Saturday, August 22, 2009

Hot time in the old town ...

I feel kind of a proprietory interest in the Monroe County Courthouse every time I enter the square in Albia. It was my Great-great-great-grandfather Joseph McMulin after all who drove the stake to mark the site where the first courthouse was to be built. His son-in-law (and my great-great-grandfather) Jeremiah Miller was standing right there when he did it.

Joseph McMulin had just been elected one of the first three Monroe County commissioners on August 4, 1845, and Jeremiah, clerk of the board of commissioners. Of course at that time Albia wasn't there and the commissioners were standing on the prairie site of a town they expected to be called Princeton. They were also standing in Kishkekosh County, named in honor of a Meskwaki leader. That name did not roll off the tongue, however, like Wapello, Appanoose, Keokuk and Mahaska, so old Joe McMulin was dispatched to Iowa City the next year as a delegation of one to implore the Legilsature to replace it with Monroe, a mission that was accomplished.

Quite a guy, old Joe. Too bad he's remembered primarily in Frank Hickenlooper's history of Monroe County for an unfortunate incident some years later when after over-celebrating in liquid form a horse trade with Jesse Snodgrass he became, as Hickenlooper put it, "becalmed" on the road home and was discovered sleeping it off in a ditch.

So it was lots of fun to drive down to Albia just a few days past the 164th anniversary of that election for the Saturday installment of Restoration Days. Great parade, top-notch art show and sale on the courthouse lawn, good food and fine bluegrass music in the bandstand.

You will not see a finer town square than Albia's in Iowa --- I guarantee it. That's why they call the annual late summer celebration Restoration Days. Over the course of 40 years or so it has been repaired, restored, rebuilt and lovingly polished, entirely deserving of its place on the National Register of Historic Places.

The driving force behind that operation was the late Robert T. Bates whose stunning apartment was (and still is) in the big yellow Bates Building, here, on the northwest corner of the squre.

The Bates were a banking family in Albia, but Robert elected to seek a career in Hollywood --- either as a hairdresser or interior decorator, I forget exactly which (should look that up). He certainly mingled with the stars, but seemed destined to remain a small frog in a big pond.

So he came home to Albia in the 1950s and made a very big splash indeed in this much smaller pond. From his apartment windows he imagined the square in the state we see it today and galvanized community leaders into seeing that it was done. As chairman of First Iowa State Bank, it helped that he and business partner Robert Kaldenberg always were ready to put Albia first.

Bates capped a liftime of accomplishment by setting up the Robert T. Bates Foundation upon his death several years ago to continue the work and went out in typical Bates fashion --- with a funeral Mass not at Albia's strikingly modern St. Mary's Church (with an unfortunate view of a sewage lagoon) but instead within the venerable stone walls of St. Patrick's at Georgetown.

Too bad they don't make 'em like old Joe McMulin and Robert T. Bates any more.

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