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.

Historic Tour #7 – 3rd and Walnut

The following is a sampling of businesses that occupied the west side of 3rd between Walnut and Court in early Des Moines.

Amends image

Amends Meat Market was here.

From The Midwestern, vol I, no. 6, p. 25.

  • Phineas Casady’s Des Moines Savings Bank was  here, also.  It was founded in 1875 by P.M. and Simon Casady and C.H. and E.S. Gatch as Des Moines Bank.  It merged with Union Savings Bank in 1884 and the name was changed to Des Moines Savings Bank.
  • Benjamin Saylor had both his office and a residence here.  He was one of two first commissioners elected when Polk County was organized in 1846.

Additional fact: A fire took down a quarter square block edged by 3rd and Walnut on July 4, 1871, destroying several businesses.  The fire was later proved to be arson.

image of 1871 fire

Unknown source. Taken from historical tour.


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

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

Content also from the Des Moines Architectural and Historical Tour.

Historic Tour #6 – Jewett Typewriter Company


Jewett Typewriter Company from The Midwestern, vol. II, no. 10, p. 10, 1908.

At 212 3rd Street, was the Jewett Typewriter Company.  George Jewett financed the company which sold one of the first commercially successful typewriters, the Jewett typewriter.  Jewett typewriters were sold world wide and had their headquarters in a three story building on 3rd Street.  The building was built by the Des Moines Commercial Club, an early version of the Chamber of Commerce.  The Commercial Club raised $200,000 to build the building as an incentive to keep the Jewett Typewriter Company in Des Moines.  In 1912 the Jewett Typewriter company was purchased by the Underwood Typewriter Company and moved to Ohio.

Additional fun fact:  Fred and August Duesenberg, who later became the famous automobile builders and racers, were typewriter repairmen for the Jewett Company.  Have you heard the phrase, “That’s a duesey?”  Well, the Duesenbergs made such fine automobiles that they contributed their name to American slang.

Excerpt from:

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

Des Moines Historic Tour #5

James Savery image

James Savery from History of Des Moines and Polk County, Iowa by Johnson Brigham. Vol. 1, p. 49. S.J. Clarke: 1911.

James C. Savery, with his brothers Chester and George, purchased their first hotel in 1853 on the south side of Walnut close to the Western Stagecoach Depot on Third Street.

It cost $6 to ride the stagecoach down to Keokuk in the 1860’s.  Early travelers reported that for $6 the passengers were treated to unlimited swearing and were frequently called upon to assist in the passage when the stagecoach became mired in mud.

The Walnut area (3rd to 4th Street) encompassed many Des Moines Landmarks:

Graefe House image

Atlas of the State of Iowa, 1904.

  • Graefe House, above, Michael Kennedy’s “First Livery Stable in the City” (The Civic Center is now here)

Unknown source

  • The busy Exchange Block, above (built in 1850), and housed the city council and offices of doctors, lawyers, and other professionals
  • Green and Weare Banking House of 1855, which was under the supervision of Hoyt Sherman.
  • Carter, Hussey, and Curl, publishers, bookbinders, and stationers.


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

Content also from the Des Moines Architectural and Historical Tour.

%d bloggers like this: