In 1869 a New Town is Born – Shirley (Waukee), Iowa!

By Dena Angaran Forret

On April 13, 1869, the Iowa Daily State Register announced that the Des Moines Valley railroad was leaving Des Moines and entering Dallas County where “a new town will be laid out about 6-1/2 miles from Adel, Dallas County.”  That new town would be known as Waukee!  After the Civil War, General Lewis Addison Grant, a native of Vermont, moved with his family to Des Moines.  On April 30th of that year, General Grant, along with Major William Ragan, bought the land around the railroad bed in Walnut Township and developed a town they named Shirley.

Another general, General Reid of the Des Moines Valley Railroad, did not like the name Shirley and discussed a name change with the Keokuk railroad office. You might ask why the name Waukee was chosen. No one knows for sure, but there are a few stories you can choose from.  Could it be the fact that Waukee was a low swampy area and that the Indian name of Waukee meant “wet spot”?  Or was it an abbreviation of the Milwaukee Road Company?  Or was it that old prospector going through town on his mule that gut stuck in the mud in the center of town?  The prospector barked orders to his mule and the mule’s cries sounded like Waauu-kee-e!

In 1869, Waukee consisted of 320 acres of land which was divided into lots for homes and businesses. During that year, a train depot and eight or ten residences had been built.   Farmers could now ship their farm products by rail to Des Moines.  The town’s first post office was established.


In June 1878, an election was held to incorporate the town of Waukee.  The vote was approved and the town’s first officers were elected on July 24, 1878. Elected officials held their first council meeting and passed by unanimous vote their first ordinance which prohibited the sale of “spirituous or vinous liquors” within two miles of Waukee’s corporate limits.  Ordinance One was eventually forgotten; and the dry town of Waukee ended up with more spirituous bars than any other type of business, including a grocery store.

In 1964, I began working in Des Moines.   When people I met asked where I lived, I would say Waukee.  Their faces showed no recognition of what or where Waukee was until I mentioned the Golden Spur Tavern that was situated on Highway Six.  Then they knew where Waukee was!  At that time, Waukee was little more than a farm town you passed by on your way to someplace else.

In the 1870s, Waukee had a population of around 370. Northern Europe settlers as well as those from Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York came to this small town to build their lives.  Farming was an important part of this new life.

The Waukee Presbyterian Church was built in 1870 and was the first worship house in the community. For three years this church also served as the meeting place for children’s learning until the first school building was built in 1874 or 1875. St. Boniface’s first church was built later in the 1880s.

1st church-school

By the 1900s, Waukee had two railroads with passenger service, two depots, mail service and a telephone. The downtown triangle consisted of a general store, a hardware store, two physicians’ offices, two banks, a hotel, a drugstore, a barbershop and a restaurant.  The Farmer Elevator Company was established and remains today as the Farmer’s Co-Operative.  Waukee had more businesses during the early 1900s than during the 1960s.

Historical resources: Images of America Waukee
     Living in Waukee Past and Present
     Eric Forret Resource Paper, The Shuler Coal Mines
     Photos courtesy of Waukee Area Historical Society


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