Historical picture of people around a log cabinO'Brien County History


In 1850 the Iowa State Legislature appointed a committee for the purpose of giving names to its counties. The committee named some of the counties after the patriots of Ireland and hence O'Brien County was named after William Smith O'Brien, a leader of the Irish revolt in 1848.


O'Brien County is uniform in shape, a perfect square, 24 miles each way. 16 townships of six square miles. Two rivers, the Little Sioux and Ocheydan. Smaller streams are Mill Creek, Waterman Creek and branches of the Floyd River.


O'Brien County was without a settler until the spring of 1856 when Hannibal H. Waterman, his wife Hannah H. Waterman and their child, Emily landed in O'Brien County with two yoke of oxen and a small amount of household goods. Mr. Waterman exercised his right as a squatter by filing a claim at the government land office in Sioux City and settled on what became known as The Waterman Place, the northeast one-fourth of Section 26 of what is now Waterman Township. It is an area five miles northwest of Peterson. The next year the first white child born in O'Brien County was the Waterman's daughter, Anna, born May 30, 1857. In the next few years, there was something of a rush of settlement into O'Brien County. In fact, the first school in O'Brien County was taught by Mrs. Waterman in 1860 and the first school building was built in 1869 in Grant Township (northeast of Sutherland.) It was built from bricks made from the local clay ground.


As other settlers moved into the territory, efforts began to organize a county. A petition for a proposed county was presented to the judge of Woodbury County on January 25, 1860. The judge approved the petition and ordered an election for county officers to be held in the Waterman dwelling on February 6, 1860.


After the election, the first courthouse was built near Mr. Waterman's residence. The building was made of logs and was 14 X 20 feet. It was used very little as a courthouse as there were no records to be kept, but was used as a residence. The elected county officers often carried any official documents and papers of the county in their pockets.


Later, the county purchased 40 acres of land from H. C. Tiffey. The old log courthouse was moved to this location and was given the name of Old O'Brien.


O'Brien, Iowa "Old O'Brien"


O'Brien, the first town and county seat in O'Brien County, was located on the Moding farm, three miles west of Peterson in the period from 1861 through 1872.

O'Brien, the first town and county seat in O'Brien County, was located on the Moding farm, three miles west of Peterson in the period from 1861 through 1872.

The entire area west of Peterson and Clay County was un-surveyed, uninhabited land making up the Territory of Woodbury in the spring of 1856.


After the settlement of Hannibal H. Waterman, as well as many other settlements, O'Brien County was organized, officials were elected, and a small courthouse was built near the Waterman settlement.


The next step in the county movement was to purchase land for a county seat. When efforts to purchase land from Hannibal H. Waterman for a county seat were made, he frankly stated that he wanted the county seat, its affairs and business as far away as possible. Several attempts had been made to jump his claim in efforts to seize it from him, so he was thoroughly disgusted with any county movement.


A Board of Commissioners to locate a county seat for O'Brien County was appointed on March 29, 1861 by Judge A. W. Hubbard. A site for the county seat was located on August 28, 1861. O'Brien County purchased forty acres of land described as the southwest one-fourth of the northwest one-fourth of Section 36, Township 94, Range 39 west of the fifth P.M. , from H. C. Tiffey for $2,000 for the county seat. This land is three miles west of Peterson and has been the Moding homestead since March 1, 1895.


Tiffey had acquired the land from the U.S. Government by patent, the document by which the U S. Government gives title to land. The original abstract shows the land was surveyed into forty lots, 219 feet 13 inches east and west and 198 feet north and south. Thirteen lots were designated and laid out for the town of O'Brien, the county seat of O'Brien County. It was the first platted town in O'Brien County. Some of the streets had Civil War names such as Lincoln, Hooker, Sherman and Grant.


With O'Brien established as the county seat, the log cabin erected on the Waterman place for a courthouse was moved to the new town. But there again it was used for various purposes including that of a schoolhouse in the summer of 1868 and the year 1869. Later when a new brick school house was built, it was used for a blacksmith shop and still later for a stable.


