A Brief History of Primghar, Iowa

Primghar was settled in the fall of 1872. Its name is an acronym derived from the names of eight early settlers who laid out the town. A poem celebrates their last names.

As County Seat

The background of the post civil war settlers was demonstrated in a 25th anniversary festival (1889) by a satirical skit put on by Old Dutch Fred (Frederick Fielding) with the punch line "I am de beeples, you fellers am de officers." In 1860, Dutch Fred was the only man in the county who had not been an officer in the Civil War. County outline showing O'Brien and Primghar In a brief history of O'Brien County, Arthur M. Schierholz states: "the courthouse location in (the village of) O'Brien in the extreme southeast corner of the county became a growing issue. To resolve the matter, an election was held on November 11, 1872, to determine the location of the courthouse. A total of 360 votes were cast with 307 voting to move the court house to the exact geographical center of the county. One historian wrote, "Probably the only case in Iowa, perhaps anywhere, where a bare spot of raw prairie was actually voted to be the county seat." This eventually became the town of Primghar."

A proto-settlement already existed one mile south and one east of the chosen site (at about 4010 Sorrel Avenue--now farmland), but it has disappeared.

The O'Brien County Courthouse, ~1910A wood courthouse was built on the square in 1874. In 1887, a new courthouse replaced it. In 1888 Primghar was incorporated. In 1914-15 today's courthouse was built. The electorate approved building a new courthouse in 1914.

Todays O'Brien County Courthouse, 1999Smith & Keffer of Des Moines, IA, designed it; George M. Bechtel & Co. of Davenport, IA, built it for $160,000. A picture at the cornerstone laying shows only "horseless carriages." Today the courthouse square is surrounded by retail, service, and professional businesses.

A sidelight: Not all were pleased with the location of the county seat. In 1872, the citizens "wrenched (the county seat) from the Bosler, Cofer, Tiffey crowd" (who were organizing counties for profit). In 1879 the town folks in Sheldon petitioned the courts to have the county seat there. In 1882, some citizens of Sanborn, IA (7 miles to the north), felt they should have the county seat. In the middle of the night, several people with wagons came to steal the county records. They were heard and a 'great fight ensued.' The records were soon returned to Primghar. A wagon wheel hub lost by the raiders is displayed on the second floor of the courthouse. (Handout provided by County Recorder, O'Brien County) In 1911, Sheldon again tried to get the county seat. Sheldon had several advantages in size and services but is on the northwest county border. After a vote and recriminations, the county seat stayed in Primghar. This battle was instrumental in causing a hotel (The Hub) to be built in 1911. (The hotel was condemned and burned in a practice burn in 2000.)


Very early, the roads were rudimentary. Bridges were all but absent so streams had to be forded. Snow removal in early days was almost non-existent-later road graders cleared snow. The early 20's saw the start of paved highways. Highway 18 across north O'Brien Co. was completed in 1920.

The Milwaukee Railroad was built through the northern tier of townships in O'Brien County. When it reached Sanborn (7 miles north) in 1878 there was some exodus of people and buildings to Sanborn. The Northwestern RR through the southern tier of townships caused a similar exodus from Primghar in 1881. O'Brien County Railroads

A railroad eventually reached Primghar. To get a railroad through Primghar was a fifteen year battle which was finally won by a guarantee local citizens gave to the Illinois Central. On November 1,1887, the construction train that laid rails reached Primghar. Rail service lasted until 197x. The Interstate Commerce Commission permitted rail service to be abandoned with an effective date of March 28, 1984. The track and track materials were removed during 1985. The rail bed has, for the most part, been returned to farmland.

In 1911 there were four trains daily, one north and one south both morning and evening. As late as the 1950's there were at least two trains per week. Today an overpass on Highway 59 and half mile of right-of-way are all that remain. The right-of-way has been converted into Sneaker's Run, a nature preserve and trail.


Elevation is 1520 feet. This area of northwest Iowa is gently rolling. Today fields are marred by few boggy areas and much of the land is terraced to reduce erosion. Until fill was hauled in, the south side of the courthouse square was a "boggy, muddy slough." When the first settlers arrived there were few trees and almost without exception prairie grass grew to six foot.

In the immediate vicinity of Primghar the topsoils and subsoils are silty clay loam. (Galva, Marcus, Primghar, and Sac soils by name.) Clay loam glacial till is at a depth of 30 to 60 inches in most places. There are no mineral assets of commercial value save rock and gravel. Back in 1873 this dearth of underground wealth was yet to be decided. There was a $1000 reward posted for anyone finding mineable coal reserves. No one claimed the prize.

