Dorchester, Part One

This article by Br. Leo Ryan, CSV, was published in Bulletin No. 238 of the Iowa Postal History Association in the third quarter of 2006.

Dorchester, Iowa is located in Section 14 of Waterloo Township, the northwestern most township in Allamakee County. Waterloo Township contains an area smaller than any other Allamakee County township, except Fairfield on the Mississippi. Waterloo Township consists of30 full sections and a narrow strip to the north of only six sections south of the Minnesota state line. Waterloo Township was organized from Union City by an order of the Allamakee County Court, March 3, 1856.
Ellery M. Hancock in his history of Allamakee County notes that “The earliest settlement seems to have been made in the Northeast corner, in 1851, by Mrs. Jas. Robinson and her sons, on Portland Prairie.”(1) Hancock also wrote that “In the northern part of the (Union City) Township, G.W. Carver was among the earliest arrivals, moving on what is called Portland Prairie in May 1852, and securing a large claim.(2)

In 1852 the township population was 157 persons. In 1882 the population of Dorchester was 101. Dorchester has remained unincorporated all these years. The National Census does not record the population of unincorporated communities. The 2000 census records the Waterloo Township population at 322. The zip code for Dorchester is 52140. In 2006 that zip code served 594 persons. Diane Johnson, the present Dorchester Clerk-in-Charge, estimates the 2006 town population at 30 residents.

Dale Ahern writing in The Cedar Rapids Gazette rhapsodizes as following over Dorchester:

As northeast Iowa’s dramatic color pageant kindles bonfires of red and orange among the maple-clad hills here, venturesome
tourists leave the beaten path to seek out more secluded displays.

Here in “Peaceful Valley” -a narrow cut in the steep bluffs along the meandering course of Waterloo Creek -nestles the picturesque old village of Dorchester.3

Two Ohio natives from Mercer County, Ohio, Edmund and Harvey Bell homesteaded government land in the area of the present town of Dorchester in June 1853. They erected a gristmill, a store, a blacksmith shop, wagon shop and sawmill over time. However, Dorchester was not platted until November 27, 1873. Originally the present Dorchester was the site of Haines’ Mill, owned by S.H. and Elise T. Haines, and was simply identified as Haines’ Mill. This mill was important to the growth of the village since settlers in the Portland Prairie area could come here rather than go to Lansing or Bellow’s Mill at French Creek.

As the village grew it was called Waterloo because of nearby Waterloo Creek. Even today Waterloo Creek is one of the best trout streams in Iowa. When the post office was established in 1857 there was already a Waterloo post office in Black Hawk County, so it was necessary to agree on another name for this developing community.

A number of early settlers including the Haines family came from Dorchester, Massachusetts, so the town and post office became Dorchester. The post office was established and Thomas C. Smith was appointed the first postmaster May 21, 1857. There was a mail route from Brownsville, Minnesota to Dorchester, Iowa. Among early families in addition to the Smiths and Haines were Charles Lanenback, William Schwartz, August Schultz and William Rechold. Other early families were Robinson, Kemble, Roof, Peeper, Hartley, Cavanaugh and Matt Kelly.

Dr. Thomas C. Smith came to Dorchester from Buena Vista, Iowa in 1856. He was born in Center County, Pennsylvania, April 1, 1827. He moved west to Illinois to Stephenson Co. (1848) and to Jo Daviess Co. (1850). At Elizabeth, Illinois he clerked in a general store. October 22, 1852 he married Martha J. Tart of Missouri. In 1854 he moved to Buena Vista where he also clerked in a general store. In 1856 he came to Dorchester and was employed as a clerk by G. W. Hayes who operated the Dorchester General Store. In May 1857, T.C. Smith became the postmaster. In Fall 1857 he fonned a partnership with J.M. Tart, brother of his wife Martha. Together they acquired the Hayes General Store which they then operated as Smith and Tart. They were said in 1882 to have carried a stock of three to four thousand dollars. They remained partners until 1872, when Dr. T. C. Smith became the sole proprietor.

There is no record of where Thomas C. Smith acquired the title “Dr”. However, in the section of Allamakee County Biographies under Dorchester in W.E. Alexander’s History of Winneshiek and Allamakee Counties Iowa he is listed as “Dr. T. C. Smith, postmaster and dealer in general merchandise and drugs.” (4) A “dealer in drugs” being in 1856 the description closest to a present day pharmacist, it would be easy to conjecture that the “Dr.” title was a courtesy or compliment conferred by the community because of his knowledge of medicine. The first post office was located in the Smith and Tart General Store. The store remained until 1965. At present the building is home of the Dorchester Supper Club.

Dr. T. C. Smith was appointed postmaster by President Franklin Pierce. He served as Dorchester postmaster for 26 years. (May 21, 1857 – May 27, 1883). The following chart indicates his compensation as Postmaster.

Year Postmaster Compensation Net to Govt
1859 T.C. Smith 23.57 17.83
1861 T.C. Smith 44.07 34.74
1863 T.C. Smith 61.86 57.05
1865 T.C. Smith 79.46 121.41
1867 T.C. Smith 90.00 141.53
1869 T.C. Smith 120.00 84.34
1871 T.C. Smith 100.00
1873 T.C. Smith 73.00
1875 T.C. Smith 65.21
1877 T.C. Smith 58.76
1879 T.C. Smith 58.88
1881 T.C. Smith 58.49
1883 T.C. Smith 87.52

He also served as County Supervisor and various Waterloo Township offices. Dr. Smith retired to Villard, Minnesota where he died December 30, 1905 at age 78.

Lewis Coppersmith, son-in-law of Dr. Smith, became the second postmaster May 28, 1883. He was appointed by President Chester A. Arthur and served eleven years until January 1, 1894. The Coppersmith family operated the Coppersmith General Store until 1945, when Leroy Coppersmith, grandson of the founder and first postmaster, sold the store to Ray Schwartzhoff.

