Sunday, February 28, 2021

That Time When a Convict Fell Out of the Sky...

Every once in a while I stumble across a story that really surprises me. Take, for instance, the story from May 1964 when, in the early morning hours of a stormy night, a Cessna 182 crashed on a farm northeast of Grinnell. Of course, airplanes sometimes crash in the daytime as well as at night, in good weather as well as foul. What made this crash special was that the person piloting the plane was a convict who had escaped from the prison farm at Fort Madison. Having walked away from the farm, Steven Barner found his way into the Fort Madison Airport sometime after midnight. There he discovered an airplane that was fully fueled and ready to fly, complete with keys in the ignition. However, one important ingredient, crucial to success of the convict's escape plan, was missing: a genuine pilot. The fugitive, who had been in the US Air Force briefly, apparently had never flown an airplane; nevertheless, it was he who rolled the Cessna down the runway in the darkness, which explains at least in part how the journey ended up in a Grinnell hay field. Today's story follows the adventures of the convict who fell out of the sky.

Headline from the Cedar Rapids Gazette, May 26, 1964
Steven Barner was the second son born to George S. Barner (1890-1952) and Gladys Leinbaugh Barner (1896-1985). Steven's father had been born into a farming family in Martelle, Iowa, and had operated the family farm for several years when tragedy struck. Steven's grandparents were taking a springtime walk on the Linn Grove farm; Mrs. Barner (1866-1925) (who had the unusual given name of Wealthy) wanted to collect some flowers, and her husband took along his shotgun, intending to shoot pigeons. Returning to the farmhouse from their stroll,
Mr. Barner [1862-1926], as was his custom, started to unload his gun, stopping in the act while Mrs. Barner walked on. When the gun accidentally exploded the discharge hit Mrs. Barner, causing instant death (Mount Vernon and Lisbon Hawkeye Herald, May 7, 1925).
News accounts reported that the dead woman's husband was prostrate with grief, which might help account for his death the following year.  Presumably the couple's son, George S. Barner, was also deeply affected. All the same, the farm awaited George's attention, and the deaths of his parents so close together may have spurred him to find a wife, which he did in 1927, marrying Gladys Leinbaugh. Neither partner was young—George was 37 and Gladys was 31—but no children were born to this union until 1932, when Creighton Lee joined the family. Another eight years passed before the second son, Steven, was born in October 1940 (or, as in some sources, 1941 or 1942). The public record reveals little about the family as the boys grew; presumably their lives followed the usual traces without attracting much attention. 

Then the boys' father died suddenly in 1952. Creighton Barner (1932-2016), the older son, was already 20, and he soon charted his own life course (which was not without difficulty). Several months after his father's death, Creighton enlisted in the US Air Force, intending to take aviation training. For reasons unknown, Barner was soon out of the Air Force and back in Iowa. Perhaps his mother needed him home to work the farm, and for a time Creighton did take over operation of the family farm. In 1954 he married Lola Horstmann (1932-2017), and together they kept the farm going.  His marriage, however, went south, and he and Lola divorced in the early 1980s. After Creighton remarried (at the Anamosa Sale Barn, no less) in 1983, Lola filed suit against him, demanding $76,000 dollars, apparently a consequence of their divorce (Cedar Rapids Gazette, November 27, 1986).
Photographs of the 1983 Wedding of Creighton Barner and Mary Ulrich
(Cedar Rapids Gazette, May 2, 1983)

Steven, the central actor in our story, was only twelve years old when his dad died, and eight years younger than Creighton, so his father's early death may have been more affecting to the boy. The public record reveals nothing about Steven's earliest years, but soon his name began to appear in newspapers. In March 1959 the Cedar Rapids Gazette published word that Steven was following his brother's plan of enlisting in the US Air Force, and had already been sent to Texas for training (March 21, 1959). However, as with his older brother, something quickly went wrong, and Steven was soon back in Iowa. Later accounts claim that Steven had been given a medical discharge, but I could find no confirmation of this explanation. At any rate, exactly one year after enlisting in the Air Force, Barner appeared before a Cedar Rapids judge, and pleaded guilty to driving a car without the owner's consent. The news report said that Barner had escaped with a bench parole, but records of the Anamosa Reformatory indicate that Steven received a one-year sentence, and served nine months, being released December 31, 1960 (Cedar Rapids Gazette, March 16, 1960). 

