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Dawson: Coal, natural gas discoveries led to early population spurt

The Dawson school, built in 1905, stood proudly in Dawson for more than 100 years, even after the district merged and its final graduating class earned their diplomas in 1960. Some earlier students proudly stand before the distinct school.
The Dawson school, built in 1905, stood proudly in Dawson for more than 100 years, even after the district merged and its final graduating class earned their diplomas in 1960. Some earlier students proudly stand before the distinct school.
Main Street looking west before the town became settled.
Main Street looking west before the town became settled.
When Grover Cleveland was the only president in history to serve two non-consecutive terms in the white house. He served from 1885-1889, then again from 1893-1897. While campaigning, he made a stop in Dawson and the late 1800s event is shown here.
When Grover Cleveland was the only president in history to serve two non-consecutive terms in the white house. He served from 1885-1889, then again from 1893-1897. While campaigning, he made a stop in Dawson and the late 1800s event is shown here.

Nestled in the far northwest corner of Dallas County is the small community of Dawson. Like many of the state’s smallest towns, Dawson has struggled to survive while maintaining a fierce sense of pride.

Shortly after the Native Americans, who inhabited Dallas County in the mid-1800s, vacated the area in wake of a treaty, pioneers began moving into the area. Settling first in the extreme southeast section, folks eventually found their ways into other parts of the county.

Dallas Township was first surveyed from 1849-51, at which time there were just two families living in the area that would become Dawson. One of those was the Crabb family, whose homestead was just north of the Raccoon River on the Dallas/Greene County line; and the Hudson family, just south of the Raccoon River.

Several more families had settled in the area by 1860 and the first elections in Dallas Township were held in 1865.

Although several more families moved into the area over the next few years (by 1879 there were an estimated 83 families living in the area), it wasn’t until the railroad continued its westward expansion in 1882 that Dawson was born.

At first, however, folks called the place “Undine,” so named after a resident of the time. Men by the names of Milo Lee and Mr. Disbro were the first to construct houses in “Undine” on land owned by W.E. Tolle.

After the railroad tracks were laid through the town, the name was changed to “Dawson” in 1884. The town was named after a railroad official.

Although it would be nearly a quarter-century before Dawson was incorporated, the settlement held its first vote to elect a governing commission. Elected were O.K. Anderson, U.G. Tolle, L.R. Brown, J.F. Naylor and M.M. Bugbee.

While it was the railroad, and the town’s selection as a site for a depot, that led directly to the birth of Dawson, it was another early discovery that spurred rapid growth.

Coal was found near Dawson and became a major business in the area for many years. During the mining period, Dawson’s population grew to an estimated 1,600 folks. Four major coal mines — Thorpe, Hutchinson Brothers, Dixon and Wignal Brothers — all operated east, west and south of Dawson and several other smaller operations were also doing business at the time.

Natural gas was also discovered near Dawson on the Bicket Farms. For several years, gas was piped from the farm into Dawson and was used for both heating and lighting. However, the supply was erratic because it was marsh gas and piping was discontinued a few years later.

With the early population growth, Dawson’s business area also grew and included a brick and tile plant, operated by four partners.

However, the plant burned in 1906. Sometime later R.W. Witter, one of the owners of the brick and tile plant, opened a cement brick and tile factory that remained in business until the 1920s.

Around the time Dawson became incorporated on April 25, 1908, Dawson was firmly established as a growting city. As the railroad moved through and coal was mined, Dawson boasted two general stores, two restaurants, a pair of hardware stores, a meat market, barber shop, millinery, two druggists, three elevators, a harness shop, a blacksmith shop, livery stable and the Bank of Dawson.

The first elected officials of Dawson included Mayor Joe Roberts, Clerk W.D. Cole, Treasurer J.J. McCrory and councilmen R.B. Hutchison, R.S. Witter, J.W. Anderson, H.W. Leighty and R.F. Eldridge.

Like all early settlers in Dallas County, Dawson elders recognized the need to educate their young. A school house had been built even before the town was established.

A three-story brick building was built in the early 1900s and stood for a century. Hundreds of children passed through those halls before, finally, the district became so small that consolidation became imperative.

The final Dawson high school graduating class of eight received their diplomas in 1960.

Local pride remained fierce, however, and when the Dawson School Alumni group held an all-school reunion in 1973, nearly 200 former students showed up.

Local pride also took root in a Dawson Cornet Band and town baseball teams through the years.

In days before the telephone, mail was important to settlers. For many, it was the only connection settlers had with relatives who had stayed behind in other parts of Iowa and farther east.

While a Post Office had been established in Dawson almost as soon as the area became settled, those living in rural areas of Dallas Township found that getting and sending mail was often a hardship, especially during periods of harsh weather.

That was eased somewhat when rural free delivery was established in the early 1900s. Dawson became a part of that on Dec. 1, 1903. The first carrier was Thomas Lenihan. He served rural residents for about 30 months when he was hurt when his horses bolted. His son, Maurice, took over the route.

Thomas passed away in 1908.

Because of the lengthy mail route, several horses were kept. Maurice would change horses at his father’s farm in order to complete his 30-mile route. Finally, Maurice got his first car — a Ford — in July of 1912. Even then, however, he kept his horses to be used during bad weather. By the time Marice retired on Sept. 30, 1954, when he was 70, he had carried mail for four, even five, generations of Dawson folks, serving the area since taking over from his father in 1906.

Even though its school is gone, most businesses are gone and its population has dwindled through the years, folks who live in Dawson continue to be filled with community pride.

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