We’ll Be Abuildin’ Here
A Brief History of Early Plainfield, Iowa
By: Kenneth Orcutt
One evening, fortified with a notebook, I set forth to call upon Frank R. Boyd, now retired from the retail general merchandise business he conducted in this community for over fifty years; a man whom I guessed could tell me what I wanted to know.
Frank was reading the sport section of his daily paper when I found him, but he hastily put it aside when I stated the purpose of my visit. Bringing out a history of Bremer County he’d bought many years ago, he read several pertinent paragraphs to me. These, together with his amazing memory, carried me back to the days of stagecoaches, log cabins, old settlers, steam sawmills and ox teams.
An hour passed quickly and as I started to leave Frank advised me, “You’d better talk with Frank Churchill. He’s a little older than I am and can probably tell you a lot of the things I don’t know about.”
Churchill did tell me much that Boyd omitted and between the two of them I was able to correlate a brief history of Plainfield.
It seems, according to my notes, that along about the year 1854, a farmer in Wisconsin by the name of Tom Thomas hitched his ox team to the family covered wagon, climbed aboard and whistled, “Hyupp, aee.” (English translation- “Giddyap, right turn.”) Several goes later, after crossing the Mississippi into Iowa and finding the soil pretty much to his liking in the Cedar River Valley, he shouted, “Haw,” to the team, and to his mother, “We’ll be abuildin’ the house right here, maw.”
“Right here” happened to be a spot just a few feet northwest from where the present Methodist parsonage now stands in Plainfield.
And so, Tom Thomas staked out a forty-acre homestead claim and put up a log cabin to shelter his family and himself. For some reason, after a few years residence in Iowa, he became discontented, so he again loaded the old covered wagon and drove back to Wisconsin.
However, before Thomas left Iowa, he sold his forty acres to one George Kethcum who in turn sold part of it to Rebecca Folks.
Came the Fall of 1866. One day in October Rebecca was feeding her chickens when George shouted out of his home, “Becky- come on over. I’ve got a spell of talkin’ to do.”
Rebecca went over to George’s house and the two of them talked and argued for a couple hours. When they finished, they had agreed to subdivide their land into town lots and put them up for sale; Ketchum’s land lay west of what is now Main Street while Rebecca Folks had retained the part to the east. Bu this time several families wanted to build homes in the community and a short time later the Cedar Falls and Minnesota Railroad, now part of the Illinois Central System, was offering freight and passenger service.
E.J. Dean, who used to boast that he was a classmate of James G. Blaine, watched Plainfield grow for a year. Finally, he could stand it no longer. Knowing that there was money to be made in the sale of town lots and owning a piece of land adjoining Plainfield to the south, all lying east of Main Street. Dean subdivided his property and offered lots for sale. So enthusiastic did he become that he gave the Railroad Company $1000.00 and a site to build the depot in what he called Deanville.
By 1869 Plainfield was in the midst of a building boom. Many persons eagerly paid high prices for lots upon which to build their homes. Others enviously noted all the exchange of money, but no one was in a position to do much about it. No one except a fellow named Pike who owned a tract west of Dean’s.
Pike was a pretty shrewd businessman. Confidently expecting to extract many shekels from transient railroad passengers, he built a hotel across the street from the railway depot on his own land and subdivided the balance of his holdings into town lots.
For several years Pike prospered in his hostelry venture but with more and more business locating several blocks north of his, in Plainfield proper, he became discouraged and sold out to the Jackmans. John Roach, founder of the present Roach Grain and Milling enterprise, became the next owner. It has since been the beautiful home of Howard L. Roach.
For several years prior to the plotting of Plainfield, the farmers in the vicinity called for their mail at a post office in Syracuse, two miles to the north. Here it was distributed from a wayside inn where the stagecoaches stopped for the night. Public insistence brought the post office to Plainfield in 1866.
Incorporation of Plainfield, Deanville and Pike’s Addition into one town to be known as Plainfield came about in 1896 (October 17, 1895, to be exact). Many of the townspeople came from Plainfield, Illinois, hence the choice of names.
Again, public clamor played a heavy role. According to the old timers, a disastrous fire wiped out nearly the entire west side of the business district. Opinion was divided as to its origin. History states that a stove in the Henry Downs Hotel exploded one night. It was generally believed, however, that a certain Mrs. So and so, angered because her affections were spurned by a local swain, deliberately lit the fire for revenge. Enraged citizens demanded a fire department. In order to form one, incorporation of the village was necessary.
Life in Plainfield was much like any small community. Within a few years the burned business houses had been rebuilt. The population of between 300 and 350 remained constant. Farmers brought in their grain, livestock and produce during the work week. On Saturday night the wives and children came with their husbands; the wives to buy the groceries and visit with their friends and the children to buy ice cream cones and attend a show. Sundays saw many of the families worshipping in the Baptist or Methodist Church.
Yes, life in Plainfield was peaceful and the citizens prospered. But misfortune was again in store for many of them.
On a cold rainy morning in November 1943, the cry of fire brought several thousand persons in town. It is though that a faulty electric switch in the Grover Mabb café started the conflagration that destroyed nearly an entire business block on the east side of Main Street. The Tourist Café and Hotel operated by Mrs. Gertrude Smith, the Dinilli Barber Shop, the post office, the R.L. Cagley residence and William Gritzner apartments as well as the Mabb Café were reduced to ash heap within a couple hours.
Once more of the people demanded better fire protection. A fire truck would be a great help. But a fire truck would require city water. Petitions appeared requesting the bonding of the town for waterworks. A few days before election the Carl Ziehe home caught fire, but early discovery and speedy response of the volunteer fire department kept the home from being a total loss.
It is needless to state that the bond issue carried big. Architects were consulted as were engineers. Blueprints were drawn. Plainfield was finally to have a public waterworks system.
Shares were sold to the farmers in the surrounding territory for the purchase of a new fire truck. But the fire gods still frowned on Plainfield.
During a severe electrical storm in August 1944, a bolt of lightning struck the J. Roach Sons grain elevator. Even the fire departments from several nearby towns could not put out the fire that followed. The elevator together with the feed mixing plant and adjoining warehouse burned completely.
With all the tragedy, you might imagine that the people of Plainfield would lose heart and say, “What’s the use, we can’t win.”
But there is a never-say-die spirit that the citizens are proud of. Nothing can daunt them. The word quit is not in their vocabulary. And they have visible proof of it.
For today, out of the ashes that have barely cooled, a new Roach grain elevator towers nearly a hundred feet. The Ziehe family again lives in the home that was so nearly destroyed but is now completely repaired. The new fire station is almost ready for the new community owned fire truck. Within a few weeks the post office will be moved to a new building. The Theodore Hartman locker plant will be finished soon, as will the new creamery. Plans are drawn and construction will soon begin in the new Nuss and Waltemate Hatchery. Plainfield’s post war planning is well taken care of, for soon, other too will build.
And it’s all because the people around these parts came from the same kind of pioneer stock as did Tom Thomas, who, long time ago said, “We’ll be abuildin’ right here.”