Priests and Farmers – What Makes A Father?

With Father’s Day rapidly approaching, I’ve been thinking a little about what it means to be a father. Do you have to have children in order to be a father?

As I ponder that question, my mind turns to a particular individual – Father P.J. Maher.

Irish Priest in Rural Iowa

                P.J. Maher was born in Ireland in the late 1840’s. He attended seminary school at St. John’s College in Waterford, Ireland, near where he was born. After his studies were finished, he immigrated to the United States and was ordained into the priesthood in 1870, in Dubuque, Iowa. That same year, he was sent to his first pastoral position in Anamosa, Iowa.

For those of you who may not know, the parish priest is a busy guy. First off, he celebrates the Catholic Mass every day. In addition to this, he presides over weddings, funerals, and baptisms. He gives counseling, hears confessions, visits the sick, and gives general and specific spiritual advice to his parishioners. And these are just some of the duties and responsibilities that Patrick Maher would have had. And, in addition to Anamosa, he also served the needs of the town of Prarieburg nearby. Father Maher embraced his role and served with enthusiasm.

For a while, Father Maher rented places to live, but eventually built a permanent residence for the priest in Anamosa to live in. He also built a church close to Prarieburg. To accommodate his growing congregation, he was also responsible for the construction of a newer and bigger church in Anamosa itself. Work began in 1875, and was finished in 1880.

St. Patricks Anamosa

While things were going so exceptionally well in Jones County, the town of DeWitt in Clinton County was having a very rough go of things. In 1879, the first permanent Catholic church in DeWitt, St. Simon’s, burnt down. It was quickly determined to build a new church to replace the old one. Construction quickly began and in 1880, construction was complete and the brand new St. Joseph’s was christened and ready for its eager congregation. And in 1881, Rev. Patrick J. Maher became the first long-term pastor of the brand new structure.

St. Joseph's Church  Rectory DeWitt, IA

For the next twenty-three years, Father Maher would serve his new parish. He performed all of his same priestly duties, but was also involved with the parochial school associated with the church. In April of 1904, Father Maher left for Chicago to receive treatment at a catholic hospital there. On October 3rd, he passed away at the age of fifty seven. His remains were returned to DeWitt and he was buried at St. Joseph’s Cemetery a few days later, beloved by many.

Maher Funeral

As I write this, I’m reminded of a man that played a large role in the life of my Grandfather and his brothers.

The Old Farmer and Me

                Raised in Bettendorf, Iowa, my great-grandfather moved his family to an old farmstead in rural Scott County in the 1940’s. Like new kids anywhere, they had some trouble fitting in. My great-grandfather loved his children very much. However, he was quiet and reserved by nature, and spent a good amount of time working. Like many fathers, he had to spend time away from his family during work hours in order to provide their basic needs.

At some point after their arrival in the neighborhood, they made the acquaintance of Bill Schultz, an older farmer who lived about a mile down the road. He was unmarried and never had any children, so he took the boys under his wing and helped them along. Uncle Bill, as they came to refer to him, taught them things like woodcraft and horsemanship. My grandfather was of the opinion that Uncle Bill was one of the world’s great horsemen.

Father Figures

                In both of these, we have men who never had children stepping into the role of a father figure and helping others. They had a profound impact on some of the people around them. P.J. Maher never had any kids of his own, but was still a father figure to so many across eastern Iowa. He gave guidance, advice and counselling. Some of this was undoubtedly of a spiritual nature, but, like his modern counterparts, probably consisted of more earthly things, as well.

Maher also served as an example of how to live. Not only did he adhere to the tenets of his faith, but he strove to build new churches and buildings with which to better serve his fellow man. Instead of just talking about following a code of moral conduct and serving others, Maher let his actions do his talking for him.

Bill Schultz was just an old farmer who saw some neighborhood kids that needed a hand. It may have been that he was only ever a role model for my grandfather and his brothers, but even with just those few, it made a difference. The values and skills that Schultz taught those boys were used by them to, in turn, have an impact on others. Whether that impact was big or small makes no difference – it only matters that it was made.

There are men all over the world who are like Father Maher and Bill Schultz. Regardless of race, religion, or creed, men like these live their lives as an example for others to follow and act as father figures to young men and women who may not have a positive role model in their lives. Men like this may never have children of their own, but they gain so many spiritual children because of the way they live.

So as you honor your own fathers this holiday, give a few moments to thank and be grateful for men like P.J. Maher and Bill Schultz, who gave so much of themselves to help others. If men like these cannot be honored as fathers, than who can?


L.V. Dunn.  The Catholic Church in Clinton County. Reprinted by the Clinton County Historical Society,

                2011. Copyrighted by Louis V. Dunn, 1907.

The History of Clinton County, Iowa. Chicago: Western Historical Company, 1879.

Corbit, R.M., ed.  History of Jones County, Iowa: Past and Present, Vol. I. Chicago: S.J. Clarke

                Publishing, 1910.

Trigilio Jr., John, and Brighenti, Kenneth. Catholicism for Dummies. Hoboken: Wiley Publishing, 2003.

Davenport Democrat and Leader. Oct. 4, 1904, p. 2.

Davenport Democrat and Leader. Oct. 7, 1904, p.4.

Davenport Democrat and Leader. Oct. 14, 1904, p. 5.

Clinton Daily Herald. Oct. 5, 1904. 

Clinton Daily Herald. Oct. 7, 1904.  

Gravestone of Rev. P.J. Maher. St. Joseph’s Cemetery, DeWitt, IA. 

Archdiocese of Dubuque Official Website:






Lack of Respect: Souvenir Hunters in an Unmarked Cemetery

                I have not been shy or quiet in my opinions about cemetery desecration. I have spoken about it, and I have written about it. Cemeteries are monuments to those who have gone before. They are places that honor the people on whose shoulders we stand, who built the towns and cities that we have taken care of since their passing.

                They are places of contemplation and remembrance. Even more importantly, they should be places that command respect from those of us who walk on the grass amongst the stones. I had not thought that I’d be speaking on the subject again so soon, but I read something in the paper today that compels me to speak up once again.

                I subscribe to a local newspaper called the North Scott Press that serves rural Scott County, Iowa, where I live. Today, they reported that two men with metal detectors and shovels were seen in Franklin Park, right in the middle of the city of Eldridge, Iowa. They’re scanning around, seeing what they can find, and someone calls the police. The police come out and talk to the men. As soon as the cops leave, so do the guys with the detectors. So what’s the problem? The problem is that the two men are digging up a cemetery.

Cemetery Story


                To understand, we have to step back in the Way Back Machine to the 19th century. Eldridge is a small, primarily agriculture driven community. Some residents back then were of the Presbyterian faith, and they determined to build their own church right in town so that they didn’t have to travel far.

                Rural travel in the middle of the 19th century was a sketchy affair at times. You travelled in a buggy or on horseback for the most part, exposed to the elements. Even if you were fortunate enough to travel in a covered conveyance like a stagecoach, the poor driver was still exposed to the elements. And in Iowa, you get every kind of element – rain, snow, sleet, and hail. You also had wind, heat, and cold to deal with.

                The dirt roads that you plodded along were often bumpy and unpleasant to ride on (horses and buckboards generally didn’t come equipped with an air-ride feature). They could also be extremely muddy and almost impossible to get through. Deep snows could also make the roads impassable. Nasty Iowa thunderstorms exposed you to the odd tornado, but, even more likely and just as dangerous was a stray lightning bolt that could hit you. Suffice it to say, the closer to home you were, the more comfortable things would probably be.

So, in the 1860’s, the fine people of Eldridge erected the Eldridge Presbyterian Church.  A cemetery was made just beside it, and several parishioners were buried there. The church lasted for a while, but it never really did overly well. By the early 1900’s it was just an empty building. In 1918, a tornado came through the area and wiped out the building, as well, leaving only the graves.

