OK, so I didn't really head downriver to Keokuk this afternoon, but I got so enthused about the idea I may have to do just that sometime again this fall. I don't think it's a secret that Iowa's three southern-most Mississippi River cities --- Burlington, Fort Madison and Keokuk --- are three of my favorite places. I just like being along the river, period. And Nauvoo, another favorite place, is just across the Mississippi downstream from Fort Madison and upstream from Keokuk. The river road drive down from Nauvoo on the Illinois side to the bridge back across to Keokuk is one of the prettiest in the country. Who could ask for more?
What got me going this time was a little Web surfing. I'm interested in old houses, so now and then plug "for sale," "historic" and "Iowa" into Google and see what turns up. What turned up this time was a wonderful Web site developed for Birdwood (above), one of Keokuk's grand old homes and one I've driven by several times without being aware of its name. Kids, grandkids and aging parents are calling the owners home to Utah, so they want, reluctantly, to sell the house. This Web site, which you'll find here, is one of the tools they're using.
Be warned, however, to take the tour now if you're interested. My guess would be that when the house sells the Web site will come down and this link will be broken. Scroll down a ways and "Click to see the Birdwood Estate Slide Show." And while you're about it, don't miss "New! Slideshow of Neighborhood" linked a little farther down. You'll get some idea of what the neighborhood on the bluffs northeast of downtown and west of the river is like. I stole the photo of the house, by the way, from the site --- thanks!
Once you've passed Birdwood at the intersection of North 4th and Fulton streets, keep going northeast for two more blocks (until you can't go any farther) and hang a left onto Park Place. After a block, turn right onto Grand Avenue and just keep going north past more spectacular river-bluff homes and you'll come eventually to Rand Park, dedicated on the 4th of July 1883, 50 rolling and shaded acres with some fairly spectacular views of the Mississippi below (like the one just above --- and I took that photo rather than swiping it).
Beyond the view, my favorite part of Rand Park is the gravesite and statue of Chief Keokuk, the city's namesake, gazing in a distinctly lifelike manner out across the river. Now Keokuk is not necessarily my favorite among the Sauk leaders (Black Hawk is). He was just a trifle to conciliatory in his dealings with invasive whitefolks for my taste --- but of course that conciliatory nature of his is why he was popular with the invaders.
Keokuk died during 1848 in Kansas after being dispatched there with his people and was buried in a tribal cemetery near Ottawa. But when Rand Park was dedicated on the 4th of July 1883, his family and other tribal officials were among the honored guests --- part of a plan to return the old chief's bones to this lovely place for burial.
That was accomplished with nearly everyone's blessing in October of 1883 when officials from Keokuk traveled to Kansas, exhumed his remains and brought both his bones and his tombstone home to Iowa. That tombstone is embedded in the base of the monument. The inscription reads, "Sacred to the memory of Keokuck, a distinguished Sac Chief, born at Rock Island, Ill., 1788, died in April 1848."
As you might expect, there is a south central Iowa link to this lovely statue of Keokuk. It's creator in 1912-1913 was was Nellie V. Walker, who grew up a stonecutter's daughter in Moulton, down southeast of Centerville in Appanoose County. A tiny woman, her father gave her a chunk of marble to play with when a child and her career as a sculptor was launched. After attending the Chicago Art Institute she operated from a Chicago studio for 35 years. She died in 1973 at age 99 at Colorado Springs, but is buried near her parents in the Oakland Cemetery at Moulton, just west of town on gravel.
Keokuk also is the site of Iowa's only national cemetery, situated in the southwest part of town just south of the muncipal cemetery, also called Oakland. It's a pretty place, another of my favorite spots in Keokuk. Because of Keokuk's location location along the river and the fact there was a medical school there, five military hospitals were operating here at the height of the Civil War. The city donated land south of the cemetery for the burial of those who died in those hospitals --- more than 600 during the course of the war --- and in 1862 Keokuk was among the first 14 national cemeteries designated by President Abraham Lincoln.
More land to the west and south was added later and the cemetery remains in use, although surrounded now and unlikely to be expanded once its filled. That was among the reasons for the creation of the Iowa Veterans Cemetery near Des Moines a couple of years ago.
More than 5,000 have been by now interred in the Keokuk National Cemetery, including several buried originally elsewhere. Among them are approximately 150 brought to Keokuk in 1948 when the Fort Des Moines post cemetery was destroyed. The Fort Des Moines cemetery was not especially old, related as it was to the "new" Fort Des Moines along Army Post Road in south Des Moines and not to the original Fort Des Moines, downtown near the confluence of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers.
Coming to Keokuk from considerably farther away were approximately 70 bodies brought here during 1908 from the Fort Yates post cemetery in North Dakota.
Now if you want to cause trouble in both North and South Dakota, try suggesting that when those bodies were brought to Iowa the remains of Sitting Bull, renowned Hunkpapa Lakota holy man, inadvertently (or advertently) were brought along.
Sitting Bull was buried at Fort Yates after being shot to death by tribal police on Dec. 15, 1890. Many believe, however, that his grave was opened in 1953 and the remains removed and reburied near Mobridge, South Dakota, although some believe the remains that were moved were not his. Whatever the case, two states now claim his grave. Iowa might as well make it three, although it should be pointed out this is exceedingly unlikely if not impossible.
Finally, to come full circle, back to one of my favorite Iowa churches, St. John's Episcopal in Keokuk, three blocks southwest of Birdland at 208 North 4th Fourth (and the picture here is someone else's, shared freely by its creator, "Smallbones," on Wikipedia Commons).
This really is one of Iowa's finest small churches (although it's quite large), but stained glass --- including three windows from the Tiffany Studios --- is its principal glory. You can find the church Web site here and please do take the "Church Tour."