Anamosa Reformatory (later Penitentiary)

This collision with the law might not have been Barner's first offense, as Anamosa Reformatory records indicate that Steven left school after tenth grade. In any case, in early 1962 Steven again stood before a judge.  This time the charge was more serious: "uttering a forged instrument," which is to say that he tried to cash a forged check at a Cedar Rapids store. Apparently a juvenile friend had actually forged the check; but Steven, who claimed to be twenty years old when he pleaded guilty, received a ten-year sentence at Fort Madison (Cedar Rapids Gazette, January 26, 1962). According to the prison records, he gained parole in late September 1963, but was not as careful as his parole officer might have wished.

1959 Cedar Rapids Yellow Pages, p. 131

In early February Barner and a young collaborator stole "between 15 and 19 cases of empty beer bottles from Kalell's Grocery and Market" in  Cedar Rapids. Albert Abdo Kalell (1896-1962), who had founded the market that he and his family operated, had immigrated to the US from Syria early in the twentieth century, and was part of the growing Muslim population of Cedar Rapids. It is not clear how Barner and his accomplice settled on Kalell's store, but, because the theft constituted a parole violation, the authorities promptly sent Barner back to Fort Madison (Cedar Rapids Gazette, February 4, 1964). In the days after his return, Steven seems to have conducted himself well enough to be trusted to work on the less carefully guarded Fort Madison prison farm. Apparently it was there that Barner nourished dreams of his ill-fated, flying escape only months after being returned to prison.
Many aspects of the 1964 escape seem irrational. What, for example, drove Barner to think that his best route to freedom was to try to fly away from incarceration? What made him think that, even if he successfully made it to the Fort Madison Airport, he would find a plane fully fueled, unsecured, and ready to take off? And what made him think that he could do the flying? No obvious answers to these questions emerge from news stories.

The Fort Madison warden at the time, John Bennett, told the Cedar Rapids Gazette that Barner "might have read up on flying at the prison library" and might even have flown a plane "a time or two" (May 26, 1964). Moreover, as the warden confirmed, the prison farm was only about one-half mile from the airport, so perhaps Barner simply chose the closest, most immediate option, despite the other, potentially fatal, complications implicit in this plan. 
A Cessna 182, similar to the plane that Barner flew
(Photo by Adrian Pingstone (Arpingstone) - Own work, Public Domain,

Somehow—whether from his prison library reading or from some unknown previous experience—Barner knew enough to start the plane and somewhere around 1AM get it airborne, despite what the newspapers called "rainy, turbulent weather" (yet another reason to give one pause about this plan of escape). Once aloft, Barner later told investigators, he first headed toward Burlington, flying very low, "just skimming the treetops." But then the novice pilot got his craft headed toward Cedar Rapids where, he later said, he had intended to land. Witnesses there said that they saw and heard the Cessna circling for two hours or so. A Cedar Rapids policeman thought the sounds indicated just "another leisurely cruise," although who would be taking a "leisurely" cruise through the Cedar Rapids skies through a rainstorm in the middle of the night seems difficult to imagine (Daily Iowan, May 27, 1964). 

Why Barner did not attempt to land at Cedar Rapids remains unknown; perhaps the storm gave him pause. If he really did not know how to land—officials later found in the airplane a manual opened to landing instructions—Barner might have worried that landing in a storm was a bridge too far (Daily Iowan, May 27, 1964). Indeed, he told the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald that the manual "didn't do any good when he moved in for a landing" (May 29, 1964). 

