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  Our History: 1903 - 1953

The First Fifty Years
By Varick C. Crosley

The Executive Committee has invited me to compile a history of the Iowa Title Association in connection with our fiftieth anniversary meeting to be held in Mason  City, Iowa, May 21 and 22, 1953. Fortunately I possess considerable written and printed material which is most helpful to me and in rereading has revived memories.

In December 1949 I was invited by the compiler of our Title News to contribute some such history for publication. I dubbed it "Some Echoes of the Past." As a part of it I  dwelt upon "our fear" which prompted and inspired our organization- “The Torrens System for Registration of Land Titles.” This system had been adopted in some states. It was being agitated in our state. The successful fight of our association through its various Legislative committees covering some ten or more sessions of our legislature (20 years or more) in opposition to its establishment by such legislation resulted finally in no Torrens System in Iowa. While the letter of J.E. Wickham of the Mills County Abstract Company of November 14, 1903 did not in name mention that system, I believe you will all agree that it was fear of it which prompted his writing it. It to me also evidenced the fear of others, including myself, which prompted the response resulting in the called meeting December 15, 1903, in Des Moines. (I possess all circulated letters written by Mr. Wickham at that time.) The following, the first one, is here copied in full.

Glenwood, Iowa, November 14th, 1903

Dear Sir: For many years past we have been engaged in the real estate, title abstract business, and we think that we are familiar with the details of the work, its pleasures, its vicissitudes and its trials; this business is one which in our humble judgment is of sufficient importance, and when properly understood and prosecuted, is entitled to the name of a “Profession,” and to that end the persons and firms in the State of Iowa, engaged legitimately in that business, ought to cultivate closer intercourse in all the relations pertaining to the same; we are of the opinion that some proper and just legislation might be introduced which would promote the welfare of this, our line of work, and at the same time work to the interests and result in a positive benefit to all persons who are interested in real estate investments, by purchase or otherwise; by so regulating the abstract business that a higher standard would be maintained and more reliable and accurate work would be furnished; it is however our opinion that in the event of any legislation along these lines, that the matter should be most carefully studied and considered by the persons who are most familiar with this line of work, and not by persons who feel antagonistic to the abstract business. It is a well known fact that there have been many efforts by persons of questionable motives, to make changes all the laws of our state for the regulation of the abstract business, which had they been made, would in all probability have benefited no individual, but which in all probability would have caused much confusion in the matter of titles to real estate.

For the purpose of considering all of these questions and all other questions which would naturally interest those engaged in our line of business, it has been suggested that a convention of the responsible abstracters of the State, be called, to meet at Des Moines, at as early as a date as possible; we have taken the matter up with a number of abstracters, and without exception they favor such a plan, but there is no person who really wishes to take the initiative in the matter; it occurs to us that the time for action is at hand, and that the necessity for our united effort is imperative; we have therefore decided to send out this letter to one firm in each county as nearly as possible, asking all who receive the same if you will join in such a convention, to be called at Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday, December 14, 1903? Also if you will make it your business to notify all persons and firms in your county who would be entitled to recognition by such an organization, to join in the convention.

If you will do this, and at once so advise the undersigned, we think that the convention will doubtless be a success. Please have the kindness to write the undersigned fully upon receipt of this letter.

Yours Truly,
Mills County Abstract Company
By J.E. Wickham, Manager
Glenwood, Iowa

Regarding the meeting so held I have discovered that in the printed proceedings of the 1927 meeting, I had been invited by the Executive Committee (O.N. Ross, President) to prepare a paper on what they termed our 25th anniversary. This I did and read at that meeting. I decided it was much better than one I had written to be a part of this history. Therefore, with some eliminations and additions, I am using it again.

“Twenty-five (now fifty) years ago, it does not seem so, well do I remember the day, December 15, 1903 about sixty of us-abstracters-from thirty-nine counties in Iowa, met at the old Kirkwood Hotel. Mr. J.K. Wickham, a fine gentleman he was, from Glenwood, had taken upon himself the call for the meeting, and it may well be said that he was the Father of our Association, the first of our honorary members, he having moved from the State a few years after our organization, and I learned last night that he died a few years ago.”

"It was no easy task for Mr. Wickham to procure the names of the Iowa abstracters. In most cases he wrote to County Recorders, asking that his letter be handed to the most prominent abstracter or abstracters in their county. I think my letter came through the County Recorder's office and at once I wrote Mr. Wickham assuring him that I was with him in the movement and to call upon me for anything that I could do. So cordial and enthusiastic were the responses that Mr. Wickham called the meeting at the time and place.

