Keithsburg was once the County Seat


Original article by written by Mona Parsons and Patty Sackville and published in Mercer Remembers 1985



     Allthough William Denison and his son, Sohn W. Denison and their families are known as the first white men to settle in Mercer County, near what is now New Boston another man arrived just one week later to lay claim to land where the town of Keithsburg now stands.


     John Vanatta arrived on April 27, 1827, and several years later were joined by his brother, Benjamin. The brothers began the employment of cutting and selling wood to steamboats that plied the Mississippi River. Although the brothers maintained a good relationship with the Indians, rumors of unrest among the Sac and Pox Tribe caused the Vanattas to pack up and go to Pence's Fort, located four miles northeast of Oquawka in 1831. The next year the Blackhawk war broke out and just before the hostilities ended a party of seven Indians penetrated the country as far as Lit­tle York, and creeping up on a young man named Martin who was mowing on the prairie, all fired upon him at once and shot him dead. Afterward they said they could have killed many more, but being ac­quainted with them and having sat by their fires and been fed by the settlers, they deterred from taking their lives. Unfor­tunately, Martin was a stranger.


      A company of rangers was raised that summer at Monmouth and scoured the country between Oquawka, New Boston and Monmouth. They pursued the prowl­ing band of Indians until the redmen "threw away everything in their flight and escaped across the Mississippi."


      In the fall of 1835. the Vannatta's sold their claims to Robert Keith, a Scotchman, who had emigrated to America the year before. The Vanatta's moved to the vicinity of Muscatine, IA. 


      Keith, who was reared in Belfrone, Scotland. was an educated man. His claim soon became known as Keith's Landing. Keith laid out the town of Keithsburg in 1837. Hiram Hardee deputy county surveyor made the original survey and on Nov. 18, the plat was acknowledged before Abraham Miller Jr. County Clerk. Two principal streets, Main and Washington, were laid out east and west, and these were crossed by seven others, designated as First through Seventh. Until 1846 not more than a dozen families resid­ed in the place.


Sawmill Built

     in 1837 a sawmill and dam were built on Pope Creek, north of Keiths Landing, but both were lost to quicksand. In '36 Abner Martin settled in a part of Sec. 13 and in the same year sold out to John McH. Wilson, who lived there until his death in 1879. 


     The same spring William Sheriff and Paid Sheriff settled on the west half of Sec­tion 24 and on the southwest quarter of the same section. Paul Sheriff was a resident and prosperous farmer. In 1837 William Sheriff put a saw mill on Pope Creek on the northeast quarter of Sect. 23 and spent a large amount of money to put in a dam which was a total loss, due to quicksand on the bed of the stream. The mill rotted down.


     Daniel Justice, who farmed the southwest quarter of Sec. 1 as early as 1836, sold out to John Doak and moved to Iowa, William Wilson settled in Sect. 13, where he and his wife died.


     The Rev. James Ross of the United Brethren Church brought his family in 1841 and served as the Communities first minister.

James Garner was the first merchant, but his business was unsuccessful and he sold out to David Brown Later Garner opened a hotel and served as justice of the peace and as county sheriff. In later years he moved to Millersburg, where he re­mained.


     Glaucey's Mill was the first polling place for Keithsburg residents, but In 1841. Keithsburg was made a polling place. In 1853 Mercer County adopted township organization and 0. C. Allen was voted supervisor.


     The first election in the township was held on Aug. 3, 1840 with "a quart cup of whiskey left standing on the judges table ail day for an hour glass.- George Bowen, son of David Bowen. born that election day was said to the first birth in Keithsburg.


     In 1841 B. L. Hardin began to build a home On Sect. If and became one of the solid farmers in the neighborhood. His home served as a meeting place for religious services with Rev. Burr. Mr. Hardin made benches of common slab wood to seat the crowds who attended.


     In 1842 Nicholas Edwards, William Willett and Isaiah Brown erected a saw mill at the mouth of the Edwards river and in 1844 an association of farmers from Ab­ington and Ohio Grove townships under­took to erect a warehouse in Keithsburg for storing and handling their grain. Keith donated two lots in the town facing north at the foot of Main Street for the building.


