Historical Roots of Webb

More Historical Roots: Marcus | Marathon | Webb

Then and Now
by Pearl Madson, January 1994

The earliest explorer of record, an Italian, labeled this southern part of Clay County, Iowa as “No place suitable for settlement.” Later acquired by the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase at four cents per acre, it was part of the new state of Iowa when it was admitted to the Union in 1846. Of the first recorded settlers crossing the vast open prairie, it was said “They went until they found a tree,” and so chose to live near the Little Sioux River, the passage way for the Indians who were here before them.

Some of the names found on record in the 1850’s: Oldfield, Gillette, Kindlespire, Gowen, Williams, McClay, Mills and Duroe. Nearest “amenities” listed as in 1856: Post Office at Peterson, 30 miles away; flour mill at Estherville, 35 miles, and railroad at Iowa Falls, 120 miles; best source of supplies and the nearest doctor were at fort Dodge. This 70-mile trip included a forty-mile stretch of open prairie unmarked by a house or even a tree. Winter trips were avoided if possible. Some attempts were fatal.

Much of the land was not desirable for farming, as it was dotted with sloughs and lakes abundant with fish and wildlife. Herdland Township was the apt title for the area which reached east to the County line and included Mud Lake and Pickerel Lake, when it was set off from Douglas in 1873. In 1889, Garfield Township became the entity set off from Herdland. Immediately southwest of the present site of Webb, the Big Slough “assumed the dignity of a lake.”

By 1899, a surprising number of well-established families had survived the initial shelters of dugouts and sod houses, and now resided in newly built wooden homes of basic design: two rooms upstairs and two downstairs. Many groves of trees were started on the homesteads. All conveyance was by horse-drawn vehicles, with perhaps a few ox-teams still in use. The farm horses were often ridden or hitched to buggies and sleighs, and of course “shank’s ponies,” one’s own feet, often did service.

Inside the homes, many sizes of kerosene lamps were big improvements over the tediously made candles or twists of cloth inserted in tallow. One-room schools were scattered over the countryside no closer together than two miles, and were the centers of social and church activities as well as readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic. Established area towns included: Marathon, Ayrshire, Ruthven, Spencer, Sioux Rapids and Peterson. Newell and Storm Lake were grain and livestock markets, though Fort Dodge was still the major basic source of supplies. W. C. Gannaway had the first store here on Church Street in a simple unpainted wooden building.


The Milwaukee Railroad planted a sign that read “Glenora” to the east of F. D. White’s drilled well and corral for his grazing cattle. The present Fritz home includes the original house he had also built there. One report states it was he who named the new town “Webb,” honoring his mother as that was her maiden name. The Postal Service had objected to Glenora because it was so much like Panora, already in existence. His uncle, Albert W. Boyden, had earlier laid claim to all the land east of the “little road called Church Street,” then filed “the original plat of Webb, Iowa” on November 2, 1899. A copy hangs in the Webb Public Library. the town almost doubled in size in 1900 when the five block Forrest Addition west of Church Street was filed for record. At that time, the first and only telephone was on a single wire coming from Marathon to the Drug Store.

There was a great surge of business establishments also: Two General Stores, Drug Store, Hardware, Creamery, Livery Stable, Barber shop, Harness shop, Hotel, Butcher Shop, Bank, Lumber Yards, and a Grain Elevator. Mail was simply left in the depot and people sorted their own until 1902 when the Post Office was established. There was also a doctor here in 1899, another in 1900 that stayed for six years. then Dr. E. a. Rust arrived and practiced continuously until his death in 1965. With the great influx from other countries, Swedish, Danish, Irish, German and Dutch were some of the languages spoken in Webb. Neither speech or absence of telephones were deterrents to Coffee Time, however. On neighborly lady simply waved her coffee pot out the door in invitation. The first house built after the town was recorded is still being used at Boyden and Third Avenue. Other additions to the town have included Welle’s Addition in 1920. The most recent was Brown and Hopkins Addition in 1957. It lies west of Church Street which remains in the place, an coincidentally, passes by both the Methodist and Baptist churches.

Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church was organized by the uniting of three Sunday Schools in the area in 1893. After the Baptist group that met at Mud Lake School disbanded in favor of a church in Webb, the First Baptist Church was organized and the building constructed in 1900. Until then, both churches met for services in the one-room school building, alternating morning and afternoon services. Now they followed the same pattern in the new church sessions. The Methodist Church building was begun in October 1902 and in spite of frozen crops that fall, followed by too much rain to plant the next spring, dedication of the new wooden building was achieved with the entire indebtedness taken care of on June 7, 1903. Trinity Lutheran Church was also established in Webb in 1942 and regular services held into 1990.