Later, the decision was made to move the headstones elsewhere. However, the bodies were not moved. The city knew that they couldn’t build on the site with all those graves, so they turned the area into a park and left it alone. Over time and subsequent generations, the fact that there were graves there started to be forgotten.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Franklin Park

Recently, the knowledge resurfaced in the public eye. Older people remembered that there were, and told the city that. Younger people weren’t sure. So, to settle the argument, the city of Eldridge contacted a trained archaeologist with the University of Iowa. They came out and used a special technology called ground penetrating radar to see if there was anything there or not. Sure enough, they found evidence of several dozen graves there.

Almost from the moment the archaeologist arrived to do their radar soundings, this was big news. The local newspaper, the North Scott Press, covered the minor drama as it unfolded. Now that the existence of the graves has been proven beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt, the city of Eldridge is deciding what they will do with the site. They have the best intentions and are seeking to preserve the memory of the dead buried there.

And now we have those unscrupulous individuals showing up at the park, seeking only to take from the dead, not preserve them.

Let the Dead Rest

Honestly, I have no idea what they hoped to find. Perhaps they watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, read a book on alternative history, and decided that they were going to find the Ark of the Covenant buried out there in Franklin Park. But that’s probably not what they were hoping.

At best, what they were looking to do was find a few older artifacts, dig them up, and keep them as souvenirs.  In the worst case, they intended to sell off what they found for a minor profit. Either one is unacceptable. What is left in a cemetery is meant to be there to preserve the memory of those there, in either their accomplishments or who they were.

There are places all over the United States where it is perfectly acceptable to go looking for underground souvenirs, but not in a cemetery. Leave what is there for the dead. If you find something by happenstance, get in touch with authorities, hand it over to them, and hope that it will be repatriated to the cemetery at a future date.

One day, most of us will be interred in a one cemetery or another. Most of us will have a headstone or marker put up, either by ourselves or by our families. This is a remembrance, a letter to the living world that has already moved on after our death that we existed, that we mattered. Regardless of whether that stone is on top of our earthly remains or not, the purpose remains the same. Even if that stone is moved away, our memory remains etched in granite.

So if you find out one day that there is a cemetery somewhere, but no stones, please don’t go looking for souvenirs. Leave the dead to rest in peace. Have respect, and go dig elsewhere.


Ridolfi, Mark. “Scavengers found in Franklin Park.” North Scott Press, June 7, 2017.

Ridolfi, Mark. “More than 40 people buried in Eldridge park.” North Scott Press, May 31, 2017.

Early Churches of Rural Scott County Prior to 1900.” Scott County Historical Society.

John Bloom: The Regionalist and Me

   The mural was old. The colors were still vibrant through, the lines still clear and sharp. It was simple – a farmer in his field, harvesting corn while his dog runs nearby. It was painted in a stylized design that is deceptively primitive. If you’re only glancing at it, it seems to lack any real depth. But when you take just a few moments to really gaze at it, the whole scene comes to life. You can almost hear the excited barking of the dog and feel the hot Iowa sun beating down on you from above.

     The mural in question is inside the city hall building in DeWitt, Iowa. When it was originally painted, the building served as the town post office, and it’s here that I first laid eyes on it. Back then, the building, which was built in the late 1930’s, was much different.

     Erected in an era before plastics, the place was consisted of large glass windows, dark-stained wood, and intricate metal ornamentation. I always remember it being dark in there, despite all the light the windows let in. The mural was high up on the west wall of the lobby, and it always gave me something to look at while my grandparents or parents conducted their business at the post office window.

Old Post Office DeWitt

     Looking at it made me feel connected to the agricultural roots of the town and surrounding county. It felt warm and comfortable, like your favorite chair. I loved that painting. I had no idea who had done it, and back then, I didn’t really care. I just liked the way it made me feel.

Rural Life on Canvas

     Many years later, I saw a painting in another building in DeWitt. This was an actual painting, not a mural, but it was done in the same, simplistic style. This one depicted a scene of church services coming to an end at the local Catholic Church, St. Joseph’s.

     For those who may not have had the pleasure of attending Sunday Mass, allow me to elaborate for a moment. When a Catholic Mass is over, the congregation quickly scatters to the four winds. There are a few who stay and chat here and there, but mostly everyone leaves. I’ve seen services at St. Joe’s go from having nearly two-hundred people in the sanctuary to having maybe ten to twenty in less than five minutes. When Mass is over, it’s over.

     That painting portrayed that. There was the crush of people leaving in an orderly fashion to go about the rest of their day, and the obligatory social butterflies who had stopped outside the doors to chat and gossip. Amongst all the activity, two young boys thread their way around the two old women like motorcycles around a road cone.

Church Morning

     You could see the Impressionist influence in the artist’s hand, with the characters only having the barest semblance of faces. But, like the mural, there was a real life to it. You could feel the energy of the moving crowd, and almost hear the different conversations being had on the way out of the church. It was a scene that I had witnessed countless times at the very same place. Soon after, I learned that the artist had, too.

     The two young boys in the picture were the artist himself, and his brother, racing to whatever boyhood entertainments they had waiting for them elsewhere. His name was John Bloom.

The Artist

John Bloom

     John Bloom was born in DeWitt, Iowa, in about 1906. He grew up in a rural atmosphere amongst rolling cornfields, rugged livestock, and hard-working farm families. It made an impression on his artistic young mind that would stand him in good stead later in his life.

     When he came of age, he began to take classes at St. Ambrose University, a Catholic-affiliated institution in nearby Davenport, Iowa. In 1926, still a very young man, Bloom began studying at the ultra-prestigious and respected Art Institute of Chicago. By 1930, he had graduated and was ready to step into the wider world.

     Bloom used inspiration from his surroundings, including places he had visited growing up and experiences that he had. One such painting, called Bloom’s Burial, shows a gray, almost dismal graveyard scene depicting a coffin about to be interred in the ground. Two nuns console each other in the background while a priest is by the coffin, conducting the service. Bloom based the painting on his own grandmother’s funeral.

     Bloom’s Burial was featured in the art show during the 1932 Iowa Art Salon, even winning a prize. More importantly, the painting drew the attention of one of Iowa’s most iconic artists, Grant Wood.

An American Icon

grant wood

     Grant Wood was another Iowa-born artist who had come to nationwide fame in 1930 for his painting American Gothic, which would very quickly become an iconic piece of American artistic lore. Inspired first by the impressionist painters and later the ultra-realism of the European masters, Wood used his art to capture the spirit of the rural Midwest that he had grown up in.

His star very much on the rise within the American art community, Wood continued to produce paintings in the style of American Gothic. In 1932, he helped to found the Stone City Colony and Art School in Stone City, Iowa, near Anamosa. About this time, Wood saw John Bloom’s painting, Bloom’s Burial, and invited the younger man to move to Stone City for the summer and attend his new school. Bloom readily accepted.

     Artists at the colony took classes and cultivated their individual artistic expressions. John took a job as a groundskeeper while living there in order to pay his tuition. During his stay there, he met a young sculptor named Isabel Scherer. They became almost instant friends and stayed in close contact for several years.

The Depression Years

     As an artist, Bloom continued to shine. All throughout the 1930’s, Bloom won several awards for painting and drawing throughout the state of Iowa, including a first place finish for a painting he submitted to the Iowa State Fair. He assisted his old friend Grant Wood in painting a series of several murals at Iowa State University, and in 1937 painted the mural in the DeWitt post office.

