The founders of Waukee dreamed that it would someday be a bustling, busy town, but it’s likely that even they would be surprised by what it has become. After years of careful planning, Waukee has become the fastest growing city in Iowa. It’s also home to the fastest growing school district in Iowa. And now, the newly announced Kettlestone development is estimated to increase the Waukee population by 17,500 and holds the potential for 25,000 new jobs.
“Waukee’s future is very bright as a result of people that built a good cornerstone,” said Mayor Bill Peard.
The first people to lay that cornerstone were General Lewis Addison Grant and Major William Ragan, who, on April 30, 1869, purchased the land surrounding the area on which The Des Moines Valley Railroad had just announced that it would be building a railroad.
Gen. Grant and Major Ragan named the town Shirley, but when Gen. Reid of the Des Moines Valley Railroad heard about it, he said it should be changed. As reported in the Daily Register, “The proprietors named it Shirley, but the ‘powers that be’ in the railroad office in Keokuk insisted that it should have an Indian appellation, and hence Waukee it had to be. What Waukee means, we don’t know. For that, you must ask Gen. Reid.”
Businesses popped up quickly after the railroad was built, including lumber yards and hardware, drug, grocery and grain stores. Daily post office service began in November 1869, and Waukee incorporated on July 2nd, 1878.
Waukee’s Coal Mining History
There were coal mines all over the state of Iowa in the late 1800’s, and speculators first surveyed Waukee in 1883. The Harris Mine opened on September 20, 1920, just two and a half miles northeast of Hickman Road in Waukee. The Shuler Mine, owned and operated by The Shuler Coal Company, opened in 1921. It was the largest producer of coal in Iowa, and it had the deepest mine shaft – 387 feet. It was located one mile east of Harris, until it closed on May 27, 1949. It employed up to 500 men and used 32 mules.
A substantial mining camp community developed, comprised mostly of immigrants from Italy, Croatia and Sweden. The community included churches, a school, a dance hall, a tavern, two restaurants, a hardware store and a grocery store. Some of them lived in small homes built by Shuler that were called “South Camp” and “North Camp.” These were located on what is now called Alice’s Road, and they had no electricity or running water.
Many of the town’s residents worked in the coal mines and camp area businesses until the last mine closed in 1949.
In a 1947 blueprint of the mine that was placed under a map of the city, the Shuler Mine had reached 1.25 miles wide and over 3.75 miles long, stretching from northeast of Hickman and bordering Alice’s Road and NW 156th Street all the way past the boundaries of Waterford Road.
Desiderio “Charlie” Andreini was the first miner to help load coal out of Shuler Mine. He worked at the mine for 28 years until it closed. He was an orphan after his mother died in childbirth, and was adopted by the Andreini family. He immigrated at age 14 with his brother Battista “Pete” Andreini from Salto Colina, Italy in 1920. Charlie and Pete both developed black lung disease. Unions helped organize monthly pension payments for all of the black lung victims.
“It was a challenging job, but they all seemed to like it,” said Charlie’s son, Bruno Andreini. “We enjoyed the simple life. Everybody had big vegetable gardens and canned all of their vegetables. Everybody helped everybody. They were hard working, good, honest people. They were oriented towards hard work and thankful for their jobs. It was something to support their families with.”
“We didn’t know we were poor,” he added. “We all got along playing simple games, and had fun at the swimming hole. It was a different way of life.”
According to Andreini, many of the Italian immigrants followed the traditions of their heritage and made their own wine. Every year, two railroad box cars full of grapes were ordered from California. There was a celebration on the day it arrived, and men would hang off the box car throwing figs and yams at the children like candy at a parade. “A glass of wine was always part of the meal. We had an apple cider grinding machine that came up to our waists to smash the grapes and a copper bucket to catch the wine. My dad always ordered a quarter ton of grapes and only added five pounds of sugar, but I’m not sure if he added any yeast. It was pure liquid. Wine was put in big wooden barrels,” he said.
At 15 years old, Bruno Andreini detassled corn fields for farmers until he graduated from school. He then worked at a telephone company in both Waukee and Grimes, and then for the City of Grimes in their municipal light plant and distribution, and later for Meredith Printing. He started his business, A & W Electric, as a partnership, and then bought out his partner after 10 years. He ran his business for 32 years before retiring. He has been married to his wife, Marylin, for the past 53 years.