Sunday, September 24, 2017

Grinnell's Potters' Field: Who's Buried There?

When I began this blog a couple of years ago, I asked the rhetorical question, "Whose stories deserve to be told?" My point was that narratives of our past commonly exclude large swaths of the population: women; members of religious, racial or ethnic minorities; the disabled; and the poor. The resulting stories, therefore, omit a great deal, and often overlook the unhappy and unsuccessful lives that also belong to our past.

Perhaps nothing illustrates so well the difference between stories told and lives forgotten as potter's fields. A term whose precise origins remain obscure, potter's fields have existed since at least biblical times when, according to Christian scriptures, the chief priests took the money returned by Judas Iscariot, and used it to purchase a "potter's field in which to bury strangers." Already excavated for the clay potters used in their craft, potter's fields made for inexpensive burial of the unknown (strangers) and those too poor to acquire their own burial sites. Like many other places, New York City continues to maintain its own potters' field on Hart Island where the unclaimed bodies of the indigent, criminal, and the unidentified continue to take their final resting place. As in most potter's fields, there the dead sleep unidentified, with no markers or gravestones to testify to their once having been part of the human story.
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery (2017 photo)
It might surprise some to learn that Grinnell's Hazelwood Cemetery also includes a potter's field. Occupying a strip across the southeastern edge of the original cemetery, Grinnell' potter's field provides burial for transients, the poor, and others for whom no one spoke when death claimed them. Seen from the nearby roadway, Hazelwood's potter's field gives the appearance of uninterrupted lawn, a sharp contrast to the rest of the cemetery where stone markers stubbornly poke skyward, announcing the identities of those buried there. In fact, however, Hazelwood's potter's field, for all its apparent anonymity, includes some grave markers—small, modest slabs of cement into which the barest information was inscribed before the cement hardened. This post uses these slabs and other resources to resurrect the stories of some of the people who died in Grinnell and, for lack of means or identity, were buried in Hazelwood's potter's field.

Additional evidence with which to untangle the history of potter's field comes from old cemetery records recently transferred to the Drake Community Library local history room. Among the papers transferred from city provenance is a single page that reported on those—or at least some of those—buried in Hazelwood's potter's field.
Plats, Hazelwood Cemetery, Drake Community Library, Local History Room, Box #6
This single page identifies almost 90 persons, whose deaths stretched from 1885 to 1963. Some names appear with an attempt at localizing the grave ("two feet southeast of tree"), and some appear with numbers whose meaning is unclear. Otherwise, the descriptions are spare (not to mention difficult to make out), and follow no obvious order. Nevertheless, this page provides an introduction to some whose destiny took them to this isolated corner of Hazelwood cemetery. With the help of the occasional grave marker, the potter's field list helps us learn who were the people who ended up there, and perhaps discover what brought them to this destination.
***
Part-way down the first column of the cemetery's list of potter's field burials one finds the following entry: "Anna Coply [sic] April 12, 1920 Strangers Rest." We know little about this woman, except for a brief report published in the Grinnell Herald's listing of local news (April 9, 1920): 
Mrs. Anna Copley died at the Community hospital last night [=8 April]. The body was taken to the Snyder Brothers undertaking parlors this morning to await funeral arrangements. The deceased was about 35 years old.
How or why Copley came to Grinnell remains unknown, but clearly the newspaper did not know her, having misidentified Allie Stepp Copley (1882-1920) as Anna, and able only to guess her age. Apparently no more news arrived before her body was consigned to potter's field, gently titled here as "stranger's rest."

In fact, strangers who died suddenly in town with no kin to help or claim them often found their final rest in Hazelwood's potter's field. I wrote earlier about two Mexicans who came to Grinnell in the 1940s on temporary jobs, and died here suddenly. Both joined Mrs. Copley in "stranger's rest." Manuel Rodriguez Ramos drowned in Arbor Lake in July, 1944, and the following year Melchior Hernandez died in a Grinnell hospital. Local officials were uncertain about exactly where the two men came from, and had no way to contact relatives, no doubt explaining how the Mexicans ended up permanently at rest in Grinnell's potter's field.
Melchior Hernandez, August 17, 1945 (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery

Manuel R. Ramos, [July] 20, 194[4] (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemeteery
Another Grinnell transient who ended up in potter's field came from a different continent. In June, 1932, Arthur Borowski, an itinerant interior painter, fell ill in Grinnell, and was admitted to St. Francis Hospital. For almost two months, Borowski remained in hospital, but the hospital register indicated no diagnosis nor treatment. August 5th, Borowski died. When admitted to St. Francis, Borowski had evidently told officials that he had come to town from Omaha, but the published notice of his death observed that the "only known living relative is a sister who lives in Poland," a fact that guaranteed that Borowski would be buried in potter's field.
Grinnell Herald, August 5, 1932
Even those who were familiar to Grinnellians might end up in potter's field. Take the case of "Rusty" Taylor, whom the newspaper described as an "eccentric recluse," and who burned to death in an accident January 13, 1944. The Grinnell Herald-Register (January 13, 1944) reported that Taylor had lived for "many years in a shack near the site of the old tile factory" south of town. Called a "mechanic of exceptional ability, almost a genius," Taylor nevertheless "rarely worked, preferring to live alone in his little shack with his pets," among which he numbered a badger, rats and snakes. Some years earlier Taylor had worked with Billy Robinson on his airplanes, but he had had little regular work for years. Because the McBlain greenhouse on East Street had recently suffered fire damage, Mrs. McBlain had hired Rusty Taylor as night watchman. At some time after 4 o'clock that morning when his employer had checked on him, Taylor fell asleep and "his oil-soaked clothing caught fire." According to a neighbor who was aroused by Taylor's shouts, Rusty threw himself out the door of the greenhouse, and hit the ground, rolling over and over in an attempt to put out the flames. But he was unsuccessful, the coroner reporting that Taylor had third-degree burns over his entire body.

As with transient strangers, no one in Grinnell knew much about Taylor, despite his having lived in Grinnell for decades. The newspaper allowed that he was "about 56 years old and was born in Canada," but there was little else to go on. Officials apparently learned the identity of a brother said to be living in Princeton, Illinois, and a sister who was thought to live in Canada. The newspaper said that officials were trying to contact relatives, but either they failed to reach his siblings or the relatives disassociated themselves from their "eccentric" kinsman, allowing him to take his rest in Hazelwood's potter's field.

Luke W. Taylor, Jan[uary] 13, 1944 (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery
A similar destiny befell Everett Fulton, who was "about 65 years old" when he "dropped dead about 4 o'clock Friday afternoon in the Rex cigar store" on Fourth Avenue. Apparently Fulton had just come from a doctor's office, bringing a prescription to have the pharmacy fill. But death caught him unawares as he sat in a chair, awaiting the medicine that might have saved him. Reporting on the man's demise, the newspaper (Grinnell Herald-Register, January 16, 1950) admitted that, although Fulton "had been around Grinnell for a good many years and had been employed as a hired hand by several farmers," little was known about Everett Fulton except that he had previously worked as a coal miner in Kansas. A subsequent report (January 19) indicated that officials had reached two sons—one in Kansas and the other in Texas. Both expressed an intention to come to Grinnell, but apparently without taking responsibility for their father's burial, as Fulton entered Hazelwood's potter's field soon thereafter.
Everett Fulton, Jan[uary] 20, 1950 (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery
Likewise, when Martin Parse (1883-1930) of 1527 Davis Avenue died, the brief newspaper account admitted that, although the man had lived in Grinnell "most of his life," he had lived largely out of sight to most of the town. The published report claimed that Parse had a son, but his death certificate, reporting that he had died of carcinoma of the prostate, identified him as "single." In any case, if any kin survived Parse, none arrived to claim his body, so that Martin Parse soon joined other "strangers" in potter's field.
Martin Parse, May 5, 1930 (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery
Even when survivors were known and close by, the deceased might nevertheless be left to join the penurious and unknown in potter's field—which is what happened to Arthur Tompkins (1887-1933), who died of injuries incurred in an automobile accident. His skull fractured, Tompkins died soon after admission to hospital, but, as the newspaper confirmed (Grinnell Herald, March 24, 1933), he was survived by his wife and several children. Indeed, his wife, Helen, when reached at their Des Moines home, served as informant for officials who completed the death certificate. Nevertheless, for reasons unknown, Tompkins joined the others in potter's field.

