Major events mark Adel’s early history

Bill HaglundStaff Writer
Major events mark Adel’s early history

Quite a number of historical events have helped shape Adel through the years and two of them stand out in the city’s past.

The first occurred in 1895 and the “what ifs” surrounding that event are still talked about today.

The second event, caused by human error, resulted in the deaths of three. It also resulted a horror-filled few minutes for several who knew of the impending disaster but could do nothing to prevent it.

Here are capsule looks at both of those events:

Adel Bank Robbery —

Two outlaws who lived in the small Madison County community of Patterson rode into Adel on March 6, 1895, with money on their minds — more specifically, money in the vault at the Adel State Bank, located on the west side of the downtown square.

Orlando “Rowdy” Williams and Charles Crawford needed money, especially Williams who had just been released from prison in Minnesota.

The two thieves had spent the previous night at a farmhouse south of Adel before driving a team and buggy into Adel the next morning. They tied the horses at the corner of 9th and Court and entered the bank about 9 a.m., Wilkins armed with a repeating shotgun which held several shells and had a pump action.

Wilkins shoved the gun into the face of S.M. Leach, who was working at the counter sorting money for the day’s business.

Leach tried to take the money back to the vault, but was shot in the shoulder and neck twice by Wilkins. A customer, C.D. Bailey, also tried to stop Wilkins, but was also shot.

The two thugs grabbed a bag and put about $267 of silver money into it.

The gunfire, however, had drawn attention both inside and outside the bank.

An attorney, George Clarke, was in his office above the bank and, hearing the shots, came downstairs. As he reached the bottom of the stairs he found himself looking into the business end of Wilkins’ shotgun. Wilkins pulled the trigger, the gun clicked, but fortunately for Clarke — and, it later became obvious, for all Iowans — the gun misfired and Clarke hurried back up the stairs.

George Clark later became Governor of Iowa. His grandson later became legendary in Adel and on the University of Iowa football field; a war hero who lost his life in 1943. He became Iowa’s only Heisman Trophy winner and the football stadium in Iowa City now bears his name — Nile Kinnick Stadium.

Sheriff J.D. Payne had also heard the shots and was on his way to the scene, along with other armed men. Four, including Robert Barr, J.L. Simcoke, J.M. Byers and Cecil Decker, were also injured in the gun battle, but none as seriously as the two in the bank, who were thought to be dying from their wounds.

The outlaws made it to their team and took off as fast as possible, heading west on Court Street, going as far as they could before going south to the road leading west out of Adel.

A posse of Tom Reynolds, Don Snyder and Charles Worford followed and kept the thieves in sight.

The bandits went to what is now P58 and headed south before a shot by Charles Kissick wounded one of the bandits’ horses, forcing Wilkins and Crawford to flee on foot.

Not long after that, Crawford was caught and Wilkins took refuge in a barn, refusing orders to come out.

The posse forced Crawford to set the barn on fire and Wilkins’ run for freedom ended with a shot by a farmer named Pritchard.

The posse then finished the job, riddling Wilkins’ body with bullets.

Crawford, as well as Wilkins’ body, was hauled back to Adel. Wilkins’ body was displayed sitting in a chair in front of the bank — an ominous warning to other would-be criminals — before being buried at Oakdale Cemetery.

Later that night, a big crowd armed with rifles, pistols and clubs gathered outside the county jail, bent on lynching Crawford. Such lynchings were not uncommon in Iowa at the time.

The sheriff, however, talked with the mob, which finally dispersed after being told that both Leach and Bailey would survive the wounds suffered inside the bank.

Crawford served 12 years for his part in the crime and it’s said he actually returned to Adel after his release from prison.

The shotgun used in the robbery is now on display at the Adel Museum.

Adel Train Wreck —

Rail travel and traffic became the first great method of travel across the United States, replacing the horse and buggy and pre-dating the automobile.

As tracks were laid in Dallas County, a route across the county that passed through Waukee, Adel and Redfield connected the county with points both east and west.

Traffic on the tracks was regulated by operators, whose duty was to ensure clear tracks before sending trains on their way.

Human error, however, came tragically into play on Dec. 14, 1903 as two freight trains were traveling in opposite directions on the same track.

A youthful operator at a small station in Clive, who gave a west-bound freight clearance to proceed, rather than relay the dispatcher’s orders to meet an east-bound train in Waukee before heading further west.

Horrified, the dispatcher in Des Moines tried first to catch the west-bound freight at Waukee, but it had already passed through.

One chance remained — stopping the east-bound train in Adel. The dispatcher quickly seized the key at his desk and clicked the operator in Adel.

It was reported that a “deathlike stillness” was felt in the room as the dispatcher awaited Adel’s response.

When it came, the dispatcher’s face paled, his heart sank and he was stricken with horror as he knew the trains were destined to collide.

The train through Adel had barely passed — its tail lights still visible at the Adel station — when the frantic message had arrived.

The trains collided two miles east of Adel, resulting in the death of three and serious injuries to five others.

The collision also gave several young Adel lads reason to ponder their fate. The three regularly attended wrestling events in Des Moines, then caught a ride back to Adel on the west-bound freight. On this night, however, they were late and missed the ride.

Instead they hopped a train to De Soto, then walked back to Adel. They learned of the train wreck and deaths the following day.