Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Main street in Iowaville, late afternoon


The Des Moines River is back within banks by now, late August, but just barely as the drawdown at Lake Red Rock upstream continues. The “road closed” sign that discouraged travel down to Iowaville has disappeared and it’s possible to reach this evocative no-place, then turn west and drive up along the old trail to Eldon.

“There’s nothing here,” some who have come along on other treks have said. Exactly.

Those of my tribe, Eurotrash who washed up on the shores of America a couple of centuries earlier, would recognize the landscape they found when they got here in the 1830s, but not the surface --- corn and beans and weeds with a few junk trees along the fringes. We’ve not improved the place.

What was here before we arrived --- Sauk and Fox, Ioway, others unnamed before them --- is the stuff of myth within myth, truth obscured by layers of fancy, legends endlessly repeated, shifting slightly each time they’re told, that have settled over the place like silt. Dilettants like myself, who dabble in history, need to be careful lest we muddy the waters further.

Some say this was the site of a principal village of the Ioway people from the late 18th into the early 19th century. Some say it was Sauk and Fox; others, both. There are stories of a great massacre by a Sauk raiding party northwest of here that decimated the Ioways. Others doubt that occurred. Believe what you will.

I’m standing here just east of Iowaville, looking east toward the hills north of Selma, a mile and a quarter downstream, on the river trail that has shadowed the north bank of the Des Moines for goodness only knows how long. The sharp left turn is fairly new, however, as is the arrow-straight stretch of road that now shoots north from here midsection out to Highway No. 16. The old river trail used to meander on down along the river southeast to Selma, but at some point that stretch was abandoned and closed. The old road north used to come down to the river behind me, straggling alongside the Iowaville ditch that now cuts through the village site. There was no Highway 16 then.

Back up with me a ways, then click and enlarge the photo below, look to the northeast, and you’ll see a white dot in the distance. That’s the Iowaville Cemetery sign, marking the spot where most of those who died down here when there was an Iowaville are buried --- suspended below enigmatic mounds that reportedly crown the bluff above and the highest reaches of the flooding river below. There are tall tales of young men who swam from the Iowaville Cemetery to Selma once when flood water spread bluff to bluff four miles wide.


If I am not mistaken, Robert Rathbun’s Iowaville House hotel, long a farm house, stood to the right of the old grain bin here until the 1950s --- Iowaville‘s last building. I listen for Robert’s voice sometimes while standing here, or nearby, without much hope of hearing it.

Robert, who came here before 1840, age about 40, was Iowaville’s blacksmith and later proprietor with his second (or third) wife, Letitia, of the Iowaville House. They had six guests when the 1850 federal census of Iowaville was taken in October of that year --- a sawyer, a laborer, a farmer and three carpenters.

One of the early true believers, Robert’s son, Hiram, credited him (along with my uncle, George Miller) of being responsible for convicting Sidney Rigdon, a towering and later disgraced figure among the early Saints, of the prophetic truth of the Book of Mormon and by extension the veracity of its revelator, the prophet Joseph Smith Jr. Robert followed that prophetic voice to Independence, Missouri, where his blacksmith shop was destroyed by “gentiles,” then to Caldwell County, Missouri, where something went horribly wrong at Haun’s Mill and his family shattered. His then-wife, Hannah, took the surviving children back to Ohio and Robert ended up here, described still as “a Mormon preacher” in the 1850s.

Robert survived the great Des Moines River flood of 1851, but became suddenly ill mid-April, 1856, scrawled a minimal will on 11 April, died on the 14th. He died seized of the Iowaville House and its barn, four other town lots, “a cow and yearling calf, household furniture, notes, books and accounts, provisions, &tc.”

Robert is buried at Iowaville Cemetery beneath a broken stone so blackened by time that it’s almost illegible. His name is misspelled “Rathburn” on it, not surprising since Letitia, who probably ordered it, could neither read nor write. I would love to know more of Robert’s story, but time has silenced him most effectively.


Turn around and look west now and you’ll see the little bridge across the Iowaville ditch in the heart of the village, dug during the late 1870s from the river to Avery spring --- a lavish source of pure water flowing out of the base of the hills to the north.

The rail line built around the rim of the bottom in the late 1850s had created a drainage problem. Water coming down from the surrounding hills backed up behind its grade to the north, flooding farm land, and as the water moved south behind the embankment it finally overflowed east of Iowaville, flooding the lowlands. The Iowaville ditch, passing through a breach in the grade, rectified that.

Some say that as the ditch was dug, hundreds of human bones were disturbed. Others doubt that.

Cross the bridge and look farther west. Most of Iowaville would have been on the rise to your right, the river to your left.


Follow the road west, bend slightly southwest along the river with it and then turn again to follow the river northwest and you’ll come after a little more than a mile to the old lock-keeper's house, the last visible sign of this valley's history, and just beyond it, the site of James Houston “Jim” Jordan’s home and, just across from it, nearer the river (if not in the river by now), the site of Black Hawk's lodge.

The Jordan home place, once the finest in this valley, survived until 1964. By now, the site has been bulldozed flat and left entirely featureless, a rock quarry dug in its back yard.

I listen for Jim Jordon’s voice, too, because the tales he told seem to have set the agenda for most of what we‘ve heard since about this place. He was Black Hawk’s friend as the old warrior moved toward death.

Black Hawk and Jim Jordan, in a macabre sort of way, share more than a friendship and old men's tales.

Just as Black Hawk’s body was snatched from its grave some distance north of the Jordan house in the 1830s, so too, during the 1930s, was Jim Jordan’s body snatched from its resting place in Iowaville Cemetery. But, more of that another time.

In the mean time, the Des Moines River flows on by as it always has just beyond the trees.

1 comment:

Ed Abbey said...

Thanks for the history lesson on Iowaville. I think it was a perfect name to use as my fictional name for the town I grew up around. I chose it out of all the abandoned Van Buren county towns just because I like the ring to it.