But then why did he leave the Cedar Rapids area and head west? Barner might have thought that he could fly out of the storm, and find someplace where his chances of landing safely were better. So far as I could learn, Barner never explained this decision. All that we know for sure is that, soon after leaving the Cedar Rapids skies, his Cessna was flying west, just north of Grinnell. As investigators later learned, there was still fuel in the airplane's tanks as the plane had traveled altogether only about 125 miles (Burlington HawkEye, May 26, 1964). But for reasons unknown, in the early morning hours Barner decided to land in the open fields of a farm in Chester Township, northeast of Grinnell. 
Map of Area Northeast of Grinnell where Barner Landed

The Grinnell Herald Register reported that Barner had "brought the plane in for a near-perfect 3-wheel landing, bounced once and then again on the crest of a small hill, and crashed nose first into the ground about 500 feet from the spot where he first touched down" (May 29, 1964). Perhaps Barner himself relayed these details; it is difficult to know who else could have witnessed the landing, as the newspaper itself reported that "no one witnessed the crash." If the landing began as "near perfect," it did not end that way. "The impact of the crash shattered the plane's windshield and knocked off both doors and the front wheel" (ibid.).

Photograph of the Crashed Cessna 182 on Richard Beck's Farm
(Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, May 26, 1964)

Richard Beck (1933-2010), who owned the field where Barner landed, told reporters later that he had never heard the airplane, but that, after having finished morning milking and having turned the cows out to pasture around 7 AM, he saw "the tail of a plane sticking up in a hay field." The nose of the plane was smashed and there was blood in the cockpit (Daily Iowan, May 27, 1964). Beck telephoned his neighbors, the Hendricksons; Nancy Hendrickson told him that the 7 AM news had reported that a Fort Madison convict had escaped via airplane. Beck then collected several neighbors (Wayne Hendrickson [1931-2006], Harvey Harris [1908-1992], and Henry Harris)—all armed—to help him search the area.  Nancy Hendrickson, who had driven over to the Becks' place after her husband left to help Beck, watched from inside the Beck farm house. She saw that Beck and the other men, after having inspected the crashed airplane and having discovered that it was empty, began to look elsewhere.
Spreading out they began looking in the grove, corn crib, and other buildings...Wayne [Hendrickson] and Dick [Beck] were going from one portable hog house to another, sticking their heads in the window in search of the prisoner. Suddenly we saw Wayne jump back, as though he had been struck, tripping over his own feet as he hurried back across the hog lot to the pasture fence, shouting at the top of his lungs, "He's in here—he's hurt—he's hiding in the corner—I found him" (Nancy Hendrickson, "The Crash").
Hog Shed on Beck Farm Where Barner Was Discovered
(Grinnell Herald-Register, May 29, 1964)

It was about 8 o'clock when searchers found Barner in one of Beck's hog houses to which the fugitive had crawled after the crash—about 1000 feet from the stricken airplane. Except for a pen knife, Barner was unarmed, and his injuries prevented him from offering much resistance. By this time two Iowa State troopers—Judd Kahler (1929-1983) and John Flannery—and one Grinnell policeman (Max Allen [1934-2000]) were on the scene, and took charge of the fugitive, delivering him first to Grinnell Community Hospital.
Steven Barner in Grinnell Community Hospital Bed
(Grinnell Herald-Register, May 29, 1964)

As Grinnell's Dr. John Parish (1904-1997) later learned, Barner had suffered several injuries during the rough landing. Newspapers gave somewhat different reports of the fugitive's condition; apparently Barner had a serious gash and lacerations on his head, losing enough blood to require a transfusion; he also had a broken leg, and other fractures that led to surgery in Grinnell Community Hospital (Grinnell Herald-Register, May 29, 1964; Daily Iowan, May 27, 1964). By the 28th Barner was back at Fort Madison, his airborne adventure behind him.

Extract from the Record for Steven Barner, Fort Madison Penitentiary
(Iowa US Consecutive Register of Convicts, Fort Madison Penitentiary)

Prison records indicate that Barner was released on parole again in July 1967, but he was back in prison soon after Christmas that year. What offense earned him a return visit to the penitentiary I did not discover. Apparently he spent the next two years at Fort Madison without causing any trouble. Finally, in August 1969 Steven Barner was released from prison, and, so far as I could learn, he did not work his way back into any Iowa penitentiary. 

After that, Steven Barner's name pops up occasionally in records from the western states. For instance, he seems to have lived in California for a time, and in the 1970s married twice there (one marriage lasted only three months); records indicate that in the late 1970s he married in Nevada. He lived in Kansas for a time, as well as in a half-dozen towns of eastern Iowa. However, so far as the public record reveals, he never again flew an airplane, perhaps fulfilling the pledge he gave reporters after his capture in 1964: "You couldn't get me near a plane again" (Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, May 29, 1964).

Special thanks to Nancy Hendrickson for sharing with me her file on the events of 1964 and her recollections of that upside-down day.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

When College Students Go Missing....

If you Google "college student disappears," search results will identify more than 7 million hits. Of course, many of the hits reproduce the same disappearance, but the total is nevertheless alarming. It's clear that the disappearance of students is not a rarity. Some cases go back quite far, the subject of the search still undiscovered. Lauren Spierer, for example, a student at Indiana University who disappeared June 3, 2011 when she was twenty years old, remains unaccounted for. Other cases date back even further. More recently, Jason Landry, a twenty-one-year-old student at Texas State University, disappeared last December. His crashed automobile was found in a remote area, but, as of this writing, Jason remains undiscovered. Occasionally, the fog of absence abruptly lifts when someone discovers a body, as happened in 1992 when Tammy Zywicki disappeared en route back to Grinnell College.

Was it always like this? Did college and university students of yesteryear go missing like Jason Landry or Lauren Spierer did? Or is the phenomenon a modern happening without precedent?

Today's post examines two cases from the early history of Grinnell College to help us compare the past with more recent experience. These early disappearances indicate that, although the past is often very different from the present, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between then and now.


Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, October 24, 1899

In the last years of the nineteenth century, Grinnell College—including its preparatory academy and the Music School—enrolled on average about 500 students, the great majority of them from Iowa. Therefore, the September 1899 arrival in Grinnell of Wayne Bagley (b. 1881) from State Center, Iowa provoked little attention. An older brother had attended Grinnell in the late 1880s when the family was living in Melbourne, Iowa, so young Wayne—eighteen years old when he enrolled—was no doubt familiar with the college. Moreover, like most of his classmates, his home was nearby. 

Details of Wayne's previous schooling remain unclear, but evidently college officials did not deem him sufficiently prepared for the rigors of the college curriculum. Instead, according to the 1899-1900 college catalog, Wayne enrolled not in the college itself, but rather as a senior in the Academy, a sort of preparatory school. The college catalog, in enumerating schools whose curriculum the college recognized as satisfactory, lists the State Center schools in a second, lower category than the preferred, recognized schools, which probably explains Bagley's placement in the Academy.

1899-1900 Iowa College Catalog, p. 99

The Academy offered three years of preparatory work, and it is to Bagley's credit that Iowa College officials deemed him sufficiently well-schooled to enter the third, senior year in the Academy. As a review of the catalog confirms, the senior-year curriculum was no pushover, demanding competencies not easily attained in today's secondary schools. For example, all students in Bagley's Academy cohort were obliged to take Latin, English, and Physics five times a week, along with one additional language, choosing among Greek, German, or French. A catalog footnote pointed out that anyone wishing to continue toward the bachelor's degree had to have Greek, an indication of the high expectations the Academy held for its students.

Main Street, State Center, Iowa (before 1910)

Happily for Bagley, he entered the Academy with two other students from State Center—John Gaffield Capron (1876-1918) and Wilbur H. Schilling (1881-1951). State Center was not then (and is not now) a large community: the 1900 US Census counted just over 1000 residents, so it is not unreasonable to think that the three young men were acquainted. In fact, the 1900 US Census for State Center lists the Capron and Schilling families next to one another, so they must have been neighbors. Moreover, Capron's mother (Clara Bagley Capron [1841-1901]) was a Bagley relative. It seems likely, therefore, that the three shared an acquaintance and may well have arrived in Grinnell together.

