Monday, August 8, 2016

Stops in Centerville and Leon Iowa

These were our last stops on our drive across Iowa on Iowa Hwy. 2 to our family’s home in Omaha Nebraska.  After these 2 stops, we had to sprint the rest of the way in order to get to Omaha and have something to eat before night fell.

Continuing where I left off in my last post on Appanoose County Iowa…

This is the old Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Depot in Centerville Iowa.  As you can see, it’s been repurposed and it’s serving as Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #526.
Rail service came to Centerville in 1872 via the Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska Railroad.  After a bankruptcy, the ‘new’ railroad was named the Keokuk and Western.  The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad bought that railroad along with its Centerville depot in 1903.  Centerville served as a dividing point on the line and by 1910 the town started to plan for a larger station.  Construction of this Prairie School style building was completed in February of 1912.  The building was used by the railroad until 1982 and the VFW bought it in 1990.

In 1930, the railroad employed 202 people in the area.  Of course, if you remember from my previous posting what the biggest business in the area was, you will understand the importance of the railroad.  Coal was king for many years and the railroad was vital in shipping it to market! 

When this new depot opened in 1912 it was a big deal!  One account stated that between 600 and 700 people attended the opening celebration.  A local newspaper said that over 1,000 were present! “The reception took place between 7:00 and 9:00 PM with Martin's Harp Orchestra playing and local dignitaries (both city and railroad) shaking hands.  Through the kindness of Mrs. J.A. Bradley, there was a plentiful supply of frappe served from punch bowls in glasses. The railroad furnished favors in the form of carnations of varied colors, which were given to the ladies.”


·       Centerville even has its own railroad!  In 1984, the Appanoose County Community Railroad was formed out of discarded pieces of the Norfolk Southern, Burlington Northern, and Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific lines in order to maintain a rail link to the outside world. It runs to a connection with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad in Albia Iowa. Forming the railroad helped bring some industry to the city.

·       Centerville was also the home of the Southern Iowa Railroad.  It was an electric interurban railroad that used to connect Centerville to Moravia with another branch to Mystic.  Interurban electric railroads with 1 or 2 cars running independently were very common in the Midwestern USA.  To learn more about this little known piece of railroad history, just go to

This handsome and well maintained Colonial Revival structure situated on more than an acre of land is the Sturdivant-Sawyer house in Centerville.  It was built in 1903 by Francis M. Drake, a former Governor of Iowa and founder of Drake University in Des Moines.  It was a wedding gift for his daughter Mary Drake Sturdivant.

While the Sturdivant-Sawyer House is very impressive, Laurie and I really preferred this handsome Victorian home just down on the next block and on the opposite side of the street.  It’s more our style.  The porte-cochère (covered carriage entrance) just adds that little extra doesn’t it!

This large neoclassical structure is the Drake Public Library in Centerville.  Around the turn of the 20th century citizens started to investigate the possibility of establishing a library and they approached the Carnegie Corporation of New York to fund a new building.  They also asked Francis M. Drake, a former Civil War General, local attorney, banker, businessman, Governor of Iowa and philanthropist to join their effort.  But he refused, saying he would prefer to fund the new library himself.  He would donate both the new building and the books with the requirement that the city was to maintain the building and take care of the annual expenses.

Did I mention that both of the historic homes pictured above are located on Drake Avenue?  Francis Marion Drake (1830 – 1903) was the ‘real deal’…

·       Led 2 expeditions across the plains to California
·       Fought Indians
·       Was shipwrecked with about 800 others who perished
·       Entered the Civil War as a Colonel in the Union Army
·       Was severely wounded
·       Was a Prisoner of War
·       Was repatriated, rejoined the army and ended the war as a Brigadier General
·       Served a number of years as a criminal attorney
·       Was successful in the banking industry
·       Brought the railroad to Centerville and Appanoose County serving as President of 3 railroads. 
·       Served as Governor of Iowa
·       Founded and endowed Drake University
Now that was a full and productive life!

This Georgian Revival style structure is the former US Post Office in Centerville Iowa.  It was completed in 1904.  The building is no longer a post office.  The good news is that it’s been repurposed.  In 1982, it was acquired by the Appanoose County Historical Society to serve as their museum.

