Cedar Rapids: History

Cedar River Supports Settlement

The Sac and the Fox, Native American tribes, hunted and trapped along the Cedar River before the arrival of Osgood Shepherd, the area's first permanent settler of European descent. Shepherd lived in a cabin on the river's east side in 1838 at what is now the location of First Avenue and First Street. A survey was made in 1841 and the newly formed town was named Rapids City after the rapids on the Cedar River; the name was changed to Cedar Rapids in 1848. In the early 1840s a dam was built across the river to provide power for the grist and lumber industries. Cedar Rapids was incorporated as a city in 1849; the town of Kingston, located on the west side of the river, was annexed to Cedar Rapids in 1870.

The early history of Cedar Rapids was highlighted by colorful characters and events. An island—now named Municipal Island—in the channel of the Cedar River was until 1851 the headquarters of the Shepherd gang, notorious horse thieves. Local residents built the steamer The Cedar Rapids in 1858 and used it for round trips to St. Louis; however, a collision on the Mississippi River and the arrival of the railroad ended river transportation.

Czechoslovakians, known as Bohemians, have made lasting contributions to the Cedar Rapids community. Czechs began arriving in 1852 to work in local packing plants, and soon a "Little Bohemia" was established in the southwest sector of the city (it is now known as "Czech Village"). Josef Sosel, the first Czech lawyer in the United States, was smuggled out of his native country in a barrel after he was accused of revolutionary activities; Sosel settled in Cedar Rapids, where he played a prominent role in the Czech community. In 1869 Czechs established The Reading Society, which evolved into a Little Theater movement, as well as the Light Guard Band. The Czech-language Cedar Rapids Listy began publication in 1906.

Industry and Arts Flourish

The economic growth of Cedar Rapids was spurred in 1871 with the arrival, from Ireland, of T. M. Sinclair, who established one of the nation's largest meatpacking companies, T. M. Sinclair Company. Some other major local industries that date from the same era are Cherry-Burrell and the world's largest cereal mill, Quaker Oats. Cultural development was simultaneous with economic expansion, as many Cedar Rapids arts and educational institutions were formed during this period. Greene's Opera House was dedicated in 1880, the same year the Cedar Rapids Business College opened its doors. Among the school's first faculty members was Austin Palmer, the inventor of the Palmer Method of Penmanship.

For more than 60 years, city fathers challenged nearby Marion for designation as the county seat; in 1919, voters endorsed a move to Cedar Rapids. The county courthouse and the Memorial Building, dedicated in 1928 to Americans who have fought in the nation's wars, were built on Municipal Island. Grant Wood, the Iowa artist, designed the 20-foot by 24-foot stained glass window in the Memorial Building and supervised its construction in Munich, Germany.

The artistry of Wood, one of the leading practitioners of Midwestern regionalism, is felt throughout the city. Wood grew up in Cedar Rapids and taught in the community junior high school; after studying in France he returned to the city and, supported by a local patron, set up a studio. Wood's "American Gothic" caused a sensation in the art world for its uncompromising realism when it was unveiled in 1930. Wood's daring work led to success and he was hired in 1934 to teach art at the University of Iowa.

Telecommunications Help Shape City's Future

Private enterprise, a principal force in the city's economic history, continued to be important during the first half of the twentieth century. Another Cedar Rapids native, Arthur Collins, started Collins Radio Company with eight employees during the Great Depression; the small electronics firm soon established a reputation as a leader in the industrial radio business. The company supplied electronic equipment to all branches of the armed services during World War II. Collins Radio, a major employer in the Cedar Rapids area, became a part of Rockwell Collins in 1973. Today the Cedar Rapids metropolitan area is a telecommunications and transportation center, performing an important role in the nation's economy. The Cedar Rapids "Technology Corridor" is one of the leading centers in the country for the defense electronics industry. The city has also developed a reputation as a cultural and artistic hub, with a thriving theater community and a wealth of sports and recreational activities for all. Known as the "City of Five Seasons," Cedar Rapids residents profess to have a quality of life that allows for the addition of a fifth season, one to enjoy the community and the other four seasons.

Historical Information: The Carl and Mary Koehler History Center, 615 1st Avenue SE, Cedar Rapids, IA 52401; telephone (319)362-1501