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The Grove that Never Was

Eagle Grove, Wright County

With the two branches of the Iowa River meeting in one corner of Wright county and the Boone River flowing through the other, the county is endowed with water that once formed a wetland across the landscape.  The resulting sloughs that produced rich soil and a challenge to the plow, so familiar in much of Iowa, is Wright County’s story as well. But Eagle Grove, once a wetland itself, has spawned another story of loss and transformation.  It’s an early story about living with others, in this case non-human others.

In Alice Thompson’s telling of the story it is important first to say that the town of Eagle Grove was not in a grove but rather in a swamp.  However, 1855 early settler reports do speak of a large Red Oak tree some 70 to 80 feet tall on a bluff. The tree, she says, quickly became known as the eagle tree because a pair of bald eagles had built an aerie there.  Several tellings of this story assert that the nest had been there some years—maybe even decades– before the 1850s. Alice Thompson describes the nest’s foundation as limbs of red elm though it was in an oak tree. “Some of the limbs forming the nest were even large and long enough for fence rails.”  Six feet in diameter, high in the highest tree, the nest could be seen for miles in all directions. She further observes that the nest was broader at the bottom than the top, thwarting predators from approaching it from below.  

Early newcomers to Eagle Grove are said to have enjoyed the brown and black feathers of the eagles and the distinctive white feathers on the head and tail.  But not all were so appreciative. A trapper named Doty from Webster City shot the pair of eagles as they attended to eaglets in the spring of 1857. The young eagles were left to starve.  

Thompson records that not only the eagles but the tree itself fell victim to the whims of new human residents of the county in the 1850s.  The next year, she says, two boys hunting racoons that escaped their human predators by running up the large Red Oak, determined to catch their prey by destroying the tree.  With companions, they cut the tree down, after the racoons had ascended, destroying both.  

Still the stump was a landmark pointed out on the bluff near where the Chicago, Northwestern Railroad crossed the Boone River.  

While rivers, streams, flood, and drainage are stories of every township in Wright County, this story of the Eagle Tree is distinctive. It’s seems to have reminded its readers or listeners for over a century and a half of species—animal and plant—so grand that they continued to act as a landmark inviting human reflection long after both had been destroyed not by floods but by human hands.

Source:  SHSI: Alice Thompson, “Under the Eagle Tree,” “Along the Boone: A Series of Lessons Based on Local History” by Evergreen Daughter of Ceres, 1975; B.P. Birdsall, editor, History of Wright County Iowa, 1915; on-line: