Situated on the site of a Winnebago Indian village, Charles City was originally named ‘Charlestown' after the son of the first-known white settler to the area, Joseph Kelly. It was Kelly, upon his arrival to the area in 1851, who first envisioned the site with its ample supply of water from the Cedar River and adjacent timber as an ideal location for a town. By 1852, Kelly was joined by 25 settler families in that vision and a community was born. However the town's name was changed, first to ‘St. Charles' and then finally to ‘Charles City,' after it was discovered the first two names had already been taken elsewhere in Iowa. When Floyd County was established in 1851 and officially organized in 1854, St. Charles (Charles City) was made the county seat. However, it was moved to nearby Floyd for a short time in 1857 during a hotly-contested battle. The Iowa Supreme Court eventually overturned that decision and the county seat designation was returned to Charles City. Just whom Floyd County was named after also is the subject of some debate, but the most widely held belief is it was named for Sergeant Charles Floyd of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition. Sgt. Floyd died during the trip in 1804 in what was the first death and burial of a white man ever recorded in Iowa.
Charles City is the childhood home of Carrie Lane Chapman Catt, who went on to become one of the key figures in the national women's rights movement and was instrumental in earning women the right to vote. In 1877, six-year-old Carrie moved with her family to a homestead just south of Charles City and eventually graduated from the local school. Today, The National 19th Amendment Society headquartered in Charles City is restoring Catt's childhood home to its original condition and making it a tourist attraction.
Charles City is also well known for its historic suspension bridge, which was built in 1906 to provide access across the Cedar River to the Chautauqua grounds located on the city's west side. The 270-foot structure, which is still fully-functional and spectacularly lit at nights during holidays and special occasions, is one of the oldest suspension bridges in the state and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Charles City is perhaps best known for the role it played in the history of the American tractor. The term ‘tractor' was first coined here upon the unveiling of the Hart-Parr gasoline-powered traction engine in Charles City in 1900-01, which would go on to become the first production-model tractor in the U.S. The growing business eventually became the Oliver Farm Equipment Company, and finally the White Farm-New Idea Equipment Co. At its peak in the mid-1970s, the sprawling plant complex encompassed 23 acres and employed close to 3,000 workers. The farm crisis of the 1980s spelled the beginning of the end for the plant, and in 1993 Allied Products Corporation, which owned White-New Idea, closed the doors for good. Today, all that is left of the great facility is the vacant site it once stood on, but its passing means new opportunity for someone else, thanks to the existing infrastructure already in place and newly-passed state incentives. The plant's history and memories are also preserved through an extensive collection at the Floyd County Museum and the ‘A Century of Tractor Power' festival held on the plant site every other year.
Many people around the region also know Charles City for the devastating tornado that ripped through town on May 15, 1968, leaving 13 dead, hundreds injured and massive destruction in its wake. One of the largest twisters ever recorded in the state, the storm destroyed much of the downtown, including 256 businesses, as well as 1,250 homes as it leveled whole neighborhoods. The total price tag in terms of damage was estimated to be in excess of $20 million, but the cost in human suffering was much greater. However, through determination, community spirit and an outpouring of support from the region, the town was rebuilt and has not only survived but thrived. Much of what is seen today is a tribute to the dedication and belief that the people of Charles City have in their community – truly America's Hometown!
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