     In 1938, John and Isabel married. They moved into the Masonic Home in Davenport, Iowa, turning a large portion of their living space into artistic studios for themselves. Eventually, they would have three children. With a growing family, John went out and turned his career toward commercial art, all the while continuing to pursue his personal artistic interests and refine his already formidable skills at home.

Shooting Stars

Over the next several years, Isabel’s fame began to soar. Amongst other things, including hosting a local children’s television program, Isabel was able to turn her private sculpturing into an extremely lucrative business. Through it all, John looked on with pride and cheered her on.

     During the 1980’s, a local business owner encouraged Bloom to put some of his private work on display. In 1984, an exhibit of his work was held in Davenport, Iowa. People once again took notice of the old artist, and there was an instant demand for his work. For the next several years, Bloom painted murals in Davenport and Iowa City, won art competitions, and held exhibitions of his work.

Old John Bloom

     John passed away in late May 2002, at the age of 96. His beloved Isabel, his wife of over sixty years, had died the previous year. The couple left behind an extensive body of artistic work in various mediums.

Dark Days

     Earlier this year, my own wife fell gravely ill with a life-threatening bacterial infection. Our family doctor diagnosed her in the morning, and we were sent directly to the University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City, Iowa, about an hour away from us. She was fine that entire time, just feeling a little under the weather. By the time the doctors were looking at her, her condition had worsened and she was taken in for emergency surgery. We later found out that she had very nearly died.

     As it was, they removed a large portion of infected tissue from her hip, which necessitated her to stay at the hospital for almost two weeks. I had taken emergency vacation from my work, and spent the majority of my time in Iowa City, visiting her.

    Within the first few days, she was moved to the eighth floor of the hospital, to the burn and wound recovery unit. While she was recovering well, some complications arose. These were dealt with swiftly and professionally by the doctors and nurses, but it was still an extremely stressful time.

     One day, while I was walking around the floor, I noticed some familiar looking artwork hanging in the hall. University of Iowa Hospitals put a lot of artwork throughout its meandering corridors, including drawings, paintings, and even sculpture. Many times I would just give things a quick, scanning glance and continue along my way. But these were different.

     As I approached, I kept wondering why they seemed so familiar to me.

     They were farm scenes, of life in rural Clinton County where I had lived for twenty years. While I studied them, I found my mind and spirit filled with a profound sense of a place in an idealized rural America where life was simple. There was no sickness or death there. The livestock was healthy, the crops were growing well, and the weather was always fair.


     And when I read the information plate beside them I found, to my pleasant surprise, that they were done by none other than John Bloom. Alone and far from home, I had found an old friend.

     When John Bloom completed those various pieces, I doubt very much that he was thinking of bringing comfort to a big Scotch-Irish guy on the ragged edge. But he probably did contemplate conveying those images of his life in rural America to the public. Bloom wanted to share the feel of the farm field and the sadness of a burial.

     And I’m glad he did. He took me back to a place where I could drop my worries and cares and re-center myself. Just like the farmers in his paintings, he reached out a neighborly hand and helped me out. So John, wherever you are, thanks for helping this local out when he was a little down.


Hell at Sea: A Davenport Connection to Maritime Tragedy

                Davenport, Iowa has a lot of iconic landmarks, both historic and otherwise. There are many in the downtown area, where the city has, for several years, been making a tremendous effort in beautifying the area. Largely, they have been successful. The area is now home to several upscale restaurants, businesses, art venues, and museums.

                Nestled among them is a beautiful stone fountain. It stands across the street from the Figge Art Museum, and a very short walk away from the Davenport Skybridge. Its official name is the Dillon Fountain, named after a prominent Davenport citizen from yesteryear by the name of John Forrest Dillon. Dillon had always loved Davenport, and when he died, he left around $21,000 to the city. Some of those funds were used to construct the fountain in his memory.

                Thousands of people pass by the fountain every year, some of them knowing the story and some of them not. But what many people don’t know is that Dillon constructed another monument in Davenport, one that was much more personal to him. To understand that story, you have to know the story of the man himself.

Frontier Lawyer to District Judge

John Dillon

                John Dillon was born in New York at the end of 1831. A few years later they decided to make the move to Davenport, Iowa in 1838. At that time, Davenport was still a small town, and Iowa was still very much on the frontier of the country. The atmosphere that young John grew up in was more akin to a pioneer town rather than the venerable city that Davenport would one day become.

                When he was in his late teens, John decided to study the practice of medicine. He started training under the watchful eye of E.S. Barrows, one of the earliest and most accomplished doctors in the region. John also began to attend medical school. By the time he was twenty-one, he had reached his goal of becoming a doctor. The only problem was is that John hated practicing medicine.

                So, he decided to shift careers from practicing medicine to practicing law. He began studying to become a lawyer, and by 1852, he had become a licensed practitioner of the law. From there, his star began to rise very quickly.

                First, John became the prosecuting attorney for Scott County, Iowa. By the late 1850’s, he was elected a Judge of the Seventh Judicial District of Iowa, which covered four counties in the eastern portion of the state. By 1863, he had been elected to the Iowa Supreme Court. John continued to rise through the ranks of his profession, being made the Circuit Judge for the Eighth Judicial Circuit of the United States, which put seven states under his watchful eye.

                Starting during his time as a district judge in Iowa, Dillon had begun writing books on the law. Eventually, royalties from these would make him a small fortune, especially a best-seller that he wrote in 1872. That same year, he also helped to establish a law journal they named the “Central Law Journal.” Dillon, to help get the journal off the ground, would fill it with a lot of material that he wrote.


                Eventually, he tired of being a federal judge. He retired to New York City, where he became the general consul for the Union Pacific Railroad Company and the Western Union Company.

                But as successful as he became, he was always faithful and proud of his family. He had married Anna Price, a daughter of prominent Davenport politician Hirum Price, in 1853. Together, they would have a son, and two daughters named Susie and Anna.

                John and his family, though they lived in New York City, still loved Davenport, and returned here several times over the years to visit friends and relatives. Anna also loved to visit Europe, and had taken three tours of the continent. But still she could not get enough of it. In 1898, Anna planned her fourth trip and persuaded her mother to come with her.

                They booked passage on French steamer ship named the La Burygogne. When the time came, they excitedly boarded the ship in New York City and set off for the cities of Europe.  It would be the last voyage that they would ever take.

An Ill Wind Blows


                On July 4, the LaBurgogne was travelling in the waters off of Nova Scotia, Canada in heavy, thick fog. At around 5 o’clock in the morning, while moving at a fast speed, the steamer collided with the Cromartyshire, a British ship. The LaBurgogne hit the iron vessel with enough force to tear off her bow. While it was not enough to sink the vessel, the crew of the Cromartyshire immediately went to work on clearing wreckage and repairing damage from the collision.

                The LaBurgogne, however, fared much, much worse. The Cromartyshire had torn a nearly ten foot gash in the starboard side of the steamer. Being such an early hour, most of the passengers were below decks at the time of the crash. Some continued sleeping. Others, awoken by the crash, rushed to the main deck.

                One woman, a Mrs. LaCasse, was roughly awakened by her panicked husband, who had been on the deck at the time of the collision. The woman, half-asleep, began to move toward the main deck, half pulled by Mr. LaCasse. He was already aware of what she was not – the ship was sinking fast. As quickly as they could, they raced to the main deck and straight into a scene directly from a nightmare.

Chaos on the High Seas

                Men, women, and children rushed to get into lifeboats. Several men rushed forward, brandishing knives, which they used to attack anyone who got in their way. Women and children alike were thrown aside as they desperately tried to get into the lifeboats. Some of the boats had been cut free by the second officer. His actions were some of the only noble ones of the day.

