From humble roots spring Perry’s present pride, prosperity

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Brothers Harvey and John Willis laid out the new town of Perry In the winter of 1868-1869.


In choosing a new route for the new railroad, the officials were talking of coming along the west side of the Raccoon River unless Spring Valley Township voted a tax for that purpose.

One election — some say say two — had turned it down but when Union Township in Boone County voted in a 3 percent tax, that pushed the railroad the choose the east side of the river.

As noted in a previous article, the first railroad to reach Des Moines was a line coming up from Keokuk in 1866 and known as the Des Moines Valley Railroad. Soon the owners wanted to push on the Fort Dodge, and Harvey Willis did all he could to bring the survey over his land at Alton.

Willis bought a tract of land south of Des Moines at a small town called Summit. There he started two sawmills to provide ties and fuel for the new railroad. The railroad was willing to start a town on Willis land if they were given five acres and 32 lots, and this was granted.

At this time, the railroad became the Des Moines and Fort Dodge Railroad, and the town’s name was changed from Willisville to Perry in honor of one of the railroad officials in Keokuk.

In the winter of 1868-1869, the Willis brothers laid out the new town. The eastern line was Eighth Street. To the north was Edna Street — later changed to Dewey Avenue. The western boundary was W. Fourth Street, and Estella Street was the southern line. The entire area was 220 acres.

Harvey Willis owned the land to the north, and John Willis owned the land to the south, and they called the dividing line between their land Willis Avenue.

At first Railroad Street extended all the way to First Street — later called First Avenue — but soon was cut back. Willis and Otley avenues were built 100 feet wide and not the customary 70 feet.

One of the engineers surveying the railroad was Col. J. W. Otley, and one of the streets was named after him. He lived on Evergreen Hill at Grove and Pine streets. Later the Otley addition was annexed to Perry on the south side, and the southward school was called the Otley school.

Train service started in Perry on July 4, 1869, and that has become the conventional founding date of the city of Perry. In those times, the trains ran on narrow-gauge tracks set at 3.5 feet, while standard gauge was 4 feet, 8.5 inches.

The first small engines in Perry burned wood instead of coal, and a wood pile was stored on the east side of the tracks near Warford Street. Train men used to speculate on how many sticks it would take to get to Fort Dodge.

In the Perry Chief. of Sept. 19, 1874, a timetable shows two trains each way once a day. One was a mixed train that took 2.5 hours to go from Des Moines, and the other a passenger that took one hour and 40 minutes. The state fair was at Keokuk, and the round-trip fare from Perry was $ 7.80.

J. H. Shively claimed he built the first house in Perry, having sawn the wood himself five miles south of town. The house he built was at First and Warford streets. Another version says that Benjamin Campbell built the first house. Perhaps both are right. One might have started first and the other finished first.

For a long time, there were no sidewalks. Dirt paths led from house to house and even to stores. The first sidewalks were built in 1884 and were short boards nailed crosswise on two-by-four stringers. Some were still in use well into the 1900s.

The first brick building in Perry was built by George and Sidney Pease in 1875 and was a little east of the triangle. They opened a grocery store on the bottom floor and rented out the top for living quarters.

The first school in Perry was in Ben Campbell’s carpenter shop, where he got Miss Florilla to teach the rudiments of literacy and numeracy. The first regular school in Perry was built
in 1874 at Second and Warford streets.

This schoolhouse never met with much approval, so  two years later a brick building was put up 2.5 blocks to north, where the post office is now. Some say Harvey Willis donated the land, and others say it was purchased from James McFarland.

The new school was 50 by 60 feet, two stories high and cost $ 11,500. The first graduating class was in 1883. The first kindergarten in Perry was started in 1894, with Mrs. Moffett and Miss Horsley the instructors.

During the Milwaukee Road boom days of the 1880s, Perry built two new schools, one at Fifth and Evelyn streets, the so-called South Ward School, and the other at Fifth Street and Otley Avenue, the North Ward School also known as Webster School. In 1903 the Willard School was erected at Seventh and Lucinda streets.

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