The area now known as Jefferson County was first settled in 1836, and became Jefferson County in 1839, with the new community of Fairfield as the county seat. The name was suggested by Nancy Bonnifield, one of the settlers because it aptly described the fair fields of the area. But also author Susan Welty suggests it was a play of words on her own name (bonny field).
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The First Iowa State Fair
Fairfield hosted the first two State Fairs in 1854 and 1855. The State Fair then moved around eastern Iowa before moving permanently to Des Moines in 1879. Iowa's first State Fair was held in Fairfield on October 25-27, 1854, some 15 years after Fairfield was founded and four years before the first railroad came through town. The fair opened with the presentation of a 360-pound “great Denmark Cheese” to Iowa’s Free-Soil Governor-elect James W. Grimes by his friends from Lee County.
Fairfield's Civil War Hero
Mehitable Owen Cooper Fox Ellis Woods (1811-1891)
Fairfield’s most famous and well-loved Civil War hero was actually not a hero at all, but a heroine: Major Mehitable Ellis Woods, better known to generations of Fairfielders as “Aunty” Woods or “Mother” Woods. As a member of the Women’s Soldier’s Aid Society, she helped gather supplies for Iowa’s union soldiers. When it became obvious that someone would have to accompany the supplies in order for them to reach their intended destination, Mother Woods obtained the necessary passes to make thirteen trips in three years following the sick and starved Jefferson County troops to Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. These trips earned her the title of Fairfield’s most acclaimed hero.
Higher learning was available in Fairfield from 1849 when the Female Seminary opened, then Axline University and Fairfield College followed. Due to many struggles, these schools were only open for short periods. In 1875, Parsons College was founded, replacing these earlier institutions, and through the years the college brought a great influence on both the economy and the culture of the County. Parsons College closed in 1973, but the campus was purchased for what is now Maharishi University of Management. Fairfield was the first town in Iowa to offer library services to its residents, starting in 1853. The library was first proposed by Ward Lamson in an editorial in The Fairfield Ledger. Later he worked to solicit funds, and the library was born in a rented room off the town square. Later, in 1891, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie pledged $40,000 for a library. The building is still in existence and houses the Carnegie Historical Museum, a mecca of Fairfield history and memorabilia.