Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Windows on the square

The return this week of three windows to the second level of the south half of Betty Hansen's east-side Iowa Realty building may seem like a minor milestone, but these tall glazed panels are another sign that something pretty exciting is happening on the square.

Betty's double-front building is one of three that are part of an upper-level housing initiative financed in large part through CDBG funds that will bring 10 more up-to-date and affordable apartments into the Main Street District this fall. Construction has been in progress for much of the year upstairs at the Iowa Realty building (four apartments), the Piper's Grocery building just across the intersection (2 apartments) and the Demichelis --- built as Smyth --- building on the northwest corner of the square (4 apartments).

Part of that project involves reopening windows blinded many years ago upstairs at the Iowa Realty and Demichelis buildings (most of the windows at Piper's remained open) and ensuring that the glazing that will allow light to flood into the new apartments is historically appropriate.

Wait another year, when the construction phase of the Main Street District's facade improvement project begins, and more blinded windows will open elsewhere in Chariton's business district.

You'll have an opportunity to visit some of the apartments in progress, a completed and occupied apartment in the Hotel Charitone and other upper-level spaces with potential during an Upper Story Housing Tour from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. this Saturday, Oct. 4. More details later, but $5 tickets are available now at the Chariton Area Chamber/Main Street office and will be available on the day of the tour, too. Proceeds will help fund the work of the Chamber/Main Street Design Division.

Be warned --- visitors will have to climb stairs to reach many of these upper-level spaces --- so the tour won't work for everyone.

The move to block upper-level windows and put the spaces behind them into mothballs began perhaps 40 years ago. Until then, these areas had been filled with apartments and professional offices. Then, the Southgate and Autumn Park senior housing apartment buildings as well as the East Ilion, Woodlawn and other affordable housing complexes were built and many of the upstairs tenants moved out. Professional offices increasingly were relocated to street level to accommodate clients.

The current upper-level housing initiative and other future projects are aimed at reclaiming these spaces and returning them to use.

Here's how the Iowa Realty Building looked a couple of years ago with all of its upper level windows blinded. The leaning tower of lightpole has now been straightened, too. And the shingled arcade at street level of the Iowa Realty building is expected to vanish, too, as work on this building continues.

And here's how the same area looked near the turn of the century. What now appears to be one double-front building actually consists of the 1879 Gibbon Drug Store building and the north half of the 1880 Mallory & Law Block. Sadly, the cast metal cornices on both buildings have been lost.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Roads less traveled: Olmitz Hill & beyond

This was going to be entitled "Woodland Hike," or something like that --- until we had so much trouble getting up Olmitz Hill on Facebook yesterday. That's a view above looking down Olmitz Hill to the North Cedar Creek crossing at its base. The road forks beyond the bridge. Turn right and you'll be driving through the site of the coal mining ghost town of Olmitz in the Cedar Creek valley; turn left, and you'll pass the site of the main shaft of the Olmitz mine. Neither is evident these days, although there is a small monument to the village at a curve in the right-forking road some distance to the east.

Olmitz Hill is called that because of its proximity to the ghost village and the former mine --- I was a little surprised that more people didn't know that. It is legendary in the neighborhood because of its steepness. Back in the old days --- when Henry Ford favored gravity feed --- if you approached Olmitz Hill from the north in your Model-T it was entirely possible that its engine would sputter and die half way up, you'd end up coasting backwards down the hill, turning around and backing up and over.

I've cobbled together this map to show the general locations of the aforementioned --- as well as the site of one of my favorite October timber hikes, where I was headed in the first place.

As you can see in the photos below, taken from about three-quarters of the way up, Olmitz Hill is indeed --- for Iowa --- steep. Not quite in the switch-back category, but getting there.

In order to get to Olmitz Hill, and the woodland hike site, from Chariton, just drive east out of town on on County Road H32, also known as the Squirrel Road or the Road to Nowhere, about seven miles. I would under some circumstances say, turn north (left) then at the Dickerville corner, but that would just confuse the issue since Dickerville School is long gone. I believe the road you want to turn left on (the first road headed north west of Bethel Church and Cemetery) is now called 300th Trail.

Just follow its twists and turns and you'll come to this nest of signs at the southern edge of the Cedar Creek Unit of Stephens State Forest --- here, the DNR has installed most of its signage arsenal.

The next mile or so, driving through woodland until you reach the bottom of Olmitz Hill, is one of the loveliest short fall drives in the county. About midway along, watch for this turn-off to the west (left). It is not marked in any way, other than this sign posted by Lucas County to let you know that the supervisors are no longer responsbile in any way for what happens to you if you drive down it.

