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Cerro Gordo County History

Cerro Gordo County, located in the second tier of counties from the north and midway east and west, was, in the early days of the state, a part of Fayette County. Drainage is effected by Lime and Willow Creeks and Shell Rock River in the north and east part of the county, while a number of small streams drain the south and west into the Cedar.


The county is named after the location of a battle in the Mexican War. At this site General Winfield Scott defeated General Santa Ana of the Mexican army on April 18, 1847. The American troop, 8,500 strong, was outnumbered by the 12,000 men who fought on the opposing side. The battle was significant because it opened the way for the United States to take Mexico City. During the battle, 63 American soldiers were killed and 431 were wounded; between 1,130 and 1,700 Mexican soldiers were killed. The Spanish translation of Cerro Gordo is "fat hill".


The first white settlers came to the county in 1851, settling at Clear Lake. The total population at the close of that year was 8. In 1853, federal surveyors laid out the county into townships and later in the same year the townships were sub-divided into sections and quarter sections.


In the early days, cattle were allowed to graze at will. Soon, however, this custom endangered the fields of grain and so cattle were assembled in large herds and left to the care of a herder. It was his duty to keep the stock from wandering over the cultivated plots. A favorite oasis for these herders was the flowing well in Mt. Vernon township. Cattle were branded to facilitate the determination of ownership.


The government sold land for a dollar and a quarter an acre. Berries and fruits grew wild and in abundance. Prairie chickens and ducks were everywhere. Hay was worth just what it cost to cut it, and each farmer was permitted to forage all he wanted. The first schools in the county were conducted in stables. There was no jail. Persons under arrest were guarded in rooms or taken to the sheriff's home.


The profusion of wild game developed a race of hunters and trappers. Buffalo, deer, beaver, bear, elk, mink, muskrat, gophers, and squirrels were plentiful.


Settlement and civilization came to North Iowa in the life span of one generation. Mrs. Margaret McMillin Shipley, born in Rockford, Illinois in 1853, was brought by her parents to Mason City in March of 1854 where she was the first white babe in Cerro Gordo County.


The first physician set up an office in Mason City in 1854 and a county medical society was organized in 1871.


On August 7, 1855, when the population of the county was 632, an election was held at John B. Long's cabin near the junction of Lime and Willow Creeks. Closely following these elections was the appointment of three locating commissioners. These commissioners located the county seat at Mason City, which was first called Shibboleth and later Masonic Grove.


The first court was held in Mason City in 1857. It was short-lived because in the summer of 1857 the county seat was moved to Livonia. A new courthouse was built there, and the county records and offices were soon located at this small town. This too was short-lived, because in April, 1858, Mason City won back the county seat in an election.


Newspapers were established at an early date, the Cerro Gordo Press having put out its first issue on July 17, 1858. The Independent was established two years later.


The first county fair was held in 1860 and was considered a huge success.

When the call to arms came in 1860, the total population of the county was 940. Only 180 of these were voters - and poverty-striken ones at that.


In July, 1861, six volunteers lined up on Main street - and left for war, amid tears. In the first two years, the quota for the county was 69 men. Eighty-six were furnished and as time went on, additional enlistments brought the total to 125 men. Of these, 24 never returned.


In 1862, Cerro Gordo county was placed in the forty-second senatorial district and became the fifty-fourth representative district.


The county erected a $600 stone courthouse in Mason City. Built in 1866, this building was used until 1900, when it was abandoned.


It was not until 1869 that the first railroad laid its tracks into Mason City.


From the beginning almost, prohibition had a strong following in this county. In 1882, a vote was taken on the question. Eight hundred and forty-five ballots were cast and the vote for the prohibition proposal was 811, not far from unanimous.


Cerro Gordo county has a number of claims to world-wide fame. The inception and development of the farmers' co-operative has distinguished the county from others. The movement has probably been more thoroughly worked out locally here than elsewhere in the United States, starting with the farmers' co-operative society at Rockwell which claimed nationwide attention in a day when the word co-operation was scarcely understood.


Road-building is another realm of activity in which Cerro Gordo pioneered. The first mile of rural paving in Iowa was laid on the Clear Lake road - the mile east of the county farm - and this one mile built in 1913 has grown to nearly 50 miles. This is supplemented by an excellent system of graveled county and township roads. The leadership displayed in this matter is based upon a progressive citizenry in Cerro Gordo county, its foremost hope for a continued growth and expansion along all lines in the future.


In 1918, Mason City established the first Junior College in the state. One of the early teachers in, and afterwards principal of, the Mason City Schools was Carrie Lane Chapman Catt, who has been an international figure in the cause of Equal Suffrage for Women.


Meredith Willson, a Mason City boy, achieved national fame as a musician and orchestra leader, while his sister, Dixie Willson, was a well-known writer. General Hanford MacNider, whose father and grandfather lived in Mason City, served with distinction in the World War and later was National Commander of the American Legion, Assistant Secretary of War and Minister to Canada.


Clear Lake, which is the fishing and recreation mecca for North Iowans, is located on the shores of a beautiful little lake of the same name, created by ancient ice sheets. Among the early settlers in Clear Lake were the Hewitts, the Dickirsons, Robert O. and James S. Sirrine, Elon A. and Marcus Tuttle and Michael Callahan. The city was platted in 1856 by James Dickirson and Marcus Tuttle.

1902 Cerro Gordo County Courthouse

In 1902 a second courthouse of native stone was completed. Like its predecessor, it lasted a long time -- from 1902 until 1960 when it was torn down.

The present Cerro Gordo courthouse was first used on November 17, 1960. The building, purchased from the Standard Oil Company, was remodeled, and an addition was completed at that time to make a 49,000 square-foot building. That $750,000 project was financed through a bond. There was another addition in 1978 to create the current building as it stands now.


In 1999 the county purchased a building located on the block across the street from the current courthouse. This became known as the Cerro Gordo County Sheriff's Department Annex. The Department began housing prisoners in the annex in June 2000.