Photo: E.R. Hays House, circa 1895, located at 301 Nrth 2nd Street, Knoxville. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Photographed by User: Boscophotos (own work), 2016, [cc-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed November, 2021.
Knoxville [†] is located in south-central Iowa, some 25 miles southeast of Des Moines. The area was originally inhabited by Native Americans of the Sac and Fox tribes. At that time, prairie grass covered the countryside at heights of eight to 10 feet. In 1835, dragoons first explored the Des Moines River valley through this area. In 1842, the Sac and Fox Indians signed a treaty to sell lands in central Iowa to the new settlers known as the New Purchase of 1842. By 1843, settlers began moving to Knoxville, with the first Marion County Courthouse erected three years later.
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Knoxville remained an unincorporated village until 1853, when a movement for incorporation began. A judicial order was issued after an election in which 64 votes were cast in favor of incorporation, with four votes against. Knoxville was duly incorporated as a city in 1855.
Key moments in Knoxville's history:
- Preaching services were held in Knoxville as early as 1845 when it belonged to a chain of preaching places know as Whitebreast Mission, Ottumwa District, Iowa Conference; James F. New was pastor. The first Knoxville church was built by the Methodists and dedicated May 28, 1865 on Lots 6 & 7, Block 28 (at present-day 505 and 509 East Main). The land for the church had been donated. The Reverend John Jay was the first minister.
- Knoxville's first public library began in 1909 in a room inside the courthouse where the library association housed a small collection of books for lending. It was made a city institution in 1911, under the leadership of President Mrs. S.C. Johnston, Secretary Amanda Elliot, and Treasurer Ella McClure. The present library of brick construction was dedicated July 1, 1912 and made possible through the generosity of Andrew Carnegie.
- Knoxville's first volunteer fire company was organized in 1865 but did not flourish. In 1874, a 50 member bucket brigade was formed with Fred Christofel as drill leader. John Merrill was the first fire chief.
- The Marion County Fair Association was first organized in 1854. The first fair was held in 1859 on the grounds just north of the present location, off North Lincoln Street south of Knoxville Raceway. Fairs continued until 1891, when the Iowa Driving Park put the fair out of business. Later, when interest in stock breeding increased, the County Fair was revived. The Association leased the old ground, and new buildings were erected.
- The Knoxville Electric Light and Power Company was organized in 1887. In 1894, a bad fire in the plant seriously damaged the facility and its operations. In 1914 it became the Marion Electric Company. In January 1926, the Iowa Power & Light Company took over the lines, now called Alliant Energy.
- The first bank was established in 1869. Prior to that time, the only banking done in Knoxville was through brokers J.E. Neal and Larkin Wright. The Iowa State Savings Bank was established in 1903 and the Community National Bank & Trust in 1933.
- Knoxville is the birthplace of the Iowa State flag. In 1917, Knoxville native Dixie Cornell Gebhardt designed the flag for a regiment of Iowa National Guard soldiers who were serving along the United States and Mexican border. Gebhardt's design was adopted by the Iowa General Assembly as Iowa's official state flag March 29, 1921. Iowa's governor at the time, Gov. William Harding, referred to Gebhardt as "Iowa's Betsy Ross." Gebhardt was a state leader in the Daughters of the American Revolution. She died in Knoxville in 1955.
† City of Knoxville, Iowa, Knoxville Comprehensive Plan, 2017, www.knoxvilleia.gov, accessed November, 2021.