If you’ve been on Highway 71 between Sioux Rapids and Spencer, Iowa – you’ve probably seen and recognized this home. It stands alone at the top of a hill. No tree, no shrubs, no barns. Nothing. It stands completely alone, and it grabs your attention.
As you approach the house, you’ll see that it’s abandoned but yet acts as a billboard for the Clay County Fair.
Google Map Location: 12 miles south of Spencer on Highway 71
What is the legend or story of Goat Hill?
It was owned by Jesse Ditton, a “colorful” character who was born in a log cabin here in 1872 and later farmed and raised goats on the 140-acre property. According to local legend, the goats lived outside during the summer but moved inside the house during the winter. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Jesse remained a bachelor until his death in the late 1950s. He advertised for housekeepers and even sent for mail-order brides, but they all left once they saw they’d be sharing the house with goats.
Here’s the history timeline for Goat Hill
Using Ancestry.com, I built his family tree to get a better understanding of his life and his family.
Jesse was born 25 March 1872 in Clay County, Iowa. His parents were Jacob G. Ditton and Justina M Farnum. It appears that the Ditton family moved to Clay County around 1870. His dad, Jacob George Ditton died the same year that Jesse was born. You’ll occasionally see his father listed as George (land deeds and on his headstone), but you’ll also see him listed as Jacob G. on census and military records.
There’s a US land office record for the location that dates back to March 5, 1872 (which happens to be just a few weeks before Jesse was born). If we assume that this is the correct plot of land, then here is the history of who lived at Goat Hill over time:
1880 Census: Justina (Mom, age 50), older brother Henry (21), older sister Clara (10), and Jesse (8)
1900 Census: Justina (Mom, age 70) and Jesse (28)
1901: His mother Justina dies
1913: Jesse Ditton placed several recurring personal ads in the Sioux City Journal, “wishing to correspond with a respectable young lady.”
1914: Jesse Ditton and Rebecca Negley are married in Spencer, Iowa.
1920 Census: Jesse (48) and Rebecca (32)
It appears that Jesse and Rebecca were married for at least 6 years (1914 to 1920), and possibly as long as 12 years (1914 to 1926), as Rebecca married Ora Eaton in Missouri in 1926. When she died in 1973, her social security application used Eaton as her married name.
1930 Census lists Jesse (58) and a new wife listed as Alma (24). Some have suggested that its Alma Schollmeyer, but I doubt that this is accurate. Alma Schollmeyer married George Deaton in Missouri in 1927, and used Deaton as her married name until she died in 1988. There are no other marriage records in Clay County that indicate Jesse ever married again, so we’re not sure if he actually married Alma, or if she was a hired housekeeper by Jesse.
1940 Census: Lists Jesse (67) by himself at the location.
1949, April: Jesse placed the following ad in the Sioux City Journal, ” As I am not able to live alone. would like someone, desiring a home, for a companion. Write or see me at Greer Hotel, Cherokee, Ia. Jesse Ditton.
1949 May: Jesse took out a help wanted ad in the Sioux City Journal labeled “Housekeeper for gentlemen”
1954: On Sept 26th, 1954, Jesse’s house was featured in the Des Moines Register by Frank Miller. It included a sketch of the home labeled “Farm House With Flags” and featured a short article on the history of the family and the home. The American Flag was painted on multiple sides of the house and took up the space between the windows. On one of the house corners was a large checkerboard design as well.
Here’s the article from the Des Moines Register dated Sept 26th, 1954:
The house stands stark and alone atop a steep hill commanding a view of US highway 71, about 12 miles south of Spencer. There are no trees or shrubs to soften the bold dark landscape, and curtainless windows stare blankly and coldly across miles of rolling landscape. If that were all of the description the old farm house would sound sinister, ominous, and best forgotten.
However, this house has more to it that saves it from the unpleasant and makes it impossible to forget. On two walls, painted in the finest of patriotic red, white, and blue, are two huge American flags. Also two gaudy checker boards designs join at the corner, while a brilliant red door rounds out the startling and colorful decor.
To travelers using this stretch of highway the place is remembered as “The farm house with the flags on it.” To the natives of Spencer and of Clay county it is referred affectionately as “Goat Hill” or more formally as “The Old Ditton Place”. To Jesse Ditton the house, the 140 acres of land around it stand for his life and work, for he was born in a log cabin on the place 84 years ago, grew up there and has farmed it all his life, and among other things raised a large number of goats (which accounts for “Goat Hill”).
People not knowing Mr. Ditton’s reasons for the flags, checkerboard, and the door might be inclined to imagine all sort of complicated and romantic versions of why such insignia and colors mark the dark old house on the windswept hill. But Mr. Ditton’s explanations are pleasantly honest and simple logic. . . . Jesse’s father was a soldier in the Civil War. The checkerboard . . . his favorite game has always been checkers. The red door . . . he had some red paint left over.
Jesse Ditton has retired from his farm now. He was trouble getting around, his hearing isn’t what it used to be, and he has no close relatives, so he has found a quiet and easier way of life around the Clay County Home west of Spencer. However, he hopes to get back out to the house from time to time . . . “to keep those flags from fading away.” – Frank Miller.
1957: On December 23rd, 1957 Jesse Ditton died and was buried at Liberty Cemetery in nearby Greenville, Iowa.
When did the house start advertising for the Clay County fair?
I wasn’t able to find an exact source for this – but based on the Des Moines Register article, it’s likely that the flags and checkerboards stayed on the home through most of the 1950s and the soonest the county fair advertisements started were the late 1950’s or early 1960’s.
Have they ever tried to demo or raze Goat Hill?
Yes, apparently there have been multiple attempts at removing the house, with the most recent dating back to 2013. During a conversation on KICD radio, the current owner, Gary Hoefling, called into the station to clarify that the house had been purchased and would be preserved. Here’s the link containing the recording when Gary called into KICD radio.
What other comments and memories have Iowa Road Trip followers submitted about Goat Hill?
* Jesse would hitchhike to Spencer on open store night. He wore a white dress suit
* When we took our one week vacation at Okoboji we knew we were getting close when we saw the “goat house”.
* I went to school at Clay Central; we routinely would bus to run Goat Hill for track and basketball training. Memories!
* I remember having to run Goat Hill with weights on our ankles and Coach McDonnell timing us at the top. Seems like we had to beat a certain time or we had to repeat the run. And of course, he knew you couldn’t do it in that time, or at least I couldn’t, so the second time would be even worse because your legs were tired with the weights. But we were in good shape. !!
* Does anyone else remember going sledding down that hill in the wintertime?Source: comments taken from Iowa Road Trip’s facebook page about Goat Hill