There is an abandoned rock quarry a mile SSE of Primghar which was donated by the Tjossem family to Primghar in 1989 and is now known as Tjossem Park, a fishing area and public picnic/camp ground.


Post World War I the crops were corn of the open pollinated type (not hybrid). Barley was still grown and many farms raised flax making fields "sea blue when in bloom."" Wheat and rye were no longer raised in the vicinity. Soybeans and sorghum arrived later. Some sugar cane was raised as a curiosity.

Prices climbed in this period due to the war. Corn reached $1.63 per bushel; oats, $.80 per bushel and hogs, $0.17 per pound. Land prices climbed to $400 per acre.

In the depression years similar figures were: corn 9 cents at its worst; oats 5 cents; hogs 2 cents a pound. Land dropped to $80 to $90 per acre. Corn was used for fuel on some farmsteads. Because the farmer's earned so little, business in Primghar dropped. A farmer's revolt took place in 1933.

By World War II, soybeans became one of the main crops. Grain sorghum was introduced but not common yet. Prices for crops rose: $2.25 per bushel for corn; $1.25 for oats. Land prices rose to $500 per acre. Sales, however, were more likely for cash rather than paper transactions as they were after WW I. Combines and corn pickers replaced the cooperative threshing crews and hand corn picking. Farm sizes began growing in order to pay for the new, expensive machinery.

Disasters and Special Events

The average temperatures are: Spring 46 degrees, Summer 70 degrees, Fall 48 degrees, and Winter 18 degrees. Average annual rainfall is 28 inches. Record high temperature was degrees in xxxx; record low was degrees in xxxx. Maximum annual rainfall was inches in xxxx; minimum was inches in xxxx.

Disasters in northwest Iowa include blizzards, tornadoes (or cyclones), droughts, insects (since this is a farm community) and poorly timed frost. Prairie fires were once a threat but are no longer. Earthquakes, even a New Madrid event, should not threaten this part of the country.

Tornadoes have touched Primghar in 1873; June 24, 1882 with considerable damage.

Blizzards have been noteworthy in 1872, 1936, 1941, 1962, and 1975.

Grasshoppers were a severe menace in 1873 and 1874 but after 1880 the sieges they laid lifted.

Dust storms affected the area in '33, '34, and '35. The dry winds parched the crops but there was no complete crop failure.

Rain is seldom a disaster but in early July, 1935, nine inches of rain overnight washed out the concrete bridge six miles south of Primghar.

Fires were devastating now and again. On Oct 31, 1902 fire took all the buildings on the south side of the square. By ordinance, all structures around the square must now be fireproof.

The farmers revolt in 1933 was a national news event. One May morning about 1000 farmers gathered on the courthouse steps to protest the foreclosure of an O'Brien County farm. A New Yorker had come to Sioux City to organize the "Modern 76ers" to protest against the government. The sheriff deputized 18 legionnaires who were armed with sawed off pick handles with thongs in one end to keep them from being jerked away by the crowd. The legionnaires manned the stairways and kept the crowd on the first floor. While the sheriff and his deputies kept the farmers at bay, the County Clerk of Court managed to get out a small door on the second floor, read the foreclosure notice, and the sale was accomplished.

Its not over yet!

The farmers gathered on the courthouse grounds. Then in twos and threes they went into the courthouse to "reestablish friendly relations." When enough were in the courthouse and around the sheriff and his deputies, they overpowered them and took the clubs. They tore the American flag from the County superintendent's office, took it outside, and forced the deputies to kneel and kiss the flag. Other indignities were heaped on county officials.
The sheriff and the Board of Supervisors asked the governor to put the county under martial law. The next morning two companies of the National Guard came to Primghar (and two to LeMars, Iowa). A list of participants was drawn up. They were charged and tried about a month later. Most were convicted of conspiracy and inciting a riot but the sentences were suspended.

The Outside World

In World War I, the draft board was in Primghar, the county seat.

The farmer's revolt was one event during the depression that drew national attention. Another event of note related to the depression for which Primghar had a claim to fame was: neither bank in town closed during the depression. The First National Bank under Ralph Hinman and the Primghar Savings Bank under Wm. Briggs weathered the storm.

Again in World War II local men went to war. A war rationing board for O'Brien County was set up in Primghar. Scrap metal drives were common.

Famous Sons and Daughters

Carl Fritzsche, b: 1894; d 1972. He graduated from Primghar schools in 1912. Trained in agriculture, he served in many capacities internationally helping other nations improve their agriculture and social structures.