***
One fairly obvious contributor to the potter's field was the railroad. J. B. Grinnell is famous for having selected a site for his new town based upon the coming of the railroads, and, of course, the railroads did come, and they contributed mightily to the town's well-being. But less often remarked upon is the fact that the railroads also played their part in helping populate Hazelwood's potter's field. Of the several persons to have been killed at the railroad one of the most pathetic was never identified, and therefore the small cement marker embedded in the grass over his potter's field grave describes him only as "unknown man railroad victim." According to news reports (Grinnell Herald, November 6, 1931), an elderly man with a wooden leg had stepped in front of the Rock Island Train No. 9 at 9:15 in the morning of November 4, 1931. The train severed the man's head and one arm, killing him instantly. No identification was found in the dead man's clothing, and, despite the dispatch of fingerprints to Washington, DC, the victim was never identified, and his body was buried at Hazelwood, November 10, 1931.
"Unknown Man," November 10, 1931  (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery
Another occupant of Potter's field owes the railroad for his permanent resting place. James O'Malley, who earlier had lived and worked in Grinnell for some years, on June 7, 1933 rode a freight train from Des Moines where he had looked for a job. As the train approached Grinnell's Railway Express office at Park and Third, O'Malley tried to jump off. But something caught, and, instead of landing on his feet away from the train, he fell beneath it. "One leg was badly crushed, and O'Malley died from shock and loss of blood," the newspaper reported (Grinnell Herald, June 9, 1933). Authorities attempted to contact O'Malley's wife in Newburg, Oregon, but either these efforts did not succeed or the woman declined to accept her husband's body. As a result, James O'Malley was put to rest in Hazelwood's potter's field June 10, 1933.
James P. O'Malloy [sic] (1873?-1933), June 10, 1933 (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery 
In October, 1940 yet another freight train generated a potter's field burial. The Grinnell Herald (October 31, 1940) reported that a "Negro hobo reached the end of the trail" when a Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway "southbound freight severed his body at the waist after he fell from a carload of poles." According to an acquaintance who was riding the freight with him, both men had been drinking alcohol on the ride down from Marshalltown. When the train stopped at the Grinnell depot, William Hart (as he was later identified) awoke to vomit, and when the train jerked to a start, he "fell off between the cars." Apparently at first unharmed, Hart tried to make his way across the rails to escape, but the moving freight caught him and cut him in two. Like O'Malley, Hart was known in town. The newspaper said that since Hart often stopped in Grinnell, many would have recognized him, "a rather stooped man who always used a cane because of an impediment in his walk." But local familiarity with Hart was only superficial, since no friends or kin asked for his body, leading to his burial in potter's field.
William Hart (1900?-1940), October 30, 1940 (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery 
Perhaps the most wrenching tale of railroad death belongs to Velma Marie Davis. The June 2nd, 1933 issue of the Grinnell Herald reported that the little girl (whom the paper misidentified as "Vivian" Davis), left in the care of her invalid father in their home on the west edge of town, had wandered out of the house and through the fence. For reasons known only to her, little Velma started walking the tracks with her dog. Unfortunately, at just that time a freight train was headed west out of Grinnell, and began to pick up steam as it left town. Before the engineer noticed the tyke the train had run over both dog and child. The train screeched to a stop, but too late to help the girl or dog. Extracted from between the cars, some ten cars back of the engine, little Velma Marie was rushed to the hospital where she died an hour later.

Although numerous infants and children are buried in Hazelwood's potter's field, why Velma Marie ended up here is not clear. Unlike the transients described above, the little girl lived in town with her family, although apparently they had moved to Grinnell only a few months prior to the accident. But why would their brief residence in Grinnell leave her to join the unknown in potter's field? Perhaps the father's disability meant that the family had few resources and none to invest in a burial plot, and therefore acceded to the option of burying their daughter in potter's field. Or were there other reasons behind the abandonment of this little girl?
Velma Marie Davis (1931-1933), June 5, 1933 (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery
***
The death of Velma Davis highlights the fact that many of the graves in Hazelwood's potter's field belong to infants and children. At least twenty-two names on the cemetery list identify infants or children consigned to potter's field. As many readers will know, Hazelwood Cemetery includes "Baby Land," a section dedicated to the burial of children. Moreover, the graves of numerous infants and children can be found throughout the cemetery, often in proximity to parents and family. How did these little ones find their way to potter's field instead? Careful examination of some babies buried here offers possible explanations.

Part way down the second column of the hand-written list of those buried in potter's field, one finds reference to an "unnamed infant of F. H. Lagrange." Floyd LaGrange (1900-1969) was well-known in Grinnell where he lived all his life. In 1918 he married Vera Martin, and the 1930 census found them living at 1217 First Avenue, along with their three children: Colleen who was 9; Lorita, almost 5; and Judd, who was almost three. Their next child, who was born and died on the same day, May 3, 1935, ended up in Grinnell's potter's field. Records from that time, including the potter's field list, describe the child as unnamed, but Floyd's 1969 obituary identified the baby as Bernard Dean. Had the little baby boy, so long ago abandoned in potter's field, somehow remained alive in the memory of his parents and family?

Nothing survives to answer this question, nor does the available evidence explain why this baby was laid to rest in potter's field. The 1930 census reported that Floyd worked as a mechanic for the washing machine company, perhaps Maytag in Newton for whom he is said to have worked many years. His later employment—for Winpower, then Solar Aircraft in Des Moines, and finally for Berman Brothers Salvage Yard in Grinnell—gives little indication of his pay, but Floyd seems to have worked steadily and presumably, therefore, he maintained reasonable income. Nevertheless, his unnamed baby found permanent rest far from Floyd's and Vera's own graves in Hazelwood. Why?
Gravestones of Floyd and Vera LaGrange, West Hazelwood plot 467 (2017 photo)
The baby's death certificate cites as cause of death "prematurity," without any specifics. It may be, therefore, that the brevity of the baby's life—"ten minutes," according to the death certificate—coupled with the child's incomplete fetal development allowed the LaGrange family to separate themselves emotionally and physically from the newborn, and accede to the child's burial among the unknown. But then one wonders when and how this infant, unnamed when buried, came to have a name that remained in family consciousness at least until Floyd LaGrange's death in 1969.

Several other infants, whose circumstances we know less about, joined the LaGrange baby in potter's field. Guy Ewing, for example, was born September 13, 1932, but died in a few days, and was buried in potter's field September 17.
Guy L. Ewing, Infant, September 17, 1932 (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery
Richard Leroy Stanley was born October 23, 1934, but died the next day; he was buried a week later, not far from Guy Ewing. Nearby lay the unnamed child of Luther and Anna Mae Troxler, who was born premature (about six months, according to the death certificate) on January 21, 1934 and died on the same day.
Richard Leroy Stanley, October 30, 1934 (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery
One of the earliest potter's field burials commemorated with a stone was James Snyder, who joined the others in Hazelwood mid-September, 1903, several months before he could celebrate his second birthday.
The infants committed to potter's field make one wonder what explains their seemingly uncaring abandonment. If some, like the premature La Grange baby, barely lived and may not even have been fully formed, we can perhaps more readily understand their parents' distance. The same might be said about infants whose lives were measured in days or weeks—although Hazelwood is filled with graves of infants and children whose parents claimed them and buried them near themselves, no matter how brief the children's lives. Hardest of all to internalize are cases like James Snyder's—a child who had already spent a year in his parents' care before he succumbed. How did he earn their inattention when death called him?
***
Hazel Haines (1920-1936)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery
A very different story surrounds the grave of Hazel Mary Haines, above which stands a relatively new and handsome gravestone that provides the girl's full name (although apparently in mistaken order) and dates of birth and death. How this marker got there I don't know; perhaps one of her relatives took pity and later added this stone to her grave. But apparently at the time of her death her family abandoned her, like any stranger, to potter's field.