Postmaster Compensation, Dorchester, Iowa
Lewis Coppersmith
First Appointment 1883-1894
(As listed in the biennial Official Register of the United States for the years indicated.)

Year Compensation
1885 108.37
1887 103.17
1889 103.86
1891 113.89
1893 153.54

A legend developed around the Coppersmith store. Lewis Coppersmith built a two-story native limestone building as his store. From the time the store was built circa 1884 until it was sold in 1945 the family never changed the appearance ofthe building either inside or out. This merchandising philosophy deserves mention.

Burr F. Griswold, writing in the LaCrosse Tribune described the Coppersmith approach as follows:

Dorchester is about 10 miles from its nearest railroad at Spring Grove. This isolation Coppersmith believed to be in his favor. He carried a complete line of groceries, equal to that of many surrounding towns. Patent medicines, small hardware items, notions and dry goods were still to be found in the store in the early 1940’s.

Coppersmith opened his place of business at 6:30 a.m. and kept it opened until 9 p.m. or later every day ofthe week. Hours were shorter on Sunday, but it was the busiest day ofthe week. Farmers would go to church and afterward stop at the store to stock up for the week.(5)

Another local historian, Mrs. Irene (Nathan) Kumpf, whom you’ll meet later as Dorchester postmaster (October 30, 1951-October 5, 1977), told Dale Ahern this story:

From the time the store was built until it was sold in 1945 by the last Coppersmith to run it, the Coppersmiths did not alter the interior or exterior in any way. They had firm convictions about that.

It was their theory they wouldn’t do any more business in a new building with new equipment. Further, they reasoned, ifthey spent money for improvements, part ofthe cost would have to be passed on to the customers in higher prices.

“Give the customer what he wants at the lowest possible price,” the Coppersmiths believed, “and the country store will maintain its place in the economy ofthe community.”(6)

Roy Coppersmith was the last Coppersmith to own and operate the general store. Mrs. Kumpf in her unpublished notes on Dorchester wrote that “Roy Coppersmith who helped many folks in the area with credit and other services. He went to California to retire and said he had many thousands of dollars on the books when he left and (which) he never collected.”(7)

The Coppersmith General Store served as the local post office for three postmasters from 1883 until 1914. Lewis Coopersmith himself served as postmaster (1883-1894) and then his wife, Nora Coopersmith, succeeded him as postmaster (January 20, 1898 -July 04, 1906). Mrs. Coppersmith was appointed by President William McKinley. Lewis Coopersmith resumed the position as postmaster from his wife and served a second term (July 5, 1906 -September 9, 1914). The second Lewis Coppersmith appointment came in the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Lewis Coppersmith
Second Appointment 1906-1914
(As listed in the biennial Official Register of the United States for the years indicated.)

Year Compensation
1907 319.00
1909 398.00
1911 320.00

After 1911, the biennial listing in The Official Register of the United States no longer listed postmaster compensation.

Little is recorded about Nora Coppersmith except that she succeeded her husband as the fifth postmaster in January 20, 1898. The Official Register ofthe United States of the years indicated shows her compensation as follows:

Postmaster Compensation, Dorchester, Iowa
Nora Coppersmith, 1898-1906
(As listed in the biennial Official Register of the United States for the years indicated.)

Year Compensation
1899 170.70
1901 189.79
1903 206.80
1905 210.04

Between her husband, Lewis, first years as postmaster (1883-1894) and his second appointment July 5, 1906 until September 8, 1914, the United States Postal Service Archives list two intervening postmasters. The third postmaster to follow Dr. T. C. Smith and his son-in-law, Lewis Coppersmith was Eugene Burns. Bums served as postmaster for 2 months and 5 days from January 16, 1894 until March 21, 1894. This appointment would have been in the Presidency of Grover Cleveland. This brief tenure apparently involved no postmaster compensation. Nothing has been located to further identify Postmaster Burns. The Burns family was not among the pioneer family names in the Dorchester area, nor is Eugene Burns among the historical biographies in the Alexander County History (1882), nor the Hancock County History (1913).

1) Ellery M. Hancock, Past and Present Allamakee County, Iowa, Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1913, Vol. I, p. 307.
2) Ibid., p. 304.
3) Dale Ahem “Dorchester -Peaceful Valley Off Beaten Path”, The Cedar Rapids Gazette, October 17, 1975, Sec. B, p.l; 20B.
4) W. E. Alexander, History of Winneshiek and Allamakee Counties Iowa, Sioux City, Iowa: Western Publishing Company, 1882, p. 539.
5) Burr F. Griswold, “Dorchester, Iowa, Homestead by Brothers From Ohio In 1853”, LaCrosse Tribune, October (N.d.) 1969, p. 11.
6) Dale Ahern, op cit., p. 20.
7) Mrs. Irene P. Kumpf, “History of Dorchester” An undated one page memoir provided the author by her daughter, Jeanette Danaher. As will be noted later, Mrs. Irene P. Kumph (nee Danaher) was the Dorchester Postmaster 1951-1977. Jeanette Danaher was Officer-in-Charge 1978-1979 and Postmaster 1979-2003.

Author: Br. Leo V. Ryan, CSV

The webmaster had met Br. Ryan several times in the two decades prior to his death. During most of that time, he was retired and indulging a passion for documenting the early history of the Driftless Area corner of Iowa, where as a boy he had been something of an older-brother figure to his boss's son. That son grew into my father-in-law. He and his wife were the first in three generations to have their children outside Iowa, but it held a fond spot, next to home, in them and their fellow siblings. I found the history as interesting as Br. Leo V. Ryan, CSV. Read about Brother Ryan here and here .

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