The first general store was built in O'Brien in 1869. The same year a hotel was built across the road north and east of the Moding place on the farm owned for years by Peter Richard of Peterson, now owned by the Bibler family. The lumber for the hotel was hauled overland from Denison, Iowa. Perhaps this contributed to its construction cost of $5,300. Later, an appraisal evaluated its worth at $1,500.


Even though it has been extensively remodeled, a portion of the original hotel structure still stands on the site. The owner of the hotel, C. W. Inman, was the first postmaster in O'Brien so the hotel served as a post office, too. But at times the use of the southwest room downstairs demonstrated true pioneer spirit. Stories were told of leading horses one at a time from the porch into the room in severe winter weather so that shoes could be nailed to the horses' feet.


By 1872, the courthouse occupied three buildings located around the public square; one building serving as an office in the forepart for the county auditor with his residence in the rear.


In addition, the town of O'Brien had grown to include two general stores, the hotel, a blacksmith shop, a shoe repair shop, a newspaper known as the O'Brien Pioneer, a post office, a banking service with the accounts kept on file in Sioux City, eight residences and a brick schoolhouse.


The schoolhouse, located some distance south of where the Moding home stands today, was constructed from bricks that were made and fired at the head of a ravine east of the Bibler house. A mud grinder, to prepare the clay, stood at the site for years. The schoolhouse, often used for public meetings at night, was lighted by tallow candles.


Peterson, three miles east of O'Brien was the county seat of Clay County at that time. It provided many services for the residents of O'Brien. This included the sawing of logs at the Peterson mill for building the residences and other structures in O'Brien. The residents went to Peterson to have their wheat ground into flour. One written account of the period states it was the worst flour ever offered to man but they had to take it and like it.


Many firsts can be attributed to the town of O'Brien such as the first hotel in O'Brien County, the first postmaster, the first banking service, the first newspaper, the brick schoolhouse and the courthouse. But all of this was not enough to hold the county seat in O'Brien.


As more and more settlers moved into the county, the courthouse location in O'Brien in the extreme southeast comer of the county became a growing issue. To resolve the matter, an election was held on November 11, 1872 to determine the location of the courthouse. A total of 360 votes were cast with 307 voting to move the courthouse to the exact geographical center of the county. One historian wrote, "Probably the only case in Iowa, perhaps anywhere, where a bare spot of raw prairie was actually voted to be the county seat:' This eventually became the town of Primghar.


Soon after the election, the building serving the county auditor was moved to Primghar. One general store was moved to Sutherland. One after another, the business buildings were closed so that in the short span of 15 years, the once promising county seat town rose and then practically vanished. Then the area became known as "Old O'Brien" by which it is still affectionately known.


The forty acres of land where the town of O'Brien was located was purchased by Fred Moding who moved with his wife Meta and infant son Carl to this place on March 1, 1895. This has been the Moding homestead and the center of the Old O'Brien neighborhood ever since. Two other sons, Forrest and Winfred, and one daughter, Martha, were born on the place. They grew up on the farm and attended the rural school nearby known as Waterman Township, District No.7. The school was located on the northeast comer of the George Schierholz farm, serving not only to provide education for the young people growing up in the neighborhood, but as a community landmark for years. But it too has been the victim of progress.


Win, the only member of the Moding family living today (July 30, 1987), remembers two log cabins from the town of O'Brien still standing when he was a boy. One cabin stood on his parents' place east and slightly south of their house, just on the west side of the east farm line fence. The other cabin stood to the north on the Towner place just east of the fence line. This place was owned for many years by August Grapenthin.


It has been 115 years since the pioneers of O'Brien County voted to move the courthouse and county seat from O'Brien. With the demise of the town, the farm and immediate area became known as Old O'Brien - a name that has endured through the passing years and is fondly remembered by all who have lived in the neighborhood.


O'BRIEN - Old O'Brien - a place in history that must not be lost to future generations.