As the newspaper reports, Hazel was a suicide. Her death certificate confirms that Hazel Haines, when only sixteen years of age, shot herself in the left breast with a 22-calibre gun at 2:45 in the afternoon. What led this teenager to extinguish her own life may never be known, but how did a teenager with family in town end up buried in potter's field?

Born in Brooklyn, Iowa in 1920 and one of ten children to whom Pearl Otto Haines gave birth, Hazel had moved to Grinnell only three years previous to her death, the family taking up residence on north Summer Street. "A bright and intelligent young girl," the newspaper said (Grinnell Herald-Register, December 17, 1936), remarking that she "had promise of developing into a fine woman." Her father, Andrew Jackson Haines, who lived into his eighties (died in 1964), was a graduate of the Brooklyn schools, although his signature indicates that he might not have been fluidly literate. Hazel's mother also lived a long life filled with the labors of a farm and a large flock of offspring. None of this information, regrettably, casts much light on why a young, promising woman fired a gun into her chest.
Undated Photo of Hazel Haines
https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=haines&GSiman=1&GScid=95027&GRid=138619173&
Although her parents and several family members lived in Grinnell a long time, both Andrew and Pearl Haines were buried in Brooklyn Memorial Cemetery. Why did they not choose to bury Hazel near their own plots, and why did they allow her to go to Grinnell's potter's field? I could discover nothing that answered this question, leading me to wonder whether Hazel's suicide had generated an emotional barrier that Mr. and Mrs. Haines, reportedly long-time members of the Church of Christ, could not scale. It is worth noting that Hazel's funeral took place not in her parents' church but rather in the Northside Friends church. The newspaper notice published no word on the ceremonies, named no pallbearers nor kin, making the young girl seem very much like the strangers buried near her in potter's field. Perhaps—and this is only a guess—after the parents' deaths a sibling or some other relative sought to dignify Hazel's grave with a more expensive marker and added to her on-line grave memorial a fetching photograph of a smiling, energetic young woman.
***
No doubt many other stories lay undiscovered in the graves of Hazelwood's potter's field. Even this small selection, however, reminds us that the physical separation denoted by potter's field is but symbolic of the separation that Grinnell felt from those buried there. Many of those who ended up in potter's field were in fact transients—people like Arthur Borowski or Manuel Ramos—whose brief appearance in town provided no opportunity for them to be better known or for their distant kin to claim them. Some others who lived here longer nevertheless occupied a space distant from most of the town. People like Luke Taylor, regarded as "eccentric" and different, never joined the warp and weft of greater Grinnell, so that when dead, they remained, as they had been in life, objects of interest rather than members of a social body. Hazel Haines, who took her own life, had to succumb to a similar distance, presumably because of the manner of her death.

And what about the infants and children who occupy space in Hazelwood's potter's field? At least some of these children arrived prematurely and lived so briefly that not even their parents could think of them as whole persons. Others who lived longer, like James Snyder, present a situation harder to understand. Something unknown to us allowed his parents and family to consign him to permanent rest alongside the others who remained strangers to living Grinnell.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

"Boy Burglars" in Grinnell

People living in eastern and central Iowa may have heard of the recent robbery of a Grinnell Casey's, allegedly the work of a seventeen-year-old. As it happens, I had been working on a story about "boy burglars," a term that appeared with some frequency in early twentieth-century Iowa. A search of newspapers.com for this expression in Iowa newspapers between the years 1910 and 1919 got more than thirty hits, which surprised me; the term did not seem familiar, and I could not recall when—or if—I had encountered it in contemporary reporting. But there they were: a ten-year-old "boy burglar" in Des Moines (1912); two eleven-year-olds in Newton (1910); two eleven-year-olds in Davenport (1918); a twelve- and fourteen-year-old in Logan (1910); a thirteen-year-old in Sioux City (1912); and so on. Just as surprising, other news reports affixed the same label to young men in their late 'teens, or even to twenty-year-olds—like Curtis Kile, who was 20 when arrested in Davenport in 1919 with his accomplice, Ed Burke, aged 18.

Breaking into hardware stores and barber shops, grocery stores and ticket offices, the youthful villains often got away with pathetically small sums. For example, a 1913 Davenport robbery believed to be the work of "boy burglars" netted a box of cigars "and a small amount of money in pennies" (Quad-City Times, November 9, 1913). When Louis Arnold and Frederic Engler, whom the newspaper called "chronic store breakers," were arrested in Keokuk in 1918 for robbing a grocery store, the boys had made off with "some cigars, candy, cookies and chewing gum" (Daily Gate City and Constitution-Democrat, November 11, 1918). Yet, by combining their work in a series of thefts, junior criminals sometimes accumulated serious cash: when police descended upon a trio of boy burglars in 1919 Davenport, they "found merchandise valued at several hundred dollars," the result of a string of robberies of Rock Island merchants (Daily Times, June 5, 1919).

Occasionally, a young burglar was found attempting a very adult burglary, as happened in July, 1912 Des Moines when police captured ten-year-old Nash Allinkov "in the act of tapping the safe of the Siegel Bottling works." According to the newspaper, the boy "had in his possession a kit of tools of the kind usually carried by a professional safe-cracker" (Quad-City Times, July 18, 1912). Similarly, when 16-year-old Tony Nikalaski was captured in Fairfax in 1917, "he was in the act of burglarizing the office safe" of the Northwestern Railroad ticket agent.

Grinnell was not exempt from boy burglars, including, it seems, even the safe-cracking type. This Grinnell story looks at two "boy burglars" from Grinnell, and how their early criminality affected their later lives.
***
Undated Photograph of Alvin H. Case (1897-1945)
(https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=case&GSiman=1&GScid=2189044&GRid=20429362&)
Grinnell's safe-cracking "boy burglar" was named Alvin Case, the second son of George and Louella Case who in 1900 lived at 538 Spring Street. George was a day laborer and his wife worked as a "washer woman." Before the 1910 census came to Grinnell, the Case family had moved to 207 Second Avenue. The census identified George as a "factory laborer," but by this time Ella had no job outside the home where she cared for Alvin (then 12 years old) and a younger brother, Virgil, who had not yet observed his first birthday. Harry Case, twelve years older than Alvin, had married in 1908 and moved out of his parents' home.

Soon after this census was taken young Alvin Case became the subject of newspaper reports. In its September 12, 1911 edition the Des Moines Register announced that Grinnell police had arrested 14-year-old Alvin (the Register misspelled his name: "Aluni") Case, whom they accused of having robbed safes and cash drawers in Grinnell. Upon being captured, Case reportedly confessed "that he knew the combination to every safe in town." The story "had legs," as reporters like to say, and newspapers across the state published news of this safe-cracking wunderkind. The Davenport Daily Times (September 12, 1911), for instance, noted that Case, despite being "born of respectable parents," admitted being responsible for as many as ten other thefts, whose total take exceeded $200. Newspapers as far away as Boyden (near Sioux Falls) and Humeston (due south of Des Moines) also carried the story.
Grinnell Herald, September 12, 1911, p.1
Local reporting, however, provided the most detail (although it made no mention of the young man's memory of safe combinations). Apparently Grinnell police had long suspected Alvin of robbery, and therefore had hidden a policeman and one of the affected merchants in businesses that had been robbed. The planned ambush did not materialize, however, because when yet another merchant—A. J. Hockett—reported a theft from his cash drawer, police hastened to arrest Alvin. When taken into custody, the boy was found to be in possession of several one-dollar bills in his pockets, and a silver dollar in his socks. Cash on his person added up to $9.40, almost the precise sum that Hockett had reported missing. Since he was not caught in the act and police had no witnesses to the theft, Alvin might well have escaped this accusation. But for whatever reason, young Alvin then confessed to numerous robberies whose take, the Herald announced primly, the lad had spent "in gay and riotous living." What did this phrase mean in 1911 Grinnell?
He would go to Des Moines [the newspaper asserted] and spend two or three dollars [at] a time for rides on the roller coaster at Ingersoll Park, and at the Malcom and Grinnell fairs he was a liberal spender (Grinnell Herald, September 12, 1911).
After his arrest, however, Alvin would ride no more roller coasters or blow money at local fairs, since authorities immediately dispatched the boy to the Iowa State Training Institute for Boys in Eldora. Curiously, on-line records of Iowa convictions do not mention Alvin Case. How his name escaped entry into the records is not known, but there can be little doubt that Alvin spent two or three years in the care of state officials, as indirect evidence confirms.

