Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Looking for Argo & the Fancy Hill Hotel

Lucas County has all sorts of "ghostly" places that never quite got off the ground and then faded rapidly, but left behind names and a few stories. So, I set out to find more about Argo, the first in an alphabetical sequence, during Monday's storm --- traveling southwest vicariously down the Mormon Trail and back to 1853 and northern Union Township instead of shoveling snow or venturing out.

The map is intended to put Argo in context, but is based on the assumption you know where Goshen Baptist Church is (and if you don't, shame on you); Derby and Last Chance, too. It's based on the 1895 land ownership map of Union Township. Argo dates from 1853; Last Chance, from the early 1860s; and Derby, from 1872.

Argo was located on the Mormon Trail a mile and a half west of Goshen Church (built on the cemetery lot in 1861, destroyed by a tornado in 1876 and rebuilt just to the east after that) and Cemetery, initially in a log cabin built by Matthew and Elizabeth Irvin soon after they settled here during 1852.

The Fancy Hill Inn, built and operated by James and Nancy Leech, was a little farther along the trail at Argo, but not in Argo, since Argo really wasn't a place. It was a post office and, at that time, post offices were wherever the postmaster was --- occasionally in his pocket. The postmastership changed hands a few times during Argo's 20 years of existence and moved each time, mostly in the same immediate neighborhood, a couple of times, apparently, into Fancy Hill.

For the record, Argo was established on Feb. 21, 1853, when Matthew's appointment as postmaster became official. He served until Jan. 30, 1861, when James Leech (of Fancy Hill) took over. James turned the mail over to another neighbor, Simeon B. Chapman on June 22, 1861, and he in turn passed the post on to John A. Robinson on May 12, 1862. Robinson handed the position back to Leech on June 17, 1862; then Leech returned the office to Irvin and he served this time until March 21, 1871, when Alfred M. Hood was appointed. The post office was discontinued on Oct. 13, l875 --- killed (along with the Fancy Hill Inn) by the emergence of Derby just down the road along newly built railroad tracks.

All that thrashing around in the early 1860s was Civil War-related. Argo was a recruting point and even postmasters sometimes signed up.


We know what Matthew Irvin looked like because Kory Darnell posted the photo at left, above, to Matthew's Find A Grave memorial (Goshen Cemetery) last year.

And we know quite a bit about Matthew and Elizabeth because of a biographical sketch of their son, Matthew G. Irvin Jr., that was published during 1896 on Page 949 of A Memorial and Biographical Record of Iowa. Here are the paragraphs relating to the senior Irvins:

Matthew Irvin was a good representative of that enterprising and high-principled race, the Scotch-Irish, being a native of north Ireland . He was a lad of twelve years when his father, Guy Irvin, emigrated to the United States and settled in Coshocton county, Ohio; and thus, being early "Americanized" as a specimen of humanity in regard to mental qualifications, one might compare him with a scion grafted upon the best of stock. After attaining the full growth of manhood he was united in marriage with Miss Elizabeth Heller, a native of Ohio and of a good and thrifty family, who were of German ancestry; she was a daughter of Anthony Heller. After marriage they settled in Tuscarawas county, Ohio , where they resided until the year 1850, when they removed to Iowa, coming with a wagon and three horses, which brought all their household goods and a set of carpenter's tools.

For the first year in this State they resided in Monroe county, and then came to Lucas county, settling permanently in Union township on land now owned by the subject of this sketch (Matthew Irvin Jr.). They were among the first settlers on that prairie, which at that time was a broad expanse, unoccupied and unbroken by the hand of white man. Mr. Irvin built a log cabin of two rooms, furnishing it with a puncheon floor, an old-fashioned large fireplace, a clapboard roof, etc. There was but one house between his place and Chariton, fourteen miles distant. This family was well known for their hospitality and intelligence, the latch string of their humble door always hanging out. Friend or stranger was always welcome, and the needy always received assistance at the hands of this kindly disposed family; and they knew how to treat all comers in a royal manner.

In 1861, on the old Mormon "trail," Mr. Irvin erected a large, commodious dwelling, near where his son, our subject, now resides, --- indeed, in the same yard. This residence, still standing, is 18 x 40 feet in dimensions and two stories high, with an L 16 x 24 feet. At the time it was built it was one of the largest houses in the township.

In the family of Mr. Irvin were six children, three of whom are now deceased. The living are: Andrew J., a resident, of Union township; M. G., whose name forms the introduction to this biographical sketch; and Sarah E., who became the wife of Mr. Brough and died in 1891 in Oklahoma. 

Mr. Irvin died in 1877, at the golden age of seventy-three years. By trade he was a carpenter and wagon-maker, and he was a good mechanic, especially in wood. In his political sympathies he was a Jackson Democrat, and his high intellectual and moral character was attested by his election to the office of Justice of the Peace. He was also Postmaster of Argo, in Union township, for a number of years. In religion he was reared a Presbyterian, but in mature life he became a Methodist and finally a member of the Christian Church. He was a man of good physique, of perpendicular carriage and weighing about 175 pounds and being six feet tall.