Written by: Arthur M. Schierholz, D.C.
July 30, 1987


Note: O'Brien must not be confused with the Waterman place. Hannibal H. Waterman settled two miles to the north-west of O'Brien on land that took on his name -- The Waterman Place. They are two distinctly separate historical sites, each with its own background to be recognized.


Boom Towns and Ghost Towns


Some of the early towns of O'Brien County have since fallen by the wayside. Erie (1872-1892), one of the first towns in the county, survived until the railroad came into Calumet and most everything was moved there. Other towns that have disappeared are Plessis 1901, Ritter 1900, Old O'Brien 1860-1880, who's buildings and people moved to Sutherland in 1880 after the county seat was moved to Primghar, Germantown 1901, Max 1900, Moneta 1901, and Evander 1900. They are non-existent now, but for maybe an elevator, grain bin or a church.
The following towns are still active:


Calumet, platted in 1887; Archer, which was named for John H. Archer, owner of the land on which the town was platted in 1888; Gaza, which derives its name from Gaza on the Mediterranean in the Holy Land. The town was originally platted in 1887 as Woodstock but was changed when it was discovered Iowa had another town by that name; Paullina, which was named from the Paullina brothers, early settlers and large landowners there when the town was established. The town was laid out in 1882 by the Western Town Lot Company; Sutherland, which was named for the Duke of Sutherland, some of whose neighbors were settled near there. The town was laid out in 1882 by the Western Town Lot Company; Hartley, which was established in 1878 with the coming of the Milwaukee Railroad and was named after one of the surveyors and engineers involved in building the railroad; Primghar, the county seat, which received its name from the first letters of eight names of those who had a major part in platting the town. Pumphrey, the treasurer, drives the first nail; Roberts, the donor, is quick on his trail; Inman slips slyly his first letter in; McCormack adds M, which made the full Prim; Green, thinking of groceries, gives them the G; Hayes drops then an H, without asking a fee; Albright, the joker, with his jokes all at par; Rerick brings up the rear and crowns all "Primghar".


It was in 1873 when it was decided to move the county seat to the exact center of the county. 40 acres were platted in the very middle and thus the town of Primghar came into being. Although Primghar did not incorporate until 1888, it had its beginnings in 1872-73. A courthouse was built in 1874; Sheldon, which was started in 1872 and was named by Gen. J. W. Bishop in honor of Israel Sheldon, New Jersey, who was largely interested in the Sioux City and St. Paul Railroad that was first built through the area by Gen. Bishop, Sheldon and their associates. Sheldon was the first railroad town and also the first town to incorporate; and Sanborn, which was first planned to be called Edenville, but it was named after George W. Sanborn, then superintendent of Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad Company. It was platted in 1879.


Another courthouse was built in 1870. This was a wood frame building about 14 x 16 feet. The next year this one was destroyed by fire and a similar one was built in its place.


In 1872 an election was held to determine if a permanent location for the courthouse should be set up. To get the courthouse out of the hands of the gangs, it was decided that it should be moved to a 40 acre tract in the exact center of the county which later became Primghar. The courthouse from Waterman Township was then moved to Primghar on the north side of the square.


In 1874, a courthouse was built on the present location at a cost of $2,000. This building was about 35 feet square.


In 1887, the board decided to build a new courthouse for a total cost of $5,000 which was the highest amount the board was allowed to appropriate at that time. The actual cost was $6,000, so the good people of Primghar signed written agreements to haul the material without cost to the county from the railroad stations at Sanborn or Paullina.


The County Seat Contested


There were four county seat contests. The first fight was in 1872. A group of homesteaders decided the county seat and records should be taken away from the gangs and they also thought it should be located in the center of the county. This brought about the election of 1872 and it was decided to move it to the center of the county.


The second contest was between Primghar and Sheldon in 1879. Sheldon filed a petition with the county board and after holding a hearing which lasted three days, the petition was rejected because the results were 386 for Sheldon and 392 for Primghar.