The 1915 Iowa census—taken more than three years after the 1911 arrest—notes that Alvin, at age 17, was back home and "at school" in Chester (where his parents had moved), and therefore no longer a resident of the Eldora reformatory. However, the census also reported that in 1915 Alvin had completed only "7 years" of school, putting him at least three years behind his coevals, most of whom would have been in eleventh grade if they remained in school. It seems likely, therefore, that his 1911 exile to Eldora cost him two or three years in the school sequence.
Iowa Training School for Boys, Eldora, Iowa (undated postcard)
Perhaps this single encounter with law enforcement was enough to change his life, because Alvin evidently had no future encounters with law enforcement. Sometime after his 1918 registration for military service, Alvin entered the army, where he prospered, reaching the rank of Sergeant in Iowa's 109th Infantry. By the time federal census officials arrived in Grinnell in January, 1920, and inventoried the Case household, then residing at 705 Fourth Avenue, Alvin was back home, driving a taxicab.

By all outward signs, therefore, Alvin seems to have turned his life around. Indeed, the boy burglar seems to have transformed himself into a law-abiding worker and family man. We know that in February 1920 before an Indianola Justice of the Peace, Alvin married Irene Rogers, a Newton girl. How they met the record does not say, but their first child, Norman, was born in 1917, several years before they married and before Alvin left army duties behind. Presumably, therefore, Irene managed to care for the child without Alvin's help until their marriage. After the wedding Alvin and family set up house in Jasper county, where the 1930 census found them, Alvin working as an electrician wiring houses. The household grew rapidly, as Irene gave birth to four more sons: Keith; Kenneth; Victor, and Richard. When census officials next visited the Cases in 1940, they were still living in the same place, although by this time Alvin was said to be farming. Apparently, however, he was not well (his father's 1929 obituary had observed that Alvin was unable to attend the funeral, since he was then hospitalized in Arizona). What his illness was I did not learn, but records confirm that by 1945 Alvin Case died from cancer and was buried in the Colfax cemetery. Except for that brief period in his early teens, Alvin Case's life followed a fairly routine course that centered on family and work.
***
The situation was different for Lester Lamb, who was one of a small gang of boy burglars arrested in October, 1917. A notice in the October 26, 1917 issue of the Des Moines Register announced that two teenagers had been arrested in Grinnell for burglary and had been sentenced to the state reformatory at Eldora. George Lewis, 16, and Lester Lamb, 14, reportedly confessed to numerous break-ins over the previous four months, most recently at Hockett and Elliott hardware store in Grinnell where, the paper alleged, they had stolen "a large sum of money." In their confession, the boys took credit for a string of robberies: a lumber yard in Vinton; two garages and a filling station in Iowa City;  three garages and the American Express company at Grinnell; and two other garages in Rock Island. "We stole for the love of it," the boys reportedly told detectives.
Des Moines Register, October 26, 1917
Lester Lamb was the third of four sons born to Ralph (1874-1952) and Maggie Lamb (1878-1961) who in 1905 were residing in Bear Creek, near Malcom. By 1910 the Lambs had moved to Grinnell, the oldest boys having begun school there. In his turn, Lester followed them to school; he had completed fourth grade when George Murray filled out Lester's card for the 1915 Iowa census. Consequently, when authorities arrested him and George Lewis in October, 1917, Lester was probably only a sixth-grader.

As news stories reported, the "boy burglars" were sent off to the reformatory at Eldora where the 1920 census found Lester, then reported to be 15 years of age and occupied as a "butter maker." Soon thereafter Lester obtained his release and returned to Grinnell where the 1921 high school yearbook complimented him and his two older brothers—Gar and Raymond—for their football skills. Lester was then a ninth-grader, who, the yearbook explained, "On account of his weight and speed...was a tackle that instilled fear into the hearts of his opponents" (1921 Grinnellian, p. 65).
1920 Grinnell High School Football Team; Lester Lamb, front row, 2nd from right (1921 Grinnellian)
No Grinnell high school yearbook includes him among the graduating class, so Lester must have quit school sometime after 1921. He next appears in the public record in August, 1922, when a Marshalltown newspaper reported that Lester had broken his arm when trying to crank his father's car. In October, 1923 Lester married Minnie York, a 21-year old woman from Clarinda. According to the marriage certificate, Minnie had been married once before, but what happened to her previous husband the record does not say. Whatever its merits, marriage did nothing to settle Lester's life and get him on the right side of the law, because in July, 1924 his name surfaced again; newspapers reported that he was arrested in Arnold's Park, accused of attempted rape. In the absence of the $1000 bond, he was jailed (Emmetsburg Democrat, August 6, 1924).
Mark Blair (aka Lester Lamb) (California Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950)
I failed to find the outcome of this charge, but future developments indicate that the young man continued his wayward path. At some point, Lester abandoned the midwest, and settled in Los Angeles, California. Using the alias Mark Blair and giving his occupation as "musician," Lamb was arrested in 1932 in Los Angeles on a charge of forgery, and was sentenced to one to fourteen years in San Quentin. He was paroled in March, 1935, but was returned to prison in 1941 for a parole violation. In June, 1942 he received another parole, and was finally discharged September, 1943.
Mark Blair (1922 Grinnellian)
How did this "boy burglar," first arrested at age 14, become habituated to a life of crime that saw him graduate to one of California's most infamous prisons? Since Lamb died in 1969 in Oakland, California, we can learn nothing more from him. How then might we explain his life path?

One key to Lamb's criminal hankerings comes from the alias he used in California. Originally I had assumed that Lamb had simply invented the alias, but, when reading an Iowa City newspaper report of a 1922 basketball game with Grinnell, I noticed a short note that reported that one of the Grinnell players—Mark Blair—could not play because of a diphtheria quarantine.
Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 30, 1922
Of course, the two young men knew one another from their high school athletics (both played football, for instance), and Iowa was a long ways from Los Angeles, making the choice of the name seem safe. But why use Blair rather than some other name—any other name? We will never receive a definitive answer to that question, but it bears observing that Blair was a very successful high schooler: president of the high school athletic club and vice-president of his class, he played varsity basketball and football; he'd been treasurer of the YMCA, and had taken part in the class play.
Garland Lamb (1922 Grinnellian)
Lester Lamb's own biography, which included his sojourn at the Eldora Reformatory, could not match Blair's, but the high school resumes of his two older brothers—whom the Iowa City news article described as "stars"—bear a distinct resemblance to Blair's. Garland Lamb—who went on to a career as school teacher and coach—had also been president of the Honor G club, had taken part in the class play, had played football all four years of high school and been named captain of the football squad in 1921; he also had played varsity basketball for four years, and was named basketball team captain in 1921. Raymond Lamb, who went on to a successful medical career in Des Moines, had played varsity football for three years, and varsity basketball for four years, and was made basketball captain in 1922. He, too, had had a part in the class play, and had participated in YMCA.
Raymond Lamb (1922 Grinnellian)
Since Lester never graduated from high school, the yearbook capsule of his high school activities was never publishedbut his brushes with the law make it difficult to believe that his record could have stood comparison with these men's. And in that difference we may understand some of the vectors that pushed Lester Lamb deeper into a life of crime from that original 1917 encounter with the police. Standing adjacent to two brothers who had blazed paths through school, just like their teammate, Mark Blair, Lester Lamb might easily have felt that too little light shone on his own head, and that the world was unfairly organized. Barely into his teens when he joined his fate to some young men who stole "for the love of it," Lester soon carved out a biography that sharply contrasted him with his brothers.

