John Milton Overman

December 30, 2011

John Milton Overman was born in 1817 in Highland County, Ohio, the eldest of eleven children born into the Quaker family of Elias and Sarah Cowgill Overman. Elias and Sarah moved their family from Ohio to Muscatine County, Iowa in 1842 where Elias established a farm. John Overman also farmed and in addition operated a small hotel, however he did not remain long in Muscatine County, Iowa.

Development of Water Power
In 1847 John and his brother Dempsy visited Cedar Falls where they found William Sturgis struggling to build a timber dam in order to harness the water power of the Cedar River. With neither the money nor the manpower to complete the dam, Sturgis sold his claim to the Overmans and John Barrick. During the winter of 1847 and 1848, they dug a millrace and built a dam. By early 1848 they had a saw mill in operation cutting lumber for the early settlers and the Overman brothers and their brother-in-law Edwin Brown moved their families to Sturgis Falls. This was the first saw mill in Black Hawk County and in this portion of the state of Iowa.

Overman returned briefly to Muscatine, where he operated a steam saw mill. In January 1850 John Overman joined the rush for California gold, traveling down the Mississippi to New Orleans and then west to Mexico and north to San Francisco on a three month long journey to reach the gold fields. While he was gone, John and his wife Phoebe carried on a correspondence, with Phoebe writing that if he would just come home he could make his fortune in Cedar Falls. Shortly after he left Iowa, Phoebe wrote him that she had received a letter from Dempsy who advised John to “let California go to hell and come up here [to Cedar Falls] for he says if we will only stick to that property we will be rich nothing surer.” Dempsy related that there were fifty families settling in the area of Sturgis Falls and the big woods. During John’s absence, his brothers Dempsy and William and brother-in-law Edwin Brown continued to develop the property at Sturgis Falls, William advising his sister-in-law Phoebe to tell John that they were doing a good business at the mill. John spent seven months mining for gold before returning to Iowa, settling in Cedar Falls permanently in January 1851.

Father of Local Industry
In 1850 the Overmans and Brown added to the saw mill in order to accommodate a grist mill. It was the only grist mill in Black Hawk County for several years and served settlers from as far as 150 miles away. By 1856 the millrace had facilitated the development of an industrial center consisting of the saw mill, owned by J. M. Overman & Co. (comprised of John and Dempsy Overman and Dr. Henry H. Meredith); the grist mill, the only flour mill in the upper Cedar Valley, owned by Overman, Fox & Co.; a second sawmill, owned by J. M. Overman & Co., said to be one of the best in the Cedar Valley, which cut an average of 3,000 feet of hard wood lumber every 24 hours; and a third sawmill owned by Edwin Brown. Development of the community’s industrial base continued, and in 1856 J. M. Overman & Co. began erecting another mill on the millrace, expecting to build five stories high and 40′ x 60′ wide.

As the original owners of the water power in Cedar Falls, the Overmans initiated the development of industry in Cedar Falls. By 1894 industry along the mill race had grown to include the largest pump factory in the world (Harris & Cole Brothers), one of the largest oat meal plants in the Midwest (Forrest Milling Co.), and The Columbia Paper Co., one of the largest paper mills in the region. Other local industries included a canning factory employing 160 people, the Williams Manufacturing Company, Weisbard Novelty Works, and the Dayton Mill, just to name a few. Thanks to the Overmans’ investment of capital in the development of local water power, Cedar Falls became known as a manufacturing center. The jobs available in these industries attracted new settlers, including recent emigrants who were encouraged to settle in Cedar Falls by Overman. Business grew and prospered and the community likewise.

Development of Transportation Infrastructure

To further the success of local manufacturing and to attract new business to Cedar Falls it was necessary to build a transportation infrastructure by which goods could be shipped to market. In 1854 the Overmans gave 40 acres of land to the Dubuque and Sioux City Railroad. They were among the many Cedar Falls citizens who invested land and cash totaling $100,000 in the Dubuque and Sioux City Railroad with the understanding that Cedar Falls would be the end of the division and that the round house and machine sheds would locate here, providing employment opportunities. Ultimately, the round house and machine sheds located elsewhere, but the railroad still played an important role in the growth of Cedar Falls.

