Early Industry

Many people think of Iowa as a farming state. Would it be surprising to hear that many different types of industry and manufacturing have existed in Iowa for a long time? Early Iowa industry was focused on processing the materials grown and raised on the land. Later, industry expanded to include many different manufactured items. 

Artifacts reveal an extensive trade network among native cultures extending from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes and from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians. Iowa's earliest inhabitants produced clay pots, cloth and tools. When European traders came, the natives traded the goods they produced in exchange for guns, ammunition, needles, glass beads, scissors, knives, metal pots and horses. When Europeans came to the "New World" for a fresh supply of animal pelts to satisfy their craving for fur fashions, they relied on Native Americans for help. 


As European settlers began to come to Iowa, their industries centered around hundreds of small mills that lined the rivers and streams. These mills used rushing water to turn water wheels that powered the machinery inside including heavy millstones that ground wheat into flour. Other mills sawed lumber or spun and carded wool. The city of Davenport was well known in the years before the Civil War for its large mills that ground wheat into flour. The flour was then sent down the Mississippi River to southern markets. These mills were found throughout Iowa, and many of them still stand as historical monuments or museums. 


In the 1840s and 1850s miners around the city of Dubuque mined lead, a soft metal that was melted into bullets—or shot—for guns. To make the shot, workers dumped hot lead from the top of a tall tower. As the lead fell to the earth below, air pressure separated it into small round balls. The lead balls fell into a tub of water at the bottom of the tower to instantly cool and solidify. These shot were sold as bullets for use by hunters, settlers and soldiers.


The meat processing industry began in Iowa during the 1870s. In places like Ottumwa, Cedar Rapids and Sioux City entrepreneurs built large factories to process the cows and pigs grown on farms. The meat was then shipped to eastern markets. The railroads which crisscrossed the state made it easy to send this meat all over the country. 

Coal mining and stone quarrying were early Iowa industries that removed minerals from deep below the farm fields. Coal mining began in the years after the Civil War. Many of the Iowa coal mines were owned by railroad companies, which used the coal to fire their steam locomotives. Some of the Iowa coal miners were African Americans who came to the state in the decades following the Civil War. Other miners came from Italy and eastern Europe. Workers in stone quarries harvested tons of golden-colored limestone for buildings and road gravel. Rich stone quarries were located at Stone City near Anamosa and in the area around Le Grand. 


Another important early Iowa industry that was tied to the state’s natural resources was lumbering. Starting in the 1840s several companies in river cities such as Muscatine cut and sold lumber. They were so successful they soon used up the Iowa forests and had to cut lumber in Wisconsin and Minnesota and then float the logs down the Mississippi River as huge rafts. Once they reached Iowa the logs were milled and sold as boards, or sometimes they were cut into the intricate woodwork that decorated many houses in the late 1800s. 

Something Unusual

An unusual early industry started in Muscatine when a German immigrant, John Boepple, built a machine that cut buttons from shells of Mississippi River mussels. Later, many button factories opened in Muscatine and Davenport. Fishers harvested the mussels from the river using special hooks, while workers cut small discs from the shells. The miniature discs were cleaned and drilled to make buttons. Women and children earned money by sewing the buttons to small pieces of cardboard. The buttons were sold in stores. The pearl button industry ended after 1913 when a large dam was built across the Mississippi River at Keokuk. The dam ended the free movement of mussels along the river. Without a source of raw material, Iowa’s thriving button industry died. 

People who have made Iowa their home have been engaged in buying, selling and producing goods and services for a long time. Making clay pots, trapping and trading, grinding grain, scouting, mining and logging were early forms of industry that helped people survive in a harsh and primitive world. Dig into the past to uncover early products, services and a way of life that helped shape Iowa's businesses and industries of today.


  • The Iowa Heritage A Guide for Teachers, Iowa PBS, Johnston, Iowa.
  • Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa Past to Present: The People and the Prairie. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Press, 2002.
  • Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa: The Middle Land. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Press, 1996.