Friday, January 01, 2016

The inns and outs of Fancy Hill

It's rare to have a snapshot of a long-gone building like the Fancy Hill Inn at Argo, but here it is --- lifted from Lucas County's 1978 history book. The photograph was printed there without attribution, but I've learned since Tuesday that Bev (Collins) Snook, who grew up in the big house in front of the inn, has a copy --- as do others.

Here's a new map, this one based on the 1912 Lucas County land ownership atlas, to give a more accurate idea of the old hotel in relation to the first location of Argo Post Office, also long gone, and Goshen Baptist Church, still standing --- all along the Mormon Trail in Union township. Fancy Hill was about a half mile west of the 1861 home of Matthew and Elizabeth Irvin, but on the south side of the trail.

I think --- but easily could be convinced otherwise, that the new house was built about 1919 immediately in front of the old by Oscar A. Grismore, who owned the Fancy Hill farm very briefly, and that the old building was being torn down when this photo was taken. We're probably looking at the back of the inn, which had long been a private dwelling when it perished, with perhaps the kitchen wing in the foreground. 

At left is a snapshot of the "new" house, provided by Bev and taken during the years when it was her family home. This house burned and a new house stands at the same location.


James L. Washburn had the following to say about Fancy Hill in a paper he read before a group of old settlers assembled in Derby during September of 1910:

"The first hotel accommodations within our border (Union Township) was Fancy Hill Inn, which also has the distinction of being the first frame building among us. It was built, owned and operated by Jas. Leech, and is now the home of Jas. Jones, on the Mormon Trace. The building of Derby sounded the death knell to the hotel business as well as post office in other parts of our township, and Derby has since and will continue to be the center of commerce and trade of Union township."

That's James Leech at left, lifted from his Greenlawn Cemetery (in Afton) Find a Grave memorial, where it was posted by Barbara Ludwick.

James and his wife, Nancy, accompanied by their eight surviving children --- who ranged in age from 18 to 1 --- left their former home in Rockbridge County, Virginia, during the early fall of 1855 and arrived in Union Township by some accounts during late October.

They probably brought the name "Fancy Hill" --- both a community and a widely admired house in Rockbridge County --- with them. The location of their new home may have reminded them of the old.

It's hard to say when the inn was built, but if it were indeed the first frame building in Union Township it would have predated the 1861 Matthew and Elizabeth Irvin house at Argo's epicenter. Nor do we know how long it operated, but most likely lodging and meals were available there through the Civil War and beyond --- so long as traffic flowed down the Mormon Trail and until Derby sprang up in 1872 and put other aspirational places nearby out of business.

Most likely there was a blacksmith shop at Argo/Fancy Hill, too --- and perhaps even a small general store, although no local history mentions one. However, it was 14 miles over bad roads into Chariton when the little community developed and that was the nearest trading center.


James and Nancy (McKnight) Leech were native Virginians, both born in Botetourt County, where they married in 1836, who then moved to Rockbridge. Their children, all born in Rockbridge, were John Preston, b. 1837; William McKnight, b. 1838; Martha Agnes, b. 1840 and died young; James Gilmore, b. 1842; Sarah Margaret, b. 1844, married A.M. Vance; Mary Virginia, b. 1846, married Samuel L. McBurney; Thomas Harvey, b. 1848; Lucien Alford, b. 1853; and Charles Crawford, b. 1854.

Of these children, the daughters all predeceased their parents and John P. died during 1865 of the after-effects of Civil War service. Lucien was killed during March of 1890 in Chariton while working as a Lucas County deputy sheriff when he inadvertently stepped in front a speeding train at the crossing just west of the county jail. Charles, an attorney who practiced in Chariton until the death of his wife and child, moved to Ottumwa, then became estranged from his family after ignoring requests to repay substantial amounts owed to his father.

By the early 1890s, James and Nancy Leech were becoming old and infirm. Two of their sons, William McKnight and Thomas Harvey, had married and settled down at Afton in Union County. So the decision was made to sell the Fancy Hill farm and move to Afton to live there with their sons.

The buyers, during 1892, were Hezekiah and Olive Matilda (Cox) Pollard --- neighbors just down the trail to the west.