"As we gathered that morning in the conference room of the old Kirkwood, which was on the ground floor, there were few who knew each other. While there were a few, especially those in adjoining counties, who were acquainted, most of us were strangers, but it did not take long to make introductions and become acquainted. About 9:30 or perhaps 10 o'clock, Mr. Wickham called the meeting to order and in a few words explained why he had been prompted to start the movement and make the call for meeting, winding up by asking, “What is your pleasure?” My reputation in this Association commenced there and then; I moved Mr. Wickham act as chairman. A pious looking gentleman, taken by some to be a "plate-passer" who was Almor Stern of Logan, Harrison County, seconded the motion, which I put and it was carried. Thus Mr. Wickham became our first chairman, and subsequently our first president. Our chairman then asked whom we would have for a secretary as he presumed a secretary was necessary. Where upon this same pious looking gentleman expressed the opinion, pointing to me, "This young fellow might do," suggesting without formality that the chairman appoint me, which he did. A short pause, and what was to be done next. This same gentleman from Harrison County made his maiden speech in this Association, suggestive, kindly and constructive, concluding with a motion that we organize and appoint a committee to report a plan of organization, constitution and bylaws. As I remember, he was chairman of that committee and it has always been my thought that he had, due to his training in other conventions, particularly political, forehanded prepared and had with him the plan of organization, the constitution and the by-laws, for I do not know how a committee could have given consideration to the subject and made a report in so short a time.

"While the committee was out giving attention to the task assigned. Mr. J.F. Hardin better known as Father Hardin from Eldora, took the floor and told us how to compile an abstract of title, rather carrying the idea that he and he alone knew more about abstracts and abstracting than any of the rest of us, which to a considerable extent had foundation as he had been in the business for a number of years. However, some of his assertions provoked discussion, in which almost everyone took part, each one seeming to think he knew more than any of the others, and I think, as usual, I got in a word or two. To my mind that discussion was in a way the foundation of our Abstracters Association, for it brought out ideas and challenged others, but all in all brought us together in one common interest and formed friendships which have, many of them, lasted for years. their report was adopted and the officers elected, and this Association was founded and well founded upon a foundation of friendships and associations formed, which, warmed by the fires of subsequent meetings, has brought us all very close together as a people interested in the very important business or profession of compiling the history of Iowa land titles.

"Fifty years of organization and I have missed but three of the annual meetings, one due to sickness, or rather an accident to myself" in a runaway, and the others due to sickness in my family. We still have a few of the original charter members of this Association with us here today. Some have gone to other parts of the country and some to that world unknown, and new ones have taken the places of those gone. Our Association has been a great success and a splendid organization. Why, I do not know, but sometimes I think because of the friendships formed in those early days and the thoughts of the annual reunion, the common interest, the making of new friendships and the desire for a reunion once a year, and to some the work in the legislature, well done by experienced men in this Association, and as a result no adverse laws passed since the Association was organized; all combine to have made it an organization worth while and good. May it so continue, and I hope that I may be permitted to attend these annual gatherings for many years to come and be a part of this Association."

There were several of the charter members in attendance at the 1927 meeting, but one, our dear friend, Almor Stern, was not there and he was missed as he seldom failed to attend. In 1935, which proved to be his last meeting with us, I quote from page 43 of the printed proceedings of that year's meeting the following: "THE CHAIR: We would like to hear from Mr. Almor Stern. MR. STERN: Mr. President and Friends: This will be impromptu. I have not planned anything of this kind. If I may I want to refer for just a moment to the minutes of this Association a year ago, in which the extreme courtesy was extended to me at Sioux City. I appreciated it very greatly, and I want now to express myself with the fullest appreciation of it. I think the printing bill should have been sent to me. In the abstract business, one thing you cannot dispense with is integrity. I am against the Torrens system. I have been against it for twenty-five years. I know something of its imperfections. I think our method as we now use it is preferable. As I understand it, the Torrens system has separate pages for every tract in the territory. It would take a courthouse like Polk County to hold those papers! With all the skill the abstracter has developed, we still fall short. Mr. President, I thank you."

Almor Stern died in the fall of 1935. Many of our members attended the funeral services, the largest in attendance of any in my similar experiences. He was a fine man; one highly esteemed by all and regarded the Dean of our Association. To me the loss of a very dear friend. There is a grandson living in Logan, the son of Mr. and Mrs. C. Albert Stern who at birth, some 30 or so years ago was named Varick Crosley Stern. Albert, also an Association member, joined the ranks of our departed in the fall of 1940.

From Circular No. I of the 1903 meeting prepared by your then secretary, I copy the names of those listed as our charter members, 61 in all, two from one company - Marshalltown, leaving 60 representing 39 counties.