Indeed, when the boys' father, Ralph Lamb, died in April, 1952 in Des Moines at the home of his doctor-son (who took him in for his final illness), Ralph's obituary noted that he was very proud of his "fine sons": "Dr. Raymond Lamb of Des Moines, Garland Lamb, superintendent of Urbana High School, [and] Lester E. Lamb of Oakland, California." The fact that no profession or accomplishment attached to Lester's name is telling: unlike his older brothers who had succeeded in their professions without crossing swords with the law, Lester had achieved very little. And although his parents might well have told him that they were no less proud of him than they were of his brothers, the pledge must have sounded hollow to the young man who, even as a boy, lived for the thrill of breaking the law.
***
Summarizing these two lives, one wonders what distinguished them, one from the other. How did Alvin Case manage to straighten out his life trajectory while Lester Lamb seemed to sink deeper into criminality?

Perhaps, as I've argued above, Lester never escaped the shadow of his all-star brothers, and set off determinedly on a different path. Of course, Alvin Case had siblings, too, although they seem not to have led lives quite so sterling as the two older Lamb boys. Harry Case, for instance, was twelve years older than Alvin, and, in effect, belonged to an entirely different generation. He married the former Ethel Bailey in February, 1908, and the couple soon welcomed several children to their home in Grinnell where they seem to have lived quietly.  According to the 1920 city directory, Harry operated a taxi service from 810 Park Street, while living at 207 Main.

Alvin's younger brother, Virgil, also seems to have passed into adulthood without having attracted much attention, and went on to a series of jobs in Grinnell and volunteered for the Grinnell Fire Department for 50 years. Closer to Alvin's age than was Harry, Virgil might have had a closer relationship as well, although nothing survives to confirm the connection. Neither of Alvin's brothers, however, lit up the grandstand quite so brightly as did Lester Lamb's brothers.

Such a hypothetical explanation can only raise questions that available evidence simply cannot answer. Other would-be explanations are no easier to trace: Did Alvin's parents, for example, do a better job of including all their children in their affections and in helping them scale the problems of childhood? Or did Alvin, on returning home from Eldora, develop friendships that kept him away from the sort of trouble that had sent him to Eldora in the first place? Perhaps Lester was not so fortunate, falling back into the same circles that had so stoked his enthusiasm as a fourteen-year-old boy burglar.

No document can be expected to answer these questions, leaving us to wonder at Grinnell's "boy burglars" and how their lives played out after they, while still children, first collided with the law.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Poor Man Who Died Rich....

It was a Sunday morning in early April, 1954 when Grinnell police found James Totten (1860-1954) wandering half-dressed on Fourth Avenue. Wearing only a sweatshirt and suit coat, Totten kept asking passers-by how to find Bates Pharmacy, a store that had been closed for more than twenty years. Officers collected the ninety-four-year-old, helped clean him up, got him dressed, and then turned him over to county officials. Judged "insane," Totten was committed to the county home and Poweshiek County Attorney Norman McFarlin (1918-1990) was made his temporary guardian.
Postcard (ca. 1913) of 4th Avenue, Grinnell; 803 1/2 is upstairs of 2nd building from left (Digital Grinnell)
Totten, who had worked for years as a painter and wallpaper-hanger, was known to be "eccentric." He had few friends, and refused everyone entry to his apartment at 803 1/2 Fourth Avenue. Anyone who wished to contact him—to hire him to paint or hang wallpaper, for instance—had to slip a note under his door; those paying a bill would follow a similar procedure, but to see or speak with the man was almost impossible. Totten had no telephone or electricity—he preferred a kerosene lamp—and for decades he kept stubbornly to himself. But the man who denied himself every convenience, who lived in a stinking hovel and who appeared half-naked on the street that April Sunday had actually squirreled away thousands of dollars in his apartment. This Grinnell Story is devoted to James Totten, a poor man who died very rich.
***
James Totten was born in 1860 somewhere in Ontario County, New York, not far from Rochester. Apparently no birth certificate survives, but his farming family was living in nearby Steuben County when the 1865 New York census was taken. The son of David and Elizabeth Totten, young James was the couple's first child; five sisters followed him into the family over the next decade. By the time the 1870 US census-takers arrived in Iowa, the David Totten family had moved to Poweshiek County, Iowa, boarding a Norwegian immigrant who helped out on the farm. The 1878 Grinnell city directory listed D. B. Totten as a farmer who resided on "Main, south end" (this before the introduction of house numbers).
David Totten family in 1880 US Census
Later censuses reveal that James went no further in school than the 8th grade, so by the 1870s he was probably working on his own. Indeed, when federal census officials passed through Grinnell in 1880, the listing for the Totten family included only James's five sisters living with their parents on Main Street. When the infamous Grinnell Cyclone whirled into town, June 17, 1882, Elizabeth Totten became one of its victims.
Original gravestone for Elizabeth Totten, Hazelwood Cemetery
"Elizabeth, wife of D. B. Totten, Killed by Cyclone, June 17, 1882, Aged 45 ys, 4 mos"
The 1895 Iowa census found James in Grinnell, boarding with the Nelson Burns family;  Lucy Burns was said to operate a restaurant and Nelson identified himself as a "dehorner." The record reports that James was already working as a painter, a profession he pursued his entire life. The 1900 federal census located James Totten living alongside several other boarders, without specifying an address. Still single, James gave his age this time as 35, an error that shows perhaps an unawareness of his exact birth date.

The 1905 Grinnell city directory for the first time placed James Totten at the address where the events of 1954 took place: the directory identified him as a painter who "rms over Ross shoe store, 4th Ave.," which the directory elsewhere identifies as 803 4th Avenue. Consequently, we know that from at least 1905 James Totten resided upstairs at 803 4th Avenue. Later censuses for the most part cite the same address. However, somehow Totten was overlooked in the 1920 census—was this a function of his growing isolation? had census workers not been able to get him to come to the door to answer their queries? Ten years later the 1930 census reported him to be rooming with the Frank Crane family at 913 West Street. What explains this change of residence I cannot imagine, because the 1940 census has him once again at 803 4th, and supposedly Totten resided at that same address in 1935 (since the census asked his whereabouts then). It may be, therefore, that James Totten lived in the three-room apartment on 4th Avenue for half a century or more, or at least the best part of that interval if, as the 1930 census maintains, he lived for a time a couple of blocks away.

As the censuses confirm, Totten rented the entire time he lived on his own. No data on his rent survive, but he did tell the 1915 Iowa census-taker that he had earned $520 the preceding year—not a huge sum, but sufficient to keep a single man with modest expenses reasonably satisfied. To judge from the monies found later, Totten spent very little. According to news reports, in his last years Totten was known to recover food from garbage cans rather than buy it at a grocery; he was also said to walk the railroad tracks in search of odd pieces of coal. Another report claimed that Totten "made frequent visits to the city dump, where he is said to have found some of his clothing. He also canvassed grocery stores for less salable foods" (Des Moines Register, September 23, 1954). Apparently he had no friends, and when a sister visited Grinnell once to contact him, he refused even to talk to her.
Norman McFarlin (1918-1990) (University of Iowa 1947 Hawkeye Yearbook [University of Iowa Digital Library])
Isolated and suffering some sort of mental illness, the "eccentric" Totten was living on the margins of Grinnell society, and his peculiarities were no doubt the meat of much gossip. So, when police took custody of the half-naked man on Fourth Avenue in April, 1954, no one could have been surprised. What did surprise, however, emerged during a series of searches of the old man's rooms.