View of Grinnell College Campus; Goodnow Hall, Chicago Hall, Blair Hall, all built in 1880s

But if the three young men were close, their friendship seems not to have helped Wayne Bagley adjust to the academic and social rigors of Grinnell. Barely a month after arriving in Grinnell, Bagley vanished. The Scarlet and Black, reporting the "mysterious disappearance," noted that Bagley was last seen "Friday evening [October 20th] directly after prayer meeting..." (October 25, 1899), only about five weeks after his arrival in Grinnell. "What makes the case more singular," the Marshalltown newspaper observed, "is [that] the young man has no bad habits, and there is no known reason for his absence" (Evening Times-Republican, October 24, 1899). Inquiries made in State Center, on the assumption that Bagley might have simply gone home, yielded no help; no one at home had heard from him and no one had a clue about where Bagley might have gone. So, the newspaper said, the boy's father would travel to Grinnell.

In fact, however, as the Marshalltown paper announced a few days later, it was Harlow Bagley (presumably meaning James Harlow Bagley [1868-1946], Wayne's oldest brother) who came to Grinnell, "doing everything in his power to trace his brother Wayne." If today searchers might send faxes, emails, or texts, in 1899 officials prepared and mailed post cards bearing Bagley's description to "all towns and villages in central Iowa." The newspaper, in an attempt to explain the young man's disappearance, opined that academics was not the problem, as young Wayne "was well up in his studies and there was absolutely no friction with teachers, students or anyone else" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, October 27, 1899). An editorial in the college newspaper asserted that "Mr. Bagley had proved himself a faithful and diligent student and a young man of fine character," leading the editor to conclude that "we cannot but believe that some harm has befallen him" (Scarlet and Black, November 1, 1899). Perhaps the editor was not alone, as Grinnell officials set about dragging local ponds in search of a body (Daily Iowa Capital, October 30, 1899); none was found.

Des Moines Daily News, November 11, 1899

As often happens in cases like this, soon there were reports of bodies being found elsewhere—in a coal house, in the basement of the Methodist church, and in the baptistry of the Baptist church—"but the reports were unfounded" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, October 31, 1899). The range of possible explanations gradually expanded, spurring still more speculation. In early November, almost two weeks after Bagley disappeared, someone raised the possibility that Wayne had "skipped away and enlisted in the army under an assumed name," but there was no evidence to confirm the supposition (ibid., November 2, 1899). A $200 reward for "information leading to his discovery" also failed to generate any solid leads (Des Moines Daily News, November 11, 1899). 

Months passed with no more light being shed on the mystery. When another Bagley brother visited the area in March, five months after the young man vanished, the newspaper could report that "nothing whatever has been learned as to [Wayne's] whereabouts" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, March 31, 1900). One month later the discovery of a body near Oxford, Iowa led some to think that the missing student had at last been found; but the body was not Bagley's, and again the paper had to observe that "not a syllable of information concerning Bagley has been received since the evening last fall that he was seen in Grinnell" (ibid, April 30, 1900). The college newspaper marked the anniversary of Bagley's disappearance, observing that "all investigations proved unavailing, and his case is yet shrouded in mystery" (Scarlet and Black, October 31, 1900). 

Extract from Obituary of J. H. Bagley
(State Center Enterprise, March 31, 1904)

When Wayne's father, J. H. Bagley (1827-1904), died in 1904 without having seen his youngest son since he set off for Grinnell five years earlier, the obituary omitted mention of Wayne. The text noted that the deceased was father to five sons, but identified only four, making no mention of Wayne  (State Center Enterprise, March 31, 1904). Similarly, when Bagley's mother died many years later (1940), the death notice made no reference to Wayne (Marshalltown Times-Republican, June 6, 1940). Clearly the trail had gone cold. In what might have been the family's final acknowledgment of the missing Wayne, his brother, John Heman Bagley (1871-1929), gave the name Wayne to his fourth and final chid—Wayne R. Bagley (1909-1986). So far as I could learn, no other news of the missing young man has ever surfaced.


1132 Broad Street (2016 photo), Campus Residence of Roy McNamara '05

While his family and Grinnell classmates were still wondering about the fate of Wayne Bagley, news of the disappearance of another Grinnell student rocked the community. In late March 1902 the campus newspaper reported that Roy McNamara '05, like Bagley, an Academy student, was missing. Last seen Tuesday morning, March 18th, McNamara failed to return to his room at 1132 Broad Street where he was a boarder in the home of Mrs. Maria Hibbard (1841-1903).  At widow Hibbard's place McNamara earned his keep by monitoring the furnace and waiting table, but that Tuesday the young man left the house with a package that searchers suspected held a change of clothes (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, March 20, 1902).

