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Iowa History Daily: April 7 - Decorah Steals the County Seat

Iowa History Daily: On April 7, 1851, In a dubious and perhaps duplicitous election Decorah carried the day an upset over the heavily-favored Moneek to win the county seat of Winneshiek County. Three candidates vied for the important role of county seat: Moneek, Lewiston (sometimes Louisville or Louiston), and Decorah. Moneek, a ghost town today, sat on the north fork of the Yellow River downriver from Frankville). Canadians Abner DeCou and Moses McSwain arrived with their families in 1849 and lived in tent wagons while they built up a large log house. By July of 1850 the small settlement boasted a mill important to early industry throughout the area. As the town peaked between 1850 and 1853 it hosted a post office, church, hotel, blacksmith shop, grocery stores, a shoe shop, and several saloons.

As the Iowa Legislature passed an Organizing Act for Winneshiek County on January 15, 1851, the citizens of Moneek felt in prime position. Louiston, located along the Turkey River, as well as Decorah, both represented slightly smaller and less developed communities as the April election loomed. The histories of Winneshiek County consistently view Moneek as the favorite to carry the votes and capture the seat.

William Day arrived at the soon-to-be Decorah on June 10, 1849, and quickly found himself in the company of William Painter. The two men worked together to establish the town alongside the Upper Iowa River, and Painter quickly went about constructing a dam and mill site. Day also opened the Winneshiek House Hotel. The town also hosted other inhabitants including members of the Ho Chunk (Winnebago) who occupied the area where downtown Decorah now stands. Iowa’s Indigenous peoples assert the location stood on the famous “Chemin Des Voyagers,” an ancient road connecting the Mississippi River to the Spirit Lake Region which appears on French maps as early as the 1700s. Although Decorah seemed to develop significantly in the first couple of years, it still stayed a step behind Moneek.

Enter William Day’s son, Claiborn, a twenty-five year old described in Edwin C. Bailey’s “Past and Present of Winneshiek County, Iowa” as “strong, vigorous, energetic, and public spirited,” as well as given to “the gift of gab.” Day arranged for a local trapper named Wiggins to transport the poll books for Lewiston and Moneek across the streams of Winneshiek County and back to the counting point at Fort Atkinson. According to Vicki Calbreath’s article in the 1985 “Decorah Public Opinion”: “It seems that Day admonished Wiggins that when he had possession of the poll books for Lewiston and Moneek, that in crossing a stream, should there be a question of whether to save his horse or the poll books, to be sure and save the horse.” Predictably, a damp Wiggins showed up at Fort Atkinson lacking the poll books. Without the votes from Moneek or Lewiston, Decorah carried the day.

Moneek, the picturesque small town nestled along the Yellow River and surrounded by bluffs soon started to decline due to lack of accessibility, the failure to secure the county seat, as well as the development of a state road choosing the ridge-top town of Frankville. Decorah continued to grow, eventually staving off another county seat challenge, this time from the upstart Freeport, in 1856, and again from Calmar in 1898. #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaHistoryCalendar


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