Nancy died unexpectedly on July 12, 1893, while visiting relatives in Scotland County, Missouri. Her remains were returned to Greenlawn Cemetery in Afton for burial. James died at Afton on Oct. 8, 1895, and was buried by her side.


I'm not going to say much about the Pollards --- goodness only knows there are enough Pollard descendants around to speak for themselves. When Hezekiah died in 1908, there were 103 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Their descendants are scattered far and wide; one even lives on the southwest Pacific island of Yap. Many remain in Lucas and Wayne counties.

Hezekiah and Olive, who were married during 1845 in Washington County, Indiana, arrived in Union Township during late November of 1852 with their four eldest children. Before they were done, they had 13, 11 of whom survived their parents.

The Pollards also accumulated more the 900 acres of land, which was divided among their children in increments of 80-90 acres each during 1901. Included was the former Fancy Hill Inn and part of the original Leech farm, which went to the Pollards' daughter, Sarah Elvira, and her husband, James W. Jones.


Sarah Elvira was among the older Pollard children, born Oct. 19, 1848, in Washington County, Indiana, and 6 years old when she arrived in Lucas County. During 1867, she married young Jones, who had settled south of Osceola and Clarke County with his family during the mid-1850s.

Following their marriage, James and Elvira homesteaded in Hamilton County, Nebraska, where they lived for 20 years, then moved back to Iowa with their 9 surviving children.

It's not clear when the Jones family moved onto the Fancy Hill farm, although it seems likely that they had lived there since soon after it was purchased by her parents in 1892.

They were still living there during 1913, when a biographical sketch of James was published in the Past and Present of Lucas and Wayne Counties, Iowa (Vol. II, pp. 351-3), occupying 40 acres of the original Leech farm south of the trail where the inn was located, another 40 acres along the trail set off from the farm immediately to the west and 10 acres of a "Forty" north of the trail that had been divided into wood lots.

And James appreciated the history of his landmark home, as set forth in this paragraph from the 1913 biography:

"He owns eighty acres of fine land on section 9, and another tract of ten acres on section 4, and his properties are well improved in every particular, giving every evidence of careful and practical cultivation. The house in which the family reside was one of the first erected in Union township and is known as the James Leach (sic) home, having been built by a pioneer of that name. The atmosphere of the early times clings around the old dwelling and homestead, where many interesting relics of the pioneers have been discovered. Mr. and Mrs. Jones are now in possession of a piece of cedar which was taken from a depth of fifty-nine feet below the surface of the ground, at a time when a new well was being bored near the house. They possess also a flax hackle and a spinning wheel belonging to Mrs. Leach, the first mistress of the house. These things have led Mr. Jones to take an interest in accumulating curios of this character and his collection includes a shoehammer brought from Germany over a century ago."

James Jones died at Fancy Hill on Aug. 22, 1915, two years after his biographical sketch was published. Sarah Alvira sold the farm four years later, during 1919, and moved into Derby where she lived until her death on Aug. 31, 1930.


The buyers of the Fancy Hill farm were Oscar A. and Hattie Grismore, who apparently reassembled portions of adjoining farms that had been divided among Pollard heirs in 1901 to create a holding of 260 acres.

I'm guessing that the Grismores moved immediately to replace the old Fancy Hill Inn with a new house for their large family in part because of the description of the house given when the farm sold during February of 1920. According to the sale bill, family health issues had prompted the sale so soon after it was purchased.

Here's how the home is described: "Large 8-room house, modern with furnace, bath, etc." This just doesn't sound at all like the rickety old Fancy Hill inn.

Whatever the case, the Grismores moved to Brush, Colorado, where Oscar died in 1923. And others moved into the big new house.

I've not tried to track ownership after this, although a land ownership plat from about 1930 suggests subsequent owners had run into financial difficulty and lost the property.

I did snoop enough to figure out that Bev Snook's parents, Francis and Juanita Collins, purchased the farm in 1951, raised their daughters there, then sold it and moved into Chariton during 1972.

If anyone has clarifications to add here, feel free to do so.

1 comment:

Mark Wampler said...

I am a ggg grandson of James and Nancy Leech, Today (April 11, 2016) is the first time I have ever heard of the Fancy Hill Inn. Thank you. Mark Wampler