Friends were concerned and sounded the alarm. "A searching investigation was made," the newspaper noted, "but absolutely no trace of the young man could be found." As with Bagley, friends and officials could divine no reason for McNamara's disappearance. "His home relations were pleasant and there were no financial reasons for his leaving school at this mental derangement is known of." Similar to the description of Bagley, McNamara was said to be "a quiet young fellow of steady habits, a faithful student, and [he] paid close attention to his work in the college." A student journalist declared the case "an absolute mystery" (Scarlet and Black, March 26, 1902).

Newspaper portrait of Roy McNamara '05
Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, March 20, 1902

Again Grinnell distributed word of the young man's absence to surrounding towns and to police forces "all over the country." The boy's father, a Congregational minister in Onawa, Iowa rushed to Grinnell to try to help, but the Reverend was "at a loss to account for his son's disappearance, and thinks he must have been temporarily deranged" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, March 20, 1902). 

Undated Photograph of Main Street, Onawa, Iowa
(David Shedlock Iowa Postcard Collection [])

The next day's Marshalltown paper had little news to add, and concentrated instead on McNamara's past. Like Bagley, young McNamara came from a small town where  he was well-known. The 1900 US Census counted just under 2000 residents in Onawa; with his father pastoring one of the larger churches in town, Roy McNamara enjoyed the acquaintance of many. He had met more Onawans by working in a store the summer before coming to Grinnell. And, like Bagley, McNamara came to Grinnell in the company of other hometown youngsters (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, March 21, 1902; Onawa Gazette, September 13, 1901).

The third day of his disappearance brought news that Des Moines detectives were working on the case (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, March 22, 1902), but after another ten days the newspaper reported "No News of McNamara." For the second time, journalists raised the possibility that the missing young man had experienced "a temporary aberration of his mind" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, April 2, 1902). 

Photograph of Roy T. McNamara, Onawa Gazette, March 28, 1902

As with Wayne Bagley, in McNamara's case, too, false leads occasionally stimulated hope. In late March came word that perhaps Roy had ended up in Sioux City, where Rev. McNamara had once pastored the local Congregational Church. Apparently a Sioux City barber had given a shave to a young man who had expressed interest in the newspaper story about McNamara's disappearance. The barber thought that the young man resembled Roy McNamara's picture. So Rev. McNamara rushed north, hoping to find Roy there. The young man in question had disappeared, but McNamara used his time to print circulars with the boy's description and photograph, and these he "sent to cities and towns all over the west" (Onawa Gazette, March 28, 1902; Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, April 4, 1902). In interviews with journalists, Rev. McNamara betrayed growing pessimism about his absent son's fate. "I am convinced," he said, "that Roy has either become demented and wandered away, or has taken his life." The worried father told newsmen that he had tried to explain his son's flight by worries over his studies at Grinnell, "but this is hard to believe," he said, "because he had expressed no dissatisfaction over being at school." Roy, he said, was looking forward to having his younger brother join him next year at Grinnell, so his absence made no sense (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, April 29, 1902; Onawa Gazette, March 28, 1902).

In the last days of April a report from yet another place raised hopes anew. Rev. McNamara, back home after a disappointing sojourn in Sioux City, received a telegram from Indianapolis, hinting that Roy might be living there. Newspaper stories expressed some confusion, some asserting that Roy had applied to work in a drugstore, others that Roy was working in a railroad shop, having given as reference the name of the man in whose drug store he had worked as a youth (Onawa Democrat, May 1, 1902; Ottumwa Semi-Weekly Courier, May 1, 1902)). His father thought the lead worth pursuing, and hastened to Indianapolis (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, April 29, 1902).

The good news was that Roy McNamara had in fact been found, even if at first the young man declined to return to Iowa (Ottumwa Semi-Weekly Courier, May 1, 1902). The Onawa Weekly Democrat reported that Roy confessed to having suffered

nervous prostration, the result of overstudy in college, the tasks being very severe, and he believed he was well nigh insane, as he has an indistinct recollection of leaving the institution (May 8, 1902).

