By ROGER AEGERTER
JEFFERSON, Iowa, April 8, 2020 — There is a group of women in Jefferson, “Why Not Us,” who are coming together to bring the business “Angie’s Tea Garden” back to life. The Centennial Block building, which houses or did house the Tea Garden on the northwest corner of the Greene County Courthouse square, is now an empty shell waiting for its new life.
The business was destroyed in early February, 2019, when water pipes in a vacant upstairs apartment froze and dumped thousands of gallons of water through the structure.
I initially thought it would be interesting to explore the nine lives of this building, which was built in 1876. The research of businesses and owners of Centennial Block led me to a history of all businesses in Jefferson around the beginning of 1876. So this is a story about Jefferson in that year, when the population was a little over 1,500.
Jefferson was laid out in 1854 on 160 acres purchased with money borrowed by the newly formed Greene County from Fort Des Moines banker Hoyt Sherman. The initial loan was $200. The original name was New Jefferson. There was already a Jefferson near Dubuque, so the addition of “New” was done at the request of the U.S. Post Office. Soon the post office decided that New Jefferson could become just Jefferson. Their reasoning was that New Jefferson was putting a lot more effort into becoming a prosperous community.
The town had a public square and the first courthouse was built in 1856. Commercial lots around the square were sold for $10, with one lot on the southeast corner going for $60.
The purchase of at least one prized lot around the square was actually decided by a wrestling match between County Judge William Phillips and the newly-appointed County Clerk Benjamin F. Robinson. The judge threw the clerk on his back and chose the corner lot. (It turned out to be swampy and not a very good lot at all!)
In 1876, the Centennial Block building became the costliest structure ever built in the town. It was 80 feet long, 22 feet wide, and 30 feet high. The cost was $3,500.
As I was researching the Centennial Block building in the January 22, 1876, Jefferson Bee newspaper, and that edition gave me a good glimpse of what the 20-year-old town what was like.
Back then almost 150 years ago, the Jefferson business environment was thriving.
Jefferson had four churches, with total congregations of 400 members. The public school had 300 students. (About this time there were 14,000 country schools in Iowa, I am not sure how many of these schools were around Jefferson.) There was also a Jefferson Academy, with approximately 60 pupils, that was started by the Presbyterian Church.
There was a list of eight “good” barns, no definition of good. There are several flour mill historical markers around the county now, but in 1876 there were only the Eureka Mill and Jefferson Mill in the immediate area along the “Coon” River, as it was called.
There were several secret societies: Lodge of Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons; Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, and the Lodge of Odd Fellows. There is still a Masons Lodge in Jefferson located on the west side of the square, and the Odd Fellows Lodge last known location was in the new Forge building.
Following is a list of 1876 businesses in Jefferson, with most descriptions and addresses indicating that they were generally in the present-day area of the square:
Attorneys — three firms and two individuals.
Two banks – Greene County and City.
Two broom makers, one by the depot and one on the north city limits.
Two bakers, north side and west side.
Three blacksmiths, on the southeast and southwest corners of the square.
Six boot and shoe stores, all near the square.
Two cigar makers.
Five candy confectionary stores.
Five dry goods stores.
Two hardware stores.
Four hotels – Revere House, Mansion House, Massasoit House and, near the depot, Western House.
Two livery stables.
Two millinery hat shops – and later there were four active millineries in Jefferson.
Four dressmakers, two “Miss” and two “Mrs.”
Three real estate agencies.
Seven medical service providers, all men, and two dentists.
There were no furniture stores. You had to order all furniture out of a catalog. Later on it was customary for funeral parlors to deal in furniture.
There was only one restaurant.
There was a traveling salesman in town who sold tin ware.
Farm machinery was generally sold through the hardware stores.
There was one lime dealer.
Three carpet businesses.
Two merchant tailors. One by the name of George Bleakney, boasted of his accomplished hands with the tape and scissors. A client was quoted in the paper saying, “He makes ’um fit every time!”
There was only one grain buyer in the area, and three hog buyers.
Two coal dealers competed, with coal bring $5 per ton at that time.
The town had one harness & saddle maker.
There were two grain elevators, serving farmers who grew lots of oats and wheat.
There were ads from a salesman offering musical instruments, basically pianos and organs.
N.G. Cook was the only photographer.
Lumber dealers, Yeager & Co. and Nowlin Brothers, reportedly were selling most of their lumber for developments in Guthrie and Calhoun Counties.
A barbed wire dealer indicated much of their business was putting new barbs on old wire strands.
There was a plow maker.
And two insurance companies.
This time of 1876 in Iowa was a time of expansion. Immigrants were moving west and had the expertise and willingness to start new businesses wherever they were needed. Jefferson was a hub of activity in the area, thus this is where businesses set up.
In 1876 and for years after, the business district was at least two blocks wide in all directions from the courthouse square. I am sure some of these businesses were not there at the same time the following year, but there were probably some new ones, too.
Now, having shared this glimpse of early Jefferson, I’ll get busy completing my research for a detailed examination of the Centennial Block building, which is what I started out to do before I got caught up reading about the whole town back then.
Roger Aegerter, the author of this column, is executive director of the Greene County Iowa Historical Society. You can comment on this column in the space below here, or you can write directly to the author by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.