Local History Blog has Moved

The local history blog is now a part of the Des Moines Public Library Virtual Library.  It can be found here with our other blogs.

Veterans Day Every Day…


In honor of Veterans Day and every day we remember all the lives that have been lost and affected by war. Nearly every family in the U.S. was affected by WWI. Many soldiers who died during WWI were memorialized by having buildings, parks, bridges, and other landmarks named for them.

Once such soldier in Iowa was Merle Hay, he was the first Iowan and one of the first Americans killed in World War I. He was part of Company F, 16th Infantry Regiment, and 1st Infantry Division. He fought in the trenches in Lorraine, France. On November 3, 1917, German troops raided the trench where Hay was, he and two other servicemen were killed in the battle.

A familiar street in Des Moines bears his name, along with a cemetery, a mall, and many other businesses today.

The American Legion in my hometown was named for my great-great uncle, the first soldier to perish from that town. Another great-great uncle in my family wrote letters to his family in Iowa while stationed in France. Those letters were published in the local newspaper which I stumbled upon while researching other family information. I was able to read the actual letters he wrote that I would have never known existed otherwise.

Newspapers are an excellent source of daily life information of family members. The war was well documented through newspapers; most every town had at least one. Newspapers listed soldiers that were drafted, where they were stationed for boot camp, and when they were deployed and discharged. Many cities held parades when soldiers returned, including pictures.

The next time you are driving though small town Iowa, look to see who the buildings are named for. It will remind you of all those who gave their lives for our country.

DMPL Books & Resources:

Haulsee, W.M. Soldiers of the Great War. Vols 1-3. Soldiers Record Publishing Association, 1920.

Or try a Catalog Search for the following: WWI, WWII, Iraq, etc.

Newspapers on Microfilm: Des Moines Register & Des Moines Tribune Index

Other Resources:

Iowa State Historical Society Library: Small Town Iowa Newspapers (various cities and years available)

Iowa Military Museum

Iowa Pathways – Information about Merle Hay


National Gravesite Locator

What’s up with Beggars’ Night?

candy pumpkinNewcomers to the Des Moines area are often surprised to find that local children go out trick-or-treating on October 30, not on Halloween night, October 31, as most of the country does. How did this tradition get started? An article in The Des Moines Register on October 28, 1997, says “Blame World War II.” as well as rowdy youths in the early history of Des Moines. According to this article and other sources, Beggars’ Night was created in 1938 by the Des Moines Playground Commission (later the Parks and Recreation Department) because Halloween night had become a night of vandalism and destructive “tricks” such as setting fires and breaking windows.

Kathryn Krieg, director of recreation for the commission, in 1938 began a campaign to encourage less violent forms of Halloween fun. She declared Beggars’ Night to be October 30 in Des Moines, and further required that children would only receive their treat after earning it by performing a trick or telling a riddle. This too is the opposite of the rest of the country, which traditionally provides the treat in order to avoid being tricked!

A second theory is that World War II was the genesis of the tricks before treats tradition. An October 1942 Des Moines Register article encouraged children not to waste soap, let air out from tires, or “interrupt the sleep of many a war worker” with constantly ringing doorbells. In addition, they were encouraged to go door-to-door and shout “Tricks for Eats!” Presumably, children could aid the war effort by working for their candy.

So this year, as always, Beggars’ Night in Des Moines and some surrounding communities will be observed on October 30 from 6:00 to 8:00 PM. Newcomers, be ready!

The Des Moines Register, October 28, 1997.
The Des Moines Register, October 26, 2000.

First Fire Engine in Des Moines

General Crocker Steamer

General Crocker Steamer

In the summer of 1869 the first fire engine arrived in Des Moines:  It was named the General Crocker Steamer in honor of General Marcellus Crocker, beloved Des Moines lawyer who died at the end of the Civil War.  The steamer was financed by the Hawkeye Insurance Company, which only fought fires carrying the insurance company plaque on the building.  The organization of a paid city fire department didn’t occur until March of 1882.


Brigham, Johnson. Des Moines: The Pioneer of Municipal Progress and Reform of the Middle West Together with the History of Polk County, Iowa. . . vol. 1.  Chicago:  S.J. Clarke, 1911.

Content also from the Des Moines Architectural and Historical Tour.

Then and Now – Court Avenue


From the Des Moines Historical Tour (DMPL). Date unknown.


Sherman Block and F.M. Hubbell – Historic Tour #8

Sherman Block image

From Des Moines: The Pioneer of Municipal Progress, vol I, opp. p. 58.

On the northeast corner of 3rd and Court was the Sherman Block, built in 1855 by Hoyt Sherman.  B.F. Allen was a banker here and it was also the first home of Equitable of Iowa.  Equitable was founded by F.M. Hubbell who arrived in Des Moines on May 7, 1855, with $3 in his pocket.  His father demanded he give the money back to him so he could buy land in Dallas County.  Young Hubbell walked the streets until he found a job as a clerk in the land office with Phineas Casady.

Image, F.M. Hubbell

In the ensuing years, Hubbell invested in land, narrow gauge railroads, water companies, and most significantly, insurance.  Sometime in the 1860’s a New York insurance salesman called on Hubbell to sell him a life insurance policy for $25,000.  Hubbell was curious about where the company would invest his premiums. The salesman told him that his premiums would earn a guaranteed  four percent return, but that the company reinvested the money at 10 percent.  They New York based life insurance company was also required by New York law to invest its money within 50 miles of the home office.  Hubbell decided to form his own insurance company with the idea that the premiums would be invested in Iowa, and particularly Iowa farmland.  He and other investors created Equitable Life Insurance Company of Iowa.  By 1920, his family owned the company.  It stayed in the family until 1997 when it was sold to ING.


Hunter, Dan.  Des Moines: Confluence of People and Resources.  1982:  Public Library of Des Moines.

William B. Friedricks. “Hubbell, Frederick Marion.”  American National Biography Online. October 2008 Update.

Content also from the Des Moines Architectural and Historical Tour.

2013 Iowa State Fair


  • The first state fair was held in Fairfield, Iowa, in 1854.  Since then it has been held in Muscatine, Oskaloosa, Iowa City, Dubuque, Burlington, Clinton, Keokuk, and Cedar Rapids.
  • In 1879, the state fair found its permanent home in Des Moines.
  • Admission to the 1854 fair was 25 cents.
  • Fairgrounds take up 445 acres, of which 160 is campgrounds
  • Attendance in 1854 was 8,500.  The largest fair attendance was in 2008 at 1,109,150.
  • First butter cow was sculpted in 1911.
  • Food on a Stick –  59 foods on a stick are available, including a fried stick of butter.  I think you can get toppings.   Do you have a favorite?
  • There are more than 45  contests this year, including best mullet, rubber chicken throwing, a checkers tournament, benchpress/deadlift contest, cow chip throwing, beard growing, and mutton bustin’ (safety gear provided for this event).  See them all here.


The Iowa State Fair by Earle D. Ross, republished in The Palimpsest, July 1954.

Historical Highlights of the Iowa State Fair by Marion Lucas, 2010.

Iowa State Fair, http://www.iowastatefair.org/

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