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Historic Appanoose County Anchors Economic Development in Southeastern Iowa

Monday, September 21, 2020

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The Territory of Iowa, established in 1838, was far from a hospitable place when it was opened up for settlement in 1842, following the treaty with the Sauk and Fox Indians, which basically ceded all land west of the White Breast fork of the Des Moines River. It was a land of undulating hills, limestone bluffs lining the soil rich river bottomlands, and vast expanses of native prairie.

It would be the rivers that provided the navigable waters needed to move goods, while providing their harnessed power for milling. Agricultural resources developed early, due in a large part to the favorable climate of the region, described in Fanning's Illustrated Gazetteer of the United States of 1850 as “pleasant, and generally healthy, except where, during the summer, bilious complaints, fevers, and agues, usually prevail.  Snow rarely falls to exceed eight or ten inches in depth; and the Mississippi, at Prairie du Chien, is not frozen sufficiently strong to be crossed more than five or six weeks in the year.  The summers are warm, but not oppressively so, and are refreshed by frequent showers.”

The settlement of Iowa, and Appanoose County in particular, came at the expense of the indigenous tribes living west of the Mississippi. The Illini lived for many years under the reign of the Spanish and later French, until expansion of the fledgling United States relentlessly pushed eastern tribes, the Sac and the Fox, into Illini territory so that by the time the first white settlers arrived, the combined Sac and Fox nation were now rivals to the tribes of the northern Sioux nation. It was a turbulent time for those traveling by river boat, wagon train, horseback or on foot into this Iowa (Beautiful Land) Territory. As the tribes fought amongst themselves for territory and supremacy, the flow of settlers continued unabated, along with the U.S. Army, building forts and engaging with the natives that would eventually bring an end to their independence under the symbolic flag of manifest destiny. The first major treaty ceding land followed the end of the Black Hawk War in 1832.

As Soon as the country was opened for settlement, the western borders of the Black Hawk Purchase, up the principal rivers and streams, and out over the broad and rolling prairies, began to be thronged with eager land-hunters and immigrants seeking homes in Iowa. It was a sight to delight the eyes of all comers from every land – its noble streams, beautiful and picturesque hills and valleys, broad and fertile prairies, extending as far as the eye could reach, with a soil surpassing in richness anything which they had ever seen. It is not to be wondered at the immigration into Iowa was rapid and that within less than a decade from the organization of the Territory it contained 150,000 people.

In the years prior to the Civil War, Southern Iowa became a transient zone for wagon trains heading westward, including those of the Mormon faith who followed their leaders across the dragoon trail. Many, however, remained. Settlements took root in the harsh conditions, establishing farms and homesteads, leading to the growth of a substantial agricultural industry by the middle of the 18th century. In support of this, townships were established to provide the requisite hardware, dry goods, supplies and the niceties of life that local farmers could purchase or trade for. At the border of Iowa and Missouri, the town of Chaldea was one such place. Its early years were embroiled in a border dispute between the two states, each claiming ownership to a nine-mile-wide strip of land near to where Chaldea was located. The growth of the town remained stagnant until the boundary was officially settled in 1850.

Among Appanoose’s earliest settlers was Jonathan F. Stratton and his brother Joseph. Stratton moved from his homestead in Missouri out of a repugnance for the institution of slavery, staking a new claim within the borders of the Iowa Territory in 1841. The Stratton’s became a fixture in Appanoose, their home credited with holding the first religious services, the first elections, and the first school in the area. In 1845 Stratton established the first flour mill in Appanoose County. Among other things, he was a surveyor by trade, and in 1846 platted the new county seat, then called Chaldea. Today, Stratton’s gothic revival house, built in 1858, is on the National Register of Historic Places and a showpiece in contemporary Centerville.

The establishment of Chaldea as the county seat quickly led to the first businesses that formed the nucleus of the new community. Spencer Wadlington is credited with opening the first area business, selling a small amount of merchandise out of his log cabin. He later moved his cabin enterprise into the village shortly after James Wright erected the first building, a small cabin built in 1847. Within a few years Chaldea began growing with the arrival of blacksmiths, carpenters, brick makers, merchants, hotels, dining halls, doctors and bankers. The establishment of the requisite institutions that make up the needs of a county seat added to the importance of this young community. George Perkins became the first postmaster of Chaldea, and in 1847 when the name of the office was changed to Senterville he was re-elected to the post. The name was chosen to honor Tennessee politician William Tandy Senter.