But there's nothing to fear, other than a couple of ruts. The gravel surface continues to a well-maintained turn-around parking area in the edge of the woods and a rather decisive looking barricade. Once upon a time, the road rambled on, descended a hill and crossed Cedar Creek. The bridge is gone now, but you can still hike the roadbed. Sometimes, state forest crews blade the surface --- but not recently. 

I wouldn't advise taking this walk right now --- there are too many horse-sized mosquitoes. But after a hard frost or two and when more of the leaves turn, it's a lovely and placid place. I'll go back in mid-October.

If you'd like to see what the area looks like during late October, follow this link.

And if you're interested in reading more about Olmitz, go here.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Prairie (or Downy) Gentian

26 September 2014, prairie remnant east of Derby.

Gentiana puberulenta. Dimunitive (under 20-inch) plant with shiny, smooth, pointed, opposite leaves. Deeply cup-shaped "gentian blue" flowers cluster at the top of the plants, each with five points alternating with fringed segments.

These are among the last of the prairie flowers to appear in the fall, often surviving hard frosts. Somewhat rare in Lucas County. Look in shorter-grass areas of mesic to dry upland prairie remnants, occasionally in open savannas. Attune your eyes to blue, keep them open and look down.

Roads less traveled: Williamson Pond

Lucas County has such an abundance of public reserves and recreation areas that it's hard to keep track sometimes. I'm thinking I'll visit a few this fall as the leaves turn, so follow along --- even though the colors are not as pretty now as they will be in a few days.

Williamson Pond, although somewhat obscure now, actually is one of our oldest public areas --- built and owned for many years by the Rock Island railroad, then transferred to what now is the Iowa Department of Natural Resources but maintained and managed by the Lucas County Conservation Board. This is a 126-acre reserve with 30 acres of water surrounded by mixed woodland (many oak and walnut) at the head of English Creek two miles east of Williamson.

More properly called a "reservoir" than "pond," the dam was built during 1912 as the north-south Rock Island line (now Union Pacific) was under construction to supply water to refresh steam locomotives from a tower at what then was Gunwald, soon thereafter Williamson --- a wide spot in the road that developed into a major mining center as the coal fields of northeast Lucas County were opened. The legendary Olmitz and Tipperary mines, as well as later mines to the west and north, were nearby. And so was my mother's family, on the first farm west of the new reservoir. 

Bodies of water this size were rare at the time --- only the C.B.&Q. reservoir on Chariton's west edge rivaled it --- so the Gunwald/Williamson reservoir immediately became a destination for picnics, family reunions, camping expeditions, outdoor worship services, even baptisms.

The pump house was located on the southwest shore of the reservoir, connected to the track-side tower in Williamson by a pipeline, partly elevated near the reservoir, then underground. When my mother was a girl, a full-time railroad employee walked out every morning from Williamson to maintain the equipment, pump water to the tower upon demand --- and fish. He would cross the dam, then use a footbridge across the sluice to reach the path leading to the pump house, then retrace his steps in the evening to  walk home, often with a line of fish distributed sometimes to the Miller, Carson, Cain and other farmsteads along the way. Mother remembered names; I don't.

Today, the most frequently used entrance is a narrow lane off County Road H-20 as it curves down into the valley below the dam (obscured by timber). That leads up to the dam and a newer concrete boat ramp.

Williamson Pond is used mostly to fish these days --- and the fishing reportedly is good. There are no amenities, however, other than the ramp. The woods north and northeast of the resesrvoir are pretty, however, and open to hiking. While it is possible to drive out or walk across the dam to a small island-in-the-sky area near the south shore, the footbridge across the sluice disappeared long ago, so there is no easy access to the southwest shoe.

If you wander around on gravel roads south of the reservoir and have sharp eyes, you'll find a second entrance to the Williamson Pond reserve, a lane twisting through woodland to what once was a more developed picnic and camping area on a point overlooking the lake from the southeast --- very pleasant, but overgrown now; picnic tables a thing of the past.

Curiously enough, had the neighborhood --- then somewhat more populated --- not arisen to protest during the late 1960s, Williamson Pond might today be a substantially busier place.

During 1968-69, the Iowa Bureau of Children's and Family Services and the state Department of Conservation proposed the southeast area of the Williamson Pond reserve as site for the Columbia Forest Camp --- an innovative plan to house and train up to 50 young people age 16-18 in the care of Children's and Family Services.

"Camp" to the contrary, this was to be a creatively designed cluster of permanent structures where the young people would be housed while working outdoors and learning skills related to construction and conservation projects in nearby state forests and other public lands. The Legislature had authorized it, $460,000 had been allocated to pay for it and plans were in hand.

But the Williamson Pond neighbors arose in horror at the thought of all those unrestrained young people (there were to be no barred windows or chain-link fences topped by barbed wire), protesting first at a public meeting at the Williamson School during October of 1969, then submitting a petition bearing 475 signatures against the project later in the fall --- and threatening lawsuits thereafter.

State officials decided not long after that public money could be better spent elsewhere, the plan was dropped and Williamson Pond settled into the pleasant obscurity that it still enjoys.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Prairie gentians

Prairie Gentians

The Prairie Gentians are beginning to open now, bright blue among vegetation turned increasingly to brown. Also called Downy Gentians (Gentiana puberulenta), these are among the last of the prairie flowers to bloom as the seasons shift into autumn and toward winter.

Bottle Gentians

Along with their sisters, Closed or Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii), they're hardy --- and likely to survive earlier frosts.

I found the Prairie Gentians Friday alongside the Cinder Path, growing on a west-facing slope east of the trail, opposite Bottle Gentians on the east-facing slope across the way. There aren't many of them, so attune your eyes to blue and look carefully.

It's overcast here this morning, but the forecast is for sunshine and summer-like temperatures. So take a walk (if you can)!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Merely another morning at Pin Oak Marsh

Subtitled, "Honor flights of Monarchs and Red-wing Blackbirds assembled with sunflower flags flying."

Cemetery Tour 4: O.A. Clark and family

Brad Krutsinger portrays Orliff A. Clark.

The Orliff A. Clark family lot was the final and final stop on last Sunday's 11th annual Chariton Cemetery Heritage Tour. O.A. Clark owned the Hotel Charitone for 40 years, from 1931 until 1971, and his son, Jack, leased and managed it for many of those years. Brad Krutsinger portrayed Clark and introduced several members of the Clark family during his presentation. Here's the script upon which his portrayal was based:


Friends, it’s good to have guests again. I spent my life in the hospitality business --- including 40 years as owner of the Hotel Charitone --- and I’ve missed it; it’s too quiet out here sometimes.

The name on the tombstone is Orliff A. Clark, but few called me that. I was known in business as O.A. Clark and to my friends as “Ora,” so you may call me that. Nearly the whole family is here --- even though only son Jack lived in Chariton and none of us died here. We came home to Lucas County from Ottumwa, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, New York City and Texas because we loved the place and each other. I’ll tell you a little about myself now, then introduce the rest of the family later.

I was born during 1893 in Missouri and grew up in Clarinda, where my family operated a hotel, so hospitality ran in the family. I married Sylvesta Holiday, buried here beside me, during 1913 in Maryville, Missouri, and we had four children, Jack, Catherine, Ford and George.

When William Junkin and Henry McCollough put the Charitone on the market in 1930 (they built it in 1923), Sylvesta and I already owned the Clark Hotel in Albia and the Leggett in Fairfield, where we lived, and a share of my brother Ben’s Leeper Hotel in Chillicothe, Missouri.

We bought the furniture and fixtures of the Charitone for $25,000, took a lease on the building that began March 1, 1931, and paid Junkin & McCollough $750 a month for 10 years after that. When that lease expired, we bought the building outright in 1941.

One of my first moves after leasing the Charitone was to order a big neon-lighted Hotel Charitone sign for the building’s southwest corner --- so you can imagine how pleased I was last December when the restored near-identical sign that replaced it in the 1950s was relighted.

We acquired the Hotel Ballingall in Ottumwa during 1934 and moved the family there from Fairfield and it became the flagship of the Clark Hotels chain. But I was often in Chariton --- supervising, playing golf and visiting. So when Sylvesta died on Jan. 1, 1950, we decided to bury her here. Our son Jack was operating the Charitone at the time, so was nearby.

I lived a long life and died in 1988 in Austin, Texas, at age 96, but came home to Chariton for burial with Sylvesta and my second wife, Elizabeth --- who died in 1966 --- and the rest of the family, who I’ll introduce now.

JACK WAS our eldest, born in 1916 in Clarinda and raised in Albia and Fairfield. He was at loose ends in 1937 after graduating from the University of Iowa, so I named him manager of the Charitone. He was handsome and athletic, a gifted musician and a fine artist --- and made many friends in Chariton, but was not ready to settle down. So during the fall of 1939, he enrolled at Cornell University in Ithica, New York, to study hotel management; then remained on the East Coast to study art in New York City and elsewhere until World War II broke out.

In 1942, Jack enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was trained as a communications specialist before being deployed to the Pacific where he served aboard ships, in Hawaii and on Tarawa and Eniwetok atolls before his honorable discharge during March of 1946 as lieutenant, senior grade. 