Lothar Ostenburg, nee Lloyd Oostenbrug, b May 2, 1928, . Lloyd attended Primghar schools. He graduated from high school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. He attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. One vocal coach was Leo Rosenek who is responsible for Lothar's start in lieder singing. In Europe, he became an operatic baritone. His roles included Papageno in Mozart's Magic Flute, Wolfram in Tanhauser, the Count in The Marriage of Figaro and some 35 other operatic parts. He made three films for European television networks. He has several recordings.

Joseph N. Welch, b. October 22, 1890 on a farm near Primghar, d. October 7, 1960 in Hyannis Massachusetts near his Cape Cod home. Joseph was the valedictorian of the Primghar High School class of 1907. (From a dinner in 1960, these questions arose of his youth: Did or did not Jose Welch help put a cow in the school house attic? Did or did not Jose put the "fertilizer spreader" on the Bell (Newspaper) building.) He went to Grinnell College and with a scholarship in hand to Harvard Law School where he again graduated at the head of his class.

Mr. Welch became internationally famous for his part in the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. He showed a wry and devastating wit on the nation's television screens. In 1959, he had a movie role as the judge in " Anatomy of a Murder."


The first schoolhouse in Primghar was built in 1874 for $3000. The first commencement, on June 2, 1893, was for five girls. The ceremony was in the Opera House and to keep the Superintendent, J. J. Billingsley, from having to pay for lights, printing, and so on, the admission was 15 ¢ for adults and 10 ¢ or children. Each graduate gave an oration. Two of these five were on the teaching staff in 1897. Changing graduation requirements eliminated the 1904 graduating class. The next year 13 graduated, so many that the individual orations tradition had to be dropped but each presented something (oration, recital, etc.). Orations continued until 1912 but on Class Day. In 1912, a play replaced the Class Day.

Vocal music has been taught almost from the beginning. Instrumental music started in the late 1920's. The orchestra entered music contests in 1933 for the first time. The string section was discontinued in 1940.

The physical plant has grown. The first building (1873) was 26 x 40 feet; a second (1890) 45 x 60 feet; an addition doubled the size (1896). In 1913 an new two-story with basement, brick building was occupied. Its outside dimensions were 70 x 100 feet. Today's high school building was erected in 1936. In 1958, additional space was added to the north side of the building.

The school district has been organized several ways. First the school in Primghar was part of the Summit township school district. In 1887, voters approved an Independent School District (of 6.5 sections, i.e., square miles). In 1960, a reorganization incorporated much of the surrounding land expanding the Primghar Community School District to 53 sections. In 1961, parts of the Gaza and Archer school districts were incorporated when their schools closed. In the late 1970's, under pressure from Iowa state mandates, Sutherland, Paullina, and Primghar integrated their three schools into one large district. In 1990, the school system had K-3rd grades in all three towns, 4-5-6 in Sutherland, 7-8 in Primghar, and 9-12,the high school, in Paullina. In 1997, the arrangement became K-3rd in Primghar, 4-5-6 in Sutherland, 7-8 in Primghar and 9-12 in Paullina. The last class to graduate from PHS was in May, 1989. There were 11 graduates.

It's appropriate to discuss the history of busing now because that has become the way of life for Primghar youth. The first two buses were bought in 1945 for about $3000 each. The parents paid for using these buses. The number of buses increased and state and local funding began covering the cost. Today (2000) the South O'Brien Schools operate 13 buses covering 912 miles daily. The budget for transportation is $800,000 annually.

Independent District1887ts2 kids
Independent District189765 277
Primghar School1913109 231
Primghar Schools1962ts30 504
South O'Brien School1997

Health Care

In 1872 there was no doctor. At the turn of the century Drs. Brown and Bushby were in town. In 1914, George and Amy Ward gave O'Brien County a hospital to be located in Primghar. In January, 1945, voters elected to buy the Ward Hospital from its owner, Knut Fjeld, for about $4000. A $90,000 obstetrics ward was approved in 1960. A new hospital opened in 1970. In 1982, the Ohme Clinic was built in the same block with the hospital (Edna Ohme, a benefactor, donated 80 acres of farmland). Drs. Getty and Smith retired shortly thereafter. The town was without a doctor in 1992-4, and the hospital joined Marion Health Center for management and staffing. The ownership of the facilities remained with the City of Primghar until February 2000 when Mercy Medical of Sioux City purchased them. (Mercy purchased the three medical practices in Sutherland, Paullina, and Ohme Clinic in Primghar, Baum Harmon Hospital, and the Kid's Kampus daycare (built by the hospital in 1989).