As he told the story, Roy claimed to have been so disoriented that "his mind failed to grasp the situation, and he did not realize that there had been a great change in his life." The physical work of the railroad yard, the outdoor life, and freedom from mental strain helped buoy the young man, and his memory gradually improved. Even then, he was uncertain about to how to proceed, fearing what family and friends might say if he admitted his flight (ibid.)

Great was the rejoicing, however, when early in May Rev. McNamara returned to Onawa in the company of his missing son. Roy told the local newsman that "he was feeling better and gradually getting stronger, but was not yet well." He told the reporter that he "had no recollection of leaving Grinnell, his mind being a blank for many days." The news story attributed this condition to the fact that McNamara "had been studying very hard for some time before going away... .and his condition is plainly the result of overstudy" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, May 7, 1902; Onawa Gazette, May 9, 1902).

As he had promised, Roy took some time to recover, telling Grinnell that he planned to return to campus, but would spend the entire next academic year at home (Scarlet and Black, April 18, 1903). Although Roy's brother, Leo, did in fact enroll at Grinnell that year, Roy never returned to the college. None of the college catalogs of those years name Roy among the college's students, and later news notices indicate that Roy pursued other options. A brief note in 1906, for instance, told readers that until recently Roy had been working with a railroad crew in Mondamin, Iowa (Onawa Sentinel, September 14, 1906). The following year an advertisement for Selleck's pharmacy encouraged customers to visit their new soda fountain, which "our demonstrator, Roy McNamara, will be pleased to show you..." (Onawa Sentinel, May 16, 1907). Sometime later Roy moved to Bliss, Idaho where he joined with others to acquire the Bliss Gazette. "Roy's Onawa friends," the hometown paper commented, "will not only be pleased to know that he has the paper, but even better pleased to know that he is doing well in a business way" (Onawa Weekly Democrat, July 6, 1911). Two years later Onawa newspaper readers learned that Roy had married a "popular Onawa young lady," Miss Jennie Douglas; apparently the pair had been sweethearts all through their schooling, but only decided to marry after both had reached their thirties. The wedding took place in Onawa, and immediately thereafter the couple settled in Bliss, Idaho where Roy was "engaged in the surveying business and is at present water manager of a large irrigation company" (Onawa Weekly Democrat, January 16, 1913). Unfortunately, sorrow soon found Roy McNamara again: in October 1914 the newspaper relayed the sad news that Jennie McNamara had fallen ill, perhaps with typhoid; she was rushed to hospital in Boise (Onawa Sentinel, October 15, 1914), but within a week she was dead. 


Although the 1914 death of his wife must have depressed Roy McNamara, his story is on balance a good one. Unlike many of the missing, McNamara returned alive. He had emerged from that demi-world of the disappeared, and then put together what seems to have been a successful life: he carved out a career in Idaho where, by the time he died in 1948, he was managing a bank. After the death of his first wife in 1914, McNamara remarried, and ended up in a Boise cemetery next to his second wife. No doubt the trauma of his 1902 disappearance left its marks on him and his family, but he revived and survived.

Gravestone of Roy McNamara, Morris Hill Cemetery, Boise, Idaho

The story was less happy for Wayne Bagley and his family; his parents, siblings and all his friends passed the remainder of their lives without ever knowing Wayne's fate. Had he suffered? Had he been murdered, like so many of today's missing? Or did he, perhaps, manage to reinvent himself under another name somewhere, having jettisoned the memory of those heady days of autumn 1899 in Grinnell, Iowa? Did he, like Roy McNamara, feel enervated by the intensity of academics, or did something else drive him out of the world he knew? We are unlikely ever to know, as is regrettably true for so many of the young women and men who in recent years joined their names to the legions of the missing.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Where Did All the Outhouses Go?

