A City Stands Still: The Death of William Bettendorf

Last week, I told the story of the Joseph Bettendorf mansion and how its history is forever intertwined with the history of the city of Bettendorf. This week, I’d like to share with you all the story of when the very same city came screeching to a halt – the day William Bettendorf died.

Early Inventions

                As I outlined in my blog, “The Joseph Bettendorf Mansion,” William was a prolific inventor.

In his early twenties, he had invented a new kind of mechanical plow that a farmer could raise and lower out of a field furrow at the press of a button. Later, he invented a more durable and longer-lasting wagon wheel. Both of these designs were copied throughout the agricultural industry.

Bettendorf Metal Wheel

After a disagreement with the company that he worked for in Peru, Illinois, William moved to Davenport, Iowa to open his own manufacturing company. He called it, appropriately enough, The Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company.

The firm was a tremendous success, and eventually William’s factory became the biggest in Davenport. Unfortunately, the factory burned down in 1902, leaving William looking for a place to build a new factory.

William Comes to Town

                Prior to the factory fire, William had received offers from the city of East Moline, Illinois, to relocate his base of operations there. After the fire, it seemed like the logical place to go.

However, C.A. Ficke, a former mayor of Davenport, had a suggestion.

Ficke owned a tract of land near the Mississippi River in the town of Gilbert. He approached William to see if the young businessman wouldn’t rather move to Gilbert and build his factory there instead. To sweeten the deal, Ficke told William that he could get Gilbert to pay for the whole thing, which amounted to about $15,000.

So one day, William attended a town meeting in Gilbert. He explained the situation to the assembled townsfolk, and made it clear that he would prefer to remain in Iowa rather than move back to Illinois. So, if they could raise the money, the Bettendorf Company would settle on Ficke’s land by the river.

After much effort, Gilbert gathered the necessary funds and William began to build his company there.  A short time later, the citizens of Gilbert renamed their town Bettendorf after the prominent businessman.

William wasted no time in developing the town. He put significant funds into businesses and building new houses. He also built a hotel to where travelling workers could stay until a house could be built for them. As the citizens had taken care of him, William took care of them in turn.

By 1905, business was booming for the Bettendorf Company. After the invention of the Bettendorf Truck, a newly-designed truck invented by William, business demands for it allowed William to focus solely on railroad car parts and stop manufacturing wagon pieces, including his famous metal wheel.

Bettendorf Truck

As business grew, the company grew with it, undergoing major expansions, including the construction of their own on-site foundry.

William’s personal life took an upturn, as well. A widower whose only two children had both died of diphtheria in 1894, he remarried a woman named Elizabeth Staby, who had one son of her own from a previous marriage.

With business doing so well, William determined to build himself a new home. This was going to be a showcase of his success, designed to entertain and enthrall visiting businessman and heads of industry. In 1909, construction of his home began.

William’s Mansion

                The Spanish-style mansion was constructed on the bluff overlooking not only the Mississippi River valley below it, but also his sprawling new company. It was 22 rooms, with some design innovations that William himself designed.

W.P. Bettendorf mansion

After spending a lifetime improving the durability of equipment in the agricultural and railroad industries, William turned his inventive mind toward his new mansion. In the attic, the concrete floor was poured over a foot thick to promote durability.

The entire house had electricity, fed by the power plant at the Bettendorf Company, as well as a built-in vacuuming system. Like his brother would later do, William had European craftsman come and install hand carved wood work throughout the home.

From a nearby home from which he could oversee the construction of the sprawling mansion, William and his wife began ordering Austrian furniture to fill their new residence. Life was truly grand for William and his new family. Unfortunately, things would not last.

Stomach Trouble

                In 1910, William and his family took a vacation to Lake Okoboji in Western Iowa. While there, he began to experience stomach problems. Being a robust and hard-working man, William shrugged it off and continued shopping and socializing. However, he soon began to experience severe stomach pains.

Lake Okoboji

Doctors were immediately called to come and examine him. William was initially diagnosed with ptomaine poisoning and prescribed bedrest until the symptoms subsided. For the next few days, William’s health improved. He was feeling better, and was probably ready to get back to work.

On the third day, William collapsed and his condition took a sudden and drastic turn for the worse.

Joseph, his younger brother, contacted a surgical specialist from Chicago, Dr. A.D. Bevan, to come and examine William. The doctor left immediately via train. Thanks to Joseph’s influence in the railroad industry, Bevan’s train was given the right away on the track from Chicago, allowing the doctor to arrive as quickly as possible.

Bevan was taken straight to William’s home, where they determined the inventor was suffering from a perforated bowel and needed surgery. The doctors also told William that the chances of him surviving the procedure were very low, about 100 to 1. He agreed to the operation anyway, and preparations were made.

Right before William was taken to the operating table he told his surgeons “Make sure the lights are all right before you operate.” Those would be William’s last words.  William never woke up again, passing away on the operating table on June 3, 1910.

A City in Mourning

                The funeral was held three days later, on June 6. The community was in shock. Several prominent businessman and politicians both publically and privately gave their personal condolences to the family. Joseph, in one of his first decisions as the new head of the Bettendorf Company, shut down the business for the entire day. Like his brother, he held the interests of his employees close to his own heart and made sure that they were paid for a day’s work regardless.

                A special funeral service was held outside the doors of the factory itself for the workers, and after the eulogy was given, hundreds people in attendance made a procession to the bungalow where William had lived while overseeing the construction of his mansion. There, they slowly made their way inside, where William’s body had been laid out for the occasion. The mass of people slowly made their way inside, paying their final respects to their lost benefactor, and then proceeding on through the back door.

Another funeral service was held at the home during the afternoon. Schools, businesses, and banks closed out of respect for William, as well as allowing the employees, teachers, and school children to attend. Even bars closed in honor of William’s memory.

After the funeral, William’s body was taken to Oakdale Cemetery and buried next to his first wife.

William was a great man who took his natural talents and used them to their fullest. He was a consummate inventor who fostered respect in his fellow man, from the lowliest worker in his employ to the towering giants of the railroad industry. He catered to all their needs, and tried to make the lives of so many safer and easier.

When he came to Bettendorf, William didn’t just invest in a town or put more money into a new company that bore his name. He invested in the very people themselves, and when he died, they stopped their lives and virtually everything going on in their town to come out and pay final respects for the man who had done so much.



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