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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Thursday, June 02, 2011

From the Field--
by H. Scott Wolfe*

I revisited the spot last week, and it remains a difficult place to find for the uninitiated. I speak of the site of the farm of William Maxson.  I approached the community of Springdale, Iowa from the east, traveling upon Cedar County Road F44. This bucolic thoroughfare is rather grandiosely called “The Herbert Hoover Highway,” for it continues on to West Branch, the birth and burial place of our 31st President.

Springdale itself encompasses no more than the equivalent of three city blocks…perhaps thirty residences, old and new. A squat United Methodist Church is its only public building. The 21st century whizzes by on Interstate 80, within sight to the south, while the village appears much as it was described in the 1890s: “A quiet retreat from the turmoil of money making, political strife and daily papers.” Today it seems to exist as a mere tree-shaded interlude, before pressing on the gas toward the Hoover sites and perhaps a lunch of “Herb’s Heaper” pizza at a West Branch tavern.
No clues emanate from Springdale to reveal its storied past as a staunch Quaker bastion of abolitionism…and the training ground for the soldiers of John Brown’s Provisional Army of the United States.

The Maxson monument is beneath the trees 
in the left distance. Photo by H. Scott Wolfe
Turning on County Road X40, I proceeded north between expansive cornfields, the tiny seedlings just beginning to appear the faintest green. Amidst the field to my left, I could see the cluster of conifer trees which mark the location of the Springdale Friends Cemetery. Here are buried a host of people whose lives touched that of John Brown, their stories of stirring times and famous men seemingly present in the somber whisper of the prairie winds.

And then back to the east on 280th Street, an urban-sounding name for an unpaved country road…its only pedestrians being an occasional ground squirrel or woodchuck. No matter what your speed, a gritty rooster-tail of rock dust chases behind your vehicle. On the left, another cemetery…this one prophetically named “North Liberty.” Its tallest monument is barely visible from the road. At its base is inscribed MAXSON.

Upon reaching Hayes Avenue, I again turned north…more dust, and cattle eye me from an overgrazed pasture to my left. And finally, a crude driveway leads to a disordered collection of farm buildings…five silver grain bins, a metal pole barn, a wooden machine shed, the skeletal remains of an old windmill, muddy corrals churned by innumerable hooves. Typical Iowa farm country…cows and corn.  But what is concealed in the tall grass by the roadside? Next to the metal post displaying fire number “1779.” A hint of red granite is barely visible beneath a robust sycamore tree. At the risk of chiggers and voracious mosquitoes, I parted the grass stalks to reveal a bronze plaque. A plaque which reads:
And poetic words from Whittier:

May 21, 2011. Photo by H. Scott Wolfe
This neglected marker, erected by the Iowa Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1924, reveals that this is no ordinary farm yard. This is hallowed ground…a crucial link in the chain of events that led inexorably to Harper’s Ferry.

It was 1839 when William Maxson and Ebenezer Gray became the first to settle these fertile uplands west of the Cedar River. A decade later, Maxson replaced his log cabin with a substantial six-room farmhouse. Built in the “cottage style,” it was “a one-story structure, 24 x 38, with a roomy attic, and an annex on the north side, 16x 20. The wood work was of native walnut, with hand carved pieces at the door and window frames, and with lath split from the native oak.” The house was constructed of stone, covered with proportioned amounts of gravel, sand and lime…and was often noted as the oldest “grout” or “cement” house in the State of Iowa.

The Gray farmhouse, seen in the background, has since 
been torn down and replaced by a cornfield. 
Collection of H. Scott Wolfe
William Maxson himself, said a chronicler, was “endowed with great natural ability,” was “a deep thinker,” and “was fearless in the expression of his views.” He was a stalwart lover of liberty and his fellow man, “not alone in word, but in deed.” Of Quaker ancestry, he was not, in fact, a practitioner of that nonviolent creed. So when in late December 1857, two covered wagons carrying ten of John Brown’s disciples rumbled into his farm yard, William Maxson had no qualms about sheltering these “well tried men…all of them pledged to stand by the work.”

