By Gary Herrity
The Clinton Herald
---- — It is often said that “Clinton, Iowa was built on sawdust.”
Indeed, excavations will often find tons of solidified mashed-up sawdust underneath both Clinton and Lyons. This area had many creeks and swamps which were filled in over time; our beautiful riverfront was formed by this strategy.
It behooves us to return occasionally to our economic and historical roots, revisiting why the city of Clinton is here, on the banks of the Mississippi, and how it influenced America’s growth. It is important to know and appreciate how our founders built a beautiful community and, also, come to realize that we need to revere and preserve what they had the foresight to provide — via trees, parks, schools, streets, historic homes and buildings, libraries, etc. — for future generations.
Specifically, they provided Jane Lamb Hospital, the land for the Carnegie Library, Eagle Point Park (formerly Joyce’s Park), the YWCA, YMCA, the Women’s Club, and donations to colleges and much more.
Many of the founding fathers were rich beyond belief, and they contributed in a variety of other ways. In its early days, Clinton’s economy was booming — and nothing more so than the lumber industry. Literally “steaming” along, it hired many hundreds of workers by itself.
The Lambs, Youngs, and Joyces were the three really big sawmill millionaires, but there were lesser-known ones, also. Woodworking became a satellite industry, and the Curtis’ (in Clinton) and the Disbrows (in Lyons) provided still more jobs to yet more people. And those are only a few examples of businesses from Clinton’s past.
Importantly, those historic leaders created jobs with every endeavor they undertook: railroads, lumber and more than 250 other businesses were created all in one thriving little river town. In those days, a person could leave one job and have another by sundown.
From 1870-1895, and later (after the start of WWII), that remained pretty much the case. Sadly, once industry moved from the “rust belt” to the “sunshine states,” hard times would hit Clinton too. (Remember, however, that the Midwest still has one critical resource… water … another thing we must value and preserve.)
But our small centrally-located insular town’s “glory days” — a time when it was peopled by many mighty millionaires — faded fast. Clinton’s early elite were seen as “special” by most of the locals, but they’d actually grown up quite common themselves.
Owing to a lucky combination of intelligence, talent and timing, they were able to amass considerable fortunes in a relatively short timespan. They needed (and possessed) business acumen, forward vision and skills with people, as well as mechanical and building talents…all rolled into one.
Most had tough personalities, which could flare up if provoked, but they also seemed innately aware of a need to take care of the common man, knowing that a successful community requires united “team” effort. These wealthy magnates didn’t like to give up control or pay too much for anything, but they did live on the same blocks as their workers, provided generously for public schools, recreation and the arts, and also served on school boards and other government offices. W.J. Young was once even Clinton’s mayor.
The Lamb family had an opulent lifestyle. They used the Mississippi as their private playground. They traveled on their private fleet of steamboats down to New Orleans and up to Frontenac, Minn., on Lake Pepin. Before leaving, they notified a local grocer to provide provisions for three months and load them on their steamboats. They stopped at all the towns along the way and they swam off of sand bars as they frolicked. The Wanderer and the Idler were pushed by powered boats like the Chaperone and the Summer Girl.
Many of the rich like them from farther south came up to Clinton to escape the Yellow Fever season. While traveling in Florida, the Garrett Lamb family hob-nobbed with the John Jacob Astor family for six weeks. Later Astor went down with the Titanic.
The rich of Clinton were celebrities of the town. Every citizen knew all of them and idolized them. They in turn were good to the people. The rich had to invent their own pleasures since the days of movies, computers, ball games, etc., had not yet been invented. The common folk had to do the same. They were all very good at doing so.
Extravagant parties were held with all the exotic foods of the time, and the others had dances. Tailors had all the business they could handle as rich men bought handmade suits like some today would purchase shirts and sneakers. Women seldom used a dress twice and they had to turn sideways to go through a door because of their huge and ornate hats. Later, upon going on a steamboat trip, they would load the new invention of the time onto their boats and automobiles. They had electrics, Daimlers, Packards, Pierce-Arrows, etc.
The self-contained nature of towns in the mid-1800s allowed for quick progress. Lumber came in; then, lumber and woodworking went out. There wasn’t much evidence of outside forces affecting the local economy until Clinton Foods began in 1906. It depended on various raw materials from rural America and, also, provided products to many other companies, not just to lumber yards all over the West, as lumber had. Clinton became home to more and larger national companies, such as E.I. DuPont, Chemplex, Purina and others.
Yet, for a few glorious decades, Clinton flourished like few other American cities had, and it is a wonder and mystery how this time passed so quickly. Who knows, this may be a temporary lull and Clinton’s hidden treasures may re-emerge and it will be restored to its former elegance.
• Note — Next year is the 100th anniversary of the first “home for the aged” in Clinton — the Alverno.
It was started in the old Judge Chase home on Bluff Boulevard. They are in need of documentation for the 1914 to 1939 era. If you have knowledge or articles, please direct them to the Alverno.
Gary Herrity is the Clinton Herald’s historical columnist. His column appears on Fridays.
Sources November 18, 1962 Davenport Times- Democrat; Clinton County Historical Society Museum; Eugene Burke and Don Leslie