Herriman Mansion Restoration Project - Waterloo Courier Article

Waterloo Courier Article (circa 1950) written by Dolly R. Brause1

Showplace in Fayette County nearly a century ago

Wadena, Ia. This crumbling landmark a mile east of Wadena was once the show-place mansion of Maj. David B. Herriman, who nearly a century ago had much to do with the development of the eastern part of Fayette county.

Wadena, Ia. A familiar landmark to folks around Wadena is a big ramshackle brick house which stands a mile east of town as a three-story monument to a man whose wealth and influence were powerful factors in the early development of eastern Fayette county.

This house was the show-place mansion of Maj. David B Herriman, a brilliant but eccentric man who earned a military title and made a fortune as an Indian agent in Minnesota.

He came to Fayette county in 1857, trading land he held in Minnesota for the Illyria township holdings of George Culver. Culver was an Indian trader who had established a post in 1841 about a mile east of the present site of Wadena, or about 13 miles southeast of West Union.

Herriman made the land swap sight-unseen. He was so satisfied with Illyria township, however , that he eventually acquired 1,400 acres of land there.

He first built a two-story log house near Culver's old trading post, on what is now the Wilder Mattocks farm, but about in 1860, he moved into his mansion, the huge dimensions of which were a marvel to his struggling pioneer neighbors.

Spacious Quarters

The building had room for the major and his five boys from his first marriage; for a young second wife and her little sister and for a dozen or more hired men. The hired men slept in a low ceiling attic room, where legend has it, the major often won back his men's pay in Saturday night card games.

In those early days, the Herriman mansion was a hub of business and social activity in the eastern part of the county.

And of the happy young folks who grew up in the house, Mrs. Mary Ann Hidinger , 95, Oelwein, is the last survivor. She is a half-sister of the 16 year old girl the major took as his second wife soon after coming to Iowa.

Herriman, then almost 50, sent his second wife, Elizabeth Dye, to school in Dubuque, and not until after she was 19 did they live together as husband and wife. She subsequently bore him two daughters.

The major's fortune made him powerful in the poorly developed pioneer community and he was a proud and tyrannical man who liked to make his influence felt, according to Mrs. Hidinger.

A staunch Democrat, he and his sons had influence to keep Illyria township Democratic for years, and if someone crossed him politically, in business or personally, the major could make life uncomfortable for the upstart through his control of township officials and his "pull" with county officers.

Benevolent Despot

Despite all this, the major was looked upon as a benevolent sort of despot by his poor neighbors.

His mills and lumbering operations meant jobs for many men and he was always the ready source of a loan if he liked a person.

But woe to the debtor who would not, or could not, pay up at the appointed time.

The site of the town of Wadena was purchased by Samuel Stevens in 1851, it being selected as part of the state school lands.

The beginning of the town was made in 1855 by Horace Countryman and his father, who built a house and a sawmill.

In 1858, Major Herriman bought the interest of the elder Countryman in the mill property and in connection with the son, began to build a flouring mill on the north bank of the Volga river.

In a few years Countryman disposed his share to Herriman, who retained the sole ownership until 1875.

The euphonious name of Wadena was bestowed upon the little hamlet by Major Herriman, who selected the name of an Indian chief who had been a warm friend of his while the latter was living at Crow Wing.

Wadena was an old man when Major Herriman was in Minnesota and had just wended his way to Crow Wing with his band to close his eyes in death, far away from the romantic spot that bears his name.

The town plot was laid out by Herriman and his wife and Mr. and Mrs. Horace Countryman.

Trade Land for Piano

Major Herriman's daughters were sent to the Catholic schools at Dubuque, where, among other things, they learned to play the piano and dance.

Mrs. Hidinger often recalled that he traded 40 some acres of timberland for the best piano in West Union so his girls would have an instrument on which to practice.

Occasionally the hired men would bring out their fiddles and the girls would play the piano and young folks from all around would gather in the plain, high-ceilinged rooms to dance.

And in moments of youthful enthusiasm the portly, paunchy major would join the party and sing and dance gaily to his favorite tune, "Polly Put the Kettle On." But those bawdy days have slipped by and their memory lies dim in the mind of the one survivor who lived them.

The major's fortune, power and holdings are all gone and the name of Herriman no longer has its old impact.

The walls of his mansion are rent by long cracks and only a few of the 90-year old shutters are left to sag at the broken windows of the upper story.

Buried Near Home

And not far off, within sights of his old home, the major lies beneath his gravestone which is still the most impressive of all in Wadena's cemetery.

The elements have left the inscription hardly legible, but if one looks closely he can still make out:

Maj. David Herriman,
Born Oct. 17, 1808
Died Dec. 17, 1875

And his aged sister-in-law would tell you that there lies a man who was considered so brilliant that his sons had his brain weighed when he died. This investigation, of course, revealed nothing unusual.

But the man's huge old mansion, his big marble tombstone and the many tales Illyrians still repeat about him mark him as one of the unusually colorful characters in Fayette county's early history.


1Written by Dolly R. Brause and published in the Waterloo Courier about 1950. This copy was found in the scrapbook of my Grandmother Nina Davis. She died in 1958.