I convinced Jack to return to Iowa, the family business and to the Charitone --- but I’m not sure he really wanted to. Nonetheless, he purchased the furniture and fixtures in July of 1946, leased the building and operated the hotel for nearly 20 years. And business boomed. Up to 10,000 guests at year signed the Charitone registers in those first years after the war.

Jack became a community leader, first elected president of the Chamber of Commerce during December of 1946. For years, he chaired Lucas County savings bond campaigns. He was a charter member of the Aeolian Singers, organized in 1953, and became an accomplished painter, specializing in portraiture. He also taught art and art appreciation across southern Iowa.

Jack was gay, made no particular secret of it and that didn’t seem to make much difference to the people of Chariton. But I think now that he might have been happier in a bigger city. Complications in his personal life plus the pressing need to make big changes in how the hotel operated resulted in his 1965 decision to move on. I purchased the furniture and fixtures 19 years after Jack had bought them and operated the Charitone myself until 1971 with Maxine Poush as manager until I sold out to Don Kingsbury and Mahlon Laing in 1971. 

Jack moved to the Chicago area, then to Fairfield --- where he taught art in the public schools --- and finally to Iowa City where he was enrolled in graduate courses when he died at age 61 during 1977 and came home to Chariton.

CATHERINE, born in 1919 and always known as Kay, was our second child. She graduated from Ottumwa High School and enrolled at Barnard College in New York City during 1940, just after Jack had moved to the East Coast. While she never lived in Chariton, she was a frequent visitor here, staying before and after her marriage with Jack at the Charitone.

In New York City, she met William L. Murphy, whose father William K. Murphy had invented the famous Murphy folding bed about 1900 in California, then moved operations to New York in 1925. They were married in Ottumwa, but settled in New York and then on Long Island where he led the Murphy Bed Co., still in business on Long Island, until his death during 1983. His remains were brought to Chariton for burial, Kay took more responsibility in the business, then retired and moved to Texas. She died there during 2005 and came home to Chariton, too.

AND HERE IS FORD, born in 1931 and our third child, also a graduate of Ottumwa High School and the University of Iowa. When he died in 1980 at age 48, leaving a wife and children behind, he was a reporter and columnist for The Cedar Rapids Gazette and his accounts of his struggle with cancer were widely acclaimed. He also had worked as a reporter and editor for Iowa Public Radio. A gifted writer, Ford also wrote two novels that were popular in their time.

AND THAT’S THE FAMILY. Think of us the next time you have a meal or a drink at the Charitone Market Grille. We shared many happy occasions in that old building.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Familiar threads in Swander's "Map of My Kingdom"

So many familiar threads were woven into Mary Swander's play, "Map of My Kingdom," performed last evening at the C.B.&Q. Freight House by Madeleine Russell as season-opener for the Vredenburg Performing Arts series. That's Swander, poet, author and playwright, above; and Russell at left.

One of the friends I attended with, for example, resettled some years ago with others on farms west of Corydon in Wayne County, refugees from the East Coast after a family farm there co-owned by siblings had to be sold so that assets could be divided. Family members who loved the land and wished to continue to farm couldn't even begin to afford more land nearby because of proximity to a major city. And so they moved half way across the country to southern Iowa, where affordable land was available. That story has a happy ending --- they are happy here. But the Pennsylvania land, less happily, now is covered by urban sprawl.

There were tragic threads, too. I'm sure many of us recognized the factual basis for a fictionalized thread turned by Swander into a fatal land dispute between brothers. The real-life basis for this element of the play happened just up the road near Milo during 2003 when Rodney Heemstra gunned down his neighbor, Tom Lyon, a competitor for a small patch of pasture, then threw Lyon's body into an abandoned cistern and covered it with straw. That land dispute claimed a life, shattered families and divided a rural community, leaving scars that in some cases will be evident for generations.

Practical Farmers of Iowa commissioned the beautifully crafted Swander play to draw attention to the potential conflicts that can develop where careful planning is absent when it becomes necessary to pass land-based "kingdoms" --- in this case family farms --- from one generation to another. Up to 56 percent of Iowa landowners are over the age of 65, so a huge shift in land ownership will occur during the next 20 years; and the fear is that much of it will pass from hands of owner-farmers.

Russell was amazing as the principal character, a professional land dispute mediator who wove stories from her own fictional family together with those of "clients," shifting easily from time to time into other characters by modifying inflection and costume. She easily carried a full hour packed solidly with coversational dialogue without hesitation or stumble --- how do actors remember all of those lines?

The warm and rustic wooden walls and subdued lighting of the Freight House provided the perfect setting for the intimate in-the-round production. We were seated with the Lutheran contingent, uncharacteristically occupying front "pews," just a foot or two from Russell as she performed. That was wonderful.

