top of page

History of Clayton, Iowa

CLAYTON, IOWA, Yesterday and Today

Nestling in one of the most beautiful valleys of the Mississippi, surrounded on three sides by high bluffs and hills, and its western boundary washed by the great Father of Waters, lies the thriving village of Clayton, Iowa.

First seen by Marquette and Joliet in the month of June of 1673, there are no reliable records of Clayton for about 100 years after the two explorers first laid eyes on the town. The city of Clayton was visited again by a scion of French nobility in the person of Chavaker Marais, an adherent of Louis the Sixteenth, in the year of 1812.

Clayton was finally laid out in 1845 by Frank Smith, Timothy Davis, Jack Thompson, and Chester Sage. The men willfully went to work clearing land, hoping to develop a landing and shipping point for their flour that was manufactured at the Elkader mills. After town lots were surveyed, they named the town Clayton, in honor of John M. Clayton, and business began to progress.

The city had many benefits for the men who laid out the format and for other interested men. Frank Smith and Company built the first general store during the fall and sold the first goods in town. Enterprise and business thrift began.

Clark and Rogers built the first warehouse and exported the first grain and produce to other shipping areas along the Mississippi River. Mr. Ruckle kept the first boarding house in Clayton. The people would stay at this boarding house after they had brought their goods to the town. A second boarding house, the Clayton House, was built and operated by J.A. Brown, a former German immigrant.

At the cost of $31,000, E.H. Williams, G.A. Whitman, Mark B. Sherman, D.G. Rogers, A.D. Rodgers, and Samuael A. Clark designed and constructed the foremost flouring mill. Known as the Clayton City Mills, it was a booming success for townsmen and other area citizens.

The first blacksmith shop, opened by Ralph Campbell, was located on Main Street. Later in November of 1881, John J. Hauschen also started his blacksmith business here. Another blacksmith, Wancel Smasar, embarked in business in 1862.

Krueger and Company built a large four-story mill at the cost of $75,000. Their business did well until the wheat crop failed and they were forced to close the mill. They had manufactured the finest flour, and with their closing, Clayton suffered its first loss.

A boot and shoemaker, J.H. Wiegand, engaged in his business in 1860. A second boot and shoe store was established in 1872 by Ernest Rantzow. In 1867, H.C. Stisson, a general merchant and agent for a general insurance company started business. Stisson was also the Justice of the Peace from June 1, 1862 until June 1, 1880.

Being the principle crossing place for travel between northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin, northern Iowa, and southern Minnesota, good roads on both sides of the river and a steam river boat crossing it every half hour, furnished ample accommodation, since the river was the greatest means of transportation.

Mr. H. Adams had a mass production in grain dealing in 1879, acting as an agent for "Diamond Joe" Reynolds. He paid the highest prices for his goods. Mr. Adams was also made notary public and later was elected to the office of Justice of the Peace in 1880.


Our History

One local city saloon was operated by August Ruegnitz, a native of Germany. Ruegnitz started as a farmer in Clayton County, but later started his saloon on May 1, 1878. The Schroeder Brothers embarked in the hardware and tinware business in 1880. They were successful in selling barbed wire, fence wire, stoves, belting tin, shelf ware, and many other items.

J. Pahl was engaged in the tailor business in 1882. His wife, Mrs. Pahl, started up a milliner and dressmaking shop. The Beckman brothers were two prominent businessmen who dealt in agricultural implements and manufactured windmills, pumps, and all kinds of farm machinery. This business was later sold to the Schroeder brothers.

The barrel hoop factory, in which remains can still be seen today, was owned by Charles Ruegnitz. He worked first for the Northwestern Hoop Company of Chicago for seven years before he embarked on his own business. This was very successful for a long while.

With all of these businesses prospering, the mail had to go through. Christ Freund carried the mail daily from Elkader to Clayton for four years and for eight weeks tri-weekly. E. Griest later took this mail route.

Five school buildings existed in Clayton with their properties valued at $3,500. Herbert Tolbert taught at one of the schools and later became principal of that school. In the year 1881, there werj 351 pupils enrolled in these schools.

Only one church building existed; that being of the Catholic religion. Although many other religious faiths were represented in the town, all of these meetings were held in school houses or other buildings.

As everything must come to an end, so must too much prosperity in a town, not meant to be. The great disaster struck Clayton on September 29, 1901, when fire broke out. A retired armed service nurse, Louise Liers, tells of her view and knowledge of the dreadful fire; it is said that a man by the name of Christian Maker started the fire. It seems that with railroads coming into Clayton, the barges were being used less and less and so was 

his business. Maker owned and operated a bar and hotel that was doing well until no one needed to stay overnight anymore, thus his business was going downhill. The fire burnt the lower half of the town and then went down the road, destroying the most important businesses in town.

Another loyal and ambitious man named Eddie Hauschen tells of his experience toward the fire before his death in 1973. Hauschen reported that the fire started in the Mississippi Hotel, which was next to the railroad tracks and about fifty feet from the Mississippi River. This account, carried in the Dubuque Telegraph on September 30, 1901, said most of the town had gone to bed for the night. Around 2:30 A.M., a Professor C.D. Magoon, a patron of the hotel, was awakened by the smell of smoke and an intense heat. He ran from door to door of the twenty-six rooms in the second story of the hotel, awakening guests. Only minutes after the hotel was emptied, there was nothing but a few timbers and an empty shell remaining.

A southeast wind had caused trouble. Flames had been swept across two streets setting two blocks of businesses and homes on fire. In all, twenty-three buildings burned, leaving eighteen families homeless and causing estimated damages of $52,000, of which $15,000 was insured. Only the post office was left standing in the burned out area. Hauschen said there had been no fire alarm, possibly because of the excitement, possibly because most of the homes were farther up the ravine. The other buildings burned more slowly than the hotel, the paper said. Most of the fire occured in the early morning hours, until a volunteer fire company summoned from North McGregor arrived on a special train during the daylight hours. They arrived in time to stop the flames from spreading into the third block away from the river. Their work probably saved the entire community, as the fire was quickly heading up the ravine which housed most of the homes.

(Author Unkown)

Clayton Lighthouse
bottom of page