John Brown had recruited the men in Kansas during the previous autumn. They had rendezvoused at Tabor, in southwest Iowa, with the intention of traveling eastward to Ashtabula County, Ohio…where they would be given “the benefit of a winter’s training in military matters.” December was a bitterly cold month, as the party literally walked across the snowy prairies, sleeping in the wagons or abandoned buildings along the way.

On the 29th, Brown and his comrades reached Springdale. He had hoped to sell his teams and wagons, and then proceed via the railroad from nearby West Liberty. But money was tight, the effects of the Panic of 1857 extending to the furthest boundaries of the nation. So he decided to board, and train, his men at that antislavery enclave, while he continued eastward to meet with his financial and moral supporters. And William Maxson, his farm conveniently isolated and his freethinking philosophy amenable to military training, was willing to accommodate the recruits at the “reasonable” rate of $1.50 each, per week.

Original photographic postcard in collection of H. Scott Wolfe
The names of these men are familiar to those who know both the Chatham Constitutional Convention and the Harper’s Ferry raid: Brown’s son Owen; Aaron D. Stevens; John H. Kagi; John E. Cook; Richard Realf; Charles W. Moffett; Luke F. Parsons; Charles P. Tidd; William H. Leeman…Kansas veterans all. And Richard Richardson, an escaped slave from Lexington, Missouri. Four additional men were to be recruited in Springdale during that historic winter: the Quaker brothers Edwin and Barclay Coppoc, and Steward Taylor and George B. Gill, both residents of West Liberty.

A regular routine was soon instituted, consisting of “study, military exercise and labor.” Aaron Stevens, the notorious “Colonel Whipple” of Kansas (and a cashiered soldier formerly of the First United States Dragoons), was appointed drillmaster. His text was the “Manual of the Patriotic Volunteer,” which had been assembled by the English adventurer Hugh Forbes…the man first hired by Brown to provide military instruction. There were sessions of gymnastics and company maneuvers…along with sham battles and drilling (“each man was provided with a hickory drill sword”) in the meadow to the east of the farmhouse. One observer noted: “The passer-by often looked with wonder at the uncommon spectacle in that quiet, peaceful neighborhood of Quakers, who preached and practiced only the peaceful arts.”

collapsing east facade.  Photo taken Feb. 16, 1934 
by the Historic American Buildings Survey
Tuesday and Friday evenings were regularly set aside for debates. The men created a “mock legislature,” which governed the mythical “State of Topeka.” Stevens and Kagi were the “lions” of these occasions, sometimes arguing throughout the night. Bills were introduced, referred, and voted upon. One session involved the creation of a State Seal, which was described as “a cannon mounted on a carriage, an African standing on the cannon holding in his right hand a drawn sword, supporting in the left a banner with the inscription ‘Justice To All Mankind.’” At another, on a less serious note, John Cook was formally censured for “hugging girls in the Springdale Legislature.”

Other long winter evenings were devoted to visiting the neighbors and “flirting with the pretty Quaker girls,” who considered the men “an important addition to their quiet society.” Tidd scandalized one…and Charley Moffett met the woman he would someday marry.  Cook and Realf, both “of a literary turn,” lectured at nearby schoolhouses.  And long discussions were held in the Maxson parlor. Owen Brown’s diary lists an eclectic assortment of topics such as: the definition of sin; the philosophy of Northern lights; the good or bad effects of tobacco, opium and adulterated liquors; the state of the national treasury; Nicaragua; Shakespeare; mesmerism; Thomas Paine; the commerce of Asia and Japan; how to sight rifles; and the chief end of man’s existence.

John Brown returned to Springdale on April 27, 1858…and the men departed for Ohio, Canada and their ultimate date with history. “Before quitting the home of Wm. Maxson, where they had spent so long a time, each of Brown’s men wrote his name in pencil on the wall of the parlor, where the writing could at a time quite recent be seen by the interested traveler.” Yes, the Maxson farmhouse continued to have a history all its own.

now occupied by a farm machinery shed. 
(Photo by H. Scott Wolfe, May 21, 2011)
I first visited Springdale in the early 1980s, my only guide being a crude map which had been printed in an old Iowa historical journal. I walked the two cemeteries and then anxiously set off to find the site of the Maxson farm. Having previously consulted the sources, I was aware of the existence of the 1924 DAR monument…and knew that the house itself had been torn down in 1938. But I needed to “walk the ground,” and determine exactly where that noble residence had once proudly stood.
Once arrived, the scene was quite different from today. Yes, the same odd assortment of farm buildings lined the muddy drive…but the red granite monument sat, not in a welter of weeds and grass, but in the well-manicured front lawn of a substantial two-story farmhouse. I knocked on the door, hoping to gain information on the location of the old Maxson place…but there was no answer. Temporarily stymied, I then thought of Herbert Hoover.

