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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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Friday, March 23, 2018

From the Field: H. Scott Wolfe on "Razing A Landmark"




If this humble correspondent wished to sit down and create his own personal nightmare, the following would comprise its salient points:
It is a beautiful summer day on the Iowa prairie. I can hear the gentle rustling of the cornstalks…the melodious trill of innumerable meadowlarks. There is that indescribable smell of hot, productive earth. It is Quaker country, and an aura of calm, of peace, settles upon the rolling, shimmering landscape. History is palpable. These people have worked this ground and attended these churches for what seems an eternity.
I am ambling along a dirt road, a mile northeast of Springdale. And as I approach the farmstead of the Gray family, other sounds begin to impose themselves upon my consciousness. The laughs, the guttural clearings of throats of the work crew. The jangle of chains and the sudden ignition of a tractor engine. 
As I pass the red granite boulder, with its greenish plaque of bronze, I am met with a fog of choking dust; a cacophony of falling stone…of cracking wood…of whatever sounds are produced when history is being destroyed. Behind the Gray place and beyond the spindly iron windmill, the Maxson farmhouse lies in ruins. Then I wake up.
For those readers of this blog who might recall an earlier piece entitled “Farmer Maxson’s Newel Post” [Jun. 2, 2011], it will be obvious that I possess a certain attachment to this “old gravel house” which once hosted John Brown and the Provisional Army he led to Harpers Ferry. Some of my most fascinating research was conducted near Springdale…as I interviewed the old-timers who remembered the house…and I was even able to drive away with a surviving fragment of its polished walnut staircase.
Every time I visit the site, passing through the same cornstalks and hearing the same meadowlarks as in my dream, I can feel a growing tightness in my stomach…as I fantasize about what it would be like if the house still stood proudly as a monument to those who came before. What if? What if those of the 1930s, who recognized its significance and advocated its preservation, had been successful? But the ravages of weather, farm storage and souvenir hunting had brought the structure to the verge of collapse. The workers on the Gray farm administered the coup de grace. My nightmare is true.
But I continue to piece together the saga of the Maxson farmhouse. The old-timers have gone to their reward…but there are still images and documentary accounts out there to be found and studied. I herewith offer one such account, as it appeared in the Iowa City Press Citizen of Monday, 29 August 1938:



West Branch - The “old John Brown house” has been torn down. The historic gravel house in which John Brown wintered his handful of followers in 1857-58, on what was then the William Maxson farm, seven miles northeast of West Branch and three miles from Springdale, had fallen into such disrepair that it was no longer safe to enter, so the Gray family, now owning the farm, decided to tear it down. Many visitors go to the Gray farm to see the historic landmark and for safety, but against sentiment, the house was razed.
Maxson House in Desrepair (Historic American Buildings Survey)
       Several attempts have been made to restore the house, but nothing was accomplished. The D.A.R. members, however, erected a marker with a native boulder on which was placed a bronze tablet carrying the inscription which indicated the history of the place.

The old gravel house was of architectural interest, being unusually fine for its period, as well as being historically interesting. It occupied the site of the first white man’s cabin built on this side of the Cedar River in Cedar County in 1839, by William Maxson. Mr. Maxson built the gravel house in 1848, its walls a foot thick, its lath of split native oak, and its woodwork of hand-carved walnut. The one-story structure, 24 by 38 feet, with an annex, 16 by 20 feet, had five rooms. A huge stone fireplace in the living room duplicated another in the basement, in which runaway slaves could be hidden. The basement room, too, was frequently used as a station on the “underground railway,” with Negroes grouped about the fireplace to sing and dance in happy anticipation of freedom.

Missing East Wall (Historic American Buildings Survey
  From the Maxson farm they were spirited at night to the next point on the phantom route. Surrounding the house was the timber, a dense wooded area separating the farm from the river, and since it was remote from the main traveled trails, it was ideal for Brown’s purpose.

John Brown’s first visit to West Branch occurred in the fall of 1856, but he remained only a short time. More than a year later, in the latter part of December, 1857, he returned, accompanied by a curious cavalcade of followers, consisting of a dozen white men, two or three wagons, a few mules and some slaves who were being helped to freedom. His money was scarce and although he was enroute to Ashtabula County, Ohio, he was obliged to winter his “army” in Iowa while he continued his journey east to solicit funds.
William T. Maxson 

He was delighted to leave them in this peaceful locality, for the Quakers were sympathetic to his cause, although they disapproved his methods. Whether or not they would have sheltered his men is not known, for William Maxson, who was not a member of the Society of Friends, took them in, and shared his five rooms of his home with the young men during that memorable winter.

      When Brown continued his way east he left behind his son, Owen Brown, about 30 years old; Richard Realf, a brilliant young Englishman of 23; John Henri Kagi, shorthand reporter and western correspondent for the New York Post; Aaron D. Stephens, known as Colonel Whipple; John Edwin Cook, Luke J. Parsons, William H. Leeman, Charles Plummer Tidd, Charles W. Moffit, and a Negro named Richardson. When they went east they were accompanied by Edwin Coppock of Springdale, who met his death with John Brown at Harpers Ferry.

Crumbling Farm Storage (Historic American Buildings Survey
The young men of Brown’s company were delighted with the associations they found in the neighborhood of Springdale. Cultured and giving up excellent prospects in business for the pursuit of their “cause,” they enjoyed the social privileges of the locality, but since their business came first, they rigidly observed the rules by rising early in the mornings and devoting the forenoons to military drill on the grounds east of the Maxson house.

 The afternoons were given to reading, study, writing or painting, and the evenings were devoted to spirited debates. Two evenings of each week were devoted to mock legislatures, which at first were held in the Maxson living room and later in the Springdale school house. Such subjects as the abolition of slavery, prohibitory liquor laws and the national banking system were discussed with brilliance and ability.
Late in April, 1858, John Brown returned and hurried preparations were made for departure. George B. Gill accompanied them as Brown’s secretary, and two Coppock boys deserted the village to go east on what the Quakers sadly feared was a hopeless and dangerous journey.

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