MAHASKA COUNTY — Laura DeCook, naturalist for Mahaska County Conservation Board, was thrilled to see 73 attendees to a recent OWLS (Older, Wiser, Learning Seniors) event.
“Mahaska County Conservation Boards wants to provide programs that provide interest in local history and things about the environment and nature,” DeCook said.
DeCook Introduced Linda Fox, member of Mahaska County Conservation Board. Fox has a deep interest in Bellefountaine. A former librarian at Oskaloosa Public Library for 30 years, Fox also has a deep interest in the history of Mahaska County.
“Upon retirement, many groups ask you to volunteer for things,” said Fox. “One of the things that I was interested in was the Mahaska County Conservation Board and I wanted to help build the Environmental Learning Center.”
Fox has a direct connection to Bellefountaine. She was raised in Tracy, Iowa – Tracy being a transplant from Bellefountaine. Bellefountaine was located in the extreme west part of the county.
The first information shared by Fox was how many misspellings there are for Bellefountaine. History has it spelled Bellefountaine, Bellefountain, Bellfountain, Belle Fontain, Bell Fountain, and Belle Fountain.
“Not everyone in the world is the best speller,” said Fox. “Often in county courthouses the official records contain misspellings of Bellefountaine.”
Matilda Thistle was given the honor of naming Bellefountaine. She was the first woman to live in the town and named it from the town in Ohio that she came from.
Many people think that the Des Moines River is the divider between Mahaska and Marion County. It is not. The county extends west beyond the river. Bellefountaine rested on the Des Moines River on the west bank of the river in Scott Township.
Fox shared a timeline concerning Bellefountaine beginning with the Sac and the Fox Indians. They had a camp set up right on the Eastern shore of the Des Moines River.
“You could actually see the bottom of the river then,” said Fox. “Gene Phillips donated artifacts gathered from this area by his father and can be viewed upstairs [in the Environmental Learning Center].”
In 1842 the government bought the land from the Native Americans and people could file claims to settle it. In 1843 Dr. Broyer was the first to file a claim in Bellefountaine.
The county was divided into fifteen townships in 1845. Bellefountaine was located in Jackson Township, which was changed to Scott Township in 1854.
In 1846, Iowa became a state and Ezra Thistle got a license to have a ferry to cross the river to get and sell goods back and forth using the ferry. It made Bellefountaine one of the key places along the Des Moines River.
He decided he would open a store and used a three-horse team that went to Keokuk to get goods to sell such as coffee tobacco molasses and sugar. He would supply his neighbors with what they needed.
In 1851, it flooded from bluff to bluff. That would be the bottom of Bellefountaine Hill to the old Highway 92 bridge. It wiped out everything, Fox said. It wiped out the gristmills and there was no way to grind flour.
In the 1860’s the railroad came and didn’t come through Bellefountaine.
“That is when the houses in Bellefountaine were moved to Tracy,” said Fox.
The Rouze family cabin was taken down and moved to Edmundson Park and remains there today.
“Not much is left in Bellefountaine today,” said Fox. “There are a few houses that are not original to the town and the cemetery.”