West Branch, Iowa, the Quaker town five miles to the west, is also the site of the Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. Could their archives contain local history materials? Perhaps dealing with the neighboring villages of Springdale and Pedee? It was worth the attempt, and I soon found myself conducting my very first research at such an august institution.

It was a rude awakening. I was virtually strip searched, conducted to a seat, and allowed the use of a single pencil and sheet of paper. A camera swung precariously above, making sure that I did not run off with any of Herb and Lou’s love notes. But the archivist was exceedingly friendly and helpful, even providing me with a folder specifically dealing with John Brown. It contained an article about the demolition of the Maxson house…some interesting images…and a copy of a letter written by George Gill, one of the Springdale recruits. It was a productive visit.

While departing, I inquired whether there might be someone in West Branch who had first hand recollections of the Maxson place. After all, the year 1938 was not THAT remote. The response was instantaneous: “Why, Margery Gray. Would you like me to call her?”

Within ten minutes I was firmly implanted on the couch at the Gray residence on North 6th Street. The place was the prototype of the Grandma’s house…Victorian clutter, a wealth of handmade quilts…and that unmistakable odor, a blend of baked cookies and cold cream.

“So you are interested in John Brown,” said my hostess.
“Yes I am,” I responded, “particularly the old Maxson farmhouse north of Springdale. Do you remember it?”
“Very well,” she said, “it was my late husband’s homeplace. He helped to tear it down back in the thirties.”
Well, that hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. But then I settled in for what can be termed Margery’s Soliloquy.

In 1890 the Maxson farm had been purchased by James W. Gray, a direct descendant of Ebenezer Gray the old settler…and Margery’s father-in-law. Her husband, Robert, had been born on the farm in 1896, in the very house I had knocked upon earlier in the day.  During their residency, the old Maxson house had been the scene of frequent reunions, both of the Gray and Maxson families, and of surviving veterans of the Kansas struggle. An account of an 1898 event quickens the imagination:
As I mingled today with the surviving friends of John Brown on ground made sacred by the tread of the feet of martyrs forty years ago, I heard the recital of their recollections of the little band who here prepared for the tragic enterprise that was to shake slavery’s hold and leave a permanent record upon all American history and this particular portion of Cedar County…The exercises were held in front of the old Maxson house among the great cedars planted by its builder nearly fifty years ago. The stars and stripes waved above us; portraits of old John Brown, Wm. Maxson, Edwin and Barclay Coppock looked down on us from the trees; (and) on the table were the Sharp’s rifle and revolver carried by Coppock in the Harper’s Ferry campaign.
But as the years passed, the house began to deteriorate. The curious, particularly the relic hunters, began to weaken it even more. Wrote one Cedar County historian: “The relic hunter is making sad havoc of what remains…The old house yet suffers when some visitor from far away is determined to carry off an entire window casing to make for himself a cane. The choicest of black walnut was used to finish the windows and doors and these casings furnish the best of souvenirs….”

By the late 1930s, the Gray family became concerned about the structure’s dangerous condition. So, despite the fact that the State of Iowa had actually approved a plan for the preservation and restoration of the house, the teetering remains were pulled down and hauled away. The cellar, the old “slave tunnel” of Underground Railroad lore, was utilized as a dumping ground.  Today, the house site is occupied by a wooden machine shed…filled with decaying equipment and the bright green and yellow of John Deere tractors.