After the performance, Swander led 15 or 20 minutes of discussion --- asking those in the audience to reflect a little on their experiences --- before we headed for cookies, coffee and more conversation.

If you have an opportunity to attend a performance of "Map of My Kindom," for heaven's sake, do it. Upcoming will be performances at 2 p.m. this Sunday at the Wilson Performing Arts Center in Red Oak and at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 14, at Grinnell College. And thanks to the Vredenburg series and the Lucas County Arts Council for bringing the production to Chariton --- and to the Freight House.

The other friend I was with last night likes to tell non-Iowans that her home state is just a small town between two rivers, since some sort of connection always seems to turn up. Gayle Bortz was seated just to my right last night. As it turns out, she is Mary Swander's cousin. There ya go ....

Jill Kerns, who serves on the Vredenburg series selections committee, visits with Madeleine Russell after Thursday evening's performance.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

"Map of My Kingdom" comes to Chariton

I've met Mary Swander, author, playwright and Iowa poet laureate, only through her books --- starting with "Out of This World: A Journey of Healing," grounded in her life in the midst of Kalona's Amish community. "Parsnips in the Snow" (co-authored with Jane Anne Staw) is around here somewhere, too. Then there's "Land of the Fragile Giants," a collaborative project focused on western Iowa's Loess Hills.

The exciting news is that Swander, also distinguished professor of English at Iowa State University, will bring her new play --- "Map of My Kingdom" --- to Chariton tonight. The performance begins at 7 p.m. at the historic C.B.&Q. Freight House as the first event in this season's Vredenburg Performing Arts Series, sponsored by the Vredenburg Foundation and administered by the Lucas County Arts Council. Tickets at the door will be priced at $15, but season tickets to the Vredenburg series also will be available for $40. The play premiered during July in Hickory Grove Meeting House at Scattergood Friends School.

The performance has been moved from the usual Vredenburg venue --- Johnson Auditorium --- to the Freight House because of its more intimate setting, and also to facilitate the group discussion that will follow. The play will be performed by Madeleine Russell and is directed by Matt Foss.

Practical Farmers of Iowa commissioned the play to support the arts in Iowa, of course, but principally to draw attention to the looming and inevitable transfer in ownership of a huge percentage of Iowa farmland that will occur within the next decade or so.

Practical Farmers, organized in 1985 and headquartered in Ames, describes its mission as, "strengthening farms and communities through farmer-led investigation and information sharing." In this case, the organization has focused on the information that roughly 56 percent of Iowa's farmland currently is owned by people over 65 years of age; 30 percent by people over 75.

Because of that concentrated ownership, death is poised perhaps more than ever before in Iowa history to trigger enormous changes in the state's economic, cultural and social fabric. The situation is complicated by land values that have multiplied many times during owners' lives, doubling on average between 2007 and 2012.

The cash incentive to liquidate assets and divide the proceeds will mean farmers who have rented land for decades may lose access to it, farmers who share ownership of family land may not be able to afford to buy other heirs out and continue, and beginning farmers will face even more challenges in finding affordable land to purchase or rent. One result is likely to be a considerable decline in the percentage of owner-operated land, now estimated at only 40 percent.

The story is told from the perspective of a fictional lawyer who mediates land disputes --- and I'm guessing that most of us who are products of Iowa farm culture have had some experience with the family conflicts that can develop --- and continue in some cases for lifetimes --- when the time comes to decide what to do with the family farm.

In case you're wondering, the title, "Map of My Kingdom," is an allusion to Shakespeare's King Lear, who descends into madness after dividing his estate between his daughters. One goal of the play is to convince landowners to confront their mortality now and plan wisely for disposition of their land, perhaps avoiding less dramatic but still painful Lear-like situations in their own families.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Cemetery Tour 3: Henry F. McCollough

Henry F. McCollough and his father-in-law, William D. Junkin, built the Hotel Charitone during 1922-23 and managed it personally through 1930. Although the two men and their families left Chariton during 1931 and resettled in Brainerd, Minn., Henry and Louise McCollough chose to be returned to Chariton for burial many years later.

Dave Kuball portrayed Henry McCollough during Sunday's 11th annual Chariton Cemetery Heritage Tour. Here's the script that was the basis for his presentation.


My name is Henry Ferree McCollough --- the “McCollough” in the partnership Junkin & McCollough that built the Hotel Charitone in 1923. My father-in-law, William D. Junkin, and I sold the business seven years later, so our names may not be too familiar.

But my roots go deep in Chariton. Dr. William H. Gibbon, Civil War surgeon and pioneer Chariton physician and druggist, was my grandfather; his only child, Anna, my mother. I grew up in the biggest house on South Grand, the one with the “G” for Gibbon high in its gables.

Anna married Ralph McCollough, associated with his parents in a dry goods store, during 1884 and I was the third and youngest of their children, born July 24, 1891, and only 3 when my father died in 1894. Two years later, Anna married attorney and banker Josiah C. Copeland, and they became the parents of my three Copeland half-siblings. He was mayor of Chariton when he died in 1916.

I graduated from Chariton High School with the class of 1908 and that fall, enrolled in business courses at what now is called the University of Iowa, in Iowa City.

I completed two years in Iowa City, then at loose ends came home to work in the family drug store, managed by my older brother, Clement McCollough. It was a shock to all of us when he died suddenly at age 27 during September of 1912. I agreed to co-manage the store and, when it was sold, went to work for my stepfather as a junior clerk at his family bank, Chariton National, on the west side of the square.

During August of 1917, as World War I accelerated, I enlisted for service, was accepted in the Aviation Corps and assigned to ground school in Urbana, Illinois.

Louise Junkin, daughter of William D. and Vermont Junkin --- he was editor and publisher of the Chariton Herald-Patriot --- and I had decided that we would marry before I enlisted, then because of the uncertainty of war decided to do so July of 1918, just before I left for flight school in El Paso, Texas. Born in Fairfield, where the Junkins were a pioneer newspaper family, she had moved to Chariton six years earlier when her father bought controlling interest in the Patriot, then acquired the Herald.

Commissioned a lieutenant, I was only days away from deployment to Europe when World War I ended, so returned to Chariton and rejoined the bank staff --- and became a charter member of Carl L. Caviness American Legion Post No. 102, serving as its financial officer.

The 1916 death of my stepfather compounded estate complexities that developed when his brother, Howard, died five years earlier, so the decision was made to merge Chariton National and Lucas County National banks. The latter had been formed in 1908 by Eikenberry and other interests after the Mallory bank crashed. When it became clear I would not have a job in the merged bank, Louise and I bought a dry-cleaning business in Albia and moved there.

This was not satisfactory, however, and my father-in-law was getting restless, too, after years in the newspaper business. The great opportunity in Chariton during 1922 was in the hotel business. Chariton was booming because of agriculture and coal, it was a transportation hub and the hotels were 50 years old and deteriorating. Only money and imagination were needed.

My father-in-law sold a major share of his interest in the Chariton newspapers and I sold my business and threw other family money into the pot and we came up enough cash to build the Charitone. We signed on as architect William Lee Perkins, who had designed the Chariton Newspapers building for my in-laws in 1917 --- and were off and running.

The Charitone opened its doors to the public on Saturday, Nov. 3, 1923, and began accepting guests the following Monday. We celebrated with family and friends during a giant overnight “house party” that Saturday and when our friends departed on Sunday, they filled the hotel cash register for the first time.

From 1923 through 1930, both the McCollough and Junkin families lived in hotel apartments and managed the business personally. By now, Louise and I had two children, William and Katherine. And the business was very prosperous.

But Bill Junkin’s heart still was in the newspaper business and we were open to other options, too. So in late 1930, we began negotiating sale of the hotel furniture and fixtures and a long-term lease on the building with O.A. Clark, then operating hotels in Albia and Fairfield.

Using the proceeds of that deal as our stake, we bought jointly into the Brainerd Daily Dispatch, in northern Minnesota, and pulled up stakes in Chariton during 1931 and headed north.

Louise and I handled the business end of the operation and Bill Junkin served as publisher until his death during 1941, then I became publisher. Louise still was serving as treasurer of the family corporation at the time of her death during 1974 at age 80.

I died six years later, on Nov. 15, 1980, still co-publisher at age 89. Although we had many happy years in Minnesota, both Louise and I wished to be buried in Chariton near my family, just across the driveway here to the east.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Cemetery Tour 2: Samuel B. St. John

Larry Hirschy portrayed Samuel B. St. John, who with his father, Bartholomew, were proprietors of the St. John House Hotel, during Sunday's 11th annual Chariton Cemetery Heritage Tour.

Here's the script that was the basis for Larry's presentation:


The “S.B.” on this tombstone that marks the graves of all my family, save one, stands for Samuel B., and I’m here to represent both myself and my father, Bartholomew Royal St. John. The St. John House, Chariton’s first real hotel, was ours and I aim to tell you a little about it.

I was an honest man and nearly everyone liked me, but to be truthful I wasn’t a good manager. So there was never enough money to put up tombstones here as my wife and children died. This stone was put up by my last surviving daughter, Lounette, a long-time Des Moines school teacher, before she died in 1954. She’s buried here, too. Others are my wife, Mary, an infant, our adult son Frank and daughters Mary Alice and Emily. 

My dad was born during 1807 in New York and married Polly Spears there about 1830. They came west to Ohio, where I was was born in 1831. Three other children followed before our mother died and Pa brought us west to Jefferson County. Iowa. He was 42 when he married 19-year-old Emily Prather there during 1849 and they went on to have eight more children.

I married Mary Wilson during 1853 at Libertyville in Jefferson County and farmed near there until the fall of 1858, when we moved to Chariton, too.

Pa and Emily and the younger children had arrived in Lucas County by ox-drawn wagon during the early 1850s and settled first at Ragtown, southeast of here in Benton Township and named for our neighbor Amos Ragsdale. Pa and Emily operated the St. John Tavern in their cabin for a year or two there before moving on into Chariton.

Ed Culbertson built what became the St. John House during the summer of 1853 on the south side of the square --- Hammer Medical Supply stands there now. It was the first two-story frame building in town, built mostly with native lumber sawn at the only mill then operating in Lucas County, some 10 miles northwest on White Breast Creek. All the finish lumber came overland from Burlington in ox-drawn wagons.

Dad bought the building on Nov. 5, 1855, and named it the St. John House, fairly well putting out of business the little inn that the Henry Allens had been operating since 1850 in a double log house little more than a half block east.

Life with Pa was always an adventure, and he got himself in hot water politically just a year after arriving. He was a fierce abolitionist and therefore a Republican in a town where there were many Democrats, not necessarily in favor of slavery but opposed to forced abolition. Dad threw himself into the campaign for Republican John C. Fremont so enthusiastically that Democrats who backed James Buchanan burned him in effigy.

Buchanan won, however, and everyone got over their political differences and backed the Union cause. When the Boys of 1861 --- the first company of volunteers raised in Lucas and Clarke counties and known as the Lucas County Guards --- mustered and marched off to war under the command of Capt. Daniel Iseminger on July 8, 1861, the farewell ceremonies were held in front of the St. John House and the orators stood on our front porch. Capt. Iseminger, who had been our mayor, accepted a flag there sewn by the women of Chariton that later would be carried into battle. He and some of these 80 or so boys died at Shiloh the next April.

Dad left the St. John House in my hands when after the war he and Emily moved on to Madison County, where he farmed until his death in 1884. But Mary and I lost it to foreclosure during early 1868. As I said, I wasn’t a good manager.

I tried my hand at the hotel business a few times after that, first as manager of the newer Hatcher House on the southwest corner of the square --- built in 1856. Then, in 1877-78, I leased the hotel on what’s now the Charitone corner from Jimmy Gallagher and operated it as the new St. John House. Rooms were a dollar a day. But that didn’t work out either.

Mostly I worked as a drayman during the remainder of my years in Chariton, hauling freight from the depot to its destination and moving merchandise, household goods and other items around town behind a team of horses. 

My wife, Mary, died of a stroke at age 54 in 1882; and four years later, in 1886, my son, Frank suffered a stroke at age 27 that would leave him an invalid until his death eight years later.

Calamity hit again in early 1887 when one of my team of horses died, endangering our livelihood. You can imagine how grateful I was when Chariton businesspeople took up a collection around the square and bought a new horse for me.

1894 was a terrible year. My son, Frank, and my daughters Mary Alice and Jessie (Jessie lived in Decorah), died within months of each other. But we made it through that, too.

In 1897, I moved to Des Moines with my two surviving daughters, Emily and Lounette, and we built a good life there again, Lounette teaching school and Emily working as a dress-maker.

I died at 74, sitting in my favorite chair, on Feb. 8, 1905, and my remains were brought home to Chariton for a funeral at First Methodist Church and burial here with my family.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The last day of summer (and world peace)

I posted these photos on Facebook this morning, not long after coming in from a walk at Pin Oak Marsh, so this is creative recycling --- but the last day of summer deserves to be noticed and enjoyed. You've got until 9:29 p.m. today to do it. Get cracking.

The Maximilian Sunflowers at the marsh this year are as spectacular as I've seen them and the water, depending upon time of day, bright blue. Just in the last few days, leaves have started to turn. 

I'm hoping to view the sunset, too, but there's a bloody meeting at 5:30 p.m. There is, however, no meeting more worthwhile than an Iowa sunset. If there were fewer meetings and more people viewing sunsets, there might be world peace.

Cemetery tour I: Lizzie Crips

Ev Brightman tells Mary Elizabeth "Lizzie" Crips' story Sunday afternoon as Ron Ruddell looks on.

