Polk County >> 1898 Index

Annals of Polk County, Iowa, and City of Des Moines
by Will Porter. Des Moines: Geo. A. Miller Pr. Co., 1898.

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Unless otherwise noted, biographies submitted by Dick Barton.

Byron Rice

The name of Byron Rice has been several times mentioned in these Annals. He was the first public school teacher of Des Moines, afterward Prosecuting Attorney, and then the second judge of Polk county. He held this latter position when the judge was "the one man power" of a county, and when all of Northern Iowa, to the Minnesota line and westward to the Missouri river, with the exception of Boone and Dallas counties, was attached to and under the jurisdiction of Polk county. He was the first to bring order out of previous chaos and have the books and records of the county placed in correct and business form. He organized the counties of Marshall and Story and also officially organized the town of Fort Des Moines. In fact, was the official father of the present city of Des Moines.

Byron Rice was born and reared in Madison county, New York, and after attending home schools, graduated at the State Normal School in Albany. He read law in Auburn and Port Byron, New York, and for several years was deputy postmaster. He was admitted to the bar in the Supreme Court in 1848. The following year he purposed settling in Texas, but reading some articles in the New York Journal of Commerce, written by an Indian, George Copway, relative to the Des Moines valley, he changed his destination to Iowa, and landed in what is now Des Moines in September, 1849, when the principal buildings, and not many of these, were those previously occupied by the United States troops. During the winter and spring of 1849-50, for four months he taught the first public school ever opened in Des Moines. He then entered upon the practice of law, with Joseph E. Jewett as his partner.

In 1851 he ran on the Democratic ticket for prosecuting attorney and was elected. Shortly after taking this office Judge Burbridge, then county judge, died, leaving that office vacant. He was the first county judge, and an excellent and capable man, but he died soon after his installation. Hoyt Sherman was at that time Clerk of the District Court and ex-officio clerk of the county, and did much toward organizing the new system of county government. As the law then provided, Prosecuting Attorney Rice became county judge, and at once entered upon the discharge of his extended official duties. Here he showed his ability and correct business training. He was elected by the vote of the people in 1853, and held the office until in the summer of 1855, when he resigned to give his personal attention to the banking house of Green, Weare & Rice. The same year he was one of the parties who erected the Exchange block, the first brick business block erected in the city. The Hoyt Sherman building, corner of Third and Court avenue, was erected soon afterwards. Judge Rice continued in banking until 1862, when he retired therefrom and subsequently again entered upon the practice of law in partnership with D. O. Flinch. After some years he retired from actual practice and devoted his time to his large farm in Dallas county and his property interests in the city and elsewhere.

Judge Rice traveled much, having spent some time in the West Indies and for three years spent much of his time on the Pacific coast, in Washington, Oregon, and California. He always held his residence in this city, where he went on in the even tenor of his way, always keeping thoroughly posted in the affairs of the city, state and nation. For fifty years and more he was a member of the Democratic party, has after his retirement from the judgship over forty years ago sought no office.

Judge Rice, on September 19, 1854, was married to Miss H. C. Calder, of Cedar Rapids, a most estimable lady who has been for years prominent in society and a devoted wife and mother. They have four children - Dr. Spencer M. Rice, of Terre Haute, Indiana; J. E. Rice, of Whascom Washington; W. B. Rice, of Des Moines, and Mrs. Elizabeth Chatelain, of St. Louis, Missouri. There were nine children born to them, of whom five died when young.

After a brief illness Judge Rice died October 14, 1897. His death so unexpected was a sad shock to his family and many friends at home and abroad who deeply mourned this close of a goodly life.