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Herriman Mansion

Mansion History


Written by Ev Zubke, June 2002

In 1857 Major David B. Herriman came to Fayette County, Iowa, 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 on the banks of the Volga river. The home of the Herrimans was established in the double log house erected for a trading post. The trading post had continued there for several years by Mr. Culver until the Winnebago Indians were relocated to Crow Wing, Minnesota in 1848.


When the Winnebagos were removed to Minnesota, Mr. Culver had followed them there. In the year of 1850, Mr. Herriman was appointed as Indian Agent for the Chippewa in Minnesota and stationed at Crow Wing. His recommendations to this position were integrity, courage, honesty, and good business qualifications. He remained in this position for several years and made a fortune. 


All Indian agents have military titles, usually that of "Major", which answers a question often asked with reference to Major Herriman. Culver had become acquainted with Herriman in Crow Wing and Herriman made the land swap, sight unseen. He was so satisfied with Illyria Township, however, that he eventually acquired 1400 acres of land there. 


The town was laid out by Horace and Elizabeth Countryman and David and Elizabeth Herriman, in July, 1857, and the plat was recorded May 11, 1859. 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. 

Major Herriman built a large brick dwelling, the largest house in the county at the time, on his land not far from the log cabin trading post. The bricks were made close by on his own land by Thomas Fennell and it was finished with pine, cut and sawed on his own place. In about 1860 the Herriman family moved into the three-story brick mansion, the huge dimensions a marvel to his struggling pioneer neighbors. The building had room for the Major and his five sons and one daughter from his first marriage; for his second wife and their two young daughters, and for a dozen hired men. The hired men slept in a low ceilinged attic room, where legend has it, the Major won back his men's pay in Saturday night card games. 


His two daughters by his second marriage were sent to the Catholic school at Dubuque, where, among other things, they learned to play the piano and dance. 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 the moments of youthful enthusiasm the portly, paunchy Major would join the party, sing and dance gaily to his favorite tune, "Polly, Put the Kettle On".


The coming of the railroad up the beautiful Volga river valley meant much to the progress of Wadena. Major Herriman donated a large amount of right of way to encourage the coming of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul. He realized that with the railroad came new people and business energy, and from 1877 Wadena took an upward trend. 


For many years, weekly horse racing in the Herriman lane, with its attendant saloon equipment and other features, gambling, furnished the principal amusement and revenue -- to the fortunate. 


Nearly all inhabitants in early days were dependent upon daily labor for a livelihood, and the Herriman estate, with the mills and lumbering interests, furnished employment. The people were all poor, so Major Herriman was looked upon as a kind benefactor. He was not over-exacting in the amount of work he required, and he was always ready to pay. Many of his employees received their pay, in whole or in part, in pork, flour, and other products of the big farm, and usually at fair prices. 


The first schoolhouse was destroyed By fire. It was succeeded by a stone structure of somewhat longer dimensions --this one eighteen by thirty-six feet --all in one room. It was erected on contract with Major Herriman, for a consideration of $800.00. Land contributions made by Major Herriman to different denominations made it easier for parishes to build their churches in the community. 


The ground for the Wadena Cemetery was donated by Major Herriman, who erected a fine granite monument for himself and his wife, before the death of either. Not far off and within sight of his huge mansion, the Major lies beneath his gravestone, which is still the most impressive of all in the Wadena Cemetery. The inscription reads: 


BORN OCT. 17, 1808
DIED DEC. 16, 1875

Restoration Efforts


Written by Ev Zubke, June 2002

The restoration of the Herriman Mansion was proposed by various writers for over 50 years. There is some evidence that the IMT Insurance Company, currently located in Des Moines, Iowa, and co-founded by Jesse B. Herriman, son of Major David B. Herriman, had made inquiries into acquiring and preserving the mansion in the 1970s, however, for reasons not yet fully determined, the effort was not successful.


Near the end of the twentieth century, Mr. William Frank Probert took action to get the property added to the list of Iowa's most endangered historic properties. He also submitted a nomination for the property to be added to the list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Properties; however, the competition was stiff and this nomination was not selected for addition to the list in 2001.


In 2001, while researching his family history, Mr. Ev Zupke's visited and photographed the property and acquired information from Mr. Probert on the above actions he had taken. An intense effort was initiated during the summer and fall of 2001 to bring this property to the consciousness of people in the Northeast Iowa area and to relatives, former residents of the property and former residents of Wadena, Iowa, in an attempt to form a local committee to serve to carryout a restoration project.