     The 1882 History of Mercer County states that in 1845 the town consisted of "one frame house, fitted for a store, one Ion house and three cabins. Trade consisted of 3,690 bushels of wheat, 502 barrels of flour and 3,256 bushels of corn."


     Following a series of elections in 1847 the young town became the ultimate choice for the county seat. Keith again donated ground and citizens donated moods to build a courthouse.


Court in Warehouse

     The first term of the circuit court and several subsequent terms were held in Willet's warehouse. The courthouse was built on block 7 and finished at the end of the summer of 1851. The one story brick building measured 40 x no feet. It might be mistaken for a church, according to local remarks.

     Two young and enterprising businessmen, Noble & Gayle. erected a frame store and a warehouse and in 1848 built a brick packing house. That same year McConahan and Rife started a saloon.

     On July 15. 1852. Keithsburg became a corporate town. The first board of trustees included William Willett, T. B. Cabeen, J. J. Wordin, Alexander Davis and N. B. Par­tridge.

     In 1852 James Noble put a large new slaughter-house into operation and Gayle finished an additional warehouse. Noble also established the first drug store.


     James W. Doughty, merchant, became the Keithshurg editor for the "Oquawka Spectator and Keithsburg Observer" in 1850.


     William R. Calhoun purchased the "Keithsburg Observer" in 1857 and in MB changed the name to the "Mercer County Democrat". Due to its partisan editorials, the paper failed in 1859 and it was followed by the "Northern Illinois Commercial" and the -Democratic Press" whose publisher was V. B. Shout. Two brothers, J. A. J. and George D. Birdsall resurrected the "Observer- in 1862 and later publishers of the newspaper were A. G. Lucas and Col, Isaac McManus.


     Theodore Glancy, a Mercer County native, the next in line to publish the paper, was a "curious combination of youth and manhood" He sold his interests in the paper in 1870 and went to California where he published the "Los Angeles Frees," a Republican organ. In 1874 Glancey was assassinated by an "aggrieved candidate for district attorney."


     Following a succession of newspapers, the "Keithsburg Times" came into being June 18, 1881 by Richard Wolfe and H.C. Cook The "Times" consolidated with the -Aledo Weekly Record" in 1894 to become "The Times Record"



     Keithshurg lost one of its oldest buildings last spring on April 3. 1984, when the United Presbyterian Church collapsed and fell following heavy rains. The building had been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980 and funding for its restoration had been applied for.   


     Built in 1854 by by Thompson and Par­tridge, the church was used for services until the mid1930’s.  At the time of its collapse, it was being used as a town library.


St. Mary’s Catholic Church

     Catholic's attended Mass at Keithsburg in the courthouse and the residence of Den­nis Murto as early as 1855, but there was no regular pastor until Father Lormier of Monmouth established stated services in 1865. St. Mary's Church was erected in 1869 on land donated by T. B. Cabeen at a cost of $6000. It is the oldest Catholic Church in the county.


     On April 2, 1967 ground was broke for the addition of a new parish hall marking the first time in a quarter of a century that a public building was constructed in Keithsburg.


     A Methodist "class" was formed and in the mid-1800's a building was erected at a cost of 10,000. It burnt in 1890. It was rebuilt at a cost of $7,000 and still stands.



     The Warsaw & Rockford Railroad Com­pany endeavored to build a line through Keithsburg in 1855 and the town unanimously voted to subscribe 320,000 to the capital stock of the company. In 1857 the company failed and work on the line was permanently suspended.


     By January of 1871, following a dispute over the railway, a short line was Laid bet­ween the six mile section from Keithsburg to the American Central railway and trains ran into Keithsburg over this route.


     The short route was later transferred to the Chicago Burlington and Quincy Co.



     The first school in the Keithsburg area was taught in a log cabin in the summer of 1846. Thomas Libby was the teacher. Schools and teachers in succession were Isaac Bliss, in a vacant cabin in Robert Keith's dooryard; John Heaton, at the site of the Dennis Murto residence,


     The first woman schoolmarm was Mrs. Lucretia Freeman, who opened a small school in 1849. 

The first schoolhouse in Keithsburg was a brick structure built in 1849. Harvey Senior was the principal from 1851 to '55.


