Among the early residents of Montgomery County were Native Americans, dating back to over 10,000 years ago. The earliest white settlers arrived in the early 1850’s settling near a small stream they named Red Oak Creek for the Red Oak trees that grew along the banks. Montgomery County was formed in 1851 and named after Revolutionary War hero, Richard Montgomery.
The settlement of Red Oak was officially made the Montgomery County seat in 1865. At that time the courthouse was moved from Frankfort, Iowa to Red Oak, Iowa during a snowstorm. Red Oak grew slowly at first, numbering only about 50 houses in 1869, when the Chicago, Burlington & Pacific Railroad line came through town. In the same year, the town of Red Oak Junction was officially organized (“Junction” was dropped in 1901).
The arrival of the railroad triggered rapid growth and an influx of wealth to Red Oak over the next decade. The town became the trading center for the entire region, and new industries developed quickly, including a meat packing plant, a brewery, a cannery, flour mills, and a brick and tile works. At the height of the town’s prosperity, around the turn of the century, several fine community buildings including the Montgomery County Courthouse, were constructed. Wealthy merchants, as well as railroad officials, built many splendid homes on Red Oak’s east side. These homes stand today as a tangible reminder of Red Oak’s storied past; several of the structures are on the National Historic Register.
Red Oak has a proud military history and heritage. Red Oak natives have fought for their country in every engagement since the Civil War. Red Oak’s Company M suffered 160 causalities among its 250 members; 52 men were killed in action.
The town has a particularly strong and moving connection with World War II history. Red Oak lost more of its sons, per capita, in the conflict that any other community in the United States. Residents would gather daily at Red Oak’s Johnson Hotel to await and exchange news about the war. Indeed, one particularly tragic day – March 6, 1943 – more than 100 telegrams arrived bearing news of Red Oak soldiers missing in action. Red Oak gained the recognition and gratitude of the nation, which was expressed in 1944 with the U.S. Navy’s christening of Red Oak Victory, a cargo and ammunition ship which played on important role in the Pacific theater. Despite her hazardous tour of duty, Red Oak Victory did not suffer a single causality. Today, Red Oak Victory is one of the few remaining Victory ships. She is maintained under the care of the Richmond Museum of History in Richmond, California.
Remembrance and reverence for the sacrifices of her sons and daughters is an integral part of the Red Oak community. Each Memorial Day, more than 1,500 flags, donated by the families of war veterans, fly in Red Oak’s Evergreen Cemetery. The Montgomery County Court of Honor sponsors special ceremonies each Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
In the town square, memorials have been erected for veterans of World War 1, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The fountain in the square is a tribute to the men lost during World War I. The most recent memorial being the Freedom Rock, which was the last to be completed on the west side of Iowa.
In 1888, during the construction of the Montgomery County Courthouse, Red Oak residents Edmond Osborne and Thomas D. Murphy purchased a woodcut of the new structure, not realizing that they were helping to not only immortalize the courthouse, but also to create a new art form.
To cover the costs of purchasing and printing the woodcut, the two entrepreneurs decided to add a calendar pad and sell advertising around the picture to local merchants. The project was so successful that they went on to start a business to create picture calendars, the Thomas D. Murphy Calendar Company, which operated for over 100 years. Thus, Red Oak is known as the birthplace of the decorative art calendar industry.
Though no longer in business, Murphy Calendar Company is still a part of Red Oak. The company building is part of the Heritage Hill Tour. Also, because of the company’s history and because at least one copy of each calendar the company printed has been preserved, Murphy calendars have become coveted and are valuable collector’s items.