In 1855, the town of Centerville was officially incorporated, although, as a legal entity, Centerville struggled to maintain its status over the next several decades, including the Civil War years where no official records were maintained. The new spelling was apparently a “correction” of a perceived misspelling of the senator’s name. In any case, no one seemed to care enough to change it back for the representative from another state. Over time the issues were resolved as Centerville moved steadily forward. In the late 1870s a city hall was erected, housing the city engineer, the mayor, the fire department and a seldom used three-cell jailhouse. There was little to no crime in Centerville, largely due to the fact that there were no saloons, a result of an 1857 charter that also established the first office of the mayor and other city officials.

In addition to the civic hub of Appanoose County, Centerville became the regional economic center for business, manufacturing and industry. Economic development brought jobs, income, and prosperity to the residents. One of the early successful enterprises came on the heels of an invention by Miles Bateman, a foundry molder, who devised a stump puller, a very useful tool for farmers to help clear land. Bateman, in a partnership formed with B. A. Fuller, another foundry worker, founded the Bateman Manufacturing Company to produce the “Hercules Stump Puller.” The name later morphed into the Hercules Manufacturing Company by the early 1900s. Fuller and Bateman were entrepreneurs, working in foundries by day while improving their product in their spare time, as well as developing a patented cement block machine and cement post making machines.

The two foundries that employed Fuller and Bateman are also examples of early Centerville industries. The smaller of the two, Joseph Goss’ foundry produced trucks used in the mining industry. The Centerville Iron Works, owned by H. L. Kirchman, was a considerably larger operation that “manufactured hoisting machines for mines, stationary engines, coal mine cars, cane mills and furnaces, castings and the like. He also did considerable casting for the Keokuk & Western rail,” noted Appanoose County historian L. L. Taylor in 1913.

Coal mining was an important foundational industry in Appanoose County at the turn of the century. Contemporary local historian Gary Cridlebaugh explained how the exposed outcrops led to a major source of revenue to the county. “There was coal discovered here in the late 1800s,” says Cridlebaugh. The coal layers would naturally crop out along creek beds, and was quite likely used by farmers as a source of fuel in the late 1800s. “They would just keep digging back that coal layer that was cropping out down the creeks, and it started what they call slope mines. Then it was discovered there were pretty good veins of coal under Appanoose County and all the counties around there, so it just got more and more commercial.” In 1898, the United Mine Workers of America Local Union 553 listed its membership at 1,200, the second largest in the state. Cridlebaugh says the coal business peaked in the 1920s in Appanoose County, when there were coal mines all over the county and almost right in the middle of town. Along with the mining came another big industry, the railroads.

The railroads first entered Iowa in 1854, when the Chicago & Rock Island Railroad crossed the Mississippi at Davenport, the first to span the famed body of water. The first rail line to reach into Appanoose County arrived from the south as the North Missouri Railroad Company punched two miles across the border, establishing a station at Moulton in 1869. The first railroad to reach Centerville came in 1871 when the Chicago & Southwestern line arrived with strong financial incentives from the city and the backing of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad Company, which eventually swallowed up the smaller line in its route to the West Coast. The railroads served to increase business and further establish Centerville as a transportation hub in southern Iowa.

Centerville soon became a hub for transportation heading west to the Missouri River, and into other portions of Iowa to transfer goods across its tracks. Among the many lines crossing Centerville was the Missouri, Iowa & Nebraska Railroad Company, later passing into the hands of several firms before becoming part of the Burlington road system in 1903 who later built a large depot in Centerville in 1911. Outside of Centerville proper, many smaller lines came and went, such as the Centerville, Moravia & Albia Railway Company, which was then sold to the Wabash Railroad Company and then reorganized as the Albia & Centerville Railway Company, operating until 1910 when it became the Southern Iowa Traction Company. This dizzying and ever-changing roster of railroads all contributed to the growth and economic value of Appanoose County in the early 1900s.

Following the decline of the mining industry, Appanoose County relied upon its agricultural industry for economic stability. In addition to rotational crop farming, the area is still a noted cow and calf area, producing feeder calves for the livestock industry and beef cattle for institutional food processors. In the early 1960s a revival of manufacturing and the addition of recreational opportunity brought new life to Centerville and Appanoose County.