We couldn't have asked for better performers, a better crowd or better weather Sunday afternoon for the 11th annual Chariton Cemetery Heritage Tour, sponsored by the Chariton Historic Preservation Commission.

For the benefit of those who couldn't be with us, I'll post as the week goes on the scripts that Ev Brightman (Lizzie Crips), Larry Hirschy (Samuel B. St. John), Dave Kuball (Henry F. McCollough) and Brad Krutsinger (Orliff A. Clark) used as the starting points for their presentations, starting with Lizzie.


Good afternoon. My name is Lizzie and I’ll be your server …. Wait, this is 2014, not 1914. It’s the Chariton Cemetery, not the White Front Café --- and it’s been 90 years since I last waited a table. I forget sometimes.

My full name is Mary Elizabeth Crips. I don’t have a tombstone --- so I have to tell you that. I put up a nice stone for my husband, John, in 1924. When I was buried beside him 10 years later, my heirs found other things to do with the money. A tombstone was not on their agenda.

I was born during 1854 in Ohio, the eldest of 11, and came west with my parents by covered wagon to Troy in Van Buren County soon after. In 1871, when I was 16, we moved to Ottumwa; then 10 years later, in 1881, I met and married John O. Crips.

We came by train to Chariton in 1884, alighting at the old C.B.&Q. Depot, and opened a cafe on the “levee,” just west of the depot. We both worked hard --- and prospered. So much so that in 1887 we built a two-story brick building to house our business.

When we sold the business 22 years later, the front door had never been locked. We had been open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year all those years. Railroad workers were the biggest share of our customers, but travelers, salesmen and townfolks ate with us, too.

During those first years, I worked beside John --- but we also adopted a little girl named Martha during 1884 and I began to take more time off to spend with her --- and became very active in community. I was a mainstay of First Baptist Church and an early member of the Chariton Improvement Association, strong women who took on improvement projects like parks and sidewalks that our menfolk thought unimportant. In 1895, I became a regional organizer for the Royal Neighbors of America, the largest women-led life insurer in the country and a pioneer in the field of financial planning for women. I served as district deputy to the Royal Neighbors Supreme Oracle for many years and organized many chapters across southern Iowa.

I also was a charter member of the Chariton Free Public Library Board, serving from the time the new library opened in 1904 until my death. In I donated the plaster relief entitled “Alexander’s Triumph” still located above the library fireplace. In 1903, John and I built a new rather grand new home at 734 Auburn Avenue for ourselves and our daughter. Life was good.

In 1907, however, our lives fell apart. During December of that year our beloved and accomplished daughter, Mattie, suffered an attack of appendicitis while visiting in Nebraska and died of peritonitis. We buried her in the Shaul Cemetery at Ottumwa after funeral services here.

During February of 1908, John suffered a metal breakdown --- the cumulative effect of too much work, too much grief and the fact we had lost a good deal of money in the collapse of First National Bank not long before Mattie’s death. He was judged insane and sent to the asylum at Clarinda. I was able to sell the cafe during March, took John west to Colorado for a few months to recuperate after his release in June and then in September, we returned home. John lived for 16 more years, but really was never able to work after that.

We lived for a time on rental income and by taking in boarders, but in 1912, when Will Kull built a new two-story building faced in white brick on the east side of the square, I became his first tenant. I opened the White Front Café on the first floor in February of 1914 and the White Front Hotel upstairs, extending into the second floor of an adjacent building.

If was a good business, and it prospered --- so much so that when George Larimer built what you know as the Charitone Annex in 1917, he asked if I wanted to be his first tenant. So I kept the “White Front” name and moved into a brand new building --- faced in red brick.

I operated the White Front there until William Junkin and his son-in-law, Henry McCollough, decided to the build the Hotel Charitone in 1922-23 and bought the Larimer building, as well as the vacant lot on the corner to the west. My husband, John, had become very fragile, so it was just as well. I cared for him until he died during 1924.

In 1925, however, I re-opened the White Front Café on the first floor of the Annex, where upstairs rooms now were part of the Charitone. Our motto: “A good meal for 35 cents.” 

I sold the White Front and my household goods in 1928, planning to retire. But after a winter in Ottumwa and months of travel, I was bored and came home to Chariton in the spring of 1930 where I rented upstairs apartments on the square and put my cooking skills to use again making doughnuts and pastries, marketed directly and through the Yengle and other markets.

But finally, during the summer of 1934, my heart gave out and I made my final batch of doughnuts. On Sunday evening, Sept. 9, 1934, I died in my apartment above what now is Ben Franklin and was laid to rest here after a long and busy life.