Fred Tilden


I came to Ames in 1870 from the state of Vermont.  My father and I drove here from Nevada with our four-horse team and a load of goods.  There were a good many sloughs and bogs in those days and we had to wind along the sloughs and bogs in a much roundabout fashion in order to avoid unpleasant crossings of those low places, so it took us a half day to travel the distance.  It was dark when we reached the east bank of the Skunk River.

There was a plank crossing 16 feet wide which spanned the Skunk, but that was none too wide for four horses to walk across and we held our breath until the passage was made safely.  It was easy enough to get to the bridge from the east side, but when we had gained the west shore of the stream we found that the west bottom was flooded with about two feet of muddy water.

My father dropped the lines and trusted the team to find its way to the little town still a half mile to the westward.  The stars were shining above and their reflections twinkled at us in the water below.  Our trusty team worked its way successfully through the boggy lowland through the two feet of water which seemed all to close to the bottom of the wagon box, and at last we found ourselves in the pioneer town of Ames.

There wasn't a brick in the town when I arrived here, all structures were of lumber and most of them pretty rough at that.  Boyd and McClain had a hardware store on the main street then.  The first door east of it was a wooden building occupied by Alexander and Maxwell, proprietors of a dry goods store.  Ben Read had the first butcher shop in Ames.  These pioneer stores operated on a small margin in a rather large territory, but they managed to get along fair enough.


Tilden Grocery, West House - 1907 (Farwell T. Brown Photographic Archive)

West of Douglas on Main Street  -- called Onondaga then -- about in the locality of Jameson's building was the Lucas and Foster Hardware store which retailed agricultural implements in addition to tinware, stoves and wooden ware.  Bigelow, Huntington and Tilden, early dealers in dry goods, had erected their building on exactly the location of the Tilden store today.  William West was running a hotel called the West House on the Masonic Temple site.  Near the east end of Main Street, Vern Nichols had a livery stable, his business being dependent on his one buggy and a pair of saddle horses.

There wasn't a bank in Ames when I came to town, but a short time afterwards William Lucas provided the citizens with a private banking facility.  Two drug stores provided the Balms of Giliad in those days.  One was the store of Starr and Brenneman and the other was run by J.J. Bousquet.

The old town pump stood on the site of the present city hall and was the center of local activity.  It stood on the edge of a slough which extended down what is now Douglas Avenue and across Main Street south to the railroad tracks.  I wonder what the people of Ames would think if they were able to see the town as it was in 1870 with its many sloughs and bogs.  The south side of Main Street west of Kellogg was an impassable slough, which extended northward across Main Street west of the Sheldon-Munn Hotel.

Young folks back in the '70's had their fun in the old hall over the blacksmith shop where the Ames Pantorium now stands.  The owners had a plank bridge built from the upstairs of the dry goods store over to the hall above the blacksmith shop.  There in the primitive hall, the young bloods would dance til midnight with the greatest of glee on the rough pine flooring.


Congregational Church - 1875 (Farwell T. Brown Photographic Archive)

The first Christmas I was here, we young sprouts put on a cantata at the Congregational Church.  It was entitled The Seasons.  We did our best to the strains of one of the old organs which were in vogue in that day, and to our youthful ears, the simple declarations of the older folks that the cantata had been a success was ample reward for us.

About this time Iowa State College was beginning to progress, having opened for instructions the year before.  To us the campus was considerably farther away than it is today.  Young people of the town who attended the college would take up residence on the campus while classes were in session.

I remember the time when L.C. Tilden purchased the first high wheeled bicycle and proposed to ride it back and forth to college.  But after he had done that for a while, he discarded the awkward vehicle and took up his room in the dormitories along with the rest.

There was no high road grade such as now connects the fourth ward and the main business district and citizens were obliged to cross Squaw Creek on a plank bridge.  After they were once across the bridge safely, their ultimate arrival at the campus might be considerably delayed as the bottom adjacent to Squaw Creek was terrible under foot in a wet season.  Many times have we had to plug through the heavy black soil which now flanks the drive to the college.

Religious opportunities were not as elaborate as they are now but the churches came to the town early in its history.  The Methodist Church stood on Main Street at the corner of Kellogg.  Two blocks north was the Congregational Church.  The Baptists did not have a church to begin with, so they met in the old hall south across from the Methodist Church until the size of the congregation permitted the building of a small meeting place on the spot where the new church has since been erected.


Ames Main Street - 1909

When people wanted to ride in those days, it was either on horse back or in a buggy.  But even buggies were scarce.  Wagons, of course, had been the standard vehicle for some time.  During the first year after I came to Ames there were only three buggies in town.  One was owned by the livery company for its business.  Dr. Richmond had one for his country practice and I had the third rig consisting of a pair of horses and a top buggy, which I used in my business of selling fire insurance.

Money was rather scarce after the Civil War and real estate did not sell very high anywhere.  Nearly all of the residences had spacious acreages adjoining them.  Ten acres was considered just a handy size of plot to have.


These reminiscences on the early days of Ames by Fred Tilden originally appeared in a special 1928 edition of the Tribune celebrating the 75th anniversary of the founding of Story County.