The Dubuque and Sioux City railroad became the Illinois Central Railroad. The Illinois Central reached Cedar Falls in 1860, and following the Civil War expanded its track further west. The depot, located on the east side of the Cedar River, saw six passenger and six freight trains leaving for the east and the west every day. A north-south route was needed, and John M. and Dempsy Overman were among those citizens of Black Hawk County who, in 1867, pledged $62,000 for the construction of the Iowa Central Railroad which was to run south from Cedar Falls to St. Louis. This line was never built and the investors lost their money.

By 1894 Cedar Falls was served by multiple railroads. The Great Western Railway was finished to Cedar Falls in 1884 and established its depot on the east end of Fifth Street. The Great Western had four passenger and four freight trains each day going east, west and north. The Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern, with six passenger and six freight trains each day to and from Chicago, St. Paul, St. Louis and Kansas City was built to Cedar Falls in 1870, and the Cedar Falls and Minnesota Railroad was built in 1863 with four passenger and two freight cars running daily north to Minneapolis and St. Paul. The CF & M Railroad used the Illinois Central Depot on the east side of the river. Although many local citizens, including the Overmans, lost money in failed railroad development schemes, ultimately the railroads that were established at Cedar Falls provided decades of reliable transportation for people and goods.

Real Estate Development
In addition to industrial development, Overman was involved in the development of governmental, commercial and residential real estate. In the Spring of 1851 the village of Cedar Falls was organized and a plat made of the town by the Overmans, but this plat was not recorded. In 1853 the town was surveyed again and this plat was recorded. Cedar Falls was at that time the county seat, so the Overmans gave fifty-six village lots to the county to be sold to raise funds to build county offices. Overman also deeded Court House Square (now known as Overman Park) to the community as the site for the future court house. After the county seat was moved to Waterloo, Court House Square became a community gathering place. In 1931 the park was dedicated in honor of J. M. and Phebe J. Overman; William P. and Harriet Overman; Dempsy Overman, and Edwin Brown, the original proprietors of the village of Cedar Falls.

Overman was also actively building on Main Street. By May 1856 the Overman Block, on the east side of the 100 block of Main Street had been built. Located across the street from the Carter House Hotel (the site of today’s Black Hawk Hotel), this was a substantial three-story brick building that served many of the early businesses in Cedar Falls. In 1860 the Dubuque Times said Overman and Brown’s “mammoth brick block is filled with four of the largest and best stores west of Dubuque. It is occupied by H & J Miller and Hatch & Allen, general variety merchants; G. N. Miner, druggist and apothecary and J. Vanuxem and Son, grocers.” The Overman Block was destroyed by fire in March 1871.

Local Education
In 1853 the first Cedar Falls School District was formed. Serving on the school board were Stephen A. Bishop, Erasmus D. Adams and John M. Overman (who was later Board President). The Board raised money to have the first school house built on the corner of Main and Fifth Street. Overman’s interest in the education remained strong, and in 1862 he was part of a committee which arranged for parents to visit the area schools each week. The committee’s resolution was published in the Cedar Falls Gazette as follows:

School Matters – …At a meeting of the patrons of the public schools of this place, a committee was appointed to draw up resolutions and arrange a weekly visiting list for the different schools during the coming quarter, and in accordance therewith the committee would respectfully submit the following preamble and resolutions, that,
Whereas, it is the natural and imperative duty of every parent to provide and secure to his child the means of happiness and respectability in society; and whereas the proper education of the rising generation is the best means of securing to them these blessings, and a due appreciation of their rights as citizens, both at home and abroad; and whereas, the permanency of republican institutions mainly depend upon the intelligence of the people, and the present condition of our country demands that a more vigorous effort be put forth to elevate the moral standard of our youth and give them a more thorough knowledge of constitutional liberty; therefore
Resolved, That we the citizens of Cedar Falls appreciate the responsibility resting upon us, by giving to the teachers of our public schools our hearty co-operation and influence as well as money. And further,
Resolved, That it is the duty of every parent to visit the school where his children attend at least twice a quarter. And further,
Resolved, That the citizens of the village and patrons of the schools be requested to observe the following weekly list, and visit the schools on the days designated by said list [there follows a list of three village schools: Mr. Goodrich’s School, Mr. Wilcox’s School, and Miss Barnard’s School, and the parents that were to visit each day in the coming week.]
[signed] E.D. Adams, J. M. Overman, J. Kerr, Committee
The list of visitors for each week will be published the week previous. We are also requested to say that those appointed visitors who do not attend to their duties will be reported for publication.

