Updated: Feb 10, 2022
During the planning stages of my walk across Iowa, I thought the house from Grant Wood's famous painting American Gothic would dominate the day. However, part of the plan to see Iowa slowly resulted from the desire to let sites and subjects surprise me. On Day 3, Douds to Eldon, the unexpected overwhelmed the plan.
The day started at Leando-Douds (for more on these locations, please visit: https://www.notesoniowa.com/post/foot-notes-on-iowa-words-photos-part-1-day-3-bentonsport-to-douds), and for the first time on my journey I met another walker headed in the opposite direction. Often during my journey I met kind faces, but almost always out of car windows or while putzing around different sites.
As I headed back up the now-familiar Eagle Drive along the south bank of the river I saw someone headed in the opposite direction. After exchanging greetings, he asked what brought me to an otherwise lightly traveled gravel road. I explained the project, and he had many kind words of encouragement. An older gentlemen who self-identified as a longtime but now retired farmer, something he said stuck in my mind: "I've lived here my whole life, and never really taken the time to see much of anything around here." We exchanged parting pleasantries, and my mind chewed on his words for the next several miles as I made my way up to the small town of Selma. Even now, a couple of weeks later, I keep turning over his words from time to time. How often to we take for granted the places closest to our day-to-day lives? Admittedly, I spend a lot of time thinking about the past (as a professional historian, I likely should), but I have often overlooked the most immediate opportunities to embrace the history around me in favor of focusing on far off topics or places. I can't help but imagine how drastically different our communities would be if we each determined to appreciate the people, places, and historical past surrounding us each day.
For the fourth consecutive day, rain started to drizzle as I made my way up the road to the Shidepoke Access on the north side of the bridge across to the Des Moines to Selma. Stopping to savor the serenade of some local amphibians, I eventually made my way over the bridge into the small, unincorporated community today known as Selma. Over the history of the small village, several different names have failed to stick: Officially named Independent at the time of platting in 1851, locals popularly referred to the place as Stumptown after local resident and United States surveyor George Stump. When the United States Post Office opened their location in 1874 the town went by Hickory. When the moniker Selma came into use remains unclear after initial research. Today, a small park featuring a log cabin celebrates the town's past.
Leaving Selma on Highway 16, a small gravel road up a relatively unmarked hillside holds the historical hideaway of the Iowaville Cemetery. On the hillside overlooking the wide Des Moines River floodplain, nestled amongst headstones spanning over a century lies a monument to the far-famed Sauk leader Chief Black Hawk. Even today, controversy and mystery surround the final resting place of a man who fought against the astounding power of the United States for sovereignty, autonomy, and a chance at a more traditional life during the earliest years of America's colonization of what became Iowa. A letter from D.C. Beaman, dated February 18, 1873 and identified as emanating from Hickory (now Selma), discussed how Black Hawk passed away during the late 1830s and how those close to him laid his body to rest near Iowaville (roughly two miles west of Selma). Shortly thereafter, James Turner, a local doctor stole some or all of his remains. From there, initial research leads in a variety of directions. Most sources seem to agree that the remains stolen by Turner eventually wound up in the possession of Iowa Territorial Governor Robert Lucas. The remains then went to the Burlington Geological and Historical Society. An 1855 fire destroyed the buildings housing the organization, and potentially Black Hawk's remains. An alternative account suggests Lucas entrusted the remains to a Burlington physician named Enos Lowe, who passed them to his business partner, a Dr. McLaurens. According to the account, McLaurens left the remains in a Burlington residence when he moved to California, where workers discovered them before eventually having them reburied in Burlington's Aspen Grove Cemetery. As noted above, initial research did not yield any definite answer. However, I did locate a memorial to Chief Black Hawk at the Iowaville Cemetery.
The memorial, as well as the relatively unmarked location of Iowaville, both stuck in points of the journey through the extreme northwestern Van Buren County. Reminders of Iowa's deep Indgenous past linger everywhere throughout the state, yet often times adequate recognition, signage, or other easy avenues of ensuring a prolific place in public memory fail to materialize.
Iowaville itself appears often in any early accounts concerning the area. An important village site of first the Ioway, and later the Sauk and Meskwaki, early American often mention the place. Albert Lea in his journal concerning the 1835 Iowa Dragoons Expedition, John C. Fremont in his 1841 Expedition, and Captain James Allen in his letters from the early-1800s all make mention of Iowaville. Historical sources suggest the either the Sauk or the Dakota (or both) attacked the Ioway at the site during the earliest years of the 19th century, eventually leading to the tribal group leaving the state. The famed Sauk leaders Black Hawk and Keokuk both resides at or near the location at different points of time. If not for historical maps, the different accounts I read in advance of my journey, and advice from other people interested in 'Notes on Iowa,' I could have walked through the area with never knowing I passed through the site. I am told a small sign on a barn marks the location, but I did not happen to see anything relating the important place of Iowa's early history while I made my way through the area on up to Eldon.
Another unexpected site greeted my as I passed out of Van Buren County. During the briefest of stays in extreme northeastern Davis County I stumbled upon the Lock Keeper's House. A remnant of the failed efforts to tame the Des Moines River by the Des Moines Improvement and Navigation Company (DMINC), the efforts of local citizens resulted in the structure's listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. The 1 3/4 story gabled solid-stone masonry vernacular-style building today rests along a quiet curve of the river having never realized the role initially intended for it due to the DMINC never completing the lock's meant for keeping by the intended resident.
Pressing on, I eventually arrived at Eldon. The small town in extreme southeastern Wapello County dates to 1872, a later date when compared with many of the town's I passed through early in my journey. The Keokuk, Des Moines, and Minnesota railroad reached the site of the town in 1859, and early maps related to the railroad refer to the place as Ashland Crossing. Shortly thereafter known as Williamsburg, the town officially incorporated as Eldon in 1872. The Depot serving the railroad still stands proudly today thanks to the efforts of local people to preserve important piece of local history.
The town today boasts roughly 900 residents, and attracts many visitors annually through the American Gothic House and Wapello County Fair. Wood stumbled upon the house he elevated to great fame while out scouting the Iowa countryside for inspiration, a trademark of the Regionalist style he pioneered during the 1920s and 1930s. One of eight sites maintained by the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, the interpretation throughout the site and visitor center provide excellent insight into the significance of the artist and location (more information available at: https://iowaculture.gov/history/sites/american-gothic-house). One quote from Wood specifically stood out to me as I explored the site: "I want to reach everyday people, not just the art critics of the world." His words helped to clarify something to me I have grappled with since starting "Notes on Iowa": I, too, want to reach everyday people. Not just other historians or professionals. I hope what I create here can do that in some way.
Eldon marked the end of Part 1, Day 4. The next day took me from Eldon to Ottumwa. I hope you'll continue to join me as I pass through Iowa on the path of the 1835 Iowa Dragoons.