale of dry goods, groceries, and such general merchandise as is required in a country store. In the summer of the same year, John Tabor was made the first Justice of the Peace, he receiving his commission from the County Judge. In this year, also, Dewey's saw-mill was burned. In 1856, D. C. Quimby was appointed the first Notary Public. In 1857, the first wagon-shop was started by Frank Reiger. Changes were going on continually and the town was rapidly growing in importance and repute. The year 1858 was one of the most memorable in the history of the embryo city. It was during this year that the question of building the Dubuque & South Western Railroad was first brought before the enterprising, wide-awake, and far-seeing business men, to whose industry and intelligent forethought Monticello owes much of its present prosperity and importance. The most liberal and substantial support was accorded the important project, and through the energy and spirit of the people along the route through the county, it was pushed actively forward, so that the work was actually begun in the same year in which the enterprise was first suggested to the people. As will be readily supposed, the inauguration of such an enterprise, and the sure prospect of the speedy opening of a public thoroughfare of such inestimable value and importance gave a wonderful impetus to the town. Immediately, a new addition to the town was surveyed and platted, called the Railroad Addition. Lots were taken with astonishing rapidity and at figures largely in advance of former prices. New buildings were erected in all directions; a lumber-yard was started by J. L. Davenport; work was begun upon East Monticello Flouring-Mills, by Mr. Dewey, already mentioned; the township was organized into a school district, under the school law of the State; Monticello Lodge, No. 117, I.O.O.F., was instituted; activity was the order, "go-ahead" the watchword, pride in the town and perfect faith in its future, the prevailing sentiment of the day.
The year 1859 was signalized by the completion of the railroad to this point. Trains, however, did not commence to run regularly across the bridge until the next year, the first freight being delivered in the month of January, 1860, in the shape of several car loads of lumber. This event was rendered additionally noteworthy by the arrival of a class of emigrants whose introduction could very easily have been dispensed with. We refer to the rats which were brought from Dubuque in those freight cars, the first of that long-tailed, troublesome species of the genus "varmint" ever seen in Monticello. The main part of the old school building was erected that year. Fred Grassmeyer started the first tin-shop in the basement of a dwelling-house on Main street, Peak & Hogg opened a dry-goods store west of the railroad and near the depot. The first grain warehouse was erected this year by E. B. Kinsella & Bro. C. E. Wales also came on and opened a dry-goods store in company with William Merriam. In August of this year, the first attorney, A. J. Monroe, Esq., settled in Monticello. He is now City Attorney.
The prosperity of the town was now assured—changes were frequent and the population rapidly increasing. In 1864, Bradstreet's Addition was laid out and platted, July 7, with fifty-nine lots; Turck's Addition, platted October 6, with forty-six lots. During this year, M. M. Moulton built the first exclusively brick building, 503 First street. In 1866, Varvel's Addition was platted, with twenty-eight lots, making in all 275 lots in the city.
On the 17th of September, 1867, Monticello was incorporated as a city, under the general incorporation laws of the State.
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