Much of the best farm land here was once under water. In 1912, a major undertaking, draining the Big Slough, was begun. A huge dredging machine, many extra tillers, as well as local men and their teams, helped change the face of the country and the economy as well. Suddenly in 1916, the job was finished. Farmers also did much to improve the quality of their livestock. Louthan and Crow were two names known for their fine hogs.

Webb continued to grow rapidly, but disaster struck in the fall of 1913 when fire destroyed the east block of business places. Come the nxt spring, the west block was ravaged. This time, brick was used in some of the rebuilding.

Interesting books of reference include A History of Clay County, Iowa by W. C. Gilbreath in 1899, and Steele and Addison’s 1909 History of Clay County. Both contain many biographies of early settlers. In Webb, one who stands out was J. L. Addington, the publisher of the Webb Record newspaper from 1900 until his death in 1926. He is described as “publisher, meeter of trains, planter of trees, counselor to young people.” Grieve, Burkhart, Lohof, Cook, Matthews, Naclay, Crow, Sanderson, Speed, Streeter, Marker, Bittinger, Strruck, Hart, Peelgren, Templeman, and Morris.

One-room schools were scattered over the countryside at least two miles apart. Most included first through eight grades, and in the words of one who taught such a school: “each with one unmarried teacher who was expected to start the winter fires each morning, keep the place clean, deal with the full-grown pupils who came to classes only in winter months, board in turn with families of her district, ad in all things, live up to strict puritanical rules laid down by the school board. Salaries ranged up to $25.00 per month.”

The one-room school serving Webb became too small and some classes were held in upstairs rooms on Main Street until the four-room building was built in 1903. The school had developed from eight to ten grades when the two-story building was built in 1916-1917. Later, under the tutelage of Jean Turner, as superintendent, the Webb School became a fully accredited 12-grade institution. Miss Turner continued to be a resident in the community as Mrs. John Grieve.

In the 1930’s, the typical farm family was self-sufficient: They had their milk cows, poultry for eggs and meat, a pen of hogs, pasture and hay. Corn cobs and wood were common fuels for cooking and some coal was used for heating. Horses supplied all power in the fields. One of the improvements that helped everyone during that era was the grading and graveling of most of the dirt-surfaced “farm roads” that marked off the 620-acre sections of farmland into neat squares. In turn, most farmsteads consisted of 90 to 350 acres of land.

Wednesday and Saturday were “town nights” when farm people brought their cream and eggs to town to trade for food and supplies, and townspeople joined in the visiting. Their original gazebo had disappeared from Main Street, but the Webb Band occasionally entertained from the movable stage pulled into the center of Main Street. Yearly traveling “Toby” tent plays came to town for a week or so, but local talent was revealed in weekly programs. Once the main feature was a wedding! A few years later, long benches placed west of the lumber yard were the seats for free movies sponsored by the merchants once a week.

The consolidation of schools, as well as farms, has continued to the present. In 1994, the square sections of farm land are still marked off by the miles of graveled roads, but many are barren of buildings. There are still many “family farms,” though they may often number their acres in the 1000’s. By sharing implements and expertise, costs and labor, several second and third generation family members work together and separately, as previous sections of neighbors used to do. Each year brings new ideas and machines to decrease monotony and increase return for labor, but demand more funds. Planting and harvesting seasons still demand round-the-clock activity at times. Weather is still the director. In recent years, Rural Water systems have alleviated the necessity for drilling new wells on each farm. Small towns such as Webb are also subscribers to the service.

Sections of land barren of inhabitants naturally led to decreased school attendance. With pressure to provide more and more varied curriculums and increasing salaries for teachers, neither the teachers nor the money is there to operate. Webb School in turn absorbed Garfield Consolidated and part of Corner Community. Schools, later combined with Gillette Grove, then absorbed Dickens to become South Clay Community School at Gillette Grove. The newer gymnasium with stage and lunch room at Webb continued to be used for programs and basketball. However, the end of the school year in May 1993 saw the final graduation services for high school students at South Clay.

The Baptist and Methodist churches continue their services in their respective modern one-story buildings on Church Street. The Webb First Responders have answered many emergencies in town and country, as have the Volunteers of the Webb Fire Department. By dint of long hours and dedication to their enterprises, merchants on Webb Main Street, together with the interest and support of town and country people, continue to make Webb a good place to come home to.