As I mentioned before, coal was king in Centerville and Appanoose County.  When coal mining went the way of the Dodo bird in the area, the economy took a serious hit and the population plunged.  In 1920, Centerville had a population of 8,486 and today it’s only around 5,433.  The county has fared even worse.  In 1920 there were 30,535 residents but today the county has a population of only 12,661.  Compare that to its pre-Civil War population in 1860 when the census recorded 11,931 residents!

Moving on down the road…

This is the Decatur County Courthouse in Leon Iowa.  Although it was built way back in 1908, it is the 6th courthouse for the county!  They outgrew the first one, the second one was declared unusable shortly after it was built, the third one was destroyed by a windstorm and the fourth one was destroyed by fire.  The fifth all brick courthouse almost didn’t survive either… 

In 1876, thieves attempted to open the Treasurer’s safe and when they set off explosives they blew up that side of the building, but were unable to crack the safe.  The building was repaired and it lasted until this ‘new’ courthouse was finished.  FYI, per the history of Decatur County, all 3 perpetrators were apprehended soon after their burglary attempt…

I ‘love’ the bizarre business of politics.  Decatur County was organized in 1850 and the county seat was named Decatur as well.  The public objected and caused the General Assembly to order a vote to establish a county seat. In 1853 the voters chose moving the county seat a few miles to the east and naming it Independence.  However the citizens of Decatur refused to relinquish the county records.  Consequently, the records were taken under cover of darkness to Independence with a wagon and a team of oxen.  Later it was discovered that there was another town by the of named Independence in another county.  Decatur County then changed its county seat’s name to South Independence.  Subsequently, in 1855 the name was changed to Leon.

The old Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Prairie Style Depot in Leon was built in 1912.  It appears to have been well maintained and it has been repurposed.  It’s now the Decatur County building that houses the County Engineer’s Office.


·       The Mormon pioneers came through Iowa heading west and establishing campsites as they came.  Several of these campsites served as temporary settlements as well. One of those sites was in Decatur County Iowa.  Garden Grove was named by the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  It was the first permanent encampment station on the Iowa Mormon Trail.  It was established in 1846 and it was utilized until 1852.  Being more than a campsite, it allowed the traveling Saints to rest, make repairs, and have shelter and minimal provisions. Fences and structures were built and crops were planted to be harvested by those who came later.  This was also the site where a dissident branch of the LDS Church was established.

This is a nice looking all brick combination depot but the fact is that Leon was never a very large town… It peaked in 1940 with 2,307 residents and as of 2014 an estimated 1,909 people live in town.  Decatur County has fared even less well.  In 1900, the county had a population of 18,115.  Today there are approximately 8,450 residents…comparable to the population back in 1860 when the census recorded 8,677 folks.  The other challenge is poverty… Decatur County is the poorest county in Iowa, followed closely by Appanoose County.

Still, towns like Leon and counties like Decatur are hard to put down.  The people are resilient and they focus on the positive.  Leon puts on the Decatur County Fair, they have a Fall Festival, a Rodeo, the Southern Iowa Crafts and More Festival and they hold Leon Noel at Christmas.  This year, Leon was one of the host cities for the 44th annual RAGBRAI. (The Des Moines Register Newspapers Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) Laurie and I love small town America!

Just click on any of the photos to enlarge them…

Thanks for stopping by for a visit!

Take Care, Big Daddy Dave    


  1. You checked out some fine ole buildings in these two places.

  2. You wrote many interesting posts – firehouses, wineries, Virginia, Illinois, Nebraska and Iowa – you do get around. Our trip to California, apart from our daughter’s wedding, was not very good – I’ll have posts on it. The worse was that I had no computer access there.
    I enjoyed all the structures you showed on this post and their history. But changing a name of a town to “Leon” ? that is strange. In France (don’t know about here) Leon is not a very nice name, I mean when there is a joke about a guy not too smart, he is often called Leon for some reason. I am sure that little town is interesting – your post makes it so anyway. I really enjoy all the history and background information you give about the places you visit.

  3. Interesting stories from those towns/areas.... My hometown in VA has really struggled since coal mining and railroads were what made the towns in that area of VA thrive... So much has gone --and it's sad sometimes to go 'home'....

    Amazing how politics drives counties/towns/areas..... GADS.

    Love that Victorian house too... Gorgeous.


  4. Love that Victorian house with it's large front porch. Mercy, it sounds like Drake was quite the courageous man who went above and beyond in everything in his life. I like the brick depot with the black trim, very distinctive looking. Centerville and Leon must be nice little quaint towns to live in! Thanks for the post and have a great rest of the week, Dave!