The objective of this restoration was to return Herriman Mansion to as close as possible to the configuration it was when it was first constructed. Exceptions would be having modern restroom facilities, handicapped access, electrical power, etc. The restoration would include the windows on the lower porch and second level aviary which are visible in the left side photograph of the mansion believed to have been taken sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s.


Mr. Zubke launched a website with information about the history of the mansion, historic articles about the property and the Herriman family, a restoration plan and a plea to form a committee and collect donations from any interested parties. We are thankful to Mr. Zubke for his extensive research and his website to acquire the information we have provided on this page, and a link to his website are listed below. The last update on his website was in 2002 and beyond that time, it is unclear of where the project led. The property has since been purchased and the structure was torn down. 

For more information about the history and restoration of the Herriman Mansion, please visit the source website for this information: Herriman Mansion Restoration Project

History of D.B. Herriman

The following article by Marjorie Knox appeared in the Elgin Echo, date unknown. 

There is truly a lot of story about Major Herriman that still has been put all together in one complete article. Much history of the area and early settlers can. be found in that story. He certainly led an exciting life. prior to coming to Fayette County. The 6 foot 2 inch Herriman received his title of Major, just as being an Indian agent, anyone received the title of a military Major. It was not because be belonged to the armed forces of his country.


At the time of this photo one could still see the cross-panel windows frames of the Apiary. The windows were pretty well in place. The wide-side windowed doorway on the south in the early days had gracefully wide steps leading to that. Many entered the door from their carriages. Mr. and Mrs. Earl Little lived there at the time of this picture.

He was born in Morris County, NJ, and grew to manhood there. He left that place very suddenly. He had incurred the displeasure of four men who had resolved to get the best of him. They found him in a saloon. It was an underground establishment and they felt they had him trapped. He knocked each man down as they came at him, one hitting a red hot stove. He then managed to get to the stairway, when the first came to and grabbed his foot. He managed (Herriman) to grab an iron railing, pulled himself upright and kicked the four into a heap at the foot of the stairs, and made his leave. 


He left home then and stayed with an uncle in New York state for two years. He then went to LaGrange County in Indiana, where he worked in a foundry at $2.00 per day. This was a high wage then. He immediately began purchasing land from his savings and selling at a profit. He then purchased land in the next county and made it his home which set where the present Eric Boehm house was moved to. It was a white two story frame house when we remember it. Mr. and Mrs. Howard Thomas lived there at one time since then. The address was Brush Creek or Arlington, in the early days. 


A descendant of the Herriman family, Mrs. Bill Keasbee and her husband moved there some time in the thirties. They were from Chicago, and wrote books. He also was a very good entertaining piano player. They painted the house white and had blue shutters. It was a showplace. Have later heard of them being in Nebraska and she had published some children's books. Have kept an eye out for those books but have not seen them listed. 


Later residents on the place were Amos and Zetta White. The house was burned before the now Boehm house was moved there. I have heard tell that there used to be a road go on the north side of the hill on the south bank of the Brush Creek River that led to the Nus dam area. There also was a rural school located just off the road west of the present highway and on the south side of Brush Creek. 


We will cover more of the J.B. Herriman family, their children and the present descendants of the Herriman families still living in our area, and others elsewhere that are still alive. By all standards of that time, the Major was a wealthy man and with our inflation, would have been considered a millionaire. He at one time owned 1,400 acres of land here. 

We will also cover the tries that have been made to preserve the historic home, to restore it and presently what is being done. 


Had heard also in past days of a light that could be seen wandering on the hillside above the house. Tales had it that no reason had ever been found for the source of that light.


Where did the Major first build when coming here? He built a two story log home on the now Mattocks farm about 1860. The sunken remains of the foundation site may still be seen. He traded for this land in Illyria sight unseen. 

If you entered the mansion today, voices would sound hollow. There might be remnants somewhere of once beautiful white and gold wallpaper, and stairways might not be safe. But the voices of the party goers might be heard, the music of the fiddle and the many gambling sessions. and its ensuing language would echo as the Major and help spent their evening. And one could step to the windows in the second and third floors to still see the magnificent view that was there for the Herriman family.

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