     In the 1880's Keithsburg Township's two districts were re-organized into three with the town school designated No.1. In 1929 the districts consolidated to form Keithsburg Community Consolidated Dist. No. 118, grades I to 8. In 1960, Keithsburg, New Boston and Joy merged to form the Westmer Community Unit 203.


Mississippi Floods

     In May 1851 the Mississippi began rising and by the 29th was "encroaching" on the streets. It continued to rise to Fifth Street and was standing over the lower part of Keithsburg from four to seven feet in depth. The river stayed at its highest stage until the 11th of June, when it commenced falling slowly. The "Observer" stated "The Mississippi covers the country from seven to ten miles in width," rafts cir­culated in the streets in the course of business and the row boats, Kate and Fawn, went about the town by moonlight in pleasuring and serenading parties. The river did not return to its banks until after June 20.


     The flood is said to have surpassed the high water marks of 1844 and 1828. In Oc­tober 1881 the river rose within inches of the mark. Half a mile of railroad track was submerged.


     In July of 1853, the ferryboat “Dove” own­ed by Seth H. Redmon made daily trips between Keithsburg and Huron and Prairie Point. Three years later the Red­man replaced the Dove with the steam ferry, Iowa. Keithsburg was at the period of its greatest growth from 1850 to 1856 and two additions were laid out, Keith's second.


     Keithsburg Township 13. Range 5, is made up of 15 full and 4 fractional sections. and Sheriff and Cabeen’s  in 1853.


     Shipments of grain from Keithsburg ranged from 1,400 bushels by Thomas B. Cabeen of Ohio Grove Township on March 25, 1842 to 13,090 bushels of corn by William Gayle in April of 1881.


     In 1855, Mr.Gayle erected a three story brick structure at Main and Second and B. F. Gruwell a three story brick addition to his hotel on the corner of Main and Third. It was destroyed by fire in 1860,


Fatal Fire

     On the night of July 4, 1870 a fire broke out in the livery stable of H. N. Ives on Fourth Street between Main and Jackson. Over $18,000 damage resulted In the loss of the stable, the Nelson House, the homes of Emily Wade and Joseph Thompson and the corn house of 0. Holland. Two young boys, Frank Ives and Willie Dempster, about 14, who were sleeping in the livery, perished in the flames.


Farmer's National Bank

     Keithsburg was the site of the second bank to organize in Mercer County. In April 1871 the Farmers' National Bank was established with a capital of $50,000. William Drury, one of the counties wealthiest residents, served as president, Thomas B. Cabeen, vice-president and C. S. Orth, first cashier.


     Mr. Cabeen and Abram B. Sheriff built the first court-house in Mercer County in Millersburg in 1839.


     The Keithsburg Building and Loan Association was organized in 1882 with T. B. Cabeen as president and T.S. Cummins as secretary.


WCTU Organizes

     The Woman's Christian Temperance Union organized in Keithsburg on Jan. 31, 1880. Their actions in the spring of 1880 focused national and international atten­tion on the town when an ordinance was passed permitting men 21 years of age and women 18 years of age to vote for or against licensing the sale of intoxicating liquors.


     When the day came some female celebrities in the suffrage and temperance reform gathered in Keithsburg to touch off the "Sumter Gun" On election day, Aprils, they paraded down Main Street with ban­ners "Bad Luck to Whiskey" and "Down with License" The vote was 159 women and 98 men against the license.


     Gratulatory letters were received from all parts of the United States and Europe.



Resisting Arrest

     Frederick Fry, a saloonkeeper on BlackHawk Island (opposite Keithsburg) was shot and mortally wounded by William A. Griffin, on Feb. 28, 1881, when fleeing to avoid an arrest by Thomas L. Rippey.


     Within twenty yards of the mainland, Fry began shooting at Griffin, who return­ed his fire with fatal effect. Griffin was later acquitted of blame.



Paul Sheriff donated land in 1852 for a cemetery. Green Mound Cemetery was laid out the same year one mile East of Keithsburg.

St. Mary's Cemetery lies to the east of Greenmound.


     The graves of Robert and Janet Keith. Tom A. Marshall, and Paul Sheriff are located in Greenmound Cemetery.


     One native of Keithsburg went on to become the governor of Oregon. Ben Olcott, who was born in Keithsburg in 1872, was elected governor in 1872 and re­elected in November of 1919. He was the son of Mr. and Mrs. H. W. Olcott.


