Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Appanoose County Iowa

Rolling west through Iowa toward Omaha on Iowa Hwy. 2, we came to Appanoose County where we made our first stops for photos…

The County Seat for Appanoose County is located in Centerville Iowa.  This neo-classical limestone structure is the 3rd courthouse for the county, with construction being completed back in 1904.   Construction costs were $69,900.  According to an entry in Wikipedia, “the second courthouse burned down to the first floor during an explosive Fourth of July fireworks demonstration”. 

Appanoose County was named for the Meskwaki (aka Fox) Chief Appanoose, who did not engage in the Black Hawk War in Iowa and Illinois, instead advocating peace. (I borrowed this image from Wikipedia) The Fox/Meskwaki Indians at one time occupied much of what are now the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa. 

In 1851 the Iowa state legislature passed an unusual act to allow the Fox to buy land and stay in the state.  The Federal Government had ‘persuaded’ the Sauk and Meskwaki to sell all their claims to land in Iowa in a treaty of October 1842.  In 1857, the Meskwaki purchased their first 80 acres in Tama County.  Iowa’s governor had to hold the land in trust as Native Americans were not recognized as citizens who could own land.

In World War II, Meskwaki men enlisted in the US Army with several serving as code talkers, along with Navajo and other speakers of uncommon languages.  Meskwaki men used their language to keep Allied communications secret in actions against the Germans in North Africa. A total of 27 Meskwaki men, then 16% of the Meskwaki population in Iowa, enlisted together in the U.S. Army in January 1941.  Today the Meskwaki Settlement in Tama County maintains a casino, tribal schools, tribal courts, tribal police and a public works department.

But I digress…

The courthouse square in Centerville is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  I love the look of the Continental Hotel with its old windows on the first floor facing the square.  As you might notice, this hotel was built in 1893.  It has been refurbished and updated and it’s still open for business thanks to a local entrepreneur.  Executive suites are available for $129.00 per night with standard rooms costing less.  To learn more, go to


·       Coal was king in Appanoose County for many years.  The first mine opened in 1857.  Mining in the county peaked in 1917.  The largest mine alone employed between 130 – 150 miners.  Over 400 mines operated and closed over the years.  The last mine closed in 1971.

·       In 1923, the Klu Klux Klan basically took over the area.  They spread fear throughout the area but in 1925, voters brought in a new administration that threw them out. 

·       During prohibition, Centerville and Appanoose County was a hotbed for illegal stills and liquor production.  Many of the immigrants were used to a glass of wine or spirits back in their home country.  Bootlegging became a way of life and the area was rumored to be the haunt of gangs from St. Louis, Kansas City and Chicago.

·       Fred 'Killer' Burke, a member of Al Capone’s gang and the leader of the gunmen who carried out the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, took out a marriage license using an alias and got married to a farm girl from Centerville.  He was captured a short time later in Greenville Missouri. 

The Ritz Theater occupies one corner of the historic town square.  It’s striking because with its ‘Moorish’ style, it’s different than anything else in town.  It was formerly the Orpheum Theater but it was renamed the Ritz in 1926.  By 1929 it had a new popcorn popping machine and it was showing its first ‘talkie’ movies!  

Speaking of motion pictures, I found a rather interesting short video on-line talking about the history of Centerville and its citizens.  Check it out at


·       With the coal fields as the primary draw, immigrants seeking a better future coming from as many as 40 different countries flocked to Centerville.  There were English, Welsh, Swedes, Swiss, Italians, Croats, Turks, Germans, Russians, Syrians and many many more nationalities were represented in this group.

·       During the Civil War Centerville was a conduit for the Underground Railroad.  Located close to the slave state border of Missouri, it was a jumping off spot for escaped slaves on their journey to Canada.

·       In 1850, the population of Appanoose County was only 3,131.  With the discovery of the coal fields by 1860 there were 11,931 residents!  During the Civil War, 1,500 county residents served in the Union Army with 300 of them dying in the conflict.

The old Appanoose County Sheriff's Residence and Jail was built in 1872.  It’s just about a block and a half from Courthouse Square.  The most common type of jail built in the state between the 1840's and up to 1950 was the sheriff's quarters/jail combination.  In this type, the sheriff's residence looked much like any other dwelling, but was physically attached to a wing containing the actual jail cells.  The sheriff and his family resided in the house, with his wife usually in charge of providing meals and laundry services for the prisoners.

The jail wing, at the rear of the house in this instance, contained multiple cells within a larger steel cell block.  In earlier times, county and municipal jails were viewed as places of incarceration, custodial in nature, with no effort being made toward reform.  I don’t think that we do much better than that in this day and age.

When I went to Michigan State University in the 1960s, I was a Police Administration major.  I spent 10 weeks in field training as it was part of the course curriculum.  For part of that time, I actually stayed in a combination sheriff’s residence/jail facility in Adrian Michigan.  The sheriff’s family was too large for the housing provided so I was able to enjoy a bit of free housing… I never even saw one of the prisoners.

In 1973 the county Board of Supervisors gave the building to the Appanoose County Historical Society for use as a museum.  This log cabin was added to the grounds at a later date.  At one point, the Sheriff’s residence and jail were used by the historical society to display their collection of local artifacts.  I searched for information relevant to visiting the jail on the County Historical Society’s website and I came up empty…        

When the combination residence/jail was completed in 1872, the local newspaper noted that “With a $30,000 Court house, a $10,000 jail, a $6,000 poor farm, and the County Treasurer prepared to redeem outstanding warrants, who can say that the financial condition of Appanoose County is not of the best?”  This facility was used as the county jail until 1970 according to the Historical Society’s sign in front of the structure.  The Appanoose County Historical Society is on Facebook at

Just click on any of the photos to enlarge them…

Thanks for stopping by for a little bit of American history!

Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

1 comment:

  1. That's quite a history for a little town in nowhere Iowa