Monday, September 21

The Two-wheeled historian visits Iowa's UGRR

While still fussing with the Nicodemus and Topeka, KS post, other road trips have come and gone. As part of my ongoing Underground Railroad project, I headed out on Sunday morn, September 20th, for southern Iowa.

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I had huge riding plans for the weekend but everything changed when I lost my wallet Friday night and discovered it missing as I was packing at 3:30a.m. for my trip. The restaurant, where I knew I left it didn't open until noon! They didn't even have an answering machine set up. I started calling at 6a.m. and by 9a.m I still couldn't get through. What business doesn't have an answering machine?! I called throughout the morning, hoping someone would pick up. No one picked up until noon! The wallet was there and a dear friend (thanks, Cindy) retrieved it for me as I dared not ride the bike without having my driver's license. That would be the day I'm stopped for some reason. Isn't there an old Blues song that goes..."if is wasn't for bad luck I wouldn't have any luck at all." By the time I got my hands on my wallet, with all cards and money intact, it was way too late and I was way too stressed to begin a trip. Missed another gorgeous day.

Sunday, I was ready to leave at 5 a.m. In one direction the weather gurus predicted a 20% chance of rain; in the other, 40%. I took the road statistically less rainy--southern Iowa. The two sites there that I wanted to visit didn't open until 1pm, which is late for my taste. First stop, Salem, IA, a once all Quaker town in the 1830s, and onto the Keosauqua, IA. Like Ohio, Iowa had a large number of UGRR (Underground Railroad) stations given the Quaker presence there. Unlike, Ohio, most of Iowa's are now gone, some through fire or deliberate demolition after falling into disrepair.

In Salem, stands the Henderson Lewelling House on Main Street, just a stones throw from the old Quaker cemetery down the road. I like getting to the place I want to explore, so I took the Interstate, knowing that some pretty nice county roads awaited me, which are always a treat. I like too old two lanes highways. The only thing I don't like is too often there are too few places to pull off for a photo op. Fortunately, many of these roads have very little traffic so it's not impossible to get a picture of a beautiful old barn or grazing cows and horses. I was in a riderly mood and didn't plan to stop much. I would have been fun to have Dave's GS on this trip as it would have better handled all the gravel encountered on this trip. I recall a U-turn I executed and a slight wiggle of the back tire on gravel--oops!

Temps in the 70s, the weather was ideal until I got near Galesburg. The sky turned angry and gray and opened. It rained from 1:20 until 2:00p.m--a hard, heavy downpour! So much for taking the road less rainy! After a good soaking, I checked the GPS for the nearest gas station where I headed to find a shelter to don my rain gear. By the time I reached Burlington, IA a blue sky with nary a mean cloud in it welcomed me. I stopped at the Port of Burlington to set the GPS for Salem and poke around a little.

I was doing badly on time but I didn't care. I just needed to ride and if I arrived and the UGRR sites were open, fine; if not, I would at least see the structure. I passed far too many old barns without stopping, which is plenty of reason to return to this area.

Ugh! Time is always an issue. I realized that I was later than I thought! Oh well...I was now on course to arrive in both Salem and Keosauqua after the UGRR stations were closed.

I arrived in Salem, and immediately found Main St. Nicely placed signs lead right to the Henderson Lewelling House. I observed two cars in the gravel lot and one was leaving. According to my watch, the museum should already have been closed for fifteen minutes. But opened back door beckoned me in and after parking the bike, I made a beeline inside.

Once inside, I walked to the front of the house and startled a white-haired old lady who was sitting in a rocking chair going through some old newspaper clippings. She said they were closed but that she would quickly take me through, "since I'm not busy." I signed the book but didn't have two dollars in exact change for the donation. She didn't have change. I dropped a five dollar bill into the jar and told her to keep the extra three (am I a big spender or what?!). When she checked my sign in and saw that I was from Illinois, things changed. "Oh, since you're from Chicago, I'll do a tour for you--that's a long way." And tour she did! We had a most lovely discussion of the Underground Railroad stations in the Midwest. She beamed when she told me she had attended the recent conference in Springfield, IL, which I had so wanted to attend. She picked up some new titles on the subject and shared stories she had heard about various stations throughout the Midwest. She kept interrupting her tales with memories of stories related and unrelated to the UGRR--I was loving each minute!

The Henderson Lewelling House was a safe place for runaway slaves. Lewelling, was a staunch abolitionist and member of the Quakers who believed that they should become actively involved in resisting slavery's evils. It is a myth that all Quakers were anti-slavery to the point of activism. Salem's Quaker activity is a good example of the split that fractured the Quakers in one small town. Quakers shared that slavery was an abomination but some felt strongly that they should obey the law and not get involved in anti-slavery activism. I guess, they were the "let's just pray about it" faction. Another group (thank God!) felt that they had no obligation or responsibility to follow unjust laws and felt it their moral and religious duty to help put an an end to that "peculiar institution" called slavery.

In his travels, Henderson Lewelling never forgot seeing humans shackled and vowed to do what he could to put an end to such human suffering.

