Dr. J.R. Armstrong

Died at His Late Home in Irvington Monday of this Week.

He Was One of the Foremost Pioneers of the County and One of Its Strongest and Best Characters.

On Monday last Dr. J.R. Armstrong passed from this life surrounded by his children and friends. In his passing one of the ablest and best loved, and in his time, one of the most influential of the pioneers has joined the silent majority. He was a rugged character, a strong man mentally and physically, well educated, broad and generous in his views, and kind and helpful to his brother pioneers who needed advice and material assistance. Among all that sturdy band of pioneers none enjoyed a larger following than did Dr. Armstrong, and none retained so wide an influence so long. He made Irvington his home from the first to the last, and the whole community for miles around sought his advice on nearly every thing and looked up to him as a guide, philosopher and friend. And their confidence was never betrayed by Dr. Armstrong. He was public spirited and contributed freely to institutions from which he could get not return personally or financially. Such men as he do honor to our common manhood are indeed too few.

J.R. Armstrong was born in Sussex county, N.J., April 14, 1829. He was the son of Hugh and Levina Armstrong. In the spring of 1830 the family moved to Steuben county, N.Y., where his father bought a farm. There young Armstrong attended the district school and later attended Franklin Academy at Prattsburg, N.Y. Later he attended Alfred University in Allegany county, N.Y., where he graduated in 1855. In 1856 he came to Waterloo, Iowa, and worked there in a drug store and practiced dentistry. He came to Irvington, Kossuth county, in the fall of 1857. He was engaged to work in the store of Ransom & Parmenter, who were conducting the only store of the place, and he also practiced his profession. In 1862 he enlisted in Capt. Ingham’s company which was stationed at Estherville to protect the settlement from the Indians. In 1863 he bought out L.L. Treat who had bought out Ransom & Parmenter, and continued the business until 1878. He was also postmaster during this time. For a few years his brother-in-law, Z.E. Brown, was associated with him with him in the store. On Jan. 26, 1859, he was united in marriage to Jan Fife, a native of Vermont. The ceremony was performed by O.A. Holmes, a Baptist minister who was located at Webster City. To them were born seven children, two of whom died in infancy. Lovina A., the oldest child, died at the age of twenty. The four surviving children live in or near Irvington. James A., the oldest son, is living on a farm three miles east of Irvington. Charles S., the youngest, lives on a farm north-west of Irvington, and the two daughters, Lucy A. and Mary J., live in the home with their father.

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Death Calls Pioneer Irvington Physician

Dr. J.R. Armstrong Succombed [sic] Monday, After Long Illness


Came to Irvington in 1857 and Lived an Active Life Until Age Forced Retirement

Dr. J.R. Armstrong of Irvington died Monday afternoon at half past two o’clock, following two years of illness with dropsy. Funeral services in charge of the Masons were held yesterday at Irvington church. Rev. Frank Day, pastor of the Baptist church, Algona, officiated and was assisted by Rev. F.A. Smiley, pastor of the Algona Presbyterian church. The pall bearers were Col. R.H. Spencer, D.A. Haggard, A.I. Bowen, W.P. Quarton, A.L. Webster and A.L. Bowen. The body was laid to rest in Irvington cemetery.

Dr. Armstrong was born in Sussex county, New Jersey, April 14, 1829. The following year his parents moved to Steuben county, N.Y., where his father bought a farm. There he attended the district school, and later, Franklin Academy at Prattsburg [sic], N.Y. Afterwards he graduated from Alfred University, Allegheny [sic] county, N.Y.

In 1856, when he was 27 years old, he came to Waterloo, Iowa, where he worked one year in a drugstore. In 1857 he settled at Irvington. Five years later he enlisted as a soldier in Captain Ingham’s company of the Northern Border Brigade. The next year he bought the general store which L.L. Treat had been keeping at Irvington.

In January, 1859, Dr. Armstrong married Jane Fife, a native of Vermont. The ceremony was performed by Rev. O.A. Holmes of Webster City. The doctor and his wife had seven children. Two died in infancy. One of the others, Lavina A., died at the age of twenty. Four survived and they are living in or near Irvington. James A. resides on a farm, three mile east of Irvington; Charles S., on a farm which adjoins Irvington on the northwest. Two daughters, Lucy A. and Mary J. are yet at the parental home. Mrs. Armstrong, who died Nov. 27, 1904, preceded her husband in death just seven years to a day.

Dr. Armstrong was a member of the first board of supervisors of Kossuth county. His colleague were Ambrose Call and M.C. Lathrop. He served three years, beginning in 1861.

He was one of the first and long the best known physician in the county, though, strangely enough, his named is not mentioned in the list of Kossuth county physicians, given in the History of Kossuth and Humboldt Counties, published in 1884. He was an early teacher also, as well as farmer and storekeeper. His activities, in fact, as was to be expected in a pioneer community, were many and varied for long years. He took a high place in the respect of the community from the start and maintained it until the close of his long, honored life. In his family, where his kindness and firmness were blended, he was seen at his best. His life’s work is done, yet there are many to mourn his passing, for he was of the type of sturdy pioneers who wrought successfully to make this state what it is today.

Source: Kossuth County Advance, November 30, 1911.

James A. Armstrong

J. A. Armstrong is the owner of a fine farm of one hundred and seventy acres located in Irvington township, where he engages in general agricultural pursuits. He is a native of Kossuth county, his birth having occurred in the vicinity of Irvington on the 3d of May, 1862. His father, Dr. J. R. Armstrong, was born in New Jersey, whence he later removed to New York. He subsequently continued his journey westward to Iowa, locating in Waterloo, where he remained until the early ‘50s when he came to Kossuth county. Here he filed on a homestead in the vicinity of Irvington, and with the exception of a year spent in the city of Des Moines soon afterward, made his home in Kossuth county until his death on November 27, 1911. He was a member of the North Border brigade and is buried in the cemetery at Irvington, as also is the mother, whose maiden name was Jane Fife. She passed away November 27, 1904. Dr. and Mrs. Armstrong were married in Webster City, this state, and to them were born seven children, as follows: Lavina, deceased; James A., our subject; David, deceased; Lucy, who lives in California; Mary, who is also a resident of California; Sarah, deceased; and Charles S., who is living in California.

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Story of Dr. Armstrong

A Real Character of Early Kossuth Co.

Some Pioneers Had Fun Just Plain Living

A history of Irving (both old and present) would not be complete without a chapter on Dr. J.R. Armstrong. All the old settlers, I’m sure, would agree. Some may possibly think that he is getting more than his share of publicity, but the fact is there is no phase of Irvington history which he did not help create. His activities, and the interesting incidents connected with them as they are found throughout early community life, remind one of a startling and extremely different weave and pattern, appearing often and unexpectedly in an otherwise plain and somber garment. Although his methods sometimes caused the chills to run up and down the spines of his neighbors, he continued to hold their respect, nevertheless.

Having come to this vicinity in 1857 he lived through the rise and fall of one village [and] had an active part in the early life of the other. He was a doctor, dentist, merchant, school teacher, postmaster, Sunday school teacher, and farmer. He served also as county superintendent of schools for a season and held many other public offices. He was a man who apparently had the ability to do anything that was required of him.

When Dr. Armstrong first arrived here the hardy pioneers did not require too much in the way of professional services, and he became a clerk in the Ransom Parmetter store. He bought the L.L. Treat store in 1863 and later bought the James Green building and continued the store there. (This is the same building that still stands at the top of the Irvington hill.) He discontinued his mercantile business in 1878, having been the last storekeeper and postmaster in the old village.

Shortly after coming to the community, Dr. Armstrong married Jane Fife and the couple were the original settlers on the land just east of the present village, now owned by Gerald Frank. Records show that the Armstrongs received a patent covering the land in 1860 from the President of the United States. The old house, now occupied by the Herman Lester family, is much the same as when the Armstrongs lived there except that at one time there was an addition adjoining the house on the south. This was later taken off and moved farther south where for many years it served as another dwelling. Within the last number of years it was sold to Carl Seip who tore the building down and hauled the lumber to his farm.

After Mrs. Armstrong’s death the doctor and two daughters, Lucy and Mary, moved from the old home to the house now owned and occupied by Mrs. Marie Frankl.

The other daughter Lavina and sons James and Charles had married. The doctor died there in 1911, having been in ill health for a few years, and is buried in the Irvington cemetery.

He was the only resident physician the town ever had. He was strict, harsh, and unrelenting as a school teacher — but women who were his patients in his later years say he was always kind and considerate. The Doctor could evidently be whatever the current situation demanded on him. On one occasion he amputated the right index finger of J.R. Robison, after it had been mangled in a can mill. The amputation was performed with the Robison meat saw, without benefit of anesthetic. The saw is still in use at the home of Mrs. M.L. Roney, daughter of Mr. Robison.

Armstrong Stories

There are many stories of Dr. Armstrong and to older residents who knew the Doctor personally they are practically a tradition.

One of the Doctor’s peculiarities was that he was immune to jokes, especially those involving himself. He emphasized this very thoroughly one April Fool’s day. The story goes that a few young men who were “batching” in the Kendall Young house had made some soft soap pies for the occasion. The pies were beautiful to behold — the soap having been “doctored up” until it looked like pumpkin.

During the day most of the village men dropped in at the “batch hall” and were offered a piece of pie. Each one would accept with alacrity, unsuspectingly take a big bite and then react in a violent manner. Each victim would keep his experience a secret, wanting all his neighbors to get some of the same.

Above all else the boys wanted Dr. Armstrong to get some of the pie but as usually happens in such cases the Doctor didn’t call. After waiting almost all day they sent for Kendall Young to help them out. Young, who was a friend of Dr. Armstrong, sent word for the Doctor to come up to “batches hall” as he wanted to see him on business. The Doctor arrived and, as had been previously arranged, everyone was sitting around the table pretending to eat supper.

Armstrong sat down and started to talk with Young and it wasn’t long before the pie was passed. Young passed the pie to Armstrong who put it back on the table and continued his conversation. Not to be so easily thwarted, however, the boys saw to it that the pie was soon passed again. This time Young took a piece, pretended to take a bite, then urged the Doctor to try it. Armstrong took a piece saying, “Kendall, I never eat pie of any kind but as a special favor to you I’ll indulge just this once.” He then proceeded to bite off just about a fourth of the piece. The men, unable to retain their mirth any longer, burst into hilarious laughter, anticipating the Doctor’s reaction. They were doomed to disappointment for Armstrong, without altering his expression in the slightest, continued to eat the bite, remarking in between bites as to its deliciousness.

When he had finished every crumb he arose to go and looking around into the unbelieving and slightly greenish faces of his friends said, “Any time you boys have another pie like that one let me know. It is the best I ever ate.”

On another occasion the son Charles placed a tack on his father’s chair then requested him to sit down and demonstrate how a certain problem should be worked. The Doctor sat down, carefully worked and explained the problem, without giving any indication that he was are that he wasn’t sitting squarely on a tack.

The Doctor would not even let a skunk get the best of him although it has always been a question as to which one came out best in an encounter. The story goes that in some way a skunk got into the Armstrong basement. Instead of being diplomatic, opening the door, and letting the animal come out in his own good time, the Doctor grabbed a club and dashed into the basement after it. They both emerged at the same time — the Doctor holding a handkerchief to his eyes.

He complained a little about the odor and admitted his eyes burned. However, never one to come second best, he reported that his vision was much sharper after that. He never did recommend the treatment for his patients with failing vision, however.

The son Charles, although standing very much in awe of his father, was not above playing tricks on him when he thought he could get by with it. He made himself some extra work one time when he couldn’t resist the urge to get a laugh on the “old man.” It seems that dogs had been annoying the Armstrong sheep at night.

The Doctor decided to do something about it, and loaded his muzzle loader with a charge of fine shot, which he intended would scare the dogs but not seriously harm them. He placed the gun behind the door and went to bed. Charles, knowing what his father had planned, removed the charge and replaced it with buckshot before he too went to bed. In the middle of the night the usual bedlam of barking dogs and bleating sheep began. Doc escaped from bed and not waiting to dress raced out into the yard, grabbing his gun on the way. He took quick aim and fired at the nearest dog. Instead of emitting a series of short staccato yelps interspersed with long howls and running for his life, the dog dropped dead.

The look of surprise on the Doctor’s face was soon replaced by one of conviction. He looked long and thoughtfully at the dead dog, looking again at his gun, and turning gazed for a long time at the window of Charles’ upstairs room. At breakfast the next morning the events of the night were not mentioned until Charles, unable to control his mirth any longer, snickered. This was Doc’s cue and he thundered, “Charles, you bury that dog.” There is not the slightest doubt that Charles stopped laughing immediately and answered, “Yes sir.”

Source: Kossuth County Advance, July 1, 1954.