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The following version of What Cheer's early history was written by Grant Nelson of Oskaloosa, who was born in What Cheer.  His explanation of the naming of What Cheer is one of several.  One of the most accepted versions is that it came from an old English salutation.

Grant Nelson tells of early families of What Cheer area ---

My father and mother came to Iowa from Abington, Illinois, in 1853, and crossed the Mississippi at Burlington in a ferry boat, for there were no bridges at that time.  My father took a government claim 2 1/2 miles east of What Cheer.

There were only a few early settlers in that vicinity.  Ferd Clemons was the first to locate in Washington township in 1844. Along in the early fifties the country began to be settled.  From 1850 to '56 there were quite a number of families including John Smith, James Humes, John Kitzman, E. Nelson, Thomas Heston, Mr. R. Harbison, Thomas Thornbow of near Springfield, Absoln Waddle, Y.P. Ellis, Charley Momie, High Brinly, David McCune, Peter Britton, the Legg family, Linas Dunbar, Dave Dunbar and Ezra Doty.

In 1855, Peter Britton came from England and located and built a small log cabin near the site of the present sale barn.  He opened a slope coal mine in the west part of What Cheer, and these men I mention were the first to dig coal:  Peter Britton, E. Nelson, Y.N. Nelson, John Harbison, Thomas Heston and Charlie Momie.

Peter Britton was a frequent visitor at the Nelson home.  One day he walked out to the Nelson farm with a cottonwood cane.  He said, "I am going to plant this cane and maybe it will grow."  It did and grew up to be a tree 3 1/2 feet through.  It was a living monument to Peter Britton.

It what is known as "Old Town" Linas Dunbar ran the first general store.  William Flathers built a double log house and it was used as a hotel.  David McCune built the first grist mill.  James Coughlin had a saloon and billiard hall and Terry Hart had a photograph gallery.  There were houses on both sides of the street for two blocks.

About this time Coal Creek got out of its banks and washed quite a number of houses off their foundations.  The first general postmaster was William Nye.  It was located on South Hill.  The first justice of the peace was Jim Pratt.  The first doctors were Waddell and Koogler.

In '59 there was frost every month of that year.  Corn was $2.00 a bushel and money was hard to get.

The present town What Cheer was first called Petersburg.  It went by the name of Eureka for a short time.  Then the name of What Cheer was taken up.  Old tradition was that a Frenchman came from the south, came to South Hill, looked down and saw a few scattered houses and shanties and said, "What is here?"  Therefore the name was changed to What Cheer.

Along in the '70's and until the '80's, What Cheer was a noted place, for coal mines sprung up in What Cheer and vicinity.  The town grew by leaps and bounds until it has a population of around 7,000.

The B.C.R. Railroad and the Northwestern Railroad in the meantime had come through.  What Cheer has gone through two bad floods and two fires.  The first fire wiped out 60 houses, the most of them business houses.

The Donald Dodge Flour and Grist Mill stood south of the present sale barn location.

Along in the '70's four boys, Asher Headlee, Perry Coughlin, Yard Brine and Charlie Dodge got hold of a cast iron cannon.  They placed the cannon on South Hill and loaded and shot several times until they thought it wasn't making enough noise.  They loaded it with powder and clay on July 4.  It exploded but did not hurt any of them.  One piece of the cannon hit close to where City Hall stands.

In 1948, the following people are descendants of the early settler families:  Mrs. Albert Gillett, Chub Clemens, Leonard Himes, Pauline Kitzman and Henrietta Kitzman.

Most of this history was handed down from my parents E. Nelson and family.  
Written by Grant Nelson and sisters
Oskaloosa, Iowa
September 22, 1948; Patriot Chronicle



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