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A Jerkwater Town

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Pity poor Davenport, having to live twelve miles away from Walcott, Iowa. For the past 150 years Davenport has tried to do everything right in order to lift itself from the bottom rung of those national surveys of most livable cities, trying to overcome Bishop Henry Cosgrove's 1902 ranking of Davenport as the wickedest city for its size in America.

Meanwhile, twelve miles away, the little village of Walcott did everything wrong, and still came out on top. Walcott was not even supposed to be a town. The railroad built a station there in 1853, simply because twelve miles was the limit a train could go from Davenport without taking on more water.

That same year, a Davenport entrepreneur, Ebenezer Cook, built a small restaurant near the station to feed the men building the station and train crews who stopped for water. The restaurant thrived, so a year later, Cook and a land speculation partner advertised fifty lots for sale, and named their venture Walcott after a railroad executive.

Walcott was literally a jerkwater town. Trains stopped on a bridge over a small stream while crewmen lowered leather buckets and jerked water up to the train.

Aside from the water, however, Walcott's location was all wrong. It was far too close to its large competitor, Davenport.

Even worse, wood was scarce. Residents had to import building supplies by riverboat and then train. They had to buy tracts of timber along the Mississippi for firewood. The closest flour mill was miles away at Wild Cat Den.

Nothing came easy for Walcott. By 1870, the first Scotch-Irish residents had moved on to Grinnell and Newton, leaving the town to begin again with German immigrants. In 1894 the town almost split in half over whether or not to build a schoolhouse in the town square.

Now let's move ahead to 1911. That was the year prestigious Dunn and Bradstreet rated Walcott, Iowa, as the richest small town in the United States. Later, not a single resident went on relief during the Depression.

Poor Davenport must still wonder how Walcott could lose every battle, and still win the war.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.