All places have history. What deems that particular history important is largely subjective, depending upon the person who is viewing it. Do they have a personal connection? Do they have a connection to the event that took place there? Any variety of factors can determine how interesting a place is to an individual.
But there are some places so iconic, so representative of a part of history that they almost seem to represent the history of an entire city. One of these places is the Joseph Bettendorf mansion in Bettendorf, Iowa.
A huge structure, the giant brick mansion that overlooks the Mississippi River is forever tied to the history of Bettendorf.
Inventor and Entrepreneur
William Bettendorf showed a passion and talent for invention from an early age. By his early twenties, he had made his first profitable invention while working in Peru, Illinois. It was a kind of mechanically-controlled plow blade that a farmer could raise and lower with the press of a button.
His next major invention was a new kind of metal wheel. At that time, the wires on standard wheels that helped to hold the wheel together were only welded at the surface of the wheel hub, making them more prone to breaking off. The more of these that broke off, the weaker the wheel would eventually become, until, finally, it was completely unusable.
William determined that if the wheel hub had holes drilled into it, and the wire attached within, then the wheel would be less prone to breaking and would last longer. This new metal wheel was an incredible success. After a disagreement with the company that then manufactured his inventions, William, who still had control of the patent, decided to strike out on his own.
He moved to Davenport, Iowa, and founded the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company. His brother Joseph would join him later. In a few years, they would have the largest factory in the city. Unfortunately, two back to back fires in 1902 destroyed it and sent the brothers looking for a new home.
New Home, New Invention
By 1903, they had settled in the small town of Gilbert and had constructed a brand new factory there along the Mississippi River. It was during that time that William came up with his most successful invention, the Bettendorf Truck.
A railroad truck gives a railroad car its mobility, guidance, and support. The Bettendorf Truck was constructed of one solid piece, giving it a rugged durability that the standard trucks of the day did not have. A standard railroad truck was made of several different pieces bolted together. If these bolts came undone, then the truck could fall apart and cause a train derailment, which would suck.
Combined sales from the Bettendorf Truck and William’s other successful inventions sent William and Joseph to the very top of the manufacturing business. And as the business was generous to them, the brothers and their company were generous with the town.
William personally invested in the new town, which had been renamed Bettendorf. Money was channeled into making improvements to local businesses. New homes were built to accommodate the growth in the town spurred on by people moving there to work at the new company.
The town loved William, and William loved the town right back.
Just as it seemed that he had reached the pinnacle of his success, William died suddenly in 1910 of a perforated bowel. Almost the entire town closed down so that people could attend his funeral.
Joseph, still in mourning for the loss of his beloved older brother, was left to run the company alone. He was already second-in-command of the business and had personal input to William as to its growth and development, so Joseph was more than up to the challenge.
While continuing to lead the company, Joseph decided that he needed a symbol to represent the success of the company. He needed a home where he could entertain some of the most important business and railroad men in the country and they would walk away impressed, which was no small feat.
Joseph immediately hired renowned local architect Arthur Ehrling to build and design his new mansion. It was to be constructed on the river bluff overlooking both the company and the town on seventeen acres of prime country land.
As a showcase designed to impress the heads of industry and business, Joseph wanted much of his home and surrounding grounds to be lavish and beautiful. As Ehrling built, Joseph kept a very close eye on the process and made changes where he thought was necessary.
During the time it was being built, there was a lull in the amount of railroad truck orders that were coming into the factory. Like his brother, Joseph was also fond of his workers and tried to look out for their best interests. So, instead of laying them off work while there was a drop in truck orders, Joseph brought them to the new mansion instead.
There, his factory workers ran the electrical wiring, installed the plumbing, and laid the bricks that made up the exterior of the mansion. In this way, Joseph ensured that his employees kept collecting a regular paycheck.
Joseph brought in European craftsman to make intricate, hand carved woodwork throughout the mansion, and furniture was also custom crafted by artisans for the various rooms of the home.
When all was completed, a three-story, twenty-eight room mansion stood on acres of landscaped lawns and gardens.
Visitors would come to mansion from the base of hill and up a road that would wind up the hill, around a large circle, and to the front of the home. They would step inside to a grand entryway, with a beautiful ceiling and Italianate marble floors.
A grand staircase took visitors from the main floor all the way to the third floor. The staircase was truly representative of the craftsman’s work on the home.
On the third floor was a grand ballroom for entertaining guests.
Joseph lived in the home until his death in 1932. His wife continued to live there until her death and their son Bill after her. He sold the mansion to a seminary in the 1950’s. Later the mansion was sold to St. Katherine’s/St. Mark’s, a private college preparatory school, later renamed Rivermont Collegiate.
Once the Bettendorf brothers moved their factory to Gilbert, the growth of the town, and even the name, became almost synonymous with the city. The mansion, with so much of it built by local hands, represented the growth and success of the Bettendorf Company. But more than that, it also represented the success of the growing town that it overlooked.