Several areas inside his house--all built beneath the floor--provided temporary shelter for escaped slaves. This secret network of transporting fleeing slave to safety was efficient and orderly. Runaway slaves were hidden until they could be carried safely--only at night-- farther north until they reached Canada. Inside the Lewelling house these clandestine places were kept out of sight by throwing a rug over the space and putting a bed or table over the hideaway. Looking down into these dark, small, cramped holes is pretty frightening but I would imagine nothing is as awful as being owned and kept in involuntary servitude where beatings and selling off "stock" were frequent.
(The railing was put in place to protect tourist. The trap door would be closed and covered by a rug and a table placed over the area.)

Lewelling sounded like a real character. He was the father of a big brood. He lived in Salem for years and then moved on to Oregon. He's known for more than his anti-slavery work. He is also acknowledged for almost single handily bringing fruit trees to Salem. He carried many fruit trees on to Oregon too during a particularly difficult journey west and planted them. There he also established a fruit production industry. In fact, Fruitvale, CA is named for Lewelling's fruit production in that area. Today Lewelling is know as the "father of the Pacific fruit industry" and credited with permeating Iowa, Oregon and California with his gift for fruit production. I applaud this too but it is his work as a devout and activist Quaker that captures my heart most.

Salem, Iowa is in a location that benefited its anti-slavery efforts. It is in close proximity to the Mississippi and Des Moines rivers, both providing escape routes for slaves.

The problem is that Salem is close to Missouri, a slave state. My favorite story is when a Missouri slaveholder named Daggs came to Lewelling's door, bring with him a cannon that he placed in Lewelling's front yard, aimed at Lewelling's house! He threatened to use it if Lewelling didn't return his human property. Lewelling didn't scare easily. He claimed not to know what the man was talking about. News travels fast in a small town. Let Rachel Kellum tell the story of the Daggs' slaves and the cannon. I couldn't help think of the terrorist behavior of the Missourians who, as Kellum describes, bogarted their way into people's homes, searching for slaves and threatening to level an entire town. These terrorist acts are repeated throughout every states suspected of helping slaves escape bondage.

The Underground Railroad was an efficient network of people and houses that worked in the dark of night, moving slaves from one safe house to the next until there was no more clear and present danger. Their work was deliberate, methodical and quick. Secrecy was key. To make it work, the cooperation of many people was mandatory--even children were trained to not discuss their parents' nighttime activities.

Slaveholders were suspicious and befuddled. Slaves would flee and all roads seem to lead to Salem. But once there, the slaves seemed to vanish. Word would spread that a slaveholder was in town demanding his property. In one incident, the Salem authorities were summoned and the "owner" was asked for names and descriptions of his property. Eventually, because he was able to identify his "property" he was able to have several of his slaves returned to him but some were not returned. I'm hope they ran away again the first chance they got for they knew that once they crossed the Des Moines or Mississippi river, safe house in Salem would shelter them until they could move "up yonder."

Of the safe houses in Salem, only the Lewelling house still stands. If you are ever within 100 miles of this area, go there. Hear history come alive. Revisit the timea. Feel inspired by the abolitionists, the resisters, and the unsung heroes (and she-roes) that our history books either don't mention or gloss over.

I heard so many stories while at the Lewelling House that I left there riding a cloud. I already knew I wouldn't get to tour the Pearson House in Keosauqua. Still, it was only 25 miles away and the ride would be lovely beneath an azure sky with mash potato clouds. The bright sun had already dried out my wet gear and soaked gloves and my bike, Jesse Owens, purred along.

The ride to Keosauqua did not disappoint. The roads swoop and curve and roll along. Dodge Street in Keosauqua is easy to find, just look for the courthouse. The Franklin Pearson House is a big structure with many windows across the second level. The area around the Pearson House looked rich in history and I wished I had come early enough to hear the activities that transpired at the Pearson house. I took a couple of pictures and headed for home. I was feeling great and thinking I would abandon my plans to stay overnight somewhere nearby. According to the GPS, if I didn't stop, I would arrive home at 11:30pm but I needed to eat and take break soon as I now heard my stomach complain.

I enjoyed the roads for another hour before stopping to eat. I passed through many small towns that were cute and begging to be explored. I would have if I were sleeping over but I was in a ride mood and just wanted to keep going. I definitely felt moved to pause in Fort Madison. I passed by their "rebuilt" fort and wanted to know more about it. The town looked inviting. There were signs announcing the history of this and that--little towns all claiming their place in the regional and national history pages. I've never heard of Bentonsport or Bonaparte, but they both claim a national historic district that I'd like to visit.

Roads of note. Many places along US Hwy 34, 67 and 61, as well as State Hwy 2. Fun! Lots of big swooping curves, hilly with travel along a several state parks, preserves, and wildlife areas.

Both homes are on the National Registry of Historic Places and worth a visit. The Henderson Lewelling House may soon be made a National Historic Site, which is a huge accomplishment.

Sunday mileage: 620 miles
Fun factor 8/10--the rain was a bit much...