Dawson, Dallas Township grew by railroading, mining

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Dawson, unknown date. Photo courtesy Brent Hegstrom

Dallas Township was first surveyed from 1849 to 1851, when there were just two families living in the area that would become Dawson. One of those was the Crabb family, whose homestead was just north of the Raccoon River on the Dallas County-Greene County line, and the Hudson family, living just south of the Raccoon River.

Several more families had settled in the area by 1860, and the first elections in Dallas Township were held in 1865.

Although several more families moved into the area over the next few years — by 1879 there were an estimated 83 families living in the area — it was not until the railroad continued its westward expansion in 1882 that Dawson was born.

At first, however, folks called the place Undine, so named after a resident of the time. Men by the names of Milo Lee and Mr. Disbro were the first to construct houses in Undine on land owned by W. E. Tolle.

After the railroad tracks were laid through the town, the name was changed to Dawson in 1884. The town was named after a railroad official.

Although it would be nearly a quarter-century before Dawson was incorporated, the settlement held its first vote to elect a governing commission. Elected were O. K. Anderson, U. G. Tolle, L. R. Brown, J. F. Naylor and M. M. Bugbee.

While it was the railroad, and the town’s selection as a site for a depot, that led directly to the birth of Dawson, it was another early discovery that spurred rapid growth.

Coal was found near Dawson and became a major business in the area for many years. During the mining period, Dawson’s population grew to an estimated 1,600 folks. Four major coal mines ?– Thorpe, Hutchinson Brothers, Dixon and Wignal Brothers — all operated east, west and south of Dawson, and several other smaller operations were also doing business at the time.

Natural gas was also discovered near Dawson on the Bicket Farms. For several years, gas was piped from the farm into Dawson and was used for both heating and lighting. However, the supply was erratic because it was marsh gas, and piping was discontinued a few years later.

With the early population growth, Dawson’s business area also grew and included a brick and tile plant, operated by four partners.

However, the plant burned in 1906. Sometime later, R. W. Witter, one of the owners of the brick and tile plant, opened a cement, brick and tile factory that remained in business until the 1920s.

By the time Dawson became incorporated on April 25, 1908, Dawson was firmly established as a growing city. As the railroad moved through and coal was mined, Dawson boasted two general stores, two restaurants, a pair of hardware stores, a meat market, barber shop, millinery, two druggists, three elevators, a harness shop, a blacksmith shop, livery stable and the Bank of Dawson.

The first elected officials of Dawson included Mayor Joe Roberts, Clerk W. D. Cole, Treasurer J. J. McCrory and councilmen R.B . Hutchison, R. S. Witter, J. W. Anderson, H. W. Leighty and R. F. Eldridge.

Like all early settlers in Dallas County, Dawson elders recognized the need to educate their young. A school house was built even before the town was established.

A three-story brick building was built in the early 1900s and stood for a century. Hundreds of children passed through those halls before, finally, the district became so small that consolidation became imperative.

The final Dawson High School graduating class of eight received their diplomas in 1960.

Local pride remained fierce, however, and when the Dawson School Alumni group held an all-school reunion in 1973, nearly 200 former students showed up.

Local pride also took root in a Dawson Cornet Band and town’s baseball teams through the years.

In days before the telephone, mail was important to settlers. For many, it was the only connection settlers had with relatives who had stayed behind in other parts of Iowa and farther east.

While a U.S. Post Office was established in Dawson almost as soon as the area became settled, those living in rural areas of Dallas Township found that getting and sending mail was often a hardship, especially during periods of harsh weather.

That hardship was eased somewhat when rural free delivery was established in the early 1900s. Dawson became a part of that on Dec. 1, 1903. The first carrier was Thomas Lenihan. He served rural residents for about 30 months until he was hurt when his horses bolted. His son, Maurice, took over the route.

Thomas Lenihan passed away in 1908.

Because of the lengthy mail route, several horses were kept. Maurice would change horses at his father’s farm in order to complete his 30-mile route. Finally, Maurice got his first car — a Ford — in July of 1912. Even then, however, he kept his horses to be used during bad weather. By the time Marice retired on Sept. 30, 1954, when he was 70, he had carried mail for four, even five generations of Dawson folks, serving the area since taking over from his father in 1906.

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