By Bill Haglund
When the Stump brothers made their way west from Des Moines along the Raccoon River to become Dallas County’s first permanent settlers, they chose a spot near where the Raccoon River becomes one.
That spot — the Stump brothers set up camp there in the mid-to-late 1840s — is just a couple of miles northwest of what would later become the town of Van Meter.
It wasn’t until 1868, however, that the town was first established and platted by the Wilson Brothers as the railroad moved America westward.
Initially, the town was called Tracy, although some prefer to recognized “Lick-Skillet” as the first recognized name of what is now Van Meter. Community lore tells that an engineer on an early train moving through the area gave it that name when he spied an early settler out back of his cabin cleaning his skillet (yes) with his tongue.
Of course the town’s name was quickly re-named in honor of Jacob Rhodes Van Meter, who had erected a flour mill in 1866-67.
The Van Meter family was of Dutch Holland ancestry and had come to the New World in 1662, long before the United States was born. The family settled initially in Virginia, then Kentucky (see story on family Bible), then moved to Indiana.
Later Joseph H. and Elizabeth Van Meter operated the third steamboat ever to run on the Mississippi River. Jacob Rhodes Van Meter was born to that couple.
Although Jacob Rhodes Van Meter had settled in what is now Van Meter in the mid 1860s, it wasn’t until the first passenger train passed through that Van Meter was born. That was in 1868, where a few log cabins were situated.
Two years later Tracy (Lick-Skillet), Van Meter was born.
Van Meter became a station for the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad, but quickly developed into a mining town — the first coal mine was opened at Van Meter in 1878.
It was the railroad, however, that made Van Meter an important shipping point for stock, general farm produce, and coal, but also wood cut from an abundance of timberland nearby.
While the railroad gave birth to Van Meter, it was the coal mining industry that provided much of its early livelihood.
J.R. Van Meter and Calvin Boag owned and operated the coal mine, but sold the business to the Chicago Coal Company. The mine, at one time, was the largest in the country.
That spurred the first big growth of Van Meter — the mine employed about 50 men. Coal was produced at the rate of about a thousand bushels (36 tons) of coal each day. The Rock Island Railroad purchased two flat car loads (26 tons) daily for use in its engines. The rest of the coal was used mainly by local people.
During this time, Van Meter’s population grew to about 1,400.
When the mine was started in 1878, Van Meter and Boag sunk a mine shaft 257 feet deep. The mine was approximately midway northwest of Van Meter and the Raccoon River.
Eventually the mine closed because of problems to get help and difficulty in keeping up with costs of production. Part of the problem in getting help could be, it’s said, the mine owners refusing to recognize a miners’ union.
The Van Meter mine is also a source of local monster lore, home of the “Van Meter Monster” (see separate story).
While Van Meter dabbled in the mining business, he still operated the mill, which he had built a decade earlier. However, that business, too, ended in 1884 when the mill was washed away and destroyed.
Van Meter then built and operated the mill in Adel, but returned to Van Meter and built yet another mill in 1867. However, the final mill became a financial disaster.
Meanwhile, Van Meter continued grow as a number of early businesses were born and a postmaster (W.H. Jennings) was named.
The petition for incorporation was granted on June 1, 1877, and was officially filed for record on Dec. 29, 1877.
The first commissioners were J.R. Van Meter, T.E. Moore, G.C. Briggs, W.H. Jennings and B.F. Goar.
While education has always been a priority, the first modern school in Van Meter was built in 1926. That building still stands, although several additions have been built around it.