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Denison at a Glance

Denison's water tower makes a bold statement: "It's A Wonderful Life."  Playing off the title of the 1946 holiday film classic that stars Denison native Donna Reed, the community uses this slogan to reflect Denison's spirit.  This spirit is evident in all aspects of life in Denison and Crawford County including business, community, education and recreation.

Before Denison IA was located, Crawford County had been settled for five or six years.  There was a flourishing community at Mason's Grove, a little store had been established at what is now Deloit, and along the Boyer at that place there were a saw-mill and a grist-mill.  There were settlements in the groves along the creeks and rivers: at Dunham's Grove, on the East Boyer, at Coon Grove, in the southwest part of the county; and at Three Bee Tree Grove.  There was also what was later known as Fort Purdy, in what was called the Burnt Woods.  All these had been established before the town of Denison had its inception.

Denison did not grow from the natural selection of the settlers themselves, as did Deloit and Old Kiron and Dow City, but its location was arbitrarily fixed by the representative of a company of eastern capitalists.  The Providence Western Land Company, was formed in the fall of 1855 as a result of the promotion efforts of Mr. J. W. Denison.  He interested a large number of men in the city of Providence, Rhode Island, and through his efforts the company was formed.  The government had given the surviving veterans of the war of 1812, and the war with Mexico, the rights to one hundred and sixty acres each, of the unoccupied lands in western states.  These veterans had the right to dispose of these lands and many sold their land warrants at sixty cents per acre. 

It was the purpose of this company to get these old soldiers to file upon lands in a body, and then to purchase the land from them.  Fifty-one thousand dollars was raised for this purpose and the claims were filed and the money used to purchase lands, Crawford and Harrison counties being selected as the scene of activities for the company.

After the purchase of the original tract of land it became necessary to found a town.  The present site of Denison was chosen with considerable foresight.   Consequently, the new county seat would be located there in the center of the county on the fork of the Boyer and the East Boyer, affording the timber for fuel and for building, which was essential in those days, on a proposed transcontinental railroad line, and in almost equidistant trading distance from Council Bluffs, Sioux City, Fort Dodge, and Des Moines.

J. W. Denison, who acted as the agent of the Providence Western Land Company in all these matters, was something of an idealist and a dreamer, as men who conceive large projects must be.  It is very possible that in his mind's eye he saw the Denison that was pictured, the busy streets and warehouses, the commerce carried upon the waters of the Boyer.  Be that as it may, he came to this section of Iowa with the intent not only to purchase this large tract of land, but also to found a city. 

Through his direction the beautiful courthouse square was selected and it, together with the courthouse building, was donated to the county upon the selection of this as the county seat.  Parks were laid out, a market square was provided in the original plat, and the streets were wide, and for the most part well laid out.  The fact that Denison was a well advertised, well known and well established village long before all the towns which we might mention in this part of Iowa, was due to the work of J. W. Denison and the Providence Western Land Company.


The period immediately following the Civil War was one of railroad expansion.  Instead of a quiet, orderly settlement that had marked the steady growth of Denison, the community became a railroad or a frontier town.  A lawless element came with the railroad and a number of altercations took place.  As the rails moved westward, the lawless element went with it. 

The year 1881 marked the beginning of agitation for a county jail.  There were no funds available and it was recommended that a tax levy of one million dollars be assessed for the purpose.  "It was further ordered that J. P. Miller purchase a steel or iron cage for jail purposes and to erect a suitable building to contain the jail in the same in town of Denison."  The proposition was approved by county voters in 1885.


From 1899 to 1902 three elections were held before a bond issue was approved by the people of the county for a new courthouse.  Crawford County has been represented in the General Assembly or State Legislature since the 5th and having its own representative since the 20th assembly.


This brief history of Crawford County and the City of Denison has been condensed from an address written and delivered by Anna Schneller of Denison, Iowa at the Old Settler's Picnic at Denison on August 23, 1996 and from the The Crawford County, Iowa, IAGenWeb Project.  Log onto http://iagenweb.org/denisonfounding.html for more information about Denison and Crawford County.