The first such expedition followed hard on the heels of Totten being sent to Montezuma. In late April, 1954, county officials, including the County Attorney, Norman McFarlin, who had been appointed Totten's guardian, entered the Fourth Street three-room apartment that occupied the second story above Arnold's Shoe Store. What the newspaper called "indescribably filthy quarters" confronted them: "All the rooms were filthy beyond description and strewn with old clothes, discarded junk and scraps of food moldy with age" (Grinnell Herald-Register, April 22, 1954). The men who braved these conditions, however, were shocked to find a large pile of money, "tucked away amid rotting clothes and other debris." No official announcement provided a firm figure for the cash retrieved, but the Herald-Register put the sum at around $20,000, all of which was relayed to Totten's guardian.
Gravestone for James Totten, Hazelwood Cemetery (plot 352)
When Totten died in July of that year, the situation grew more complex. Instead of protecting his legal ward, McFarlin now had control of his former ward's estate. Accordingly, that September the Grinnell Chief of Police, Waldo Johnson (who had been part of the first foray into Totten's apartment), and one of his officers, Fred Roop, returned to Totten's former home on Fourth Avenue, to collect anything of value and clean out the rest. Perhaps made especially alert to the possibility of finding more cash because of the original search, the policemen were rewarded for their diligence with discovery of yet another collection of money. According to newspaper accounts,
Johnson discovered the false bottom in small bureau drawers...Reaching into the small opening, Chief Johnson felt the bottom of the compartment give slightly. Checking further by prying up the board, he discovered a packet of money totaling $5000. That was enough for Johnson to make a similar investigation of the second small drawer, where additional money bundles were uncovered (Grinnell Herald-Register, September 2, 1954).
With this discovery officials had gathered from Totten's apartment almost $38,000.

As the wheels of government inched forward, McFarlin turned his attention to settling Totten's estate. One large hurdle was overcome when he located Totten's two sisters and a nephew who were eligible to inherit the dead man's property. Mrs. Emma Totten Fellenen (b. 1875) lived in Los Angeles; Mrs. Lillian Totten Porter (1875-1958) in Jackson, Michigan; and a nephew, James Totten Jackman, resided in North Hollywood, California. According to published accounts, "The heirs apparently knew nothing of the accumulated money...Totten did not appear to have been very closely in touch with them, exchanging only a few letters and perhaps a Christmas card during the year" (Des Moines Register, September 23, 1954). Both sisters, however, were soon in Grinnell, where on July 10th James Totten was buried in Hazelwood Cemetery. An indication of how alone Totten had been comes from the spare obituary, which includes a revealing list of four pallbearers, all of whom seemed to be acting out of mercy rather than kinship or friendship: Norman McFarlin, the County Attorney who became his guardian (but who never knew the man before he was institutionalized); Waldo Johnson, the Grinnell Chief of Police who had searched Totten's apartment and discovered the money trove; Maurice Halterman, secretary of Poweshiek County's Soldiers' Relief, who, his own obituary reports, "was interested in serving others, taking special interest in children and the families of veterans who were in special need..."; and Sam Ragan, director of relief for Poweshiek County.
Grinnell Herald-Register, July 15, 1954
Since McFarlin was obliged to liquidate any remaining property so as to draw a final line under the value of the estate, in August, 1955 officials returned to Totten's apartment to inventory for auction anything of value, and empty the apartment of all the rest. Surprisingly, Chief Johnson, now on his third visit to the dead man's quarters, found another $50,000 "in a hidden compartment of a chest...in two open bundles and an oilcloth cover package" (Grinnell Herald-Register, August 15, 1955). Along with a pile of currency in denominations ranging from $10 to $500, investigators uncovered government bonds and other securities (including stock shares for General Motors and Chrysler). This latest find brought the total recovered from Totten's rooms to about $90,000 (equal to about $800,000 in today's dollars).
Grinnell Herald-Register, December 15, 1955
Eight truckloads of trash (the Des Moines Register says only three truckloads) had already been removed from Totten's apartment when Johnson uncovered the latest (and last) cache of money, an indication of how desperately littered the old man's home had become. Nevertheless, Johnson and fellow officers managed to isolate "about 80 lots of old furniture and boxes of miscellaneous articles" for auction, which was held in December, 1955. The entire collection brought in only $143.55, including the price paid by the Grinnell Museum Society for the oil lamp and some business cards that Totten had accumulated (Montezuma Republican, December 15, 1955). The chest of drawers in which Chief Johnson had found around $70,000 netted just $7. Other items brought little more, a sad coda to the unlikely story of a wealthy poor man.
Kerosene lamp acquired by Grinnell  Museum Society at the auction of the Totten estate, December, 1955
(Grinnell Historical Museum, Totten Estate)
***
Cases of hoarding, elderly eccentrics are hardly unknown in America. Perhaps the most famous instance concerned the Collyer brothers who in 1947 were discovered entombed by the mountains of stuff that they had secreted away in their New York City brownstone. More recently, the New York Times told the sad story of George Bell, who, living alone in a New York apartment "groaning with possessions," had died without anyone having noticed. Like James Totten, Bell left behind a treasure trove—several hundred thousand dollars—although stored in a bank rather than false drawers of a bureau. These cases raise the question: why should we care about James Totten?

As the Times's N. R. Kleinfeld wrote, "George Bell died carrying some secrets. Secrets about how he lived and secrets about what mattered most to him. Those secrets would bring sorrow. At the same time, they would bring rewards" ("The Lonely Death of George Bell," New York Times, October 17, 2015). The same might be said about Grinnell's James Totten. Off the grid for most of his life, isolated and sinking deeper into delirium, James Totten earned no attention from those who wrote the happy pages of Grinnell's history. In contrast to the inventors, successful businessmen and politicians who commonly populate these histories, James Totten lived life in a minor key. His life gained public attention only because of the demeaning way it ended, and the surprising discovery of his fortune. He might easily have died unnoticed, his secret cache undiscovered, in which case we would never have had occasion to recall his name.

When I began this blog, I asked "whose stories deserve to be told?" I observed then that "the disadvantaged, the poor, people of color, and others at the margins of wealth and power" too often lose their place in stories of the past. James Totten is one of those Grinnellians whose life passed almost without notice. In a town where churches, clubs, and fraternal orders wove citizens into the social fabric, James Totten lived almost off the loom. Therefore, telling his story, sad as it is, reminds us that Grinnell's history is a complex narrative into which various threads—some bright and cheerful; others, dark and despondent—are woven, and we cheat ourselves by overlooking that broad array of color.
.


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Build! Build! Build!: Grinnell One Hundred Years Ago

A visitor to Grinnell in 2017 could hardly miss the many construction projects now underway: the 196,000 square-feet humanities and social sciences building on the Grinnell College campus; the addition/expansion to St. Mary's Catholic Church; the remodeling of the former Junior High School into a hotel; the reconstruction of Central Park; and the reconstruction of downtown streets, to name just a few of the most obvious endeavors.

A century ago in Grinnell there was also construction everywhere, stimulating a March, 1917 article in the Des Moines Register, headlined "Grinnell Spends a Million in New Buildings." Of course, the word "million" does not have the same ring today that it had in 1917; translated into today's dollars, 1917 construction spending in Grinnell—for a town about half the size of today's Grinnell—amounted to almost $20 million of today's dollars, still only a fraction of the cost of construction now underway, but a big bump in early twentieth-century Grinnell all the same.
Des Moines Register, March 11, 1917, p. 36
Nourished by the high prices that grain commanded during the early years of the World War I, the escalating value of farmland, and the emergence of new technologies, 1917 Grinnell had accumulated unprecedented wealth, and this financial well-being bankrolled a remarkable building boom, surprisingly similar to the present frenzy of construction in town.

Despite this overt similarity, however, 1917 was also different from today. A much smaller, less populous town then than now, 1917 Grinnell was connected to the larger world mainly by railroads and newspapers rather than by the interstate highways or the internet; even the radio was still on the horizon in 1917 (newspapers announced the first "wireless station" in town in February). Grinnell College was smaller and less prosperous than it is today, and the town was more overtly religious—and more protestant. Although a recent local referendum had favored women's suffrage, Grinnell women still awaited enfranchisement that the Nineteenth Amendment would provide, and consumption of alcohol was illegal—in 1917 Grinnell Prohibition was in full swing, Iowa having legislated it four years before the 1920 national law. Perhaps most jarring of all the differences was the World War into which the United States had only recently been thrust (the U.S. formally declared war on Germany April 6, 1917), and that far-away war not only brought news of the world regularly to Grinnell's doorstep but also brought uniforms and military training to town, and called forth increasingly strident patriotism.

