By Gary Herrity
Special to the Herald
In 1856, William Koons came to Clinton and helped build the first railroad bridge for the Northwestern to Little Rock Island -- where a small village existed for ten years, until a permanent span could be constructed across the river. He was a master carpenter who had immigrated from Perry City or Germantown, PA via Lockport, NY. It is said he walked the 350 miles to New York.
In Iowa, William would dabble in both building and real estate. The Koons Block can be seen on old plats of downtown Clinton, near where the first Clinton National Bank was, on 2nd Street. He is also credited with building The Clinton Hotel, which used to be on the corner of 7th Avenue So. and 2nd Street. He is believed to have completed his mansion in Chancy in the early 1860’s.
William Koons married Phillipa Jane Retallick, an Englishwoman, in 1853. Together, they raised five children in the home, a daughter and two sons born to them, and William’s young George and Sarah, from a prior marriage out east. Phillipa survived her husband’s 1889 death, and carried on the Koons family business until her death in 1919; all the while living with her elder son, Charles, in that elegant spacious home of nine rooms on the corner of Camanche Avenue and Harrison (now 22nd Place).
William and Phillipa (pronounced Fil'-ih-pah) had settled in the addition south of town then called Riverside, but which would later become known as Chancy.…likely because Chancy Lamb once had influence there.… probably before he built his mansion on Seventh Avenue, along DeWitt Park’s south side, circa 1875.
At one time, the Koons family owned that whole section along Camanche Avenue -- all the way up to the Country Club! During her lifetime, Mrs. Koons subdivided sections of the parcel. Her children would later sell the homestead and its surrounding land to the city for five dollars, with the stipulation that it be used as a park. Because of its name, Chancy Park is sometimes mistakenly identified as a donation by the well-known lumber baron. It was not, and might more fittingly have been named “Koons Park.”
The Koons’ daughter, Nellie, and son, Charles, had no offspring who lived in Clinton. However, their brother Frank would scandalize family and friends in 1894, by marrying his mother’s maid, Amelia Moeller (later changed to Miller). Frank and Amelia had ten children and lived across the street, on the east side of Camanche Avenue. Two of their daughters married neighboring Jackson brothers, but they never owned or lived in the mansion. That, however, may explain why it was sometimes referred to as the Jackson house.
The old homestead became known locally as a neighborhood clubhouse. It was once used as a servicemen’s canteen and was home to Chancy Lutheran Church from 1948 until a portion of their new church was built for the congregation further on up the hill. Completed in 1967, Zion’s Reverend Schoenbaum began it as a mission church shortly after the Second World War.
Retired Clinton businessman Bob Koons, once the personnel director for Clinton Foods/ Standard Brands and V.P. of Human Resources & Planning under President Leonard Lewis, is one of the great-grandsons of the pioneer Koons couple. He recalls the old house serving many years as Chancy Branch Library and being used by the USO during World War II. Church services for several denominations were also held there.
Sadly, the house was torn down in 1958. It was a unique landmark in the south end of the city for nearly 100 years. William Koons had built it himself with wood from surrounding farmlands. He was a master carpenter who taught his sons Frank and Charles well. Both would later work for the Chicago Northwestern R.R.; Charles as a switchman-engineer, and Frank as a skilled saw-filer in the hot, well-lighted heights of the Car Shops. Frank also produced all the first-generation grandchildren, and his three sons… another William, another Frank, and another Charles… were also very talented with their hands.
The younger Frank was a boilermaker and worked at the ice house, where his legs were badly mangled in the 1930’s. After that, he ran a tiny grocery at the confluence of Ninth Street, 15th Avenue So. and Iowa Avenue. He and wife Del’s only child was the aforementioned Robert Koons. They lived at 905-14th Avenue So. The Koons family name was carried on for three generations via just one male heir.
Frank’s older brother Willie wed a Burlingame, and younger brother Charlie married Jessie Watson. Their oldest sister, Adelta, married Arthur Jackson; Nellie, married Art’s brother, George. Middle child Mildred’s spouse was Herman Ronnfeldt, and the youngest, Emily, married David Decker. Sister Grace never married, and two siblings died in infancy.
Their pioneer grandmother, Phillipa Koons (1830-1919), was truly a woman ahead of her time. When her husband died, she personally tended to a great deal of family business -- at a time when very few women desired, or were allowed, to do so. Mrs. Koons bought and sold property and, for a time, was in real estate with W.H. Howes. She would later carry on business under her own name for many years. Her obituary notes Mr. Howes was one of the pallbearers at her funeral.
This is the story of one of Clinton’s first families and their stately home on Camanche Avenue. Numerous descendents have emanated from them who still reside in the city and are proud of their heritage.