|Charles City today sits on the site of what was once a Winnebago Indian
village, and over the years has witnessed the birth of one of the first
gasoline traction engines for agricultural and industrial use in the United
States; the construction of one of the oldest existing suspension Bridges in
the state; and a devastating killer tornado in 1968 from which the community
has since rebuilt itself.
Joseph Kelly is believed to be the first white settler to the area, arriving
in 1851. A hunter and miller by trade, Kelly saw the land that would become
Charles City as an ideal setting for a town, with its river crossing (known
as the OFordı), availability of water from the Cedar River for power, and an
ample supply of timber.
His vision was borne out with the arrival a year later of 25 settler
families. Kelly built a saw and grist mill and furnished lumber to the early
settlers, including John Blunt who is credited for building the first house
on the east side of the river. Dr. Robert Freeman is credited for the first
white development on the west side of the river, operating a store and post
office (where McDonaldıs restaurant now stands) in what was known for a
while as the Village of Freeman.
As it turned out, Charles City was named after Joseph Kellyıs son, Charles.
However, it took several name changes before the current one was settled
upon. The first name, Charlestown, was changed after it was discovered that
there already was a settlement in the state by that name. So it became known
as St. Charles, only that too, it was later learned, was a duplication.
So in 1860, the name Charles City was given, and it has remained ever since.
Floyd County, meanwhile, was established in January of 1851 and officially
organized as of August of 1854. The most widely-held belief is that the
county was named for Sgt. Charles Floyd, a member of the famed Lewis and
Clark Expedition, who died in 1804 during the trip and was buried just south
of present day Sioux City. His death and burial are the first ever recorded
Others believe that Floyd County was named in honor of William Floyd of Long
Island, N.Y., one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Still
others believed it to have been named after former Virginia governor and
Secretary of War, John Buchanan Floyd. Because of that belief, some tried to
have the countyıs name changed after that Floyd joined the Confederate Army
as a general during the Civil War. That effort was aborted, though, after
Senator John F. Duncombe of Fort Dodge assured people that the county was
indeed named after Charles Floyd.
The first election of county officers took place on Aug. 7, 1854, with a
total of 85 votes cast. Townships were established later that same year,
while the first county court was held in a frame house located on Kelly St.
in Charles City where the parking lot of the Cedar Mall now sits.
The county seat was originally established as being St. Charles (Charles
City), but was moved five miles west of town to nearby Floyd for a short
time following a hotly contested battle in 1857, because Floyd was the
geographical center of the county. That decision was ultimately overturned
by the Iowa Supreme Court in 1859, and the county seat re-relocated back to
In 1881, the Floyd County Courthouse in Charles City burned down, and the
question of where to have the county seat was revived. Despite a strong
effort to move it elsewhere, Charles City weathered the storm and kept its
place as the county seat of Floyd County, and has held on to that
distinction to this day.
Among the more notable events in the history of Charles City are the
establishment of the Hart-Parr Company in 1900-01, at which the first
Hart-Parr gasoline traction engine was developed. Sales manager W.H.
Williams decided: that gasoline traction engine was too big a mouthful, and
came up with the name Otractor.ı
Hart-Parr was bought out by James Oliver, who invented the chilled plow in
1855, and eventually became known as the Oliver Farm Equipment Company, and
later as the Oliver Corporation. In 1960, Oliver was bought out by the White
Motor Corporation, and following the farm economy crisis and Chapter 11
Bankruptcy, was acquired by Allied Products Corporation and re-named the
White-New Idea Equipment Company.
At its peak, the tractor plant employed 2,600 workers in the mid-1970s. That
number slowly shrank to around 420 employees in 1992 when Allied announced
it would close the plant in the summer of 1993.
Charles City also was home for awhile to-one of the leaders in the national
womenıs rights movement. Suffragist Carrie Lane Chapman Catt, the driving
force behind the constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote,
moved with her family to a homestead just south of town in 1865 at the age
of six. She attended school in Charles City and graduated from high school
here in 1877. Her girlhood home is in the process of being restored to its
original condition by the National 19th Amendment Society, which is
headquartered in Charles City. Visit the Carrie Chapman Catt web site.
Also of note was the construction of the 270-foot suspension foot bridge
over the Cedar River in 1906, as ordered by the Floyd County Board of
Supervisors to provide access from the east side of the river to the
Chautauqua grounds on the west side. The bridge was built at a cost to the
County of $1,200, and turned over to the City for ownership and maintenance.
Today, it is one of the oldest existing suspension bridges in Iowa, and as
of July 2, 1990 is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Other than its history in connection with the tractor, what Charles City is
perhaps best known for is as being the target of a devastating tornado that
hit in the late afternoon of May 15, 1968. The giant twister was actually
two tornadoes that combined into one just southwest of town, then tore
through the community, killing 13 and leaving the downtown area and several
residential neighborhoods in ruin. The storm destroyed 256 businesses, 1,250
homes, resulted in damage costs in excess of $20 million, and forever
changed the landscape and future direction of the city.
Charles City bounced back, though, through the determination and spirit of
its citizens. More than 175 families chose to stay and rebuild after being
left homeless by the tornado, having decided Charles City was a pretty good
place to live and where they wanted to be. Another 500 families repaired
their homes, and through the assistance of many dedicated people working
together, the town rebuilt itself up from the rubble. What you see today
stands as a tribute to their resilience and belief in their community.
(Information courtesy of Marilee Monroe and the Charles City Chamber of