Sadly, Grinnell's prosperity and building boom did not last, and the 1920s brought contraction, farm foreclosures, bank failures, and social dissatisfaction that organizations like the Ku Klux Klan exploited. But that was later; in 1917 Grinnell's future looked very bright indeed, and that confidence powered a surprisingly robust round of construction that changed fundamentally the appearance of the town!
***
The Des Moines newspaper report, published early in 1917, included several projects whose genesis properly relates to the previous year. For example, the photograph used to highlight the article depicts the new Grinnell Herald building on Fifth Avenue, completed in 1916 by the Bailey-Marsh Company to the design of Proudfoot, Bird and Rawson. Its cost estimated at about $40,000, the newspaper's new home featured entirely new press machinery, said to be the fastest then available; an elevator with which to move heavy loads between floors; a two-story vault for the most valuable records; and a series of skylights that admitted ambient light from the roof all the way to the raised basement. Perhaps most interesting was the role played by D. N. Mallory, an "efficiency expert" who helped produce what the newspaper shamelessly bragged was "the handsomest and most commodious newspaper home in Iowa for a town of 5,000 people" (Grinnell Herald, March 13, 1917).
Scarlet and Black, January 20, 1917, p. 1
Grinnell still had two newspapers in 1917, and the Herald's competitor, the Grinnell Register, also put up a fine new building just down the street at the corner of Fifth and Broad. Using the design of Ladehoff and Sohn, a short-lived Grinnell architectural firm responsible for several structures built in 1916, the Register's new building—"Register" emblazoned across the brick face of the upper story—was home to both the newspaper and its owner-editor, Charles K. Needham (1868-1956), who lived upstairs. But this building, too, was begun before 1917, as photographs from the new post office construction site across the street prove.
Grinnell Register, August 30, 1917, p. 1
Securing a new post office for Grinnell was the achievement of Congressman Nate Kendall (1868-1936), but local contributions of $6000 were necessary to add to the $15,000 that the U.S. Treasury provided to purchase the site of the former Norris Livery across Broad Street from the new Register building (visible in the background of a photograph looking west from the construction site).
Early Stage of Construction of Grinnell's US Post Office, 1916, looking west (Digital Grinnell)
Work began in autumn, 1916, but the doors of the new post office first swung open to the public September 21, 1917 for a welcoming reception. Weitz Construction Company of Des Moines erected the wire-finished brick structure (said to have cost $68,500), built to the Neo-Classical design of a government architect (Grinnell Herald, September 21, 1917, p. 1).

Local government also joined the building boom: although many Grinnell streets had been paved by 1917, as the town expanded new streets opened and some streets were widened. For example, a January newspaper article reported that Park Street north of Tenth Avenue, originally platted too narrowly, was doubled north to the Country Club. Elsewhere, city government decided to make use of the ashes and cinders generated at the water works and heating plant to improve the surface of the Hazelwood Cemetery drive and First Avenue beyond the tannery (Ottumwa Semi-Weekly Courier, January 2, 1917).

Even bigger projects loomed, however. As many readers will know, today's Grinnell city government has embarked upon a very costly project of upgrading its waste water treatment plant. Coincidentally, in 1917 the city proudly opened its brand new sewage disposal plant. The Herald described the new facility as "the most comprehensive effort to handle sewage...in the state" (March 13, 1917). J. W. Turner Improvement Co. of Des Moines constructed the new facility southwest of town, and also had the contract to  install a series of water mains in Grinnell.
Grinnell Herald, March 13, 1917
Grinnell was also busy putting up a new school in the southern half of town. Marshalltown architects Harry Reimer and George Herlin provided the design of a "really modern, up-to-date school house," whose construction occupied much of the year 1917. Apparently parts of the building were opened to use that autumn, as an article in the Herald (September 11, 1917) that announced the beginning of the new school year identified a principal at the new school as well as teachers for kindergarten, second and third grades. The formal opening of Davis school, however, had to wait until September 6, 1918 when the public was invited to tour the school named after two long-time teachers, Misses Lizzie and Edna Davis. The newspaper described the school as a "three-story, fire-proof structure" whose terrazzo hallways and stairs were thought "sanitary and practically sound proof." The first floor was devoted to a "manual training room," while nine classrooms occupied the second and third stories. Translucent glass filled the upper half of large windows; movable desks—the latest classroom innovation—could be "changed to any position to suit the convenience of the child." The published description also lauded a "neatly-furnished rest room with a kitchenette" and a "white enamel finished room equipped with all first aid necessities" required by a nurse. "South Grinnell should certainly be proud of this excellent improvement," the newspaper concluded (Grinnell Herald, September 10, 1918).
***
Local industry also marked some important new construction in 1917. In October the newspaper announced that the new building of the Dodge Tool Company would soon be open. The two-story factory (70' x 90') on south Main was under the direction of W. S.  Dodge, and was said to have engineered Billy Robinson's famous rotary engine. Evidently the firm did not prosper for long, however, as a 1920 Grinnell directory knows nothing about it.

The most costly and important industrial addition to town in 1917 was the new plant of the Iowa Light, Heat, and Power company, reported to have cost $250,000. At its official opening, May 14, 1917, Mayor White turned on a new, 500-horsepower Ball engine, which revolved "steadily and smoothly, like a happy giant at work." The mayor then started up its twin, and would have done the same to a third engine which had twice the power of the first two, but it was not yet fully operational. Guests then turned their attention to the big boilers and their automatic feed hoppers, all intended to increase and improve the provision of power to the town (Grinnell Herald, May 15, 1917).
Drawing of proposed new home for Iowa Light, Heat and Power (Grinnell Register, August 10, 1916)
***
As in 2017, so also one hundred years ago, a significant proportion of new construction in Grinnell took place on the college campus. Indeed, Alumni Recitation Hall, at the center of today's new humanities and social studies complex, was itself brand new—in fact, not even fully finished—in 1917 when the first classes convened in that building.
Alumni Recitation Hall, 1917 (Scarlet and Black, September 24, 1917
The new three-story brick structure provided classrooms for English, German, classics, romance languages, psychology, education, applied Christianity, history, political science, economics, and business administration.  In addition to offices for some twenty-eight faculty, ARH featured a "social science laboratory" that was to be furnished with "all the reference books on these subjects," transferred here from the library. The auditorium, which embraced both the second and third stories at the rear of the building, was intended for important lectures, debates, and similar gatherings that required extra seating.
Architect's Drawing, Men's Dormitories, Grinnell College, 1917
Already in 1914 the college had embarked upon an aggressive building spree, committing to construction of new dormitories, beginning with the women's quad on south campus. In 1916 emphasis had shifted north to the new men's dormitories, the first of whose "cottages" opened to students in autumn, 1917. What the Scarlet and Black (September 26, 1917) pronounced "among the most artistic and complete" men's dormitories in the United States was organized as three- or four-room suites, each room including "a steel cot of tasteful design, a closet and lavatory"; showers and bath tubs were shared by residents of each floor. Each cottage or house also shared "an elaborate club room [each with a fireplace], which will be used for lounging and for parties." With completion of the men's dormitories in late 1917, almost overnight the college—the great majority of whose students had previously lived off-campus—became a residential campus with enormous implications for the college's educational aspirations (and also for the incomes of townsfolk who had previously rented space to students).