Cedar Falls became known for the value it placed on education. Decades later Peter Melendy wrote “Although the manufacturing and commercial business of Cedar Falls are its most important direct pecuniary interests, a powerful indirect impulse is given to business in various ways from our educational advantages, and to a greater extent than many would suppose. If it did not contribute one dollar to the wealth of the city, the value it confers on a residence here, the elevation of character which it creates at home and abroad amply repays the expenditure of time, of labor, and pecuniary efforts which have been made in the great cause of education, by the public spirited men who have built it up to its present eminence.” John M. Overman was one of the men who built the Cedar Falls public school system.

Elected Office
In 1857 the village of Cedar Falls was organized into a town and John M. Overman became the first mayor, serving until 1859. Many years later, he was honored on his 80th birthday with the presence of all the ex-mayors of Cedar Falls. Mayor Peter Melendy presented Mr. Overman with a “Mayor’s Chair” where Mr. Overman sat while those gathered toasted him and reminisced.

Community Volunteer
J. M. Overman served as Vice President of the Cedar Valley Fair Association, on the annual Fourth of July Committee, and on the Fireman’s Tournament Committee. He was a member of many local clubs and service organizations.

In November 1866 a Lecture Association was formed in Cedar Falls for the purpose of bringing speakers to the community during the winter season. Fifty men, including J. M. Overman, William P. Overman, and Peter Melendy pledged to share in the cost of bringing six speakers to Cedar Falls before April 1st, 1867. They affiliated with the Lecture Association of the North West, located at Chicago, to whom they applied for speakers. The first speaker the Lecture Association brought to Cedar Falls that season was P. T. Barnum, who spoke on the “Art of Money Getting, or Success in Life,” on Thanksgiving night, November 29, 1866.

In January 1879 the Overman Family gave a benefit concert for the Reform Club during which Miss Flora Overman directed. The two-part concert took place at Phoenix Hall and included piano solos and duets, vocal solos and duets, and a male quartette – all the performers were members of the Overman family.

Family Life
John and his wife Phoebe Jane Cooper were the parents of nine children. In 1897 they celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary at their home “Overman Terrace” with all the children present as well as their 25 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. One of those grandchildren, Milton Overman, described the Overman home in 1971 as a “big stone house on the hill.” For over fifty years the Overmans lived at the “head of Sixth street on an eminence, and in a pine grove, and from this height in the early days the river, skirted by heavy forests of oak, elm, ash, hickory and the softer varieties of wood, presented an enchanting picture.” The Overman home was later demolished to make room for the development of Sartori Memorial Hospital, however many of the landscape features remained the same for decades including the cedar trees that lined the driveway and the Overman’s apple orchard.

As a horticulturist Overman enjoyed success, his apples and grapes frequently hailed as among the best in the area. The grounds of the J. M. Overman home were so beautiful that in 1893 Peter Melendy dubbed them “West Side Park” and noted that the 20 acres were always open to the citizens of Cedar Falls to drive or walk. Melendy noted that the Overman estate abounded with “exquisite evergreens” and other beautiful trees.

When Cedar Falls’ first mayor died in 1906 it was said that “By his tireless energy in business – whether public or private – by his conscientious devotion to what he believed was right, by his unobtrusive manners, he was a leader in the community without seeking preferment or appearing to lead.” Because of his vision for a thriving Cedar Falls and through his willingness to risk financial loss to develop the water power of the Cedar River to enable the growth of Cedar Falls industry, John M. Overman set Cedar Falls on a course of industrial development that created jobs and brought new settlers to the growing community. Cedar Falls would not be the community it is today without the investment of time and financial resources made by the Overman family in developing the industrial, transportation, education, and social infrastructure of the community.