     He returned to Keithsburg for Thanksgiving in 1922 and was honored at a reception and dance at the Masonic Tem­ple.


Railroad Center

     Keithsburg was a busy railroad center at one time with a roundhouse, stockyards, switch tracks and a hotel near the depot, The Central Iowa Railway emerged from the hands of a bankruptcy court in 1879.


     Plans were made to build a railway line from Oskaloosa, IA to the Mississippi River and by the end of 1882 that portion of the railway was in operation.


     On the Illinois side of the river, plans were made to complete a route from Peoria to central Iowa. The obstacle fac­ing these plans was the Mississippi. They used ferries for both passengers and freight cars. One year, at least, a tem­porary wooden trestle was constructed on the rivers ice. After navigation had ended for the winter, the trestle was barely above the water level.


     In 1881 the Mercer County Bridge Co. was formed to build a span over the river. Four years later the name of the company was changed to the Keithsburg Bridge Co., and the firm existed separately from the railroad until it was purchased by the Cen­tral Iowa in 1901. The bridge was finished in 1886 at a cost of $800,000 and consisted of eight spans and a 320 foot swingdraw, all of through-truss design. The eleven stone piers supported seven 205 foot spans and one span 255 feet in length.


     After the bridge was built the Central Iowa was acquired by the Iowa Central Railway and in 1912 it combined with the Minneapolis-St. Louis Railroad, Later years would see the trains of the Louie run­ning on the bridge.


     Two new bridges were constructed in 1909 and 1910 because the bridge was no longer   adequate for heavy locomotives and trains. The cost this time was $725,000.


Flood of 1965

     The flood of 1965 will be remembered by many residents of the county who rushed to the aid of their neighbors to the west. Cadets from Roosevelt Military Academy joined the ranks of sandbaggers who fought to hold the river back. The Mississippi crested at 20.26 feet, complete­ly inundating the business district.


     The Times Record reported: "At Keithsburg the damage has already been done. the record flood has already taken its toll with most of the downtown business section underwater and more than 60 homes heavily damaged by the muddy water.


     In 1967 railroads were crossing at Keithsburg only a few times each month. On June 21, 1981 a fire started by firecrackers, broke out in the shed on the bridge. The fire spread to the ties and wooden rail longs on the left span floor, then to grease-coated cables supporting the 200 ton counterweights, causing the east counterweight to crash down on the bridge span. The east end of the vertical lift span fell into the river blocking the main channel, at the time, the bridge was the last single track, vertical lift span across the Mississippi. At one time 22 boats and more than 160 barges were tied tip waiting for the river to be cleared.


     On July 5, 1981, at 8:40 p.m., 20 pounds of plastic explosives were set off and the splash from 400 tons of steel falling into the river was witnessed by hundreds of people gathered along the river bank to witness the end of the bridge. Less than 24 hours was needed by a contractor to clear the channel of the fallen span and open the channel to commercial traffic.


Ellett House

     Benjamin Ellett came to Keithsburg in 1838 and built "a comfortable home". The present Ellett house, located at the corner of 10th and Washington, was built in 1853. Ellett raised a large family and was a limber merchant. Lester Callahan bought the property from Frederick Bloomer and began restoration on the outside. Nancy Wooten purchased the house about seven years ago and has completed the renovation.   


Largest employer

     Al Cannon founded the Cannon Oiler Co. in Keithsburg, Manufacturing the pump oil cans used for oiling train wheels. The nor­thwest corner of the original Robert Burns Masonic Lodge built in 1854 formed the northwest corner of the building. Richard E. Bloomer, a Keithsburg dentist, owned and operated The Cannon Oiler Can Co. from 1907 to 1915. Later the company was bought by several Keithsburg residents and renamed the Cannon Bronze Co. 


Masonic Lodge

     The Robert Burns Lodge No. 13 was organized in Keithsburg on Nov. 19. 1950 just 13 years after Keithsburg was laid out by Robert Keith. Thomas Freeman was the worshipful master. It was constituted under a charter dated Oct. 7, 1851. In 1854 construction on a three story building costing $4000 was started. The building was enlarged and renovated in 1920.