Lost Iowa: The Men Behind the Names - ABC5 News Des Moines, IA

Lost Iowa: The Men Behind the Names

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By Ron Marasco


Many of us have driven down Hickman road, shopped at Merle Hay Mall or marveled at the old homes in Sherman Hill. But who are the men behind these names? And what did they contribute to Iowa?

G.W. Hickman

Traffic jams didn't exist when G.W. Hickman brought his family to Iowa from Indiana in 1848. He settled near what is now 35th Street and Hickman Road in 1850. He built a house in 1882 and it still stands today.

"The story goes that there was a kiln on the property and that the bricks were fired on this property.  But he was said to be in 1873, he became a brick maker," said Pat Meiners with the Des Moines Historical Society.

He was also said to be a farmer and fruit grower.

"They say he got along well with the indians that were still in the neighborhood because he would give them fruit."

The house still maintains a lot of it's 1800's charm.

When Hickman died in 1910, his family donated his land to the city of Des Moines for one dollar.

Merle Hay

Merle Hay is also a prominent Des Moines street.  They even named a mall after him.

As a young man, Hay used to love riding his horse and buggy, roller skating and attending movies.

But he was better known for his wartime bravery.

"Merle Hay was probably the first American soldier killed in World War I," said Meiners.

The army sent the 20 year–old to France in the spring of 1917. One night while serving sentry duty, 500 German soldiers launched a surprise attack. Reportedly Hay battled two Germans with his bayonette.

"When everyone came back to the campsite.  There were three men dead, so the presumption is that he was the first to die, but they can't document that because there were three men," said Meiners.

The army buried Hay in France. But four years later, they exhumed his body and returned it to his home in Glidden, Iowa where thousands attended his funeral. A 16–ton boulder dedicated in 1923 honors Hay. Appropriately, it sits at the cemetery that bears his name.

Mick Henry

Another World War I veteran Des Moines honored was "Mick" McHenry.  He was the first Iowan officer killed in the war.  McHenry Park in Des Moines is named after him.

Captain Harrison Cummins McHenry attended Drake University Law School before heading off to war.

"He served in the same division as General Douglas MacArthur, and we learned through our research that he decided to stay with his men versus going back to his bunker where he would have been safe," said Jen Fletcher with Des Moines Parks and Rec.

He died in 1918 at the age of 28. A year later, the city renamed Frase Park to McHenry Park. It boasts one of the best views in the metro.

John B. Saylor

John B. Saylor moved his family from Indiana to Fort Des Moines in 1845. He was thought to be the area's first white settler.

"He had to join with the Garrison to provide food for the Indians, which was managed by the war department," explains Rhonda Hosler, a Saylor Township trustee.

He later moved his family to a property on 6th Drive. Saylor farmed and raised cattle here.

Rhonda says in 1850, he plotted Saylor Township, currently the largest township in Iowa.

Hoyt Sherman

When we hear Sherman Hill, we generally think of all those beautiful, old historic homes near downtown Des Moines.  Hoyt Sherman is the man this neighborhood was named after.

Sherman came to Des Moines from Ohio at age 20 in 1848.

In 1849, President Zachary Taylor named Sherman Des Moines' Postmaster. He also started the city's first Water Works, among other projects.

Later, Sherman served as a major in the Civil War.

"He was invited by President Lincoln to be the army paymaster.  I would assume possibly because Lincoln knew his famous brother William Tecumseh," said historian Pat Meiners.

That's right... The famous Civil War general.

In 1867, Sherman helped start the Equitable Life Insurance Company of Iowa.

Ten years later, he moved into his house on Woodland and 15th Street.  He purchased the five acre plot of land in 1850 for $105. Needless to say, it's been spruced up a bit.

According to Meniers, Sherman died in 1904 in financial distress.

"It seems like this was prevalent his entire family.  They tended to have money problems.  Everyone one of them did.  So when he died, the home was given to the county parks department," said Meiners.

The city named the neighborhood Sherman Hill in 1907.

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