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Famous People of Dallas County - Governor George W. Clarke

George W. Clarke
George W. Clarke

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.

The young lawyer heard the gunshots in the bank beneath him and walked downstairs to investigate. As he emerged from the stairway he found himself staring down the barrel of a gun.

But, when the intruder pulled the trigger, the gun misfired.

That incident had a significant impact not only on the history of Adel, but to the State of Iowa and the entire nation, as well.

The young lawyer was George W. Clarke, who had set up a practice on the second floor of the First State Bank of Adel. Below him on that fateful day two outlaws – Orlando “Rowdy” Wilkins and Charles Crawford – had ridden into town with robbery on their minds. They entered the bank, still standing on the west side of Adel’s downtown square, right at 9 a.m. on March 6, 1895. Wilkins, who had just recently been released from a Minnesota prison, and Crawford were living in Patterson, a small village in Madison County that is located not far west of current Interstate-35 on Highway 92.

The two outlaws camped outside of Adel overnight before heading into town the following morning, a Wednesday. The two reportedly had planned to rob a bank in Indianola on an earlier occasion, but Crawford lost his nerve. Regaining the lost nerve, the two decided their target would be the bank in Adel, which had been formed in 1882.

The bank’s cashier, S.M. Leach, was counting money when the pair walked in and Wilkins stuck the barrel of a repeating shotgun in Leach’s chest and ordered him to hand over the money. When Leach refused, he was shot twice in his shoulder and neck. An unlucky customer, C.D. Bailey, reportedly tried to stop Wilkins, but was also shot.

That’s when George Clarke came down the stairs, but Wilkins heard him coming down stairs and had his shotgun pointed at the young lawyer’s chest. When he pulled the trigger, however, the gun misfired and the two outlaws fled the bank with a meager $267 for their work. A hastily formed posse chased the men west out of Adel, finally shooting one of the men’s horses, forcing the two to flee on foot. Crawford was captured a short time later and Wilkins, who took cover, was gravely injured in a shootout with Sheriff J.D. Payne and a hastily-formed posse. He staggered to his feet and attempted to run once again, but the posse riddled his body with bullets.

Wilkins, in fact, is buried in Oakdale Cemetery in Adel. Crawford was convicted and sent to prison. The shotgun used in the bank robbery, as well as the teller’s cage from the bank, are among items still displayed in the Adel Historic Museum.

That summarizes an event in Adel’s history, but doesn’t tell all the “what-ifs” that day might have caused.

Had Wilkins’ gun not misfired, Clarke would most likely have been killed. He would not have gone on to become an Iowa Governor, nor would he have become the grandfather to one of the greatest athletes in the state’s history – Adel’s own Nile Kinnick, who won the 1939 Heisman Trophy as the greatest football player in America.

George Washington Clarke was born in Shelby County, Indiana, on Oct. 24, 1852. Four years later, the family moved to Davis County, Iowa, settling a mile east of Drakesville. Clarke taught school in Bloomfield and then attended Oskaloosa College. He earned a law degree from the University of Iowa and moved to Adel, where he married Arletta Greene.

It was there that Clarke formed a partnership with John B. White and set up his law practice on the second floor of the Adel State Bank Building. That building still stands and is carries the bank’s name. Clarke was justice of the peace for four years and then served in the Iowa House of Representatives from 1901 through 1909. The last five years, Clarke served as Speaker of the Iowa House.

Clarke’s political career continued when he served as Iowa’s 22nd Lieutenant Governor from 1909 to 1913. In 1912, Clarke was elected as Iowa Governor. He took office in 1913. Clarke was re-elected in 1914. After his term in office ended, Clarke became the Dean of the Drake University Law School in 1917 and 1918 before going into private law practice in Des Moines.

Clarke’s papers are in a collection at the University of Iowa.

However, Clarke’s palm print on Adel and Dallas County was not finished. His daughter, Francis Clarke would marry Nile Clark Kinnick, Sr. They made their home in Adel and their eldest son was Nile Kinnick, who would lead Adel to an unbeaten 1933 football season, lead the University of Iowa in glory days in the later 1930s, and become college football’s greatest player in 1939.

His grandfather later returned to Adel where he died on Nov. 28, 1936. Like the man who tried to kill him more than four decades earlier, he is buried in Adel.

The Clarke family home still stands grandly on the west side of Adel.

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