The Question of Resilience
Roger B. Natte of the Webster County Historical Society studied the ethnic diversity of the county in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the written results of his research, he states that in 1860 only 1% of the county’s small population was foreign born; a decade later that percentage was 20%. Through the 1870s, the number of foreign-born immigrants increased to 38% of the county’s population. Though by 1895 that percentage was leveling off to 28%, the diversity of residents continued to be broad. He notes the presence of 25 nationalities including Chinese, Russian, and Pacific Islanders.
Natte does not offer an opinion on whether some communities or individuals were more resilient than others—more able to adapt to extreme conditions. (The definition of “resilience” is open to conversation). He does observe that though not all were welcomed to Webster County with open arms, anti-immigrant and anti-minority sentiment in the county was not as evident as in some other Iowa locations. In part he attributes this to local newspapers that, in his reading, seldom reflected much racism or xenophobia. In the 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan was making inroads in many U.S. locations and some in Iowa, they were not making an impact in Webster County. At least one black resident of Fort Dodge spoke of Fort Dodge in particular as “fairly progressive…Stands were taken against the Klan to become active here.” Whether these attitudes contributed to retention of population of all backgrounds and resilience of residents across their differences, Natte does not say.
He does note that in the nineteenth century the highest number of foreign-born immigrants were from Sweden. In fact, on the west side of the Des Moines River in Fort Dodge there was an ethnic enclave, “Swedetown,” until the 1940s. Population there was 85% of Swedish descent. Norwegians, in smaller numbers, occupied the northeast part of the county. Other immigrants were Germans and Irish and later, in the 1890s, from the Middle East and southern Europe. There were, writes Natte, always African Americans in the county.
Those who still remember the tornado that struck Fort Dodge in 1944, might know exactly which communities were living where and which found themselves in the path of the storm. They might also know which communities were particularly able to recover and adapt after their losses. The twister came down Highway 7 and hit the Cargill Soybean Plant in Fort Dodge. There the storm split into two tornadoes. One went down 11th Ave. S.W. and the other up 3rd Ave South, hitting the I.C. Meat Market. The first continued down 11th Ave. S.W. and hit the Jensen home. The winds lifted the Jensen home off its foundation and onto a neighboring white house that had formerly been a school house. That white house was flattened. It tore one section away from the main part of the Anderson’s home that used to be a railroad depot. With this kind of detail in the public memory, it might still be possible to consider just what resilience looked like in response to this storm, neighborhood by neighborhood.
Sources: SHSI: Roger B. Natte, “Ethnic History of Webster County,” Webster County Historical Society, 2001; “Memorable Days of the Flats: Fort Dodge Iowa,” 1994.