Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs made his mark on Mount Vernon. Many in town made their mark on him, too. Wirfs and his mother, Sarah, took The Gazette on a tour of his hometown, revisiting scenes around what essentially is the one square mile where he grew up. This story is a little about what can hold you back. This is mostly about what moves you forward.

Staff Columnist

The rough and tumble campaign of '19 (That's 1919)

Marion, Cedar Rapids waged bitter battle over county seat

Marion was the county seat of Linn County — and home to its courthouse — from 1839 until voters in 1919 agreed to make Cedar Rapids the county seat instead. (Gazette archives)
Marion was the county seat of Linn County — and home to its courthouse — from 1839 until voters in 1919 agreed to make Cedar Rapids the county seat instead. (Gazette archives)
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One-hundred years ago this fall, Cedar Rapids stole the county seat from Marion. Or maybe it won it, fair and square, by a massive margin in a countywide vote.

It may depend on which end of the Marion City Square Park’s cannon you’re on.

In any event, on Nov. 4, 1919, county voters opted to remove the county seat from Marion and transfer it to Cedar Rapids, Linn County’s largest community then and now. Judging from what I found in the archives, the 1919 campaign had a real 2019 feel to it, including some fake news.

The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette called it “one of the bitterest fights that ever has been waged in Linn County.” The tug-of-war over the county seat had been raging since the 1870s. Cedar Rapids had tried multiple times to move county government west.

“This time, it is more heated than ever. Each side has charged the other with misrepresentations and deportment that was even more grave than that,” the Evening Gazette wrote.

How grave was the deportment? Grave enough, trust me.

But the Evening Gazette was no calming influence on this fight between neighbors. Instead, it fanned the flames.

On the Saturday before the vote, Nov. 1, 1919, the paper ran an entire page of content aimed at discrediting Marion’s arguments for keeping the courthouse, while also staunchly defending Cedar Rapids boosters campaigning to take it away.

The paper argued that a new Cedar Rapids courthouse was needed to replace the inconvenient, inadequate and structurally deficient fire trap in Marion. Marion boosters decried Cedar Rapids’ power play and argued it would lead to tax increases.

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“Efforts have been made to befuddle and becloud the issue. Motives have been impugned. Questionable tactics have been employed,” the Evening Gazette opined.

Speaking of questionable tactics, a headline near the top of the page blared “COURT HOUSE BURNS!”

Um, not really.

“This is an imaginary scene, but in the present condition of the fire hazard it may happen at any time,” explained another headline below.

So the fake fire story was accompanied by a large, very dramatic illustration of horrified local residents watching as the courthouse is consumed by flames. It was drawn on behalf of the Publicity Committee on Court House Removal by some local guy named Grant Wood. Maybe you’ve heard of him.

“Nero is said to have watched Rome burn, but old Nero had nothing on the citizens of Marion and community,” the imaginary story said. It described how the “eyesore of years” burned amid the futile efforts of a Marion bucket brigade, “puny in strength,” and its horse-drawn hook-and-ladder “bumping along the cobblestones.” Meanwhile, in the imaginary distance can be heard the modern trucks of the Cedar Rapids Fire Department rushing to the scene.

“ ‘Can’t do anything. Too late. It’s a fire trap. Said you’d better build a new one,’ was the laconic comment of the firemen from C.R.” the article imagined.

“In the mind and on the tongue of everyone was the groaning question, ‘Why didn’t we get out and vote for a new courthouse in Cedar Rapids when we had the chance last November? It serves us right,’ ” said the imaginary story, quoting imaginary thoughts.

Laying it on a little thick, don’t you think?

Well, the county did get out and vote, and Cedar Rapids won in a landslide, 9,662 to 4,821. The measure got all the margin it needed and then some in Cedar Rapids, where it prevailed 8,185 to 485. In Marion, according to the Weekly Sentinel newspaper, it was rejected 1,098 to 16.

“Marion put up a good fight,” the Weekly Sentinel wrote.

The Evening Gazette of Nov. 5 tried to strike a conciliatory note.

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“The result of the election is to be considered not only a victory for Cedar Rapids … but a victory for Linn County as a whole as it placed the county seat in its proper situation, the center of population ... ” The Evening Gazette reported on its front page.

The “issue has been considered ended, as was expressed by Mayor Biggs of Marion who last night at 8 o’clock telephoned Mayor Hall that the race had been won and said that he hoped the two cities would continue to be bound by their friendship of past years.”

In the Weekly Sentinel on Nov. 6, Mayor C.W. Biggs called the report of his call “an untruth and made to deceive the citizens of Marion and Linn County.”

“To think that the court house had been located in Marion for most eighty years, in fact ever since the county was organized, and now just because might was used by the Cedar Rapids soulless bunch, it has been stolen from Marion and is placed upon an island in the Cedar River if this bunch can hoodwink the Board of Supervisors in so doing,” Biggs wrote.

“The Germans figured the same way because they had the idea that ‘might makes right,’ ” he wrote.

Wow, did he toss Cedar Rapids in with the dreaded Huns? Luckily, we’re all one big happy metro area now.

But Marion’s cannon does still point west, toward the county seat. It wasn’t aimed in that direction until 1956, according to Diane Langton, who writes The Gazette’s awesome “Time Machine” articles. She wrote about the Civil War cannon’s history in 2016.

The cannon nearly was accidentally sold for scrap. When it was remounted in the park, it was aimed west, not east as it had been for years.

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“I had it pointed west, figuring the next war would come from that direction,” Marion Mayor George Brewer told a chamber group.

No worries Cedar Rapids. Marion is at peace with your larceny, I mean victory. But your neighbor remains quietly vigilant for any signs of grave deportment.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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