The third contest occurred on November 23, 1882. This was a raid by Sanborn and was purely physical combat. It began when the railroads of the county were having a passenger rate war and the Sioux City railroad offered a round trip ticket to St. Paul, Minnesota for 25 cents. Every officer in the courthouse except the auditor, together with many other citizens, took advantage of this and left town for St. Paul. Since Primghar had no railroad at this time, they all got on the train in Sanborn. When the citizens of Sanbom saw this it gave them the idea for the raid. The Sanborn people soon got organized and came to Primghar with wagons, crowbars, pulleys and heavy timbers arriving in Primghar about midnight. They battered down the courthouse doors, cut window sills down to the floor and began to load up records. The county treasurer, county recorder and clerks safes were also taken. The auditor's safe was built into the building so it could not be removed. An alarm was sounded by someone sleeping in the jail and all of Primghar was soon aroused. Mr. Peck, the county auditor, was soon on the scene and walked through the courthouse and told the Sanborn people that the records must be returned. Primghar men passed among the teams cutting the harness and wringing nuts off the wagon wheels, thus preventing removal. By 10:00 a.m. the next day, the Primghar citizens were in Sanborn trying to get the courthouse back. It soon became clear to both sides that such an attempt to move the county seat without a vote of the people would end up in the courts. At 1:00 p.m., six Sanborn citizens came to the county board and admitted their mistake and offered to correct it. They agreed to hand over the records and pay all expenses on both sides. The hub of one of the wheels is on display in the courthouse.


The fourth contest took place on March 3, 1911. Sheldon citizens thought that because Sheldon was the largest town in the county and because they had three railroads and Primghar still did not have any, they should be the county seat. The people of Sheldon circulated a petition. This lasted 90 days. On June 8, 1911, the Board of Supervisors had a hearing and after going over the signatures on the petition, the final vote tally was 3,161 from Primghar and 1,447 for Sheldon, so, Primghar won again.


On November 3, 1914 a special election was held to vote on building a new courthouse. The cost was $160,000 and it was completed and occupied in April 1917. This is the same court-house that is in in use today except for some remodeling which was done from 1994 through 1996.


The Birth of a New Courthouse


Petitions asking that the question of building a new courthouse be submitted to the voters of the county were circulated during the month of September 1914.


Board of Supervisors in session September 29 adopted a resolution calling a special election upon the proposition, to be held upon the day of the general election, November 3, 1914.


The official canvass of the votes cast at such a special election showed that the measure had carried; 1,916 votes being cast in its favor, and 1,622 against.


The Courthouse Bond issue of $140,000 was sold January 21, 1915 to George M. Bechtel & Company of Davenport, Iowa, for $141,756 and accrued interest.


Smith & Keffer of Des Moines were chosen architects in open competition, and awarded contract on February 23, 1915.


The plumbing and heating contract was awarded to the Clefton Company, Inc. of Owatonna, Minnesota, on June 15, 1915 and J. E. Lovejoy of Des Moines received the award on the general construction contract on June 26.


Actual construction work on the new building was commenced July 3, 1915.


The design for the new courthouse is the work of Smith & Keffer, now Keffer & Jones, Architects, of Des Moines, Iowa.


The design is classic, in the Doric order, of the later Roman period, and is of those simple, monumental lines adaptable to the modem public building. The main part of the building is to face the east and is featured by a great column treatment applied to the two principal stories and extending nearly the full length of the building, being supported at each end by a more solid treatment with small openings and reinforced with pilasters.


The spaces between columns is given almost wholly to groups of windows, of sufficient size to provide abundant light. The entrance in the center of the first story is approached by a concrete walk and is but three risers above the grade, flanked on either side by granite buttresses two feet six inches high, and which is a continuation of a granite base course of the same height which extends all around the building. These buttresses are each surmounted by metal candelabra of massive design, which add much to the completeness, as interesting accessories, to the entrance. The entrance itself is of double glass paneled, heavy bronze doors, with side windows, filling a total space of about eighteen feet wide, and above this a balcony trimmed with delicate moldings and supported by ornate brackets.


The west elevation will be practically the same with the one exception of the balcony.