Alex Hastie, representing Iowa Indemnity Co., Des Moines, Polk County.
E.M. Cross, representing Polk County Abstract Company, Des Moines, Polk County.
Stahl & Hambleton, U.S. Security Abstract Co., Des Moines, Polk County.
L.D. Phelps, representing Nash, Phelps & Phelps, Audubon, Audubon County.
A.A. Nelson, representing Bagley & Nelson, Audubon, Audubon County.
E.J. Carroll, representing Davenport Abstract Co., Davenport, Scott County.
Bert Stover, representing Stover Real Estate Exchange, Marengo, Iowa County.
Almor Stern, representing Stern & Millinian, Logan, Harrison County.
Varick C. Crosley, Webster City, Hamilton County.
J.E. Wickham, representing Mills County Abstract Co., Glenwood, Mills County.
G.K. Hart, Knoxville, Marion County.
Geo. E. Whitcomb, representing Geo. H. Whitcomb & Son, Northwood, Worth County.
C.H. Burke, representing A.C. Ripley & Co., Garner, Hancock County.
A.B. Probst, Knoxville, Marion County.
James R. Grant, representing Duncan Grant & Son, Boone, Boone County.
W.E. Law, representing Law Bros. & Co., Centerville, Appanoose County.
F.P. Henderson, representing Henderson & Henderson, Indianola, Warren County.
Lloyd Talley, representing B.F. Talley & Sons, Mt. Ayr, Ringgold County.
T.E. Means, representing Means Bros., Boone, Boone County.
W.H. Hammond, representing Marshall County Abstract Co., Marshalltown, Marshall County.
F. Kirkpatrick, representing Buck & Kirkpatrick, Spencer, Clay County.
E.D. Johnson, representing Winnebago County Abstract Co., Forrest City, Winnebago County.
W.F. Carleton, Spirit Lake, Dickinson County.
John T. Moffit, representing Grimm, Trewin & Moffit, Tipton, Cedar County.
E.E. Boss, representing Calhoun County Abstract Co. Rockwell City, Calhoun County.
R.B. Smith, representing J.F. & N.M. Smith, Keokuk, Lee County
M.P. Haggard, representing Haggard & Peek, Algona, Kossuth County.
M.P. Weaver, representing Lathrop & Weaver, Algona, Kossuth County.
G.S. Gilbertson, representing Forrest City Loan & Abstract Co., Forrest City, Winnebago County.
D. Rhodes, representing Butler & Rhodes, Fort Dodge, Webster County.
E.J. Lewis, Montezuma, Powesheik County.
Ed Harper, representing Powesheik County Abstract Co., Montezuma, Powesheik County.
E.G. Banta, representing Banta & Banta, Osceola, Clark County.
W.N. People, Secy., representing Guaranty Abstract Co., Osceola, Clark County.
Homer E. Busby, representing Thomas & Busby, Fort Dodge, Webster County.
R.J. Smith, Montezuma, Powesheik County.
C.H. Bradbury, Secy., representing Monona County Abstract Co., Onawa, Monona County.
H.B. Allfree, Newton, Jasper County.
James Espeset, representing Graves, Espeset & Archer, Estherville, Emmett County.
D.R. Alexander, representing Soper, Alexander & Soper, Estherville, Emmett County.
G.W. Lawrence, representing Marshall County Abstract & Loan Co., Marshalltown, Marshall County.
Chas. T. Rogers, Grundy Center, Grundy County.
J.A. Fitchpatrick. Nevada, Story County.
Chas. A. Grubb, Mgr., representing Cass County Abstract & Title Co., Atlantic, Cass County.
C.W. Savery, representing Wood & Savery, Atlantic, Cass County.
Geo. F. Skinner, representing Abstract, Title & Guaranty Co., Clinton, Clinton County.
L.V. Russell, Secy., representing Russell Loan & Title Co., Adel, Dallas County.
F.E. Meredith, representing Meredith & Son, Newton, Jasper County.
E.C. Ogg, Newton, Jasper County.
W.J. Steckel, representing Steckel & Son, Bloomfield, Davis County.
I.L. Smith, representing Smith & Bricker, Nevada, Story County.
J.F. Hardin, Eldora, Hardin County.
A.S. Gilliland, Jefferson, Greene County.
Hazlett & Malcomb, Pocahontas, Pocahontas County.
Geo. L. Brower, Rockwell City, Calhoun County.
Wm. Moffett, Grundy Center, Grundy County.
C.C. Sedgwick & Co., Sioux City, Woodbury County.
J.E. Sedgwick Abstract Co., Waterloo, Blackhawk County.
Hugh H. Shepard, Mason City, Cerro Gordo County.
Isaac L. Hillis, Des Moines, Polk County.
J. Howard Henry, Des Moines, Polk County.