                A lifeboat filled to capacity by nearly forty women was never cut loose, and those on board went beneath the icy waves of the Atlantic with the LaBurgogne as it gave a last, hissing sigh and passed to the depths below. Almost all of the officers, including the captain and brave second officer, perished with her. While their struggle was over, it was far from done for those who were still struggling to survive on the surface.

Hell in the Deep Water

                In the water, people tried to survive any way they could. Some swam, while others clung to makeshift rafts. Some had managed to board lifeboats. There were many who tried to climb into the boats from the frigid water, desperate to survive. To their shock, the ruthless and callous people who were already in the boats threw them back into the water to die.

                One man survived by clinging onto the lifeline of one of the boats. As he held on for his very life, he was forced to watch as his mother, a short distance away, was pushed under the waves with oars by the lifeboat passengers as she tried to climb into their boat. This was far from an isolated incident.

               Men and women alike were assailed with oars and boathooks. Some were bludgeoned to death by iron bars or oars, while others were pushed under the water to drown.

               One man, Charles LIebra, had put his two sons on board a lifeboat before the ship sank.  Liebra himself went into the water with the LaBurgogne, and when he surfaced he could not find his sons. Desperately, he tried to climb into a passing lifeboat, only to be beaten black and blue by those on board. Back into the water he went, staying afloat any way possible for nearly eight hours before he was rescued.

               The Cromartyshire was still busy repairing the damage done to her by the collision. The fog had lifted a bit, and they were able to make out two lifeboats coming toward them. Discovering what had happened, the iron vessel quickly went to where the steamer had sank and began rescuing as many people as they could. To take on even more survivors, the British ship threw a large portion of their cargo into the sea.

                The LaBurgogne had sunk in a little over ten minutes. Out of approximately 725 souls on board the LaBurgogne, only about 163 survived. Mrs. Lacasse was the only woman survivor, rescued by her quick-thinking husband. Many of the atrocities witnessed that day, both on the ship and in the water, were committed by the crew of the LaBurgogne itself. The LaBurgogne would become the largest maritime disaster in history until the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

A Great Man Mourns

                 But back in New York, very little of this mattered to John Dillon. He just wanted to know about his wife and daughter. He wanted to hold them and know that they were safe. And so he waited. Soon enough, he discovered the awful truth, and knew that he had lost them forever. John was devastated. What was even worse is that their bodies were never recovered, claimed forever by the jealous Atlantic.

                John Dillon never forgot his beloved wife and daughter. He commissioned a forty foot tall granite obelisk to be carved, bearing their names. The monument was erected on the family plot in Oakdale Cemetery in Davenport, Iowa.

IMG_8921 (2)

                John Dillon passed away in New York City in 1914. His body was shipped back by train to Davenport, his boyhood home, and interred with the rest of his family, just behind the granite monument. John made sure that their memory and the disaster that claimed their lives would be forever etched in stone. And even though he could not be buried near their earthly remains, he made sure that his memory and theirs would be close to each other for the rest of time.


Downer, Harry E. A History of Davenport and Scott County, Iowa. Volume II. Chicago; S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1910.

Asheville Citizen-Times. 7/6/1898

The Morning Astorian. 7/7/1898

The Observer. 9/25/1898

New York Times. 9/7/1898

Davenport Daily Times. 7/7/1898

Davenport Democrat and Leader. 7/6/1898

Davenport Democrat and Leader. 7/7/1898

Davenport Democrat and Leader. 9/3/1898

Davenport Democrat and Leader. 7/3/1914




Cautionary Tales of the Midwest’s Roadways

               Writing is my passion. I enjoy sharing the stories that I collect along my way with whoever cares to listen, and more than a few that don’t sometimes!

                However, like many people out there, I work a day job. Like musicians and writers before, I haven’t yet broken into that mystical land where I can make a living through my chosen craft. And so, the daily grind continues.

                One of the perks of my job is that I have a commute. This allows me to get out and see some of the region in which I live, and to appreciate what’s out there in the wider world. But the drive has also given me a greater awareness of the need for safety on the roadways. When you’re going down the highway at seventy miles an hour, you have to have your head in the game!

                A normal day behind the wheel can quickly turn into your last.

                So, for those of you who have to drive to work, I would like to share with you two cautionary tales about the importance of driving safety.

Routine Maneuver Turns Deadly

                In 1957, a father of five by the name of Charles Nicely made a living distributing gasoline. In other words, he drove a fuel truck.

IMG_8603 (2)

                That May, Charles was driving his fuel truck on U.S. 30 just east of the town of Wheatland. As he went on his way, he decided to pass a 1954 Chevy sedan. As Charles did so, he accidentally made contact with the smaller vehicle, causing his truck to lose control.

                Before he knew it, Charles’ truck was first tipping over, and then rolling down the highway. As it did so, the fuel truck somehow ignited, causing the vehicle to explode. Charles, still conscious inside the truck cab, quickly realized he was trapped inside the now burning fuel truck.

                When police arrived on scene, they heard Charles’ awful screams.

                “Shoot me! Shoot me!”

                The police tried in vain to rescue the poor man, but the flames were so hot that they couldn’t get close enough the cab to be of any use. With anguish in their hearts, the brave men who wanted nothing more than to save the driver instead had to stand there in the middle of the road, listening to the dying screams of Charles Nicely.

                What had started as a routine driving maneuver had, without warning, become the last move for a man who was just doing his job.

Car vs. Train

                Winter in the Midwest is harsh. Bitterly cold temperatures, gusting winds, and slick, icy roads force drivers to be extra cautious during the winter months.

                On the evening of January 12, 1926, Singleton Gardiner, superintendent of the Prudential Insurance Company in Davenport, was returning from a business trip. His wife, Eva, and the assistant superintendent of Prudential Insurance, Charles Frey, rode with him, as well as his maid, Sophia Inkman. A few years prior, Eva had suffered a nervous breakdown, rendering an invalid. This may explain why Inkman was with them.


               The roads were snowy, and the inside of the car windows had frosted over. As they approached the Poppy Gardens train crossing east of Rock Island, Illinois, Gardiner suddenly lost control of the vehicle. The car began to slide as a passenger train from Burlington, Iowa, began to make its way through the crossing.

                The scene inside the car must have been terrifying. Gardiner trying desperately to stop, all the while his passengers began to panic, their terrified eyes fixed on the train.  

                 The train engineer, O.C. Gordon, saw the car and pulled the whistle to warn them, holding it down with as much strength as he could muster as they started through the intersection. But Gardiner couldn’t stop, and the hapless driver and his passengers were propelled directly into the side of the speeding locomotive. The sedan impacted with a crash, becoming temporarily entangled with the train. The powerful locomotive didn’t bat a proverbial eye at the extra weight and began to drag the car along the tracks with it.



                Without warning, the car broke free and was tossed airborne. Train passengers and crew watched helplessly as the car’s gas tank exploded in midair. The twisted, burning machine landed nearly 30 feet away. Gordon immediately pulled the brake, and the train came screeching to a stop just a short distance down the track. Men ran from the train back toward the wreck.

                It was a gruesome sight that awaited them. Singleton Gardiner himself had died instantly, succumbing to the fire. His wife was in shock, suffering from severe burns to her hands. Inkman and Frey were much worse off. The side of Inkman’s face was crushed and her left eye was missing. Frey was badly burned over most of his body and he had deep wounds on his scalp. As their rescuers approached, one of the injured cried out for help.

                Acting quickly, members of the train crew loaded Frey, Inkman, and Eva Gardiner into the baggage car of the train. As the train started back into the city, the porters went through the cars asking for doctors. Unfortunately for them, there weren’t any. The closest that they could find was Dr. J.A. Krichel, a veterinarian who tended to the wounded as best as he could.