If you are old enough, or perhaps if you grew up in the country, you probably knew and used an outhouse (also called privy or biffy) somewhere—perhaps at a summer cabin if nowhere else. Often a modest, wooden structure situated a distance from the house, preferably down wind, the outhouse was a necessity for the pioneers of early Grinnell who lived in a world without city water or a sanitary sewer. Most privies were built atop a vault dug into the earth; an elevated seat and a door that would close gave users some comfort and privacy while they attended to nature's call. A variation looked much the same, but had no excavated vault beneath it; instead, a pail stood beneath the seat to collect excretions (which someone had to empty periodically). Often outhouse owners hid their privies, planting flowers or sweet-smelling bushes around the building, hoping thereby to obscure the structure and mask the odors that inevitably attached to outhouses. My grandfather, for instance, had honeysuckle growing around his privy, but some owners preferred lilacs or tall blooms like hollyhocks to help hide the outhouse from view.

Modern photo of a rural outhouse (not hidden by bush or flowers)

For obvious reasons, outhouses within a growing town like early Grinnell raised problems: the greater the concentration of people, the greater the concentration of outhouses—and outhouse output. Furthermore, outhouse pits might contaminate the shallow wells often dug in areas where the water table was high, as it has long been in Grinnell. Privies also attracted flies which might then carry infectious disease from the outhouses into living quarters. Consequently, by the end of the nineteenth century, as infectious disease overran towns like Grinnell, public health officials increasingly called for an end to outhouses.

Today's post looks at the outhouses of early Grinnell, and how they disappeared a century ago.


If you look around today's Grinnell, you will find no outhouses—city ordinance prohibits them. Even finding a photograph of Grinnell's privies of yesteryear is almost impossible; a phenomenon that was obviously essential and ubiquitous in early Grinnell is barely documented and apparently rarely photographed. How, then, can we prove that Grinnell had outhouses?

Experts tell us that rectangular depressions in the backyard or the discovery of areas where plants grow extravagantly might point to the sites of former privies, and metal-detecting probes sometimes identify the location of former outhouses. Archeologists have used all these methods to find evidence of old outhouse sites, since privy vaults—which were often filled with all manner of household trash—have yielded some fascinating finds. Another avenue of discovery lies with Sanborn insurance maps, drawn to identify buildings and the risks of fire that their construction or business might pose. However, not all old Sanborn maps show outhouses—typically small, one-story structures built of wood—presumably because these unimposing, unheated structures did not represent much threat of fire; workers tasked with drawing up the maps were no doubt happy to skip checking out these stinky little backyard conveniences. Happily, some late nineteenth-century Sanborn maps do depict outhouses (although without identifying labels), and early Grinnell maps are part of that group. 

The November 1883 Sanborn map of downtown Grinnell, for instance, shows that behind most of the businesses on Commercial, Broad, Main, and Fourth Avenue there stood, along with barns, storage sheds, and other minor buildings, small, wooden, one-story structures that must have been outhouses. Businessmen stuck at their stores or workers putting in full days at a factory needed a toilet, of course; in the era that preceded flush toilets, nearby privies were essential.

November 1883 Sanborn Map of Grinnell Commercial District; arrows point to likely outhouses

The demand was no less important at home, where an entire family had to devise a means for dealing with urination and defecation. In late nineteenth-century Grinnell, privies stood in almost every yard, as the rare, surviving testimony confirms. Martin Pearce (1916-98), for example, told interviewers in 1992 that when he was a boy, "The whole south end of the town of Grinnell...every house had an outhouse behind it down on the alley" ("Voices of the Past," Gene Breiting (1913-99) recalled that, when he was a boy living on Pearl Street, "There were a lot of least in the areas where we were there were six outhouses behind the houses there" ("Voices of the Past," 

Often the small structures were distanced from the house, perhaps situated against the rear lot line; the biffy might stand alone, but sometimes it was built adjacent to a wood shed or small barn (where one's horse was adding to the quantity of poop). Breiting remembered about his family home that "to the rear end of the lot were the wood shed and coal shed and outhouse, [and-DK] we had a plank for our walkway" through the backyard (ibid.). Siting the biffy away from the house provided privacy and kept unwanted smells distant.

1893 Sanborn map of Grinnell; arrows point to likely outhouses in one block of residential Grinnell

John Nollen (1869-1952), who