Saturday, January 23, 2016

What happened to Otter Creek's town of Savanah?

The list of Lucas County "ghost towns" --- Greenville, Freedom, Last Chance, Cleveland, Tallahoma, Ireland, Olmitz, Tipperary and more --- is a long one. These aspirational little places launched, then within a few years crash-landed.

But Savanah, it would appear, never even got off the ground. Its name appears on no list, nor does it appear anywhere in Lucas County records, except ....

I was scrolling through Lucas County Town Lot Book B on microfilm earlier this week, looking for the plat of Freedom, when I came across the plat of Savanah in "Otter Township"  on Page 123/125.

According to the text of the entry, W.T. Wade --- then county surveyor --- laid the three-acre town out during early 1856 around a generous central square, using a stone planted in the middle of the square as a reference point, then recorded the plat on March 13. Wade's clients --- patrons of the town --- were Jeremiah Long, James Bussell and William Blakely.

Today, the only landmark at the town site is Clore-Wells Pioneer Cemetery --- very old and very well maintained, but without a burial since the 1930s. Savanah's site and the cemetery are located a mile due east of the still-recognizable village of Norwood, which came along about 10 years later. "Otter" township was, of course, "Otter Creek."

It would have made sense to found a town here during 1856 --- new settlers were arriving regularly and the site was astraddle the main trail from Chariton to Indianola and Fort Des Moines beyond.

But for some reason, it didn't get off the ground. I'm speculating that this may have been related to the personal lives of its patrons, who for one reason or another didn't work to promote it or to found any of the usual centerpieces for a little community like this --- a store, a post office, a blacksmith shop and, perhaps, a church.

All three of the patrons were young men. Jeremiah Long, 26, and his wife, Mary, were living next door at the time the plat was recorded to the extended George and Elizabeth Blakely family (recorded in the 1856 census by a worker who couldn't spell as "Blankay"), which included William, age 28, and his apparent wife, Mary (Thirteen family members were living in the Blakely household during 1856, but the census-taker muddled them all together to the point that it's impossible to say who belonged to whom, other than the fact they all were Blakelys).

Living nearby were James S. Bussell, age 28, his wife, Sarah, 23, and their daughter, Elizabeth Alice, age 2, along with H.M. Bussell, age 20. Another Bussell sibling, William Wyatt, and his family also lived in the neighborhood.

By 1860, however, the Longs had moved to Illinois, where he was working as a farm hand. According to the 1881 history of Lucas County, "Jerry and Mary Long" had lost a daughter to death, aged about a month, during 1853 --- and she most likely was among the first burials at Wells-Clore.

The entire Blakely family had moved on, too, although I've not taken the time to find out exactly where they went. The 1881 history records that William and Mary left behind a son who was born and died ca. 1852-53 --- another early but unmarked Clore-Wells burial.

James S. and Sarah Bussell still were living in the neighborhood during 1860, but their only child, Elizabeth Alice, had died on Christmas day, 1857, aged 3 years and 9 months, and had been buried in the pioneer cemetery. Sarah died on April 21, 1862, and was buried near their daughter. These two graves are marked.

James remarried, but there were no more children; he and his second wife, Jane, moved west to Ord, in central Nebraska, ca. 1880.

In the meantime, William H. and Margaretta Ashby had brought their family west from Indiana in 1861 and settled on what became the Norwood townsite. Ashby was named Norwood's first postmaster on March 2, 1868 --- as close as we can come to a founding date for the village --- and any residual memories of little Savanah continued to fade.

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