The town of Donnellson was named for the Donnell families, W. A. and Eston, who lived on either side of what is now Highway 218 in the south part of town. W. A. Donnell came to Lee County in 1839 and married Hannah C. Hamilton December 24, 1843. They had four sons and four daughters. W.A. died January 1, 1899 at the age of 82.
Eston Donnell was born in 1817, and died in 1900. His wife, Sarah, was born in 1819, and died in 1906. The Donnell’s are buried in Donnell Cemetery located south of town.
W. R. Donnell, a son of Eston, helped with construction of the first building in Donnellson. The building was a small warehouse used for a depot and storage purposes. This was the site where the first dance in Donnellson was held, on July 4, 1870. W. R. Donnell also was the first railroad agent, first express agent, the first merchant, and the first postmaster, holding these positions all at once.
In 1871, Donnellson started to grow when it was selected as a site for the railroad to travel through the area running from Fort Madison to Farmington. The railroad line was also part of Burlington and Southwestern Railroad. The Railroad was in operation until 1969, and by that time the railroad was known as Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad. Another line, Keokuk-Mt. Pleasant line was in service for 50 years and in 1931 it was abandoned. The Depot Park (formerly called Donnell Park) is located on Main Street in Donnellson. A bandstand was constructed in 1936 to hold concerts and free movie nights. The railroad depot has been renovated into a historical museum.
The Lee County Fair, “Iowa’s Oldest Fair,” was incorporated in 1878. In 1879, the Art Hall was constructed. The first automobile races were introduced in 1910. It is not known when the first amphitheatre was built, but in 1953 a tornado completely destroyed it. With hard work it was rebuilt before the 1954 fair. In 1955 the fair was cancelled because of a polio epidemic in Lee County.
By 1881, Donnellson had three hotels, a hardware store, boot shop, post office, flooring mill, drug store, grain elevator, shoemakers, blacksmiths, harness maker, stockyards and an ice skating rink. The first Fourth of July celebration was held also in 1881. This tradition is still observed with a July 4th Parade down Main Street and an ice cream social following the parade.
On September 27, 1892, there was a petition filed with the Clerk of District Court requesting Donnellson to be an incorporated town. Donnellson was 120 acres with an estimated population of two hundred inhabitants. On October 25, 1892, the petition was voted on and Donnellson was granted an incorporated town under the laws of Iowa.
In 1895, Donnellson was dimly illuminated by four gasoline streetlights until August 1897. Stone crossings that were 3 foot wide and 5 to 6 inches thick were placed on Main Street at Elm, Chestnut, and Maple. Board sidewalks were also being built.
The first firehouse was completed December 1, 1897. In the early 1900’s a chemical engine and two hose carts were available with hydrants located on Main Street. The first motor-driven fire engine was purchased in 1926. The fire department is a volunteer department.
Donnellson was growing faster than any other town in the county in the early 1900’s. The town had the first telephone switchboard in 1900, a medical doctor and a cheese factory. There was an electric light plant by 1910, a water system & new dentist by 1912 and a veterinarian by 1913. There were four churches early in Donnellson’s history including the Mennonite, Presbyterian, Methodist and St. Paul’s United Church of Christ. The Lee County Farm Bureau was organized in 1917 and the Lee County Extension Office in 1918 to meet Donnellson’s agricultural needs.
In 1915 the first school was built in the town of Donnellson with and addition in 1927 housing elementary and high school students. In 1955, 1956, and 1957, the Donnellson High School Tigerettes went to the Girl’s State Basketball Tournament as contenders. Donnellson High School’s last graduating class was in 1961. In 1962, the first class of Central Lee High School, a combined school district of Argyle, Donnellson and Montrose graduated.
Besides the railroads coming through Donnellson, two highways also provided a service to Donnellson, The Waubonsie Highway 2 trail and the Red Ball Highway 218 trail, which are now called Highway 2 and 218. In February 2004, the new “Avenue of the Saints” four-lane highway connecting St. Paul, MN to St. Louis, MO opened at the East edge of town. All major highway traffic now bypasses Donnellson.
Donnellson has a mayor/council form of Government. The first mayors were elected for one-year terms. Today the term is four years. Adam Wiegner was the first mayor in 1892. Virginia Woodley was the first female mayor. Six people served on the early council for a one-year term. About 1918 this was changed to a two-year term with five members. Council meetings are held the first Monday of each month at City Hall.
Along with several other businesses, Donnellson is proud of two businesses that have been recognized by the State of Iowa as Century Businesses and received awards from Governor Vilsack. They are the Pilot Grove Savings Bank and Donnellson Elevator. The Lee County Fairgrounds Expansion project is also underway including electrical updates, new youth center, shelter house, swine barn, public restrooms/showers, an office, meeting rooms and kitchen facilities.
Donnellson’s Westview Park was dedicated & named this past spring and includes youth and adult softball and baseball fields, a disc golf course, a soccer field, a concession stand, restroom facilities, an enclosed sandbox and a walking trail. Plans for the future include entryway beautification, widening of the entrance road for more parking, horseshoe pits, sand volleyball courts, an outdoor archery range, a grass racetrack and a viewing stand for remote control cars, benches and lighting, picnic areas, and memorial plaques.
City of Donnellson, Iowa