Not Out of the Woods Yet

              Meanwhile, other crew personnel ran to a nearby farm where they called the police station in Moline. The police were told what had happened, and ambulances were sent for. They were waiting for Frey and the others when the train arrived, and the injured people were quickly loaded and taken directly to the city hospital.

               On the way, the speeding ambulance carrying the severely injured Charles Frey was struck by another car near Fifth Avenue and Sixteenth Street. Little the worse for wear, the ambulance continued on its way.

                At the hospital, Frey described the incident, including being caught in the explosion. He related that they had seen the train coming, but Gardiner hadn’t been able to stop the car. While his fellow passengers Inkman and Mrs. Gardiner survived the traumatic incident, Frey himself would pass away a short time later.

                If you’ve lived in the Midwest for any length of time, then you will probably have driven through ice and snow at one time or another. And if you drive, you’ve almost certainly passed another car at some point. Both are fairly routine situations that thousands of motorists experience across the nation.

                But next time you’re behind the wheel, pause for a moment and think of Charles Nicely and Singleton Gardiner. They were just taking fairly routine drives, too. They had every confidence in their abilities and their driving prowess, just like many of you. And before they knew what was happening, their lives came to a sudden and tragic end.

                So take your time. Enjoy the drive. Pay attention to the road conditions and to what the other drivers are doing. Make sure that this drive isn’t your last.


Charles Nicely Crash Victim.” The DeWitt Observer, May 9, 1957.

Daily Times, Tuesday, January 12, 1926.

The Davenport Democrat and Leader. Tuesday, January 12, 1926.

Brassard Sr., John  and Brassard Jr., John.  Scott County Cemeteries” Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, 2011.

Central Community Historical Museum. DeWitt, Iowa.





Murder in a Small Town

              The town of Malone was originally a train depot founded in the mid-1860’s. It soon developed a general store, stockyards, and a post office. Like many rural areas, it was quiet and peaceful. Who would have thought that an event would take place there would forever mar that peaceful landscape?

                Edward Crampton was born in nearby Elvira, Iowa, in 1893, one of seven children. In 1911, he married Lillian Henry. They had two children. Unfortunately, Lillian would pass away a few years later.

                 Crampton remarried, this time to Dona Thomas, and had two more children. He worked at the Clinton Corn Syrup Refining Company in Clinton, Iowa, where he was known for being a hard worker.  

                But Edward Crampton was not necessarily good to his wife. He did not treat her well, and it can be assumed that he at least physically abused her for a lengthy period. He didn’t care for his brother-in-law, Robert Vale, either. In 1928, the two had an argument that ended with Crampton striking Vale, leaving a large gash on Vale’s face.

                 After a brutal beating in 1929, Dona finally had enough of Crampton’s abuse and fled to her sister Susie’s home. Dona mustered her courage and filed a petition for divorce from Crampton.

                Crampton himself became surly and unfriendly with everyone around the small community, with the exception of Thomas Mulholland, an older man who ran the local general store. By many accounts, Mulholland was Crampton’s only friend there.

                On the morning of August 7, 1929, Crampton drove to his brother’s house in Low Moor to borrow a shotgun. Edward said that he was going to shoot a dog. He then went and purchased several shotgun shells and drove back to Malone.

                He went home, readied himself, and walked out into the street with his gun. Dona, who had been doing housework, saw her husband and ran out of her in-laws home, pleading with him to put the shotgun down and stop what he was doing. Crampton ignored her and kept walking toward the general store.

                As he approached, Robert Vale came out of the front door of the building. Crampton quickly put the shotgun to his shoulder and fired. The shot missed, so he quickly racked another round into the chamber and fired again. This time, the buckshot found its mark and Vale dropped to the ground.

                Looking over, Crampton saw his friend, Thomas Mullholland, sitting just inside the screen door. Racking the pump-action shotgun again, he took aim and fired again, hitting the old man square in the face. Even with such a grievous wound, Mullholland rose slowly to his feet. Crampton coldly fired once more, ending his life. No one knew why he killed his only friend.

                Through the entire event, Crampton never said a word, carrying out his foul deeds coldly and seemingly without hesitation or remorse. Silently, he walked back to his home. Once inside, he put the shotgun on a table, pointing it at himself. With the help of a stick, Crampton pulled trigger one last time, ending his life. He was only thirty-six years old.

                Vale was only wounded and was rushed to a Clinton hospital, where doctors thought that he would survive his wounds. But things took a turn for the worse, and his condition quickly deteriorated. Vale succumbed a few days later.

                Malone is still there, just off U.S. 30, marked by a yawning hippo. But even though it may have reduced in size, the events of that August in 1929 still stain the memory of the quiet town.



A City Stands Still: The Death of William Bettendorf

Last week, I told the story of the Joseph Bettendorf mansion and how its history is forever intertwined with the history of the city of Bettendorf. This week, I’d like to share with you all the story of when the very same city came screeching to a halt – the day William Bettendorf died.

Early Inventions

                As I outlined in my blog, “The Joseph Bettendorf Mansion,” William was a prolific inventor.

In his early twenties, he had invented a new kind of mechanical plow that a farmer could raise and lower out of a field furrow at the press of a button. Later, he invented a more durable and longer-lasting wagon wheel. Both of these designs were copied throughout the agricultural industry.

Bettendorf Metal Wheel

After a disagreement with the company that he worked for in Peru, Illinois, William moved to Davenport, Iowa to open his own manufacturing company. He called it, appropriately enough, The Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company.

The firm was a tremendous success, and eventually William’s factory became the biggest in Davenport. Unfortunately, the factory burned down in 1902, leaving William looking for a place to build a new factory.

William Comes to Town

                Prior to the factory fire, William had received offers from the city of East Moline, Illinois, to relocate his base of operations there. After the fire, it seemed like the logical place to go.

However, C.A. Ficke, a former mayor of Davenport, had a suggestion.

Ficke owned a tract of land near the Mississippi River in the town of Gilbert. He approached William to see if the young businessman wouldn’t rather move to Gilbert and build his factory there instead. To sweeten the deal, Ficke told William that he could get Gilbert to pay for the whole thing, which amounted to about $15,000.

So one day, William attended a town meeting in Gilbert. He explained the situation to the assembled townsfolk, and made it clear that he would prefer to remain in Iowa rather than move back to Illinois. So, if they could raise the money, the Bettendorf Company would settle on Ficke’s land by the river.

After much effort, Gilbert gathered the necessary funds and William began to build his company there.  A short time later, the citizens of Gilbert renamed their town Bettendorf after the prominent businessman.

William wasted no time in developing the town. He put significant funds into businesses and building new houses. He also built a hotel to where travelling workers could stay until a house could be built for them. As the citizens had taken care of him, William took care of them in turn.

By 1905, business was booming for the Bettendorf Company. After the invention of the Bettendorf Truck, a newly-designed truck invented by William, business demands for it allowed William to focus solely on railroad car parts and stop manufacturing wagon pieces, including his famous metal wheel.

Bettendorf Truck

As business grew, the company grew with it, undergoing major expansions, including the construction of their own on-site foundry.

William’s personal life took an upturn, as well. A widower whose only two children had both died of diphtheria in 1894, he remarried a woman named Elizabeth Staby, who had one son of her own from a previous marriage.

With business doing so well, William determined to build himself a new home. This was going to be a showcase of his success, designed to entertain and enthrall visiting businessman and heads of industry. In 1909, construction of his home began.

William’s Mansion

                The Spanish-style mansion was constructed on the bluff overlooking not only the Mississippi River valley below it, but also his sprawling new company. It was 22 rooms, with some design innovations that William himself designed.

W.P. Bettendorf mansion

After spending a lifetime improving the durability of equipment in the agricultural and railroad industries, William turned his inventive mind toward his new mansion. In the attic, the concrete floor was poured over a foot thick to promote durability.