The men's dormitories provided yet another significant signpost to the twentieth century—labor troubles. In late April newspapers across the state reported "Near Rioting at Grinnell" (Des Moines Register, April 24, 1927, p. 3; see also Quad-City Times, April 24, 1917, p. 2), the consequence of strikes carried out by workers for the several firms taking part in the construction project. Bailey Marsh Construction, who had won the bid as general contractor, held out longest against worker protests about hours, wages, and recognition of unions. In April the Minneapolis company brought to Grinnell from Des Moines twenty Mexicans whom they had hired to replace strikers. When the new laborers appeared, strikers refused to let them onto the worksite, and succeeded in persuading the Mexicans not to help Bailey Marsh break the strike. In early May the company tried again, this time importing volunteers from Milwaukee. Rather than allowing strikers to hassle or persuade the newcomers, the company arranged to train the recruits onto the work site, past the strikers, on a specially-laid railroad spur. Apparently the tactic worked, as a May 16 article in the Quad-City Times announced that the strike was over. Management had conceded a nine-hour work day at 35 cents/hour, but the firm refused to recognize the union as the strikers had long insisted, so that, overall, the laborers emerged the loser.
Grinnell House, 1920s? (Digital Grinnell)
Yet another instance of college construction was the new president's house at Fifth and Park. Like other projects, Grinnell House, as it has come to be called, was authorized in 1916, the trustees awarding the design to Brainerd and Leeds of Boston (W. H. Brainerd was an 1883 graduate of Iowa College). Originally estimated to cost about $30,000, the new home for President Main occupied a large lot at the corner of Fifth and Park. Like much of the new construction then, Grinnell House was built of brick, and was intended as both a private residence for the president (whose large frame dictated the super-size bath tub still occupying space on the 2nd floor) as well as an official entertainment site. Construction was delayed several times in early 1917, so the first public reception here took place in June and the formal opening during autumn semester.
Scarlet and Black, December 8, 1917
***
Of course, the college was not the only local institution committed to new building plans. One of the oldest institutions in town, the Congregational Church, in early January announced plans for a thorough remodeling of the north end of the "Old Stone Church" (Scarlet and Black, January 10, 1917, p. 1).  Initial plans called for "a comfortable parlor and rest room for ladies" as well as a "large club room for men and boys." A three-story addition was proposed to the east of the church, featuring a dining room and assembly hall on the first floor, classrooms on the second, and two large rooms "especially for the use of young people" on the third. But when bids came in higher than hoped, the church rejected all bidders and decided to reconsider the plan (Grinnell Herald, July 31, 1917). Elsewhere in town, however, it was full-speed ahead.
Quad-City Times, February 5, 1917
Grinnell's Masons decided to erect a new temple on the east side of Main Street. In early February newspapers announced that bids would soon be opened for construction of "an imposing three-story structure faced with grey brick and cream terra cotta." A lease for the first floor had already been let to J. W. Harpster's furniture and undertaking business; a lodge room would occupy most of the second floor, with two parlors stretching across the front of the building; a kitchen, dining room and serving room were planned for the third floor. Designed by Frank Wetherell, who was architect for many buildings in central and southern Iowa, the new Masons' home went up quickly.
Cornerstone at foot of stairs of Grinnell's Masonic Temple, 1917
In July masons from all over the state converged on Grinnell to dedicate the new structure and lay the cornerstone. As often happens on such occasions, a small box of mementoes was installed within the cornerstone, preserving recent copies of both the Grinnell Herald and the Grinnell Register, a copy of the two Des Moines newspapers, several newly-minted coins, postcard views of Grinnell, a history of early Grinnell, and a list of lodge members (Grinnell Herald, July 27, 1917).
New Plumbing Showroom of A. Stahl, Fifth Avenue (Grinnell Register, August 30, 1917)
Several more modest commercial buildings also arose downtown in 1917. Adjacent to the west side of the Herald on Fifth Avenue August Stahl erected a one-story brick building with a plate-glass front for his new plumbing and heating store. A review in the Grinnell Register (August 30, 1917) made much of the tasteful display of plumbing products, and noted that the proprietor was "Especially proud of the rest room he has had fitted up for the convenience of the ladies... no matter whether customers of his store or not."
Grinnell Register, May 10, 1917
Immediately to the west A. C. Dickerson installed a Willard Storage Battery Service Station. Described as "well-built of brick" and "handsomely furnished," the "light, airy and convenient" facility accommodated seven or eight cars at a time, presumably entering from the alley, since up front was "a smaller room which is being handsomely fitted up as an office" (Grinnell Herald, August 10, 1917).
White Star Filling Station, Fifth and Main, 1917 (Digital Grinnell)
Just to the west of the new Willard Battery Station was the White Star Filling Station, which opened on the northeast corner of Main and Fifth in January, 1917. Highlighted by brick columns, each of which was topped by a lighted ball that advertised the gasoline and oil, the attractive brick building straddled the corner lot on an angle, allowing vehicles to enter from Fifth Avenue and exit onto Main Street. Flower gardens filled the triangle that separated the station from the corner. Later in 1917 across the street, on the northwest corner of the intersection, arose another filling station, this one belonging to Standard Oil. According to the Grinnell Herald report (May 8, 1917), the building was to be located on the northwest corner of the lot; the face of the building would use brick for the bottom three feet, above which stucco would cover steel lath. The newspaper promised a "25-foot canopy...in front of the building proper with four drop lights." In addition, five post lights, each six feet high, would match the design of the main building. Like its competitor across Main Street, the Standard station would feature a diagonal cement driveway from Fifth, emptying onto Main. Gasoline pumps would be sufficient to accommodate four automobiles at a time. All this was expected to cost something less than $4000.
J. H Skeels Building, 1917 (Grinnell Herald, September 14, 1917, p. 1)
Just across the street and around the corner yet another brick building went up in 1917, and became home to J. H. Skeels and his blacksmithing business. To the rear of the first floor, and reachable also by a door opening onto Fifth Avenue, customers could enter a wood shop. Two apartments occupied the second floor, although living there might have required courage. According to the Herald (September 7, 1917), "Two power drills, roller disc sharpener, grinding machine and three forges" operated in the blacksmith's section, and similar machinery attached to the wood shop, all powered by electricity. A rectangular canopy almost the full length of the Main Street storefront hung by chains and covered the sidewalk.
Strand Theatre, 1917 (Grinnell Register, January 25, 1917)
Across Main Street two more new buildings took shape in 1916 and opened in 1917. The Strand Theater came from the design table of N. Wiltamuth & Son, architects who were also responsible for several Grinnell homes. The Grinnell Register (January 25, 1917, p. 2) thought the theater "attractive and imposing." Like other newly-built downtown businesses, the Strand sported a wire-cut brick face, but hollow clay tile and steel beams reinforced the structure. A mansard roof of green, glazed Spanish tile overlooked a canopy that was "bordered with panels of art glass set in white metal" and was suspended by chains over the entrance. Immediately to the north, Frank Harding opened the new building of Grinnell Granite and Marble Works. With a 25-foot front, the two-story building stretched 122 feet deep, the front displaying white enamel brick trimmed with red granite. The owner's name, cut out of red granite, served to identify the business. Most of the first floor was devoted to Harding's business, but a Goodyear Shoe Repair shop occupied one room there as well. As with Skeels's building, the second floor was divided into apartments—seven here—each with a built-in refrigerator, gas range, and "instantaneous water heater." Skylights helped brighten the interiors, all this making "the best monument building west of the Mississippi" (Grinnell Herald, September 7, 1917). 
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Daily Iowan, October 20, 1917, p. 1
Despite all the ways in which 1917 corresponds to similar developments in 2017, surely one piece of 1917 news beggars the imagination of a 2017 Grinnellian: on October 20, 1917 the Grinnell College football team defeated the University of Iowa 10-0. Of course, the game of football itself was played differently back then, with the starting lineup playing both sides of the ball rather than having special offensive and defensive units; drop-kicks (rather than employing holders as is now universally done) were common, and executed by one of the backs rather than use a kicker specialist. All the same, Grinnell was dizzy with the thrill of victory, and the Grinnell Register (October 22, 1917) reported that, when the special train that bore Grinnell fans to Iowa City returned home, there was much celebration, including a parade and a bonfire on Ward Field.
Scarlet and Black, April 21, 1917
In other ways, too, 1917 may be distinguished from our own Grinnell. For instance, the College of today enrolls more than 1600 students, but when classes convened in September, 1917 the college proper enrolled a total of 728 students (just over 900 if including other programs), a student population described as the "largest in Grinnell's history." Perhaps admissions that year were helped by the fact that in the preceding March the college faculty had finally approved students' petitions to permit dancing on campus; six dances were scheduled for the 1917-1918 academic year (Quad-City Times, March 9, 1917, p. 17). American involvement in World War I also brought a change to campus as students first engaged in voluntary military drills, and then began to enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces. As a result, military uniforms became a common sight around town.

And yet there was in 1917, as in 2017, sufficient optimism and financial well-being to stimulate a surprisingly robust round of new construction—both public and private. Today many of the buildings newly erected a century ago remain in use, if sometimes remodeled and repurposed. We may hope, therefore, that the next century will prove equally hospitable to the structures whose construction is presently underway.