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Chelsea Sesquicentennial- town history - a wealth of memories

July 22, 2014
By Joyce Wiese - News-Herald Correspondent , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

Tama County Pioneers had many difficulties to contend with, not the least of which was the journey from civilization to their prairie homes. The route lay, for the most part through a rough country, with great exertion and fatigue, rivers were forded with difficulty and danger, nights passed on open prairies, with the sod for a couch and the heavens for a shelter, long weary days and weeks of travel were endured, but finally "the promised land" was reached. This is an excerpt from the 1883 Tama County History.

In October 1849, William and Anthony Wilkinson, armed with government warrant for land that was their reward for participating in the Mexican War, came to the southeastern part of Tama County. Their brother, Robert, had not served in the army, but bought his land. The three brothers were accompanied to the area by their mother and three sisters. The Wilkinsons were the second family to settle in Tama County. Few others came until 1852.

When Otter Creek Station was moved about three-quarters of a mile west to the present location of Chelsea, and the railroad extended westward, the name was changed. One story had it that S.G. Breese, one of the original owners of land near the site named it for Chelsea, Massachusetts, from where h e had emigrated. Another is that John I. Blair named it for Chelsea, England. Mr. Blair had been among delegates from the Republican Convention that had nominated Lincoln for the presidency in 1860 and had been given a free trip to Iowa by the Chicago, Iowa, and Nebraska Railroad. He foresaw the importance of the railroads to this state and came back in 1862 to build rail lines. It may well be that he chose the name as he did name many towns along the route, including Belle Plaine. Chelsea was so named in 1864.

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The actual town was laid out in 1863 by Seneca Breese and J. Hunter within one square mile area about ten miles east of Tama City. A grocery and dry goods store erected in 1863 by J.H. Graham is thought to have been the first store. However, a warehouse had been built by Graham in 1862, and records show that before the village was platted, Peter Bodfish had a store. Other early businesses were E.E. Vickery's olacksinitli shop, Union ~IC)l~i I-i,,7)tel first operated by Mrs. Thompson and then by Samuel Spence, A.E. Southard's cabinet shop, Anton Jarkowsky's shoe making and repair shop, Campbell's Drug Store, and various others.

Services furnished in the prospering town of Chelsea were carpentering,indispensible milling. Sawing of lumber was a service available as early as 1854, and within ten years grinding of grain was also done. Early settlers had to make a trip of several days either to Iowa City or Cedar Rapids to get their grain milled. A postoffice was established in 1866.

The nearest settlement was Honey Creek (now Kozta) and was thirteen or more miles away with no roads or bridges.When goind to Iowa City or Cedar Rapids to market there were few homesteads along the way so they usually camped out at night with their wagons as their only shelter.

When the pioneers were settling in the new country they were forced to build their own homes, make their own clothing and provide for their own subsistenc( Their cabins were made of logs with the floor sometimes nothing more than packed dirt. A fireplace provided for both heat and cooking. one large room served all purposes, kitchen, bedroom, parlor and many families consisted of six or eight members living in the house.

The Northwestern Railroad leased the Chicago, Iowa and Nebraska Railroad in 1869. A.A. McChesney was the first station agent when the railroad was built and James Hanify the first section boss.

In 1878 citizens of Chelsea voted for incorporation. H.E. Covell eas elected Mayor and J. W. Shaler recorder.

Early Chelsea had a large grain market, thousands of bushels of oats, wheat and corn and hundreds of carloads of hogs and cattle were shipped from its dealers. About 1880 the town had one grocery, four dry goods stores, one drug store, two hardware stores, two shoe shops, one harness shop, one -exchange store, three blacksmith shops, one wagon shop, one lumber yard, one millinery, one poultry firm, two saw mills, two doctors and two grain buyers.

The People's Friend, a newspaper published in Chelsea in the 1870's was short lived. The Chelsea Independent was later printed.

The first school built near Chelsea was in the Wilkinson Settlement in 1859.

The land belonged to Anthony Wilkinson. Cost of the school was $500. It was later known as the Prairie Hill or Wilkinson School (officially Salt Creek No. 9. plastering, painting, bricklaying, harness making, barbering, and the

After Chelsea was founded the first school was held in a railroad car, probably a box car. The first schoolhouse was built in 1865. The Chelsea Independent School District was organized in 1873. As the town grew the number of children increased so that in 1881 a new school was built. It was a two-story frame structure which stood on the site of Jacobi's station, This building became a hotel and then burned in 1905. In 1903=04 a new brick school building was erected. It was put to use in 1905 and a class was graduated that spring. This building was in use until the end of the spring term in 2008. The building was razed in the spring of 2009.

The old river bridge on the east side of Chelsea, and on the Lincoln Highway, was built in 1928-29 as a Tama County project. This bridge was replaced in 2007. The new bridge proudly displays the original lampposts which had been preserved and refurbished.

Floods are a constant menace to towns such as Chelsea, located along the lowlands of the Iowa River. In addition to the flood of 1861 that determined the town's location and the 1944 flood that claimed the lives of two girls there have been numerous others. In 1881 the highest flood ever occurred during the early years of the town's existence, the second highest in early years to have been in 1918. This is recalled as a gragic year for a tornado ripped into the town before the flood damage was cleaned up. During the general confusion following the tornado Frank Kaloupek, working in mud and water, came into contact with a high voltage wire and was electrocuted. Known as the year of three floods is 1947, and in the spring of 1960 flood waters filled basements and covered the streets as Chelsea experienced what it h oped to be the last flood. However, this did not happen and 1993, the worst flood yet hit Chelsea. This caused considerable damage.



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