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.

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/

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 hubbellapartments.com.



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.

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