“So your husband actually helped to take it down?,” I asked. “Yes indeed, let me show you something.” And Margery disappeared into the next room. She returned with what can only be described as the world’s ugliest lamp. The stem appeared to be composed of a turned piece of wood…trailing a long electrical cord…and topped with a 1950s patterned lampshade which could only be described as of the “delirium tremens school” of design.  “And what is that?,” I inquired. “This is the only thing Bob kept from the Maxson place. He made it himself from a piece of the walnut newel post of the stairway.”

And indeed it was, as I closely examined it. It was turned walnut, with a pair of light colored inlays…each a representation of the Maxson house itself. “Someone in Bob’s family put those inlays in,” she said. And around the base was inscribed: “John Brown 1857-8.” That historic winter.

I was flabbergasted, but recovered quickly. Having been born and raised in a capitalist country, I phrased my question carefully: “Mrs. Gray, I came to Cedar County to study the Maxson farm and view the site for myself. I had no idea that such an artifact as this existed before your kind invitation for me to come and visit. But I have to ask you, (DEEP BREATH) would you consider selling your lamp?”

Puzzlement. I rushed with the follow-up: “I will offer you $X for it…AND I will take you out to the best steakhouse in West Branch, Iowa.” (BREATH NOW BEING HELD) “Oh, it’s doing nothing but gather dust. And in that you are so interested in the Maxsons, you may buy it,” she responded. (GREAT SIGH OF RELIEF)

with image of William Maxson. 
Photo by Nancy Wolfe
So Mrs. Gray and I had a copious dinner at one of those classic Iowa “cook your own steak” restaurants. And when I left West Branch for home, I made one more trip out to the site of the Maxson farm. With the newel post occupying the passenger seat, I must say that this visit was more closely related to a religious pilgrimage…a fragment of the “True Cross” at my side.

In my notebook I had a copy of a poem written by Lydia Maxson, a daughter-in-law of William Maxson. And I paused to read these lines from "The Old Gravel House":
“A hero with his God-sent band,
Unheeding threats or frowns,
Across thy threshold planned and wrought,
And gained a martyr’s crown.”
“And thou, old house, that in thy prime,
Saw freedom’s dawning day,
No fears of clanking chains and strife,
Shall mock at thy decay.”
“Old House! We’re standing in thy shade,
That shadow made sublime,
Through solemn years and memories,
Of strange and wondrous times.”
H. Scott Wolfe
* H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois, Public Library District. We are pleased to introduce him as a correspondent and contributor, noting his many years of grassroots research on John Brown, the Harper's Ferry raiders, and related themes.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I have seen many items fashioned from the wood of the Maxson farmhouse, from a set of clothing buttons to the case of a grandfather’s clock. A complete door can be viewed today in the permanent collection of the Civil War Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin…a door panel, in the small historical museum in West Branch, Iowa.


Irving B. Richman, John Brown Among the Quakers. Des Moines: Historical Department of Iowa, 1894.
Jeannette Mather Lord. “John Brown – They Had a Concern,” West Virginia History, Vol. XX, No. 3 (April 1959).
John Brown in Cedar County. Tipton, Iowa: Cedar County Historical Society, Tipton, Iowa, n.d.


Unknown said...

HI, I have been doing a little research on my familys history. And came across a picture of the William Maxson gravel house. It is just a copy and not the best, but it is the same house as your pictures. The caption reads picture taken 1878 and in the picture are Walter James, Joseph Phelps from Ohio and James and Hannah Phelps who purchased the house in 1866. James and Hannah Phelps would be I believe my Great Great Great Great grandparents.

Unknown said...

Pam, your post caught my eye as I am also currently researching my family's history. James and Hannah Phelps is my mom's great great grandparents and would be my great great great grandparents. Feel free to contact me if you'd like to compare notes and see how we're related. brown.jeanniep@gmail.com

Derek Maxson said...

William Maxson is my 3rd Great Grandfather. Thanks for preserving his story. I hope to pilgrimage to Springdale to retrace the steps.

Unknown said...

I followed your directions and found the marker. There is a new house there now and they keep the stone clear and well taken care of. I live in Cedar County and am fascinated by it's history. An article from West Branch said that they have found what they believe to be enslaved people's graves at the other side of the North Liberty cemetery but they ran out of grant money. Thank you so much. We had a wonderful adventure.