The entire house had electricity, fed by the power plant at the Bettendorf Company, as well as a built-in vacuuming system. Like his brother would later do, William had European craftsman come and install hand carved wood work throughout the home.

From a nearby home from which he could oversee the construction of the sprawling mansion, William and his wife began ordering Austrian furniture to fill their new residence. Life was truly grand for William and his new family. Unfortunately, things would not last.

Stomach Trouble

                In 1910, William and his family took a vacation to Lake Okoboji in Western Iowa. While there, he began to experience stomach problems. Being a robust and hard-working man, William shrugged it off and continued shopping and socializing. However, he soon began to experience severe stomach pains.

Lake Okoboji

Doctors were immediately called to come and examine him. William was initially diagnosed with ptomaine poisoning and prescribed bedrest until the symptoms subsided. For the next few days, William’s health improved. He was feeling better, and was probably ready to get back to work.

On the third day, William collapsed and his condition took a sudden and drastic turn for the worse.

Joseph, his younger brother, contacted a surgical specialist from Chicago, Dr. A.D. Bevan, to come and examine William. The doctor left immediately via train. Thanks to Joseph’s influence in the railroad industry, Bevan’s train was given the right away on the track from Chicago, allowing the doctor to arrive as quickly as possible.

Bevan was taken straight to William’s home, where they determined the inventor was suffering from a perforated bowel and needed surgery. The doctors also told William that the chances of him surviving the procedure were very low, about 100 to 1. He agreed to the operation anyway, and preparations were made.

Right before William was taken to the operating table he told his surgeons “Make sure the lights are all right before you operate.” Those would be William’s last words.  William never woke up again, passing away on the operating table on June 3, 1910.

A City in Mourning

                The funeral was held three days later, on June 6. The community was in shock. Several prominent businessman and politicians both publically and privately gave their personal condolences to the family. Joseph, in one of his first decisions as the new head of the Bettendorf Company, shut down the business for the entire day. Like his brother, he held the interests of his employees close to his own heart and made sure that they were paid for a day’s work regardless.

                A special funeral service was held outside the doors of the factory itself for the workers, and after the eulogy was given, hundreds people in attendance made a procession to the bungalow where William had lived while overseeing the construction of his mansion. There, they slowly made their way inside, where William’s body had been laid out for the occasion. The mass of people slowly made their way inside, paying their final respects to their lost benefactor, and then proceeding on through the back door.

Another funeral service was held at the home during the afternoon. Schools, businesses, and banks closed out of respect for William, as well as allowing the employees, teachers, and school children to attend. Even bars closed in honor of William’s memory.

After the funeral, William’s body was taken to Oakdale Cemetery and buried next to his first wife.

William was a great man who took his natural talents and used them to their fullest. He was a consummate inventor who fostered respect in his fellow man, from the lowliest worker in his employ to the towering giants of the railroad industry. He catered to all their needs, and tried to make the lives of so many safer and easier.

When he came to Bettendorf, William didn’t just invest in a town or put more money into a new company that bore his name. He invested in the very people themselves, and when he died, they stopped their lives and virtually everything going on in their town to come out and pay final respects for the man who had done so much.



The Joseph Bettendorf Mansion

               All places have history. What deems that particular history important is largely subjective, depending upon the person who is viewing it. Do they have a personal connection? Do they have a connection to the event that took place there? Any variety of factors can determine how interesting a place is to an individual.

                But there are some places so iconic, so representative of a part of history that they almost seem to represent the history of an entire city. One of these places is the Joseph Bettendorf mansion in Bettendorf, Iowa.

                A huge structure, the giant brick mansion that overlooks the Mississippi River is forever tied to the history of Bettendorf.

Inventor and Entrepreneur

                William Bettendorf showed a passion and talent for invention from an early age. By his early twenties, he had made his first profitable invention while working in Peru, Illinois. It was a kind of mechanically-controlled plow blade that a farmer could raise and lower with the press of a button.


                His next major invention was a new kind of metal wheel. At that time, the wires on standard wheels that helped to hold the wheel together were only welded at the surface of the wheel hub, making them more prone to breaking off. The more of these that broke off, the weaker the wheel would eventually become, until, finally, it was completely unusable.

                William determined that if the wheel hub had holes drilled into it, and the wire attached within, then the wheel would be less prone to breaking and would last longer. This new metal wheel was an incredible success.  After a disagreement with the company that then manufactured his inventions, William, who still had control of the patent, decided to strike out on his own.

                He moved to Davenport, Iowa, and founded the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company. His brother Joseph would join him later. In a few years, they would have the largest factory in the city. Unfortunately, two back to back fires in 1902 destroyed it and sent the brothers looking for a new home.

Bettendorf Axle Co. Cardx with text copy

New Home, New Invention

                By 1903, they had settled in the small town of Gilbert and had constructed a brand new factory there along the Mississippi River. It was during that time that William came up with his most successful invention, the Bettendorf Truck.

                A railroad truck gives a railroad car its mobility, guidance, and support. The Bettendorf Truck was constructed of one solid piece, giving it a rugged durability that the standard trucks of the day did not have. A standard railroad truck was made of several different pieces bolted together. If these bolts came undone, then the truck could fall apart and cause a train derailment, which would suck.

                Combined sales from the Bettendorf Truck and William’s other successful inventions sent William and Joseph to the very top of the manufacturing business. And as the business was generous to them, the brothers and their company were generous with the town.

                William personally invested in the new town, which had been renamed Bettendorf. Money was channeled into making improvements to local businesses. New homes were built to accommodate the growth in the town spurred on by people moving there to work at the new company.        

                The town loved William, and William loved the town right back.

                Just as it seemed that he had reached the pinnacle of his success, William died suddenly in 1910 of a perforated bowel. Almost the entire town closed down so that people could attend his funeral.

The Mansion

                Joseph, still in mourning for the loss of his beloved older brother, was left to run the company alone. He was already second-in-command of the business and had personal input to William as to its growth and development, so Joseph was more than up to the challenge.

                While continuing to lead the company, Joseph decided that he needed a symbol to represent the success of the company. He needed a home where he could entertain some of the most important business and railroad men in the country and they would walk away impressed, which was no small feat.

                Joseph immediately hired renowned local architect Arthur Ehrling to build and design his new mansion. It was to be constructed on the river bluff overlooking both the company and the town on seventeen acres of prime country land.

                As a showcase designed to impress the heads of industry and business, Joseph wanted much of his home and surrounding grounds to be lavish and beautiful.  As Ehrling built, Joseph kept a very close eye on the process and made changes where he thought was necessary.

                During the time it was being built, there was a lull in the amount of railroad truck orders that were coming into the factory. Like his brother, Joseph was also fond of his workers and tried to look out for their best interests. So, instead of laying them off work while there was a drop in truck orders, Joseph brought them to the new mansion instead.

                There, his factory workers ran the electrical wiring, installed the plumbing, and laid the bricks that made up the exterior of the mansion. In this way, Joseph ensured that his employees kept collecting a regular paycheck.

                Joseph brought in European craftsman to make intricate, hand carved woodwork throughout the mansion, and furniture was also custom crafted by artisans for the various rooms of the home.

                When all was completed, a three-story, twenty-eight room mansion stood on acres of landscaped lawns and gardens. IMG_1369

                Visitors would come to mansion from the base of hill and up a road that would wind up the hill, around a large circle, and to the front of the home. They would step inside to a grand entryway, with a beautiful ceiling and Italianate marble floors.  

IMG_8326 (2)


A grand staircase took visitors from the main floor all the way to the third floor. The staircase was truly representative of the craftsman’s work on the home.



                On the third floor was a grand ballroom for entertaining guests.

