Imagine Northeast Iowa

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Remembering the Ghost Town of Albany, Iowa: Basketmakers, Cabinetmakers, and Distillers
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Remembering the Ghost Town of Albany, Iowa: Basketmakers, Cabinetmakers, and Distillers

Today, equestrians camp and ride their horses across trails on land that was once such a thriving community that townsfolk fought for it to be named Fayette County's county seat-- a once bustling little township called Albany.

The Albany bridge and a few old trees are about all that remain as landmarks of what was once a flourishing community at the center of the county – now part of the Volga River Recreation Area.

In it's glory days, the village of Albany boasted eight streets, each 60-feet wide. They were: Main, Water, North, Church, Hale, Clay, Mill, and South. The standard lot was 50 by 100-ft. In 1854, Albany was the third village to be estbalished in Westfield Township.

Robert 'Bob' Nefzger was born in 1929, to Elmer and Pearl Nefzger in a log cabin on a hill overlooking Albany. He has fond memories of visiting the Nefzger Store for penny candy, and playing with the other kids of the neighborhood.

"Wherever we wanted to go, we went with horses," he remembers. There were small ponds full of fish where a boy could spend hours. And as the 'boys' got older, they could hunt for rattlesnakes, on which there was a bounty of 50¢ each. And a smart rattlesnake hunter, says Nefzger, knew to open up the rattler to check for babies, increasing his take in bounty at the county courthouse.

Water was drawn at the well, and carried back to the house. "Everyone drank from the same tin cup and we never got sick, either," he laughs. Nefzger shakes his head at how times have changed. He remembers how it took three people to carry two empty cans for cream to the spot where they could be picked up.

Although Bob later moved away and met the love of his life, wife Marlys, living in Lime Springs, the couple returned to Albany when a farm came up for sale about 1948. They kept hogs and a few cows, along with chickens that Marlys sold (dressed), for just a quarter each.

"And some people thought that was too much!" She laughs now, about those lean years. By this time, in the middle of the 20th century, the number of businesses in the once-thriving Albany had begun to dwindle.

A compilation of Albany's history, researched by Missouri historian Barry Zbornik, a Fayette High School grad, offers a glimpse of what life in the township was like as the area was being settled. An advertisement in the Pioneer newspaper in March 1856 declared: 

"1000 volunteers wanted immediately, to meet at Albany, armed with the 'needful,' to buy at Prime Cost Albertson's large and extensive stock of clothing, dry goods, groceries, glassware, hardware, woodenware, hats and caps, boots and shoes, paints and oils, dyestuffs, drugs, and medicines, notions, trimmings, etc."

The proprietor of the business and the man to have first settled there, Albert Albertson, intended to emigrate to Kansas, but it's believed he only went as far as Chickasaw county, where he started another mill like the one he'd built in Albany and later sold to Richard Earle in October 1855. Earle later upgraded the mill and operated the store, offering a place for postal pick-up, since Albany never had official post office.

Also of note from the Albany business district, F. (Fleming) Jones once operated a chair factory here, making chairs of all descriptions, warranted for one year, and delivered at any place within four miles. James K. Kent founded a blacksmith shop. Horses were shod at $2.75 per span, or $3.25 at time. J.B. Oelbert ran a tailor shop and Jacob Fauser was a rug and material weaver.

Simon Nefzger ran the general store after 1860. A few years earlier he had begun distilling spirits with Hiram Marvin, who also operated Marvin's Mill. The men weren't moonshiners though. As records show, they paid taxes on the spirits they distilled. According to records, a monthly Iowa Tax Assessment on spirits, was $2/gal, and Simon Nefzger was assessed $1,104 in taxes on 552 gallons of spirits-- primarily whiskey. Nefzger also ran a saloon, which in later years was raided, during the prohibition of the 1880's. When a small quantity of whiskey was found, the business was shut down. Also found in the research by Zbornik, is a story from 1896, about when Simon Nefzger was robbed by a gang from Growler Gulch at his store:

The thieves took $18 in cash, 50 pairs of pantaloons, a dozen coats, two sacks of flour, a bolt of muslin and a miscellaneous collection of jack knives and pipes." Nefzger was alone in the store "And no thought of danger had entered his mind, for pirates are not given as a usual thing to swooping down ... and carrying away booty in armfuls." One in the group of four asked to buy kerosene, for which Nefzger had to go to the basement. While the boy held the light, the other three in the group helped themselves to the merchandise. Later, after the sheriff was notified, a counterfeit dollar that was kept in the till, was found on one of the members of the party after being arrested. 

In addition to the many businesses the town boasted, a schoolhouse was built in Albany in 1877, costing $1,000. Now at 86 years old, Bob remembers attending the one-room schoolhouse and the walk it required from his family's home far up the hill to the south of where he lived as a boy.

As he looks back on growing up in Albany and the years that he and wife, Marlys farmed and raised a family there, Bob Nefzger says life in there was a great experience. Through all of those years, he can't ever remember the town flooding, even though the Volga River skirted the east side of the community.

When he thinks of the flooding of the Volga River of more recent years, he says that if he had still been living on his Albany farm – located roughly in the day picnic area between the equestrian campground and the equestrian day area near the intersection of Hill and Ivy roads, "It would have taken the house and everything."

The Nefzgers left Albany about 1968, selling their farm to the state of Iowa as part of the development of the Volga River Recreation Area.

They moved to another farm south of Fayette, where they continued raising their family and began to spend winters in Texas.

Today, Bob and Marlys enjoy retired life from a comfortable home in Fayette, where they routinely feed wildlife and look forward to visits from their children and grandchildren. They look back with fondness on the days when they lived in Albany – a village with a more than a brief 100-year history that will hopefully never be forgotten.

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  1. Imagine Northeast Iowa Support
    Imagine Northeast Iowa Support
    Fascinating! Thanks for helping to preserve Northeast Iowa history!
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