The north and south elevations are more simple and are practically alike, except the courtroom windows of the north will be more extensive than those of the jury rooms on the south. The entire exterior is faced with No 1 Buff Bedford limestone, trimmed with granite base course and terra-cotta cornice; granite and terra-cotta being impervious to water and a much better protection to the walls than stone in these places, and in themselves more enduring and remaining free from weather stains.


All the window and door glass is American plate and the window glass in the vaults is webbed with wire.


The roof is that known as flat, having a fall of not more than one-half inch in one foot, and the water is taken down through the middle of the building in cast-iron pipe, concealed in the walls, and connected to the sewer.


On the ground floor each entrance has a vestibule with double glass panel doors, sidelights and transoms, a hallway eighteen feet wide extending through from the east to the west entrance, and a short cross hall of the same width extending north and south. This story contains offices for the county superintendent, engineer and county attorney, restrooms and toilets for men and women, janitor's work room, storage vault and a fine assembly room.


The main stairs lead from the hall at the west entrance, starting in the center eight feet wide, to the landing over the vestibule where it divides and leads to the main floor above, on either side, from where it continues to the court room floor in a like manner. Another stairs located in the north section of the cross hall leads to the main floor and a small inside stairs to the attic from the court room floor.


The main floor is that containing the offices of the county supervisors, auditor, treasurer, recorder and clerk. The supervisors room is located just above the east entrance and joins the auditor's office, which is in the southeast corner and which is also directly connected to the treasurer's office, which is in the south west corner. Each office on this floor has a public reception room, large working record room, private office and closet and toilet equipment. The clerk's office is provided with a lift to the floor above to convey court records, and is directly connected with the courtroom by a private stairs.


On the upper floor, the courtroom, library and private offices for the judge and reporter occupy the north end, and the jury rooms are on the south. The sheriff has two rooms in the center on the east side near the courtroom, and a witness room for women is located near the stairs on the south. Toilets for men and women are provided on this floor. There are two petit jury rooms and a dormitory large enough for one jury located in suite with but one door to the suite. Each has a separate toilet and there is a bath for the dormitory.


The grand jury, in addition to their session chamber, are provided with a witness room and private toilet. There is also a large storage room for the janitor on this floor.


The basement is entirely under the ground and is to be used only for the boiler and heating and plumbing pipes.


The smoke flue is carried up through the building in a concealed manner at one end of the cross hall, thirty feet from the outside walls, and is balanced on the plan by an elevator shaft extending from the basement to the attic. In connection with this smoke flue will be an induced draft for ventilating the toilet rooms throughout the building.


In the attic is a storage space, equal to about one-half the ground dimensions of the entire building; the balance of this story is taken up by the upper part of the courtroom and a dome over the corridor.


The corridors are important features to the interior. There are no long halls with bends or turns to hide the location of offices. Every entrance to all the rooms on each floor is located in plain sight, except that to the janitor's work room.


The extreme simplicity of the office arrangement of the main story is easily the feature of the building, being absolutely free from confusing complications. A visitor standing in the center of the corridor is within fifteen feet of the entrance to every office on the floor, and has only to turn about in his tracks to see the one he is looking for.


All the finish of the corridors is of Italian marble, including the door trim, wainscoting and stairs, while the toilet finish is Tennessee pink marble. The stair railings are heavy castings finished in bronze. The only wood in evidence will be the doors themselves; the floors of the corridors, including the public spaces in the offices, are of tile, laid in artistic lines and a seal of the county is inlaid in the center of the main corridor floor in colored hand-cut tile.


The courtroom will be made the principal feature of rich decoration, with beams, cornices and panels, heavy oak trim and a carefully studied color scheme.


The Finished Courthouse Construction was completed on the new court-house in 1917. It began being used immediately after its completion.


The construction of the building throughout is of strictly fireproof materials; the finished floors in all office rooms are of battleship linoleum, and finally, with fixtures and furniture designed in perfect harmony with the architectural effect of the building itself, the new courthouse, at a total cost of $160,000, should be a credit to O'Brien County.