Famous People of Dallas County is an ongoing series on people with county ties that have left their mark on the county, state and beyond.
Edwin Hurd Conger wasn’t born in Dallas County – he came into the world before the county existed – but his almost meteoric rise through the ranks of public service began after he had settled in Dexter in 1868.
Conger was born in Knox County, Illinois on March 7, 1843 and before he died on May 18, 1907 he had been a lawyer, banker, Iowa congressman, a two-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives and a foreign diplomat. Nineteen years after his birth, Conger graduated from Lombard College. Soon, however, Conger enlisted to fight with the Union during the Civil War. Lombard was a private, but soon was promoted to lieutenant and, eventually, to captain and finally, brevetted major for his meritorious service. After Conger’s Civil War service ended, he entered Albany Law School and graduated in 1866.
Conger practiced law in his native Galesburg, Ill., but moved to Dexter two years later. As an early pioneer in Dexter, he was engaged in both banking and agriculture.
But, it was the political arena that drew Conger and he was elected Dallas County Treasurer in 1877, then was re-elected two years later. He was elected Iowa State Treasurer in 1880 and again in 1882 at which time he sought national office. Republican incumbent John A. Kasson of Iowa’s 7th congressional district resigned his post early and Hiram Smith was named to serve out his term. But, it was Conger who won the vote of the people and was sent to Washington. Conger was re-elected twice.
Although Conger was on the ballot for a fourth term in 1890 events transpired that resulted in his resignation from Congress and abandonment of his campaign just two months before the General Election. That fast-moving series of events was precipitated when President Benjamin Harrison appointed Conger as U.S. Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Brazil (today the post is called “United States Ambassador). Conger held the post until election of Democrat Grover Alexander, then was re-appointed to the post by Republican President William McKinley, serving for about six months until 1898. However, McKinley appointed Conger to the same position in China.
Conger’s time of service in China was marked by turmoil as a violent anti-foreign, anti-Christian movement known as the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists in China (Boxers) emerged. While Conger served in China, Boxer fighters assembled in Beijing to besiege foreign embassies and the uprising became known as the Boxer Rebellion. As the siege began, several “sensationalist” news outlets in America reported that Conger was “undoubtedly dead,” along with his entire staff.
But, Conger and all other foreigners, many of them American, retreated to the refuge of a stronghold where they endured 55 days under siege of the Boxers. Finally, 20,000 troops came to their rescue. Conger and the other Americans received heroes’ welcome on their return to U.S. soil in 1901. But, Conger returned to China and, under President Theodore Roosevelt, asked Conger to oversee a new foreign mission caused by a China boycott of American goods.
Conger declined Roosevelt’s appointment and accepted, instead, an appointment as ambassador to Mexico. That lasted only two months, however, and Conger returned back to live out his final days in the United States. Conger’s death on May 18, 1907 was attributed to a disease he had contracted while serving in China. He is buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena, Calif.
Conger was married to another Iowan, Sarah Pike, an author and a Christian Scientist. Sarah, too, was involved in public affairs as she was heavily involved in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.