In 1970 Baum Harmon Hospital was dedicated. Mrs. Ellen Baum of Sutherland was the hospital's benefactor. She established a trust of 500 acres of land to be farmed and the income given to the hospital, plus $175,000. The City of Primghar added $125,000 and the community $150,000. A 19-bed hospital was built. Another large trust was given by Walter and Fern Randolph to maintain the clinic and hospital. (The farmland remains in trust for helping maintain the facilities.)

Kids Kampus daycare was built by the hospital in 1989 for its employees. Today (2001) about 60 children attend the daycare which is no longer limited to hospital employee's children.

Primghar has an privately owned and operated 40-bed nursing home, the Primghar Care Center. In 19xx the current building replaced Millie's, a two story residence that had been converted in 19xx to a nursing home.


The first sermon in the county was probably in O'Brien (village) in 1858 by a local Methodist Episcopal preacher. The first church building in Primghar was erected in 1880 for a Methodist congregation. In 1882, a tornado destroyed that building; a second church was erected in 1887-88 at a cost of $1,400.

St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church has its beginning in the first mass in the area in 1887. From 1890 to 1893 mass was held in the courthouse. In 1900 the Catholics bought the Methodist Church, moved it, and refurbished it. In 1912 the parish was officially incorporated by the Bishop of Sioux City. It was a mission from Sanborn until 1924 when in became a mission of the Sutherland Church. In 1928, the church relocated-as a basement church-to its present location. In 1953 the cornerstone of the present church was laid.

The American Reformed Church began as a mission station June 7, 1936. They met in a building owned by the Church of Christ. In May 1937 they were organized; in 1971 the first church building was replaced by a new sanctuary.

The Church of Christ started in 1951. They began services in the basement of the Hub Hotel. In 1957 they occupied their present building on the west side of town.

The United Church of Primghar was formed in 1974 by the union of the First Congregational Church (est 1872) and the Trinity Methodist Church (1874). A new building was built in 1978; the first service was held Apr 1, 1979. The Covey Church, now a historical preservation site, was an early Congregational Church.

The Grace Lutheran Church's first service was at the Legion Hall in June 1937. In 1938 land at the present location was purchased. The Center Township Lutheran Church was moved onto the site. On June 18, 1961, a new church building was dedicated.


The 75th Anniversary news coverage refers to the pioneer's entertainment and enlightenment. Talent shows happened in various homes (prob. late 1800's) A performance of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" netted $150 which was used to outfit a band. There were "old-time" dances until midnight: "Everybody was on hand at early candle sticken." (Probably a reference to.....????)

Primghar hosted the county wide "Old Settlers Reunion and Harvest Festival" on August 31, 1889. Decorations, bunting, mottoes and pictures were used. A 42 gun salute was performed. Arches were at each corner of the square each commemorating something, for example, David Alger's growing baldness, "picture of a grasshopper captioned 'O'Brien County Combined Reaper and Mower of 1876." Teams and wagons lined the roads; excursion trains brought people from afar to the Festival.

In 1939, Primghar hosted another Old Settler's Reunion. This fiftieth anniversary event was attended by E. W. Husted of Grant Township (in O'Brien County) and Fannie Husted Nelson of Sioux City (Iowa) who had come to O'Brien County in 1868. A two mile long parade with floats and bands was a keynote of this celebration rather than the large fixed structures of its predecessor. The effort applied was not lessened: Sutherland (Iowa)'s entry was a replica of the original Waterman homestead cabin with hand hewn logs and a split shingle roof.

Lyceum courses and chautauquas (like today's adult education) were offered at a price of $3 for adults and $2 for students for season tickets. For a town of its size, Primghar was the best lyceum town west of Chicago.

In August, 1988, Primghar had a centennial celebration.


Several businesses moved into town with the courthouse after the 1872 decision to establish Primghar. Many businesses have come and gone: grist mill; cheese factory; cream and egg station; implement shop; millinery and tailor shops; Chinese laundry; and more.

The arrival of the railroad in 1887 triggered the arrival of several new businesses: hardware store, general store, department store, furniture and undertaking store, and a large merchandise store. All were frame construction.

In 1998, 67 business and professional services were listed in a community directory.

The First National Bank was organized in 1889; the Primghar Savings Bank was established in 1894.

A Farmer's Elevator (cooperative) was established in the early 1900's. Wiley Bros. bought them out in 1946. Nicholson and Edwards bought the business in May, 1956. The Edwards family continues to manage the business.