IMG_8347 (2)

 Joseph lived in the home until his death in 1932. His wife continued to live there until her death and their son Bill after her. He sold the mansion to a seminary in the 1950’s. Later the mansion was sold to St. Katherine’s/St. Mark’s, a private college preparatory school, later renamed Rivermont Collegiate.

                Once the Bettendorf brothers moved their factory to Gilbert, the growth of the town, and even the name, became almost synonymous with the city. The mansion, with so much of it built by local hands, represented the growth and success of the Bettendorf Company. But more than that, it also represented the success of the growing town that it overlooked.



The Final Word: The Clinton County Feud Over a Courthouse – and a Bell

              Have you ever been on the losing side of an argument? Not just any argument, but one that you felt so strongly about that no matter how things turned out, you still felt that you were right? It sucks. Most of us have probably been there, but even though you don’t like it, you concede and move on with your life.

                But you always want to get the last word in. You want to have that one last parting shot to the gut that the winner remembers more than the win. And the more memorable you can make it, the better.

                So what happens when an argument isn’t just between individuals, but entire towns?  

The Early Years

               Courthouses are really an iconic structure in our society. They represent justice, and give the hope that it will be served when the time is right. But to the pioneers of Clinton County, a courthouse meant even more.  

                 In the very early days, there wasn’t much to Clinton County. Early settlement in the region was heaviest along the Mississippi River, so when the county was formed in 1840, the initial site chosen to be the center of government was Comanche. As more people migrated in, government, by both demand and necessity, had to grow more complex in order to deal with new challenges and changes. One of these was to have a place to conduct formal legal business that ran the full spectrum of the law, from criminal cases to real estate. It became, in essence, the legal centerpiece for the county.

                In the winter of 1841, the first county commissioners met decided to move the center of government, or county seat, from its location in Comanche. The town chosen would be where the courthouse would be built. Eventually they chose DeWitt, toward the middle of the county. They did this so that all of the people that would have to travel to the courthouse for their business were travelling toward a centrally located town.

Clinton County Map

                Being the county seat was a big deal for pioneer counties. Your town would have the prestige of being the county seat, which would make the name of your town known through the county. But people also had a reason to go there. Travel by horse was slow, so overnight stays would be common, especially if your legal proceedings had to take more than a day.

                Hotels could be built to accommodate travelers, and maybe give them something to eat. Stables could charge to keep your horses for however long. And so, an entire commercial enterprise can start to build out of being the county seat. Plus, you get the added bonus of them going back home and telling others about how wonderful a place you have. Word spreads and maybe, just maybe, other people start moving to your town. As the population grows again, other opportunities and business arise, and your town really becomes something.

                By Summer of 1841, the first Clinton County Courthouse was built. It was a log structure, about twenty feet wide and a little over thirty feet long, consisting of two rooms and an attic. One room served as a courtroom, and the other a room for the jury. In the very early days of Clinton County, the members of the court would sleep in the attic, cook their food outside the building, and then eat in the courtroom. Later, the courtroom was moved to the attic space. Business offices for different county officials were also placed here.

                Rough as it may have been, the log courthouse served its purpose well for about five years. As the county grew, so did legal business, and in 1846 a new, wood frame courthouse was built. This newer building would serve the county for nearly a decade.

                In 1854, a new, grander courthouse was built. Their idea was to build it to rival the courthouse in nearby Scott County. A brand new bell was paid for by five citizens of DeWitt and hung in the belfry. A year later, a jail was built directly behind this new building. Although it was to serve the county well for the next several years, trouble was starting to stir by the mid 1860’s.   

1854 Clinton County Courthouse

Opening Arguments

               By the 1860’s, the lumber industry had begun to flourish in the cities of Clinton and Lyons, and both had subsequently experienced a boom in both population and fiscal growth. With all of the new business being conducted in that area, there became an increased need for legal advice and proceedings. The problem was that they had to travel to DeWitt in order to get anything done.

                When the county seat was re-located to Dewitt in the 1840’s, the idea was to put the courthouse in the centrally-located town so that everyone in the county had about an equal distance to travel. Over twenty years later, the majority of the business of Clinton County was now taking place on the very eastern edge.

                So, in 1866, a movement was started to move the county seat to either Clinton or Lyons. For their part, the people of those cites didn’t mean to do any personal harm to DeWitt, they just thought it made better business sense to move the courthouse to where most of the business was being conducted, which just happened to be in their backyard.

                For DeWitt, it was a matter of business as well. They didn’t want the courthouse moved because it would hurt them in both terms of prestige, as being the county seat, but also in financial terms. Everyone who came to the courthouse for their business would need different services, such as a rented room to stay in. If they no longer had a reason to come to town, then the businesses that had grown up around the courthouse would suffer, or maybe even close. This, in turn, would hurt the city itself.


                 For the next few years, DeWitt and Clinton would argue the point back and forth, but nothing much came of it. Instead, the major fighting came between Clinton and Lyons. Both cities wanted the courthouse, and they argued aggressively back and forth for it, neither side wanting to give the other any ground or advantage.

                 Finally, in 1869, the two cities decided to join forces in order to take the county seat. A meeting was held that decided a new courthouse would be built in North Clinton, with compromises and improvements made that would benefit both cities. After all was agreed upon, steps were almost immediately taken to move the county seat.

                 After submissions and votes by the Clinton County Board of Supervisors, a majority of the electors of the county voted on the issue once and for all later that year. Things were finally coming to a close.

                 Unfortunately for DeWitt, Clinton won the day. DeWitt claimed that voters in southwestern Clinton County were told that if they voted for the move, then a new county would be formed with Wheatland as the county seat. But it didn’t matter now. The courthouse would be moved.

One Final Insult

                After the decision was made final, Clinton constructed a brand new wood-frame courthouse, complete with a belfry in which to hang the courthouse bell. The problem was that the bell was still in DeWitt, hanging in what was already the old county courthouse. So, Clinton demanded that the city of DeWitt send it to them straight away.  

                At that time, the sheriff of Clinton County was a man named Robert Hagle. He had found out that some people from Clinton were going to come to DeWitt and take the bell. Hagle quickly sent news to some of his friends about this, who just happened to be on the DeWitt side of the argument. While the idea of the bell being moved to Clinton probably upset a lot of people, some, like these friends of Sheriff Hagle, were absolutely livid. DeWitt had bought and paid for that bell, not Clinton. They had no right to it. For them, it was the final straw.

Midnight Service

                The day before the bell was to be collected, some of these friends took some tools and went to the belfry of the DeWitt courthouse early in the morning. Taking some old rags, they carefully wrapped up the bell clapper and any other moving parts of the bell. They also oiled the bolts and other parts. Satisfied that the bell wouldn’t make any sound, they came down again and went back to their homes.

                Later that same night, the men gathered again at midnight. They had a few drinks, and then crept back to the courthouse.

                As quietly as they could, they sawed a hole in the ceiling of the main courtroom about four feet by four feet, than set up a block and tackle. Then, taking their tools, they undid the bolts that held the old bell in place, and silently lowered it down from the belfry. Carefully, they carried the bell downstairs, and then out of the building and into a waiting delivery wagon.

                The men drove through the night to an old cemetery, where a body had recently been removed from its grave to be reburied at Elmwood Cemetery on the north side of DeWitt. Because of this, the dirt of the grave had already been recently disturbed, so no visitors to the graveyard would see anything out of the ordinary and ask unwanted questions.

                Taking shovels, the conspirators set about digging out the grave once again. Once their task was complete, they lowered their precious bell into the ground, and refilled the grave. It looked exactly as it had before, with no one any the wiser as to the location of the bell. The men then swore each other to secrecy, promising that they wouldn’t divulge the location of the bell until the town needed it once again.