More information about Matthew and his family comes from a paper read during 1910 by J. L. Washburn during a meeting of old settlers in Derby. The paper was published in two consecutive issues of The Herald-Patriot later that month.

Regarding Matthew, Washburn wrote in part:

"Turning again to the political side of our township's history, I have ascertained that it appears our first Justice of the Peace was Esq. Matthew Irvin, father of our society's venerable ex-president A.J. Irvin, also M.G. Irvin. He resided on the south side of the Mormon trace road, just west of the present home of A.J. Irvin. He was not only a man of high mind and lofty purposes, but he chose to build his dwelling on the very crest of our watershed, which divides the waters of the Missouri from those of the father of waters. Here he could watch the rain descend and know that by the works of his own hands makes it flow in opposite directions from one house top. His well was so located that he could without changing his feet pour water first into one great river, then the other."  (Note: The Irvin homes appear to have been on the north side of the trail instead.)

Washburn goes on to say of Matthew Irvin and Argo:

"Mr. Irvin had also the distinction of being the first postmaster in Union township, his commission dated in 1856 (actually, 1853). He continued as postmaster until the administration of Abraham Lincoln, the office being in his residence and known to the world as Argo. Then it was held in turn by Simeon Chapman, James Leach (sic), A.J. Hood and Mr. Glenn....

"It was here many of the recruits joined the 34th Iowa Infantry, which did such gallant service under our county (historical society) president, the Hon. Warren S. Dungan as their noble Colonel."

Washburn cites a "Mr. Glenn" as the final Argo postmaster, but his name does not appear in official records.

Of Glenn, Washburn writes "Mr. Glenn lived and held the post office where the late Smith Boggs' home was and where his widow still resides, one mile southwest of Last Chance.... In 1862 or '63 Wm. McKenny established a general store at Last Chance and the post office was turned over to him, where it remained until about 1882 or '83."

Actually, the Argo post office appears to have been located in and near the Irvin home and the Fancy Hill hotel until it was discontinued during October of 1875, but another post office had been established at Last Chance during the 1860s. Glenn may have handled the Argo mail on an interim basis until all patrons on the former route were formally assigned to the latter after 1875.

Here are a few further lines from Washburn, describing how the mail got to Argo from Chariton during those early Lucas County years:

"The early mail was carried for a time by A.J. Irvin or any of the neighbors who might chance to be in Chariton. Papers would be tied in a bundle, the letters tucked into an inner pocket until Argo was reached. The government was finally persuaded to furnish a carrier and John Mulky, of Oskaloosa, received the appointment. Mr. Mulky also carried passengers back and forth on his journeys. Thus we have a record of our first transportation line."

I'll be back another day with a little more about Argo and as much as I've been able to find out about the Fancy Hill Hotel.


Mary Mart said...

Fascinating! Will be looking forward to more later. I was raised on the Westfall homestead, which neighbor was the Sprott homestead handed down to Mr. Washburns wife, Alice Sprott Washburn. So am well acquainted with the neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

Are you sure the spelling of the name Robinson wasn't suppose to be Robison no n between the I and s. As there were Robison's in that area.

Bev Collins Snook said...

I grew up living on that high hill. We were told that it was an old stage coach post. My mother gave me a photo with this large old building in the foreground and our four square house in the background. I am curious if this was the Fancy Hill Hotel. I talked to a fellow from my old neighborhood and we had a good discussion about it since his son lives in a new house on that site. Our four square house burnt several years ago.

Frank D. Myers said...

Hi Bev --- Well this is great, because I've been trying to figure out where that photo you mention (also published in the 1978 Lucas County history and identified as the Fancy Hill Hotel at Argo but with no indication of a source) came from! I'm getting ready to use in in a further post, but still am not entirely certain where it (or your home) was located. If it was where early land ownership maps indicate it should have been, it would have been located about where the "Fancy Hill Inn" star on my blog map is --- a short distance west down the trail from the Irvin house, or Argo, on the south side of the trail. I've driven up and down that road countless times over the years, but since I'm not from that part of the county cannot remember how things used to look when I was a kid. I have this picture in my head of a big old square house up on a hill about where the Fancy Hill star is --- but could be imagining that, too. Frank

Bev Collins Snook said...

Page 19 in the 1978 Lucas County history book has the photo that I have somewhere in this house. The far right is the house I grew up in. Can you go to a 1950-1970 Lucas County plat map and find either M J Collins or Francis Collins property. It was on the south side of the road. The neighbors were Julia and Ben Hamilton and that property (on the north side of the road) is now part of Stephen's State Forest. The property belonged to a (perhaps Kenneth) Jones family. We bought the property in 1951 from Edgar (not sure on that spelling) Church. I will be interested in reading what you find out.

Bev Collins Snook said...

I think the Argo and Fancy Hill stars should be closer together. We believe that John Owens may have owned the Irvin place, and he was just up the hill (on the north side of the road) east of where I lived. That would have been half a mile apart. Bob Owens (son of John Owens) lives the first house north of the museum in Chariton and he grew up there. He may have more info.

Bev Collins Snook said...

This was very interesting. You did a great job. I learned a lot. It is interesting to me that I find I have lived most of my life on or near a Mormon Trail. Since moving from Derby area, I now live in Cambria.