Ely Then and Now

How did the town of Ely happen to grow on this particular spot in Linn County? Historians tell us that early settlement in our part of the Territory of Iowa typically concentrated at prairie/forest margins where there was a variety of natural resources. On the west edge of Ely you will see a creek which was once surrounded by timber. In 1838 it attracted a small group of immigrants, most of whom were from Indiana. They named the timber, not surprisingly, Hoosier Grove and the creek, Hoosier's Creek.

As more settlers moved into the area, a trail between the settlements of Cedar Rapids, Solon and Iowa City developed along the line of our present north/south artery, State Street. It became a stage line road and, in the 1850's, a post road. Iowa became a state in 1846, most of the surrounding prairie was converted to farmland by 1859, and pressure was building for the establishment of a trading center to supply domestic needs and a market for produce.

Ely - Looking down Dows Street towards State Street. Pre-1890
In the early 1870's The Burlington, Cedar Rapids, and Northern Railroad constructed a line running roughly parallel and to the east of the road and the creek. You can still detect the right-of-way along the side of the grain elevator stretching to the northwest along the back of the city's maintenance shed, Vavra's Lumberyard and the Ely Manor, where the bike trail is now.

Ely Train Depot
In 1872 the railroad purchased sixty acres of land from Andrew Fuhrmeister, a member of one of the first families of settlers, and the town was laid out along Hoosier Creek and its floodplain. It was named after John F. Ely, the treasurer of the railroad. One of the streets is named after Fuhrmeister and others are named after various members of the railroad's governing board. Even before the town was platted, a sawmill and a general store (established by William S. Cooper) had been located within its limits, but no traces of these buildings remain.

After platting, the town grew quickly; in 1878 the populations was 250 and more than half were Czech immigrants. Businessmen included: Joseph Woitishek, general store; J.E. Dolezal, saloon and agricultural implement store; W. Swacha, harness shop; John Janko, lumber company; Anton Horak, blacksmith; Joseph Stepanek, blacksmith; and Hanus &Son, cabinet makers. Fuhrmeister &Woitishek also operated a grain warehouse in Ely.

In 1903 the town was incorporated and in the first part of that decade many of the present buildings of the business district were erected. By 1910, the development of Ely's central business district, located primarily on Dows Street between Main and Walker Street, was virtually complete, its businesses providing the usual consumer staples and services.

Dows Street about 1917, looking to the west

The same view in January 2004


If you stand on the sidewalk in front of the handsome brick Post Office, you can still experience the underlying structure of turn-of-the-century Ely. It is characteristic of town growth patterns that the main commercial districts develop along the street connecting the railroad and the highway (State Street).

The below brick building is one of the oldest and most imposing buildings with its double storefront, cast iron supporting columns, and pressed metal cornices. It was built in 1889 as the Woitishek General Store and Grain & Livestock dealership.

On the right is the same building in 2004.  Not much has changed and today it houses the Ely Post Office and a hair salon.

(Above photos)  Across Main Street to the east lies the grain elevator; its solid timber-framed building, now sided with metal, was built by Joseph Woitishek near the end of the year 1900. It was sold to C. S. King about 1903. In 1910 Frank J. Krob and Wes Fiala, his brother-in-law, purchased the elevator. In 1952 Frank Krob sold out to his three sons and his son-in-law. This elevator is still in use by F.J. Krob and Company today.  (Read a history of F.J. Krob Company)