An Unexpected Return

                Clinton never did claim the old courthouse bell from DeWitt. For several years, the bell lay in its earthen tomb, its location only known to a few. Finally, when the Lutheran Church was built on 5th Avenue and 10th Street, the old conspirators decided that the bell’s time had come once again. Gathering for a final time, they dug up the bell and left it at the church, leaving many to wonder where it had come from and where it had been all that time.


                And so it was that Clinton never did claim their prize, and DeWitt ended up getting the final word in their feud. 

               Today, not a lot of people even remember the argument over the courthouse and the bell. The towns have changed drastically since those long ago days. The grand courthouse in DeWitt is gone now, and a majestic building built of red sandstone near downtown Clinton has served as the courthouse for decades now.

                But the bell is still there, chiming its cold, clear tone, echoing to anyone within earshot that as far as it’s concerned, DeWitt still had the last word in that forgotten feud.



Sitting in With the Iowa Lincoln Highway Association

                This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the quarterly meeting of the Iowa Lincoln Highway Association. As some of you who follow my blog know, I’ve written some about the Lincoln Highway in the past, mostly about a stretch of road that passes through Clinton County, Iowa. This length of road includes three bridges, two of which are now closed to through traffic due to severe structural issues.

But this isn’t about the bridges necessarily. This is about the people who want to preserve those bridges and the memory of the Lincoln Highway.


                For those of you who may not know, the Lincoln Highway was a concept born from the mind of Carl Fisher, who was the inventor and developer of the Indianapolis 500. Way back in 1912, Fisher came up with the idea of a dependable road that ran all the way across the United States.

                As he developed the project and strived to finish it, Fisher and his supporters overcame several emergent situations and issues to eventually establish the first transcontinental road across the U.S., running from San Francisco all the way to New York City. They also pioneered the Lincoln Highway as one of the first concrete paved roads, making it much more reliable than the standard dirt and gravel roads of the day.

                Unfortunately, the United States government decided to do away with the named highways by the late 1920’s, replacing them with the numbered system that we all know and love today. But, partially due to the tremendous amount of publicity that the Lincoln Highway received over the years, the memory of that road lived on in the minds of many Americans, lasting even into the modern day.

                The Lincoln Highway Association

     The original association dates back to 1913, and was an organization that oversaw the planning, care, and development of the Lincoln Highway. Each individual county along the route through various states had its own consuls to oversee the affairs of that particular stretch of the road. After the numbered highway system was introduced, the association closed its doors and ceased activity by 1931.

     In 1992, a group of concerned individuals across the county who were dedicated to the preservation of the route’s history, banded together and reformed the Lincoln Highway Association. They did not want this important part in the history of United States transportation to disappear altogether, and they have worked hard to preserve it ever since.  

     And that brings us back to this past weekend.

The Meeting

     Through some of my writings about the Lincoln Highway, I was introduced to Cathie Nichols, the head of the Lincoln Highway Association in Clinton County, Iowa. She liked my work, and shared it with the rest of the Iowa clan. We communicated back and forth, and Cathie, nice lady that she is, invited me to the quarterly meeting in DeWitt this past weekend. I readily agreed and put it down on my schedule.

     After several weeks, the day finally came and up the road I went.

     Now, I’ve been to several meetings like this over the years, so I had a little bit of an idea of what to expect. That being said, I’m still nervous when I walk into those things. I suppose it’s some kind hold over from junior high school, where you always have that fear of rejection or being made to feel unwelcome. Setting doubts and fears aside, I mustered my courage and stepped into the room.

     I am very pleased to say that my fears were unfounded. The group was very friendly and welcoming. There was another guest, a man from West Des Moines, who was very happy to sit and talk with me, sharing his knowledge of the highway with me, which, I have to admit, was a lot greater than my own.

     As a matter of fact, everyone there had a greater knowledge of the Lincoln Highway than I did. I mean, you go to this kind of thing expecting that, and I was glad for it. But when you’ve written about their subject matter, and, worse yet, had it published, it’s a little intimidating to have it right there in front of them for their review and subsequent criticisms. Because, make no mistake, these guys are the experts.

     Several counties across the state were represented there, and it became readily apparent that, like their predecessors during the early 20th century, these folks have their finger on everything that happens on that road. They know the trouble spots, and they know the strong points.

     Over the years, the route of the Lincoln Highway shifted for various reasons. It may only be a street over as it passes through a town, or it may be a mile or two north or south. No matter, because these folks have abundant knowledge of all these routes. They’ve even made some really neat maps to show them as they cross through the state, which the association was very happy to share with me. Once again, these folks are the experts.

Road Trip!

     I suppose that anything that has to do with a historic highway has to involve a road trip somewhere. After the meeting was over, we took a short lunch break before meeting back at the DeWitt Community Center. It was time to cruise.

     First, we went about five miles west to the town of Grand Mound. It’s a small town, clean and quiet. It is also home to the last wood-frame fire station in the state of Iowa.


     We all swarmed into the medium-sized building like locusts, asking questions of our gracious hosts and snapping a lot of pictures. They were very indulgent of us, and a good time was had by all.

     Next, it was back in the car and heading west again, this time out to see the endangered bridge. Just past the Wapsi Oaks Golf Course, we turned down a gravel road that leads to what was once the highway. Remember how I said that the road has changed and shifted over the years? This is a prime example.

     We drove down the gravel then turned left again onto that old road. One of my strongest memories of being on it all those years ago was how narrow it was. It’s hard to imagine two modern semis passing each other at seventy miles an hour or better like on modern roadways. Our convoy drove until we reached the troubled span, which is now blocked off for through traffic, then turned off one last time into a boat ramp area.

     I grew up in woods a lot like the ones that surrounded that graveled parking area, so for me it was a little bit like coming home again. It was a beautiful day that day – sunny and seventy – and it made for some truly great picture taking. I got some great shots of the Wapsipinicon River and the bridge.


     Once we all got out and stretched our legs a bit, we gathered together and talked about the bridge, then walked down a steep embankment just to the south of it. Cathie and her husband had been kind enough to clear a path for us, and we were able to go back to see something that I didn’t ever think I would get excited about – some of the original concrete of the original stretch of the Lincoln Highway.

     I never thought I’d really get into it because, well, it’s a concrete roadway buried in undergrowth. But when I got back there, and I was standing on it, my opinion changed. It was like standing on an old Roman road, forgotten to the passage of time, an archaeological gem hidden just off the beaten path. That old concrete showed through just enough in spots to tease the wary viewer of its existence.

     When you looked down the stretch to the east, you could even see the curve of the road as it wound its way further through the woods. It was neat to imagine old Model A’s and Packard’s rolling down that stretch of concrete toward whatever destination they intended.


Home Again

     After we came out of the woods, we met at the bridge one last time before saying our goodbyes and heading off. As I drove out, trying to avoid a gigantic mud puddle, I was glad that I came.

     I felt like I spent the day learning a lot of good information from some honest people who are passionate about Iowa’s – and the nations – transportation past. But more importantly, they don’t just stay on the road. They reach into the surrounding countryside and towns and take careful note of what’s happening there and sights to see, both historic and otherwise. It’s important to them to preserve these things so that future generations can still see them.

     It was a good day. I met some new people and made some new friends. They made me feel welcome, told me some great stories, and showed me some really cool stuff. If they ever invited me back out on another road trip, I’d probably go, and that’s saying a lot for an anti-social introvert.

     So, if you’re ever in the area of one of their meetings, or one of their various historic Lincoln Highway sites, drop on in and say hello. I have no doubt you’ll get the same superb treatment as I did, and get to share in the sites and stories. Until then, we’ll see you on down the highway.