Recreation came with the construction of the Rathbun Dam and Reservoir, one of the largest ever public works projects in southern Iowa when it got underway in the fall of 1964. The dam had been the topic of discussion for over a decade as proponents and critics battled over the economic viability of the project. The dam was built to control the annual flooding caused from the combined waters of the Charitan, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. The multi-year project, completed under the auspices of the US Army Corps of Engineers created the large, man-made Lake Rathbun, encompassing over 11,000 surface acres of water. In his dedication, President Richard Nixon noted the economic struggles of Appanoose County and its recent return to economic prosperity, which the recreational advantages of the reservoir and dam would certainly add to. “You moved successfully from a largely agricultural economy in 1960, to one evenly balanced today between agriculture and industry. Now, with the opening of this Lake Rathbun, you are introducing into the economic picture a third very promising. element: recreation,” stated Nixon.

Rathbun Lake offers multiple opportunities for fishing, boating, camping, sightseeing, hunting, and habitat for a variety of waterfowl and wildlife. In 2008, the Honey Creek State Park Resort opened as the first-ever state-run resort in Iowa, which includes more than a hundred rooms, an 18-hole golf course, and an indoor water park. Rathbun Lake also provides water to an estimated “16,000 rural families, farms and communities in Iowa and Missouri.”

Manufacturing arrived in 1964 with the opening of the Union Carbide Food Processing Plant, giving a tremendous boost to the economy of Appanoose County. The Fortune 500 company and the nation’s second largest chemical firm built a new, 132,000 square-foot film packaging facility for its Visking Division. The Centerville plant was involved in the production of nonedible cellulose and plastic casings and nettings used in the preparation and packaging of processed meat and poultry products. In 1978, Union Carbide expanded its operation in order to increase their capacity to produce Perflex 62, a shrinkable meat packaging material.

In 1981, the town faced a real crisis when the Burlington Northern Railroad made the decision to discontinue its rail line to Centerville. An article published in the Chicago Tribune stated that “According to a study, more than $5 million a year in retail sales and $7.4 million in personal income would evaporate. At least 700 residents probably would be forced to leave town in search of other work. And about 200 homes would have to be placed on the block.”

Rather than give up, the community bonded together, and literally started their own railroad. Centerville now became known as the community that built its own railroad. Over 700 individual citizens raised $54,000 in contributions ranging from $1 to $100. Local businesses and two banks extended loans totaling $200,000 to purchase a 14-mile branch line that had been abandoned by the bankrupt Rock Island Railroad in 1979. On Dec. 18, 1984, the Appanoose County Community Railroad ran its first train. For its part, Union Carbide eventually did leave Centerville, following the disastrous gas leak incident in Bhopal, India. Their presence was soon replaced by the addition of another large manufacturer.

In 1985, Newell Rubbermaid opened a plant in Centerville, employed over 500 in the manufacturing of Rubbermaid brand garden shed, outdoor storage units and garbage containers. The plant was shuttered in the fall of 2006 when the operation was moved to another state. In late 2007, the Lee Container company of Homerville, Georgia, purchased the 660,000 square-foot facility in a Midwest expansion of their container operations. Lee Container produces a variety of stock and custom containers made from high-density polyethylene plastic resin that are used in the Crop Protection, Lubricants, and Industrial and Garden Chemicals markets and operates today in the production of plastic and rubber products. In Centerville, Lee employs over 200. In 2018 the firm opened the Curious Kids Day Care Center to provide support for their employees and the greater community, further solidifying them as an integral part of the community.

The Barker Corporation plant announced a major expansion in its Centerville plant in 2007. Barker manufactures refrigerated and heated displays in grocery stores for fresh foods. Barker operates two production facilities in Centerville, providing high-wage jobs to over 100 Appanoose residents. Another major employer is Curwood, a supplier of packaging materials and systems for the food, beverage, household, industrial and personal care industries. Curwood is a division of Amcor, a “global leader in developing and producing responsible packaging for food, beverage, pharmaceutical, medical, home- and personal-care, and other products.”

Appanoose County continues seeking opportunities, and its residents enjoy a healthy lifestyle, rich in tradition and always forward looking in their perspective. A new emphasis on Centerville as an arts and cultural center is attracting a younger demographic to the area, and enhancing the town as a retirement friendly community.


Taylor, L. L. Past and Present of Appanoose County, Iowa: A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement, Volume 1. Appanoose County, IA: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1913.

Wiedrich, Bob. Small Town Finds the Only Way to Run a Railroad. Chicago Tribune, October 9, 1985. Retrieved online from,

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