Early French explorers called this area Prairie la Porte, which basically means door to the prairie, because the interior prairies were easily reached up the valleys; the name stuck for a while. For the Sauk and Mesquakie, this plain was a favorite summer hangout. European settlers trickled into the area in the late 1830s. By 1838 Clayton County had been established, so a sheriff was hired and based at Prairie La Porte, with the Graybill Tavern serving as temporary courthouse. In those early years, Clayton County was the administrative center for an area that now includes most of the Dakotas, all of Minnesota, and about a quarter of Iowa. Of course, it had fewer residents then, but still, that’s a lot of territory! The town’s first survey was completed in 1839 and a courthouse was built in 1840. Prairie la Porte hit the big time with the opening of the post office in 1841. Alas, fate is a fickle mistress, and the county seat was moved out of town in 1843; the post office closed soon after that.
Surprisingly, the loss of the county seat and post office did not kill Prairie la Porte. Naham Dudley is credited with discovering the first lead deposits in the area, and the mining industry took off. Around 1843, the Western Settlement Society of Cincinnati, a group founded to help Germans arriving in the US, purchased large tracts of land in Clayton County so they could build a town they wanted to call Gutenberg. The first families arrived on March 8, 1845 and found little more than the abandoned Graybill Tavern (Herman Graybill had died in 1843) and a neglected old county courthouse.
Germans continued to pour into town in the 1840s and in January 1847, the Iowa legislature approved a name change: Prairie la Porte became Gutenberg. The town’s founders chose to honor the famed 14th century German inventor of movable type, Johannes Gutenberg. The first appearances of the town’s name in print were spelled the same as the inventor’s surname, but an 1848 plat by G.A. Mengel Lithographing Company of Cincinnati spelled the name with a double “t” and the spelling stuck. (In 1949, Guttenberg residents voted down a measure to restore the original spelling by dropping the extra ‘t’ in its name.)
The Germans who arrived were generally well-educated folks. They chose street names that honored both their native German culture, as well as that of their new American homeland. To the south, streets were named after German cultural figures Christoph Wieland, Johann Herder, and Johann Goethe. To the north, streets bore the names of musicians Haydn and Mozart, plus early American heroes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and two of the foreign officers who fought with the Americans in the Revolutionary War: the Marquis de LaFayette and Tadeusz Kosciusko.
Guttenberg grew up in 1851 when it incorporated; it counted about 1,000 residents at that time. In the next decade, the town experienced steady growth that triggered a building boom; many of those structures were built of native limestone from the nearby bluffs and are still around.
Ferry service was initiated to Glen Haven (Wisconsin) in 1855, and several hotels and breweries opened. In 1856, Guttenberg won an election and again became the county seat, but this status would prove fleeting, too: Elkader won the 1859 election and has had the county seat since. (In a 30-year period, citizens of Clayton County voted for a county seat 11 times, moving the county seat from Garnavillo to Guttenberg to Elkader.)
After the Civil War, fewer immigrants arrived and the town’s population stabilized. Guttenberg became a railroad town in 1871, just as the farm economy assumed a more central role in the town’s fortunes and as a pearl button factory grew into the town’s single largest employer. In 1905, the Army Corps of Engineers shifted the main channel from the Glen Haven side to the Guttenberg side, much to the dismay of Glen Haven.
Guttenberg’s residents were not fond of attempts to ban sales and consumption of alcohol. When Iowa voted on Prohibition in 1880, Guttenberg residents were strongly opposed (78% voted no in Clayton County vs. 55% yes statewide); it should be no surprise that the town had five breweries and two distilleries at that time. Although the law was thrown out on a technicality, it was adopted again in 1884. Local breweries cut back production but managed to stay in business. In spite of Iowa Prohibition, Guttenberg had seven licensed saloons in 1891, with six more added the following year. Guttenberg even managed to keep its three wholesale beer distributors operating by giving them peddler’s licenses. In the fine tradition of towns up and down the river, Guttenberg relied on saloons for much of their revenue, and they weren’t about to let a little thing like state law get in their way.
Alas, Guttenberg couldn’t fight Big Brother forever. A new law in 1910 restricted the number of taverns to one per thousand people, causing five of Guttenberg’s six taverns to close. A proposed constitutional amendment in Iowa to ban the manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages fell just short of a majority in a 1917 election, but residents around Guttenberg again said a resounding “no,” rejecting the amendment 510 to 26! By the time the US officially adopted Prohibition in 1918, Guttenberg residents had valuable experience in the art of home-brewing, giving them a head start in the bootlegging business. Congress ratified the 21st Amendment in February 1933 to end Prohibition but it did not become law until Utah ratified the Amendment in December. True to its roots, Guttenberg issued its first post-Prohibition liquor licenses in April, nearly eight months before Prohibition was officially over.
In 1937, Guttenberg threw itself a big party to celebrate the centennial of its founding and the completion of Lock and Dam #10. One ceremony was called Mingling of the Waters. It involved mixing water from the Gulf of Mexico with water from the headwaters of the Mississippi River. The mayors of New Orleans and Bena (Minnesota) were asked to contribute samples from their respective ends of the river. New Orleans sent its water in a glass decanter that had been owned for 100 years by an old-time New Orleans family; they spent $7.69 to ship the package by airmail. Bena sent its water in a beer can; they spent eight cents on postage.