Nevada man bestows treasured gift to Fort Dodge museum

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Photo by Whitney SagerThis framed drawing belonged to Major William Williams and showed Fort Dodge as it looked in 1852.
Photo by Whitney SagerDick Atwell holds up a framed map of Iowa that belonged to his great-great-grandfather, Major William Williams. The map shows Iowa as it appeared in the 1850s.
Photo courtesy of Joe Sutter/The MessengerDick Atwell (left) discusses a 185-year-old oil painting of Fort Dodge founder Major William Williams with Bill Griffel, president of the board of trustees for the Ann Smeltzer Charitable Trust. Atwell is Williams’ great-great-grandson and donated the painting to be displayed in the Ringland-Smeltzer House. The painting will be hung above the bookshelf in the first floor library.

It isn’t every day that a person has the opportunity to give their hometown a gift of historic significance.

So that’s probably why Nevada resident Richard “Dick” Atwell, 77, found himself featured on the front page of the Fort Dodge Messenger in the Nov. 26 edition.

It was very special news when Atwell showed up in his hometown of Fort Dodge with a 185-year-old painting of the city’s founder, Major William Williams.

Major Williams happens to be Dick’s great-great-grandfather. Dick came into possession of the painting after acquiring it from a cousin. “I got a call from my sister that my cousin was having my aunt’s things taken to auction. My sister said there were some oil paintings among her things, and one was of Williams.”

Dick knew he had to have that painting and any other historic paintings in his aunt’s collection. He’s a strong believer that treasures like these should stay with the descendants or others who have a relationship to them, even though there are plenty of collectors who would buy them just to have something unique.

Getting the paintings, however, was no easy matter. Atwell wasn’t able to drive all the way to Elko, Nev., which is where his cousin lived. So he called the UPS store there and asked if they could help him. UPS wasn’t willing to take on a job of picking up the pictures and packaging them, but Atwell was able to work his charm on one UPS employee, who agreed to do the legwork herself to pick up the paintings and get them ready to send. “I paid her well, so she was very happy to help me,” Atwell said.

All of this took place last spring. Along with the photo of his great-great grandfather, Atwell also obtained another painting of John F. Duncombe, his great-grandfather, who was the second in charge in Fort Dodge, and he got some smaller pictures of the early children in the family.

“The major (William Williams) came to Fort Dodge and built the fort. He started the town,” Atwell said, noting that the fort was built around 1850. When the fort closed, Atwell said, Williams and Duncombe bought some of the land around it, laid out the town, and sold lots. Duncombe married Williams’ daughter; and the Duncombes’ daughter married Dick’s grandfather – R.P. Atwell.

Once in receipt of the paintings, Dick called Al Nelson, a Fort Dodge area historian. Nelson has written about the Williams-Duncombe-Atwell family over the years. Nelson looked at the painting of the major and said he believed there was a good place for it – the Ringland-Smeltzer House, a historic museum property in Fort Dodge, and a house that Dick knew well.

“I used to play in that house as a kid,” he said. He had also attended preschool in the house. The Ringland-Smeltzer House had been the dwelling of Ann Smeltzer when Dick was young. Ann had never married, and was the heiress to the Ringland-Smelzer fortune, acquired by the success of the family entrepreneur, George Ringland. George, according to a writing about the Ann Smeltzer Charitable Trust, held a patent for the improvement of plaster, which contributed significantly to the growth of the gypsum industry and changed the nature of building construction.

The Ringland-Smeltzer family was noted as contributing significantly to the economic and cultural development of the Fort Dodge community.

After the holiday decorations come down, the painting of Williams will be placed in the house, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, above the bookshelf in the first floor library.

Dick made the trip to Fort Dodge to present the painting to Bill Griffel, president of the board of trustees for the Ann Smeltzer Charitable Trust.

Griffel, as quoted in a Messenger story written by Joe Sutter, said, “We’re glad we’ve got it … It’s not a reproduction. It’s real.” Nelson believes that the painting was done when Williams was a banker in Hollidaysburg, Pa., in his early 30s. Williams came to Fort Dodge in his 50s.

For Dick, all this history about his descendants and his hometown is fun to be part of. Those who know Dick, know that he’s a lover of history and antiques. “I always enjoyed history. I grew up with a house full of it,” he said.

Dick came to Nevada in 1962 to work at Donnelley Marketing. When he left that business, he decided to turn his attention to his love of history. His wife Judy ran an antique business out of their home, The Square Nail, when they lived at 404 I Ave. Dick decided to carry on with that type of business, opening an antique shop that was first located in Scudder’s basement. Later, when the bakery (now the Main Street Dance Studio) came up for sale, Dick bought the building to carry on with his antique business.

He was joined in business by his son John, who now lives in Canada. The father and son operated the business for about 12 to 15 years in Nevada. Now Dick is retired, and most of what they had in their antique business is gone.

But Dick still loves to acquire history, especially when it has to do with his family or his communities. He keeps the things of great value locked securely in a safe place.

He has, over the years, donated some items to the local Nevada Historical Society. One thing he donated is longtime Nevada resident Joe Briley’s hard hat from Donnelley’s. When Briley (no longer living) retired, the hat was signed by all his co-workers at the time. Dick acquired the hat from Briley’s son. He also gave the local museum a framed picture set from Mathison Motors, a former Nevada business. “There may be a few other gifts for Nevada in the future,” he said.

And for his hometown and the state of Iowa, Dick has given some things and still may give a few more items that have to do with his family history and their relationship to Fort Dodge.

He gives, Dick said, “because it makes you feel good. Because once (these historic items) disappear into a collection of someone who doesn’t know their value … you never have them again where a community can go to see them.”

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