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

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,

Then and now

Byron Henry must have been feeling quite prosperous in 1918 when he moved from 1234 9th Street to 4995 Country Club Boulevard, which at that time was one of only a handful of houses in the area. He had joined Phillip Schmitt’s furniture company in 1890, and in 1903 the business moved into their new factory on Southwest 8th and Elm. It grew rapidly to eventually include not only the already successful mattress factory, but upholstering and woodworking shops, shipping and warehouse space and retail furniture sales. In 1942, it became a manufacturer of Sealy mattresses. Sealy vacated the premises when they sold it in 1989, and the building is now home to Riverpoint Lofts. If you look closely at the picture of the lofts, you can still make out “Schmitt & Henry Manufacturing” at the top of the building.

Sawyer and Watrous was a Des Moines architectural firm formed in 1905 and incorporated in 1929 by Ralph E. Sawyer and Charles A. Watrous (son of Charles L. Watrous, for whom Watrous Avenue is named). From The Midwestern of October 1908 comes this passage – “Mr. Sawyer is an artist and a poet in his line as well as a highly and thoroughly trained architect. He is also a “Tech” graduate. His standing among Eastern architects is of the very highest and his coming to Iowa means much for the future building in the state. Mr. Watrous is an enthusiast in regard to the possibilities for Des Moines. He is also anxious to promote the use of reinforced concrete for building purposes. This firm will have the landscape work also in charge, maintaining that the house should fit into the surroundings… Des Moines is certainly fortunate in adding them to its list of builders.” Mr. Watrous died in 1940 and Mr. Sawyer in 1947.

Byron Henry lived in the house until his death in 1947.

This picture is from the Chamber of Commerce publication, Des Moines, February 1917…


…and this current photograph is from the Polk County Assessor’s website.


This photo is from



Des Moines Register, April 6, 2004.

Des Moines Register, January 22, 1997.

Des Moines, February 1917.

The Midwestern, October 1908.

Iowa’s historic architects: A biographical dictionary by Wesley Shank, University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Then and now


A picture of the Register and Tribune building from the April, 1916 edition of Des Moines, published by the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce. The caption says, “This is the new 13-story building of The Des Moines Register and Tribune, now under construction on Locust Street near Seventh. It is one of the big Improvement features of Des Moines for 1916.”


The same building, vacated last week by the newspaper company…


…and their new home at 400 Locust Street.

(photographs are from the Polk County Assessor’s website)

When Des Moines was in Keokuk County…


Iowa Territory – December 28, 1837 The Newberry Library

Were your ancestors so amazing that they lived in two different states in the same house? Probably not, it’s more likely the culprit of changing land boundaries.

Between 1836 and 1855 most all 99 Iowa counties were officially formed. Many of these county boundaries changed during that time. If your ancestors were some of the first to the area, their records may be in more counties than you think. In 1836, Dubuque County made up two-thirds of the state and included what would ultimately become Polk County.

Iowa Quick History

1803 – Iowa Territory became part of the U.S. via the Louisiana Purchase

1830s – First settlements appear in Iowa Territory

1846 – Iowa became a state

1851 – City of Des Moines incorporated

1860 – Almost entire state settled and farmed

While conducting genealogy research, it can be very helpful to also conduct some local history research to get a feel for the time and place where your ancestors lived. If you find reference to your ancestor being born near Baker’s Field or Pratt’s Valley, don’t assume those were towns. They could have merely been areas commonly referred to after the closest landowners Mr. Baker or Mr. Pratt. Many townships, cities, and counties changed names several times over the years.

An excellent genealogical resource to trace county and state boundaries is the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries interactive map, sponsored by The Newberry Library. It can help you better understand changing historical county boundaries and offers a map of land boundaries based on date. It is interesting to see the progression of the westward expansion over time.

Other tools that can you help you narrow down places your ancestors lived: Land & Property Records, Census Records, Plat Maps, City Directories, place histories, and Google Earth.



Atlas of Historical Boundaries

Bureau of Land Management Database

Iowa Ghost Towns

DMPL Books & Resources:

Genealogy Books at DMPL

Heritage Quest (Census Records & more)

W. W. Hixon & Co. Plat Book of the State of Iowa.Rockford, IL: W. W. Hixon & Co, 1933. (Ask for it at the Central Reference Desk)

Des Moines City Directories – 1866 to present

Then and now


The older picture is from a Des Moines Chamber of Commerce publication titled, aptly, Des Moines, from May of 1920. The newer picture of the same building is from the Polk County Assessor’s website.

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