In 1853, a group of investors got together in Keokuk, Iowa. Their mission: to establish a railroad that headed northwest up to Ft. Dodge, Iowa, via the capital city of Des Moines. Thus was born the Des Moines River Valley Railroad, and its Secretary and Treasurer was William Leighton.
These were the roots of the present town of Leighton, but it would be another 10-plus years before the town would be established. As the railroad snaked its way up the Des Moines River Valley, speculators jumped in wherever they could, hoping to make a profit. One of these speculators was a gentleman in Pella by the name of B. F. Roberts. Sensing an opportunity, he bought 40 acres in Black Oak Township, Mahaska County, from Ann Fleck in 1864, hoping he would hit pay dirt. And it turned out he guessed right—the railroad came up right along the southern border of these 40 acres.
On February 9, 1865, B. F. Roberts and his wife Marietta created a plat of a brand new town, and named it Leighton in honor of railroad official William Leighton. They stayed with the railroad theme—two of the streets, Otley and Carss, were named after J.W. Otley and James Carss, both engineers of the railroad bed that was being built. Perry and Reid Streets were named after C. H. Perry and Hugh T. Reid, Keokuk residents who had invested heavily in the railroad. And Patch Street was named after Abraham Patch, a railroad conductor. He would have the honor of being in charge of the first train—led by Engine No. 1, “The Keokuk”—to reach Des Moines in 1866. By the end of 1866 the Roberts had sold virtually all of the town lots to one person, James Carver, who happened to be the brother-in-law of William Leighton. (So it appears that the old adage—it is not what you know but who know—was in effect back then as well!).
The railroad resulted in Leighton being the ideal shipping point between Pella and Oskaloosa, with much grain and livestock shipped out of the stockyards and grain elevators that were located on a large parcel of railroad land on the south side of town. A depot was built, and businesses, a post office, homes, churches, and schools soon followed. The creation of the new town of Leighton became the demise of the former town of Laredo, which was located on the highway between Oskaloosa and Pella in the vicinity of the old Half-Way Station.
Leighton grew slowly, and the corporate limits increased in 1875 when Joseph and Estella Jackson platted Jackson’s Addition on the north side of town, and in 1908 when Geert (Gerrit) and Sjoukje (Charlotte) platted Stouwie’s Addition in the northeast corner of town. It would be nearly 100 years before the corporate limits of the town would grow again, but it was for a very good reason. In anticipation of the new sewer project coming into town, in 2003 the properties on the east side Carss Street were voluntarily annexed into the City Limits so that they would have access to the brand new sanitary sewer and lagoon system that was being built.
Even though the plat of Leighton was filed at the courthouse in 1865, Leighton was not officially incorporated into a city by the vote of the people until 1909. The highest population since that time was following the “baby boom” years, with the 1960 census showing a population of 167. This is quite a change from one of the earliest references to Leighton, an 1865 guide of Iowa called the Iowa State Gazetteer, which listed the population at a mere 12 souls. The 2010 census reports Leighton at 162 residents, which is not far from the high.
Most towns have unique tidbits in their history, and Leighton is no exception—here are a few examples:
The very first individual to own the land on which Leighton rests was a fellow by the name of Pardon Smith, who purchased the land for $1.25 an acre in 1853. While Leighton is now viewed as a very stable and perhaps sleepy little village, this cannot be said of the original landowner—during the course of his life, Pardon Smith lived in 5 different states and had 6 different wives!
William Leighton, the town’s namesake and a Scottish immigrant, was a man of great wealth—the 1870 census showed the value of his real estate to be $50,000 and the value of his personal property to be $100,000, which was a tremendous amount in those days. However, when the railroad industry went bust, so did William, and he died a poor man. But, his legacy lives on in Mahaska County in the town of Leighton and in Beacon’s Leighton Street.
In the 1870’s the Temperance Movement was in full swing, and Leighton’s saloon was a target, with its owner being hauled before the Grand Jury in Mahaska County for creating a nuisance. But, it was not the court system, but the Muchakinock Creek, that solved the problem. In 1881 the creek went on a rampage, and washed away the saloon along with a goodly portion of the railroad. Whether you believed it was an act of God or an act of Nature probably depended if you were the local Baptist or the local saloonkeeper……
The “Bonnie and Clyde” era of the 1930’s did not leave Leighton untouched—in 1935 the Leighton Bank was robbed at gunpoint, with the Cashier Herman Vander Linden and Teller Carrie Groenendyk placed in the vault with the door slammed shut. Fortunately, a screwdriver in the vault allowed the latch to be loosened so they could escape. The two robbers, young men from respected Ottumwa families, were caught and were each given 20 years of hard labor in the State Penitentiary.
The above robbery had another twist in the courts—the Mahaska County Bankers Association refused to pay the offered reward to Rolla Carr, who claimed to have provided evidence that led to the arrest of the robbers. This individual sued the Association and won, and the Taintor Savings Bank of New Sharon appealed the ruling to the Iowa Supreme Court. This court also ruled in favor of the plaintiff, so the Bankers Association had to pay.
With the demise of the railroad, Leighton’s importance as a transportation and shipping center also disappeared. However, by the time that happened, Leighton had established itself as a strong little community, taking advantage of the good work opportunities available in Osklaoosa and Pella. It has bucked the trend of small-town Iowa by remaining viable with active businesses, desirable properties for homeowners, strong city finances, and recreational and volunteer opportunities.
Leighton Celebrates its 150th Anniversary and America’s Independence
The City of Leighton, well known for its small-town Fourth of July festivities, has a dual reason to celebrate this year due to the 150th anniversary of its founding. The day for the event will be Friday, July 3, with the events as follows:
5:00-7:00—Supper served by the Leighton Lions at the Leighton Christian Reformed Church
7:30—Parade on Otley Street
6:00-9:30—Games and Activities for kids at the Ballpark