The Cat's I, a well know landmark at the intersection of Highway 59 and the blacktop, was destroyed by fire in December, 1997.

Schultz and Green Law Office was the former educational wing of the Congregational Church. It was sold to the law firm in 1978 when the new United Church of Primghar wa built.

Dr. Jean Irwin's dental office was built in 1978, and she remains in business today.


In December, 1887, the court was petitioned to incorporate 360 acres as Primghar. On February 14, 1888 the vote was 57 to 47 to incorporate. Thereafter the town became a municipality.

In 1902, an ordinance established a waterworks. Over the years, wells had to be added to the system and new facilities such as the distinctive water tower. In 1914, a coke plant in Sanborn was contracted to provide electricity. In 1925, what is now Iowa Public Service, bought the franchise. Following a 36 hour blackout in 1936 caused by a blizzard, the town heatedly discussed owning the electric franchise. Those in favor of a municipal utility prevailed, and Primghar has had a municipal electric utility since 1938. It incorporated a cable television service in cooperation with Sanborn in 1983. In 1997, voters broadened the television franchise to a municipal telecommunications utility.

In 1954, natural gas was brought to Primghar by Northern Natural Gas; Peoples Natural Gas had the distribution franchise.

The airport to the southeast of town was built with donated funds and a state grant. Iowa governor Herschel Loveless dedicated it on November 8, 1959. The lighted runway is 2000 feet (1800 feet paved) and 22 feet wide.

The Rural Electric Cooperative was building its electric power delivery grid throughout the county in 1939 helping brighten the recovery from the depression. At first the per customer consumption of electricity was in the 40 kilowatt-hour per month range (today that is up to 1000 kW-hr/mo.). REC offices moved to a neighboring town in 1991 in a economy move, but storage facilities remain in Primghar.

After World War II, in 1946, a park was laid out to the southeast edge of town. The site, a memorial to those who served in the world wars, is about nine acres. A lighted ball diamond, football field, swimming pool(built 1978), playground, tennis courts and shelter house for picnics are now in the park. In 1951 the O'Brien County Fair Board moved the site of the county fair from Hartley, Iowa, to this park.

The Primghar Library was formerly a church building. It was purchased by the city in the late 1940's.


Chronological Miscellaneous

1955 The Primghar Roller Rink building (the former Cambier garage) was purchased from Pete TenKley. Don Steffens has managed the rink for over 40 years.

1965 Sid Gustafson started in the insurance business in 1965. He bought the building which is now South O'Brien Insurance from Harold Klink in 1975. Sid sold the business in 1995 to Paul Struve of Paullina.

1978 Bert and Leon Hunt operated Hunt's Drug Store for 35 years. The business was sold to Terry Morris in 1978 and renamed BARAMA Drug.

1984 The Primghar Community Building was built in 1984 following a fund drive in the community that raised $166,000 for the project.

2000 Following the 1999 approval of 3.7 million dollar countywide bond by O'Brien County voters, a new jail was built. It will house 42 prisoners; it opened December, 2000.

1999 The Hub Hotel was burned in November, 1999, after being vacant for twenty years.

1960 A new post office was built.

1962 Roger Smith became manager of the Primghar Lumber Store (and still is manager -2001).

1998 A new ASCS was built.

1999 A new Farm Bureau building (built by Robert McCauley, a local contractor).

1967 Primghar's ambulance service was started to replace the use of a hearse. In August, 1973, the city became the owner of the ambulance.

1973 "Spirit of the Lady," the fountain and statue was located north of the Primghar Savings Bank. It was provided by the E. T. Peterson family in memory of Mrs. E. T. Peterson who was the first president of the Primghar Women's Club.

The only Primghar in the World

Pumphrey, the treasurer, drives the first nail
Roberts, the donor, is quick on the trail
Inman dips slightly, the first letter in,
McCormack adds M, which makes a full PRIM
Green, thinking of groceries, gives the G
Hayes drops the H without asking a fee,
Albright, the joker, with his jokes all at par
Rereick brings up the rear and crowns all
Author unknown.

Spurious--Gimli glider.

Citation; references: O'Brien County Bell Microfiche at the Library;

75th Anniversary of the Primghar Community, 1963, Caroline Bohan; Gladys C. Zinn, Mickie Van Leeuwen 235 pages.

Thanks to Shirley Omer and Marge Hunt for proofreading and adding dates and details.

Corrections or page improvements:
Web page revised 07/06/2018
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