Friday, September 30, 2011

Granite grandeur at Stringtown

There’s not much left at Stringtown these days --- a church, an elevator, a house and the cemetery --- all gathered at a crossroads out here on the Adams County prairie along U.S. 34 east of Corning.

Pride of place belongs, as it has for more than a century, to the soaring marble confection in the cemetery that marks the graves of Henry and Mary Sophia Reese, in their time southwest Iowa’s pre-eminent power couple.

The monument always has caught my eye as I’ve driven this road, usually headed for Omaha, Lincoln or Denver, and that’s getting to be a long time now. Coming home from Red Oak late yesterday, we pulled over and I finally got around to taking some pictures of it.

Although Henry Reese blazed the trails for his family, it seems to have been Sophia who was the financial CEO of its operations. According to her 1915 obituary, when the couple arrived in Adams County during the 1850s, Henry had less than $10 in his pocket. When he died during 1901, they were the region’s largest landowners.

Henry, according to his obituary in the Adams County Union-Republican of Feb. 7, 1901, was born in Germany on May 28, 1824, and had arrived in the Chicago area as an emigrant during 1850. Two years later, he was off to the gold fields of California.

After returning to Chicago, he set off west again during 1853, arriving in Council Bluffs, probably by riverboat from St. Louis, then walked east across the prairie to Mercer Township, where he purchased 200 acres of prairie for $1.25 an acre, then the going price for government land.

He then returned to the Chicago area, where he worked to earn enough money to launch a new life in Iowa, and married Mary Sophia Linneman on Oct. 24, 1856, in Des Plaines.

Sophia had been born in Wurttemberg, Germany, on Dec. 13, 1834, had had arrived in Des Plaines with her family at age 11.

The couple traveled to Adams County soon after that marriage to take up housekeeping in a one-room cabin on the 200 acres Henry had purchased three years earlier.

By the time Henry died nearly 50 years later, on Feb. 1, 1901, the Reeses were the region’s largest landowners, with some 4,300 acres, and his estate was valued in the region of $1 million --- an astonishing amount of money in Iowa in 1901.

It’s not clear exactly what Henry died of, but a special train had been commissioned to bring a surgeon from Omaha to nearby Prescott in the hope that the surgery he performed after being transported to the Reese farm by buggy would save the patriarch’s life.

After Sophia’s death 14 years later, a good deal of the credit for this couple’s financial success was attributed to her. She was, according to reports in the Union-Republican of Aug. 11, 1915, “a remarkable businesswoman.”

“By industry and frugality” Henry and Sophia acquired an estate was “very large.” She had given financial matters her “personal attention during all the years, and the success achieved has been quite remarkable,” the Union-Republican reported.

After Henry’s death, Sophia left farming operations in the hands of her children (she had a total of eight, two of whom died young) and moved into Corning where she married Fred Brown during 1909. He died six years later, on July 30, 1915. Sophia became critically ill soon thereafter and died herself, of “kidney trouble,” on Aug. 10.

After her burial at Stringtown between Henry and their two sons who had died young, Sophia’s estate entered probate and it was, according to the Union-Republican of Aug. 25, “the largest ever settled in this part of the state.”

Sophia had distributed 1,700 acres that remained in her hands among her children before she died. The nosey newspaper editor (and most newspaper editors were nosier then than now) was able to ascertain that she also owned 19 lots in Corning --- one commercial property, but most occupied by houses.

He could not, however, come up with a firm figure on the value of Sophia’s other assets.

Whatever the case, if you take a drive through Stringtown one of these days, glance over and find your eye caught by the magnificent Reese tombstone --- you can rest assured that those who commissioned it could afford it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have driven past this monument hundreds of times over the years but never stopped to look at it. Thanks so much for the history about it!