History of Cerro Gordo County, Iowa - 1910 - V

Cerro Gordo County >> 1910 Index

History of Cerro Gordo County, Iowa
Ed. and comp. by J. H. Wheeler. 2 vols. Chicago: Lewis Pub Co., 1910


Biographies submitted by Kay Ehlers.


One of the oldest and most respected citizens of Mason City , Judge George Vermilya is widely and favorably known throughout this section of Cerro Gordo county as an upright, honest man, of sterling worth and as a fine representative of those courageous pioneers who settled in the county in the days of its infancy. He has witnessed wonderful changes during the past half century, flourishing towns and thriving cities having sprung up as if by magic, while magnificent agricultural regions have usurped the place of the raw prairie land, which obtained when he made his first appearance on Iowa soil In this grand transformation he has taken an active part, redeeming from its original wildness a part of this beautiful country, in the meantime accumulating for himself a handsome property.

Judge Vermilya was born, January 17, 1822 , in Westerlo, Albany county, New York , a son of Joseph and Susan (Pinkney) Vermilya. His father, a man of brains, was a Radical in the full sense of the term, intensely interested in needed reforms, being a zealous advocate of the temperance cause and one of the leaders in the organization of the first anti-slavery societies in his native town. They reared eleven children, six sons and five daughters, all of whom lived to become industrious and respected men and women, the world being the better for their having lived and labored in it.

Brought up on the farm in Albany county, George Vermilya in common with his brothers and sisters received a practical common school education, but unlike some of the other school children never outgrew the diffidence and bashfulness which handicapped him as a child and has since been many times a detriment to him. When he was eighteen years old his home nest was broken up by the death of his parents, and the family became scattered. George found work among the neighboring farmers, and in partnership with his brother John, carried on the parental acres until 1844. Lured westward then by the golden reports of the country on the frontier, he started for Illinois alone, going by packet boat on the Erie Canal to Lockport, New York, thence to Niagara Falls and Buffalo. Taking a steamboat at the latter city, Mr. Vermilya went by way of the Great Lakes to Chicago , arriving there when the people were shouting for their presidential candidates, either Henry Clay or James K. Polk. After paying his bill at the stage house or hotel on Lake street , the principal thoroughfare in Chicago at that date, he had the munificent sum of ten dollars in his pockets, his only available assets with the possible exception of one hundred dollars or so interest in the old homestead in Albany county.

Tramping westward on the old stage road towards Galena for about twenty-four miles, Mr. Vermilya found himself in a nice little village called Bloomingdale. A line of four-horse coaches owned by Frink & Walker passed through the village daily, and the principal hotel was kept by Colonel Hoyt. After spending two years in the village, the directors of the district school urged Mr. Vermilya to take charge of the winter term of the school, and he accepted the position, having twenty-five pupils. In the summer of 1847 Mr. Vermilya paid fifty dollars for forty acres of good prairie land in that vicinity, near Meacham's Grove. Leaving a little money with a fellow at the Grove, he started for his old home in the east, and that was the last he ever saw of the money or of the fellow, although, as he says, “the fellow claimed to be of refined and purified clay, and the money was untainted.”  From Chicago Mr. Vermilya went by boat to Saint Joseph, thence by coach to Marshall, by rail to Detroit, thence on the Canadian side by English steamer to Buffalo, from there to Albany by rail, thence by four-horse coach to Westerlo. At the old homestead he found his brother John and family, and soon after they were joined by his brother, Gilbert, who gave Mr. Vermilya a horse and a trap for his interest in the old home estate. Becoming interested then in the work of establishing public libraries in each school district, an act having passed the state legislature authorizing the directors of each school district to expend a stated sum of money for that purpose, Mr. Vermilya started on the mission, going to New York city to make arrangements in regard to books. After working in southern New York a few months he started south, passing through New Jersey , and at Christmas time was in Philadelphia . He found Chestnut street very nice, was entertained at the theatres ; saw Girard College ; views the Schuylkill Water Works ; visited Brandywine battlefield, saw where Washington crossed the Delaware ; and trod the ground at Valley forge . Subsequently, while in Carbondale , Pennsylvania , a gentleman said to him, “I should think you would rather spend the winter in our school house than out in the cold.” He accepted the proposition and taught school in that place until the spring of 1848. The following summer Mr. Vermilya spent at the old homestead in Westerlo, after which he crossed the Catskill Mountains and the Delaware river into Pennsylvania , visiting the coal mining regions at Scranton , the Wyoming Valley , Wilkes-Barre , and Mauch Chunk. Stopping at Pottsville long enough to recover from a slight illness, he made his way into Maryland . There he had several unique experiences. On one occasion he relates, while sitting at a table spread with a clean white cloth, twenty able-bodies negro slaves quietly file in to the table, were waited upon by a white woman, having eaten their dinner quietly filed out. At night he could plainly hear a company of slaves, men and girls merrily laughing and talking. One Sunday while in Maryland he spent at a large plantation, a beautiful place, its fine buildings surrounded by handsome shade trees. The proprietor himself was away, but the mistress sat at the head of the table, at the commencement of each meal making the sign of the cross.

During the winter of 1848 and 1849 Mr. Vermilya had charge of the school which he had taught in Carbondale , Pennsylvania , the previous winter, and it the spring of 1849 was urged by the directors to accept the superintendency of the schools. Declining the offer, he made still another visit to the scenes of his childhood days. From there he started for Chicago by the overland route, going with a horse and buggy through southern New York , Pennsylvania , Ohio , Indiana and Michigan , arriving in Chicago in January, 1850, ere the days of railways or trolleys. Going then to a town lying twenty-five miles northwest of that city, where he had a cousin, he resided there five years, being engaged to some extent in farming on the one hundred and forty acres of land which he purchased, the greater part of the time, however, traveling in and about Chicago for insurance companies.

Having an attack of western fever in June, 1855, Mr. Vermilya came to Cerro Gordo county, Iowa, locating on Shell Rock, Falls township, where he bought one hundred and sixty acres of land for one hundred and sixty dollars and five acres of timber for fifty dollars. He returned to Illinois, married, and four months later, on May 20, 1856, started westward with his bride, having in his outfit three yoke of oxen attached to a lumber wagon, a span of mares attached to a light spring wagon, twenty-five head of cattle and ten colts. Camping and cooking by the wayside, and sleeping in the covered wagon at night, he arrived in Falls township June 15, 1856 , and for awhile camped in their wagon. Buying one hundred and twenty acres of adjoining land, Mr. Vermilya erected a house, eleven feet by eighteen feet, eight feet in height, trying first a slab roof, then a hay roof, after awhile having a shingled roof, and a stone and mortar chimney. Breaking up ten acres of the prairie the first season, he sowed buckwheat and planted a few potatoes, and that summer cut fifty tons of hay with a scythe. He added a shed one hundred feet long to his stable of fifty feet, covering it with slough grass, and having gathered his buckwheat and potatoes was ready for the long winter, which began that year on November 15 and lasted until April 10, being very snowy and severely cold. The next season Mr. Vermilya broke up another fifty acres of land, raised three colts, some calves and pigs, a little wheat and corn and sold some butter and cheese, making a little more than living expenses. Continuing his residence in Falls township for five years, prosperity smiled on all of his undertakings, and he became prominent and popular in public affairs, serving as road supervisor, inspector of school teachers, president of the local school board, township assessor, and, in 1859, much to his surprise, being elected judge of Cerro Gordo county. Removing to Mason City in 1860, he filled the office to which he had been chosen to the best of his ability, and at the end of his term of two years was elected county treasurer and county recorder, receiving a salary of three hundred dollars a year, at the end of the term being honored with a re-election for another two years.

From 1865 until 1870 Mr. Vermilya invested in real estate to a considerable extent, buying, for the sum of fourteen hundred dollars, the one hundred acres of land comprised in his home property on East State street, a quarter of a section of land in Mount Vernon township, for one thousand dollars ; lands in Dougherty, Geneseo and Falls townships ; considerable land at tax sales ; and erected the house which he now occupies, having removed there from Fourth street.

From 1869 until 1872, inclusive, Mr. Vermilya was engaged in the lumber business at Mason City , buying his lumber principally in Minneapolis , Minnesota , although he bought some in Oshkosh and other Wisconsin towns, and hauling a large part of it from Austin , the nearest railroad point, to Mason City . There being no lumber yard west of this place, a good deal of his lumber was sold in Hancock and Winnebago counties.

Judge Vermilya was for several years master of the Mason City Grange and secretary of the Cerro Gordo County Grange. In the early ‘70s he was a member of the City Council, which met in his office, then located at the corner of Fourth and Main streets. He was afterwards elected justice of the peace, and president of the County Agricultural Society, both of which offices he resigned. For sometime he was a member of the Board of Trustees of the Methodist Episcopal church, but took little part in the affairs of the board with the exception of furnishing the lumber when, in 1870 and 1871, the church edifice was built.

Mr. Vermilya married, January 6, 1856 , in Illinois , Helen Miller, who was born in Tioga county, New York , August 29, 1831 , and died in July 1898, in Mason City , Iowa . Her father, Alva Miller, came with his family westward from New York state to Illinois in 1837, locating in Cook county. Of the five children born to Mr. and Mrs. Vermilya, four are living, namely : Jessie, wife of F. H. Decker, of Superior , Wisconsin ; Theron, in the restaurant business, Mason City ; Grace, who married W. H. Dilts, makes home with Mr. Vermilya ; Lydia , who died in 1893 ; Girden M., in Holtville , California . Judge Vermilya is now past eight-eight years of age but as active as most men at seventy. He has all his faculties and enjoys a good health. He is one of the few pioneers left that came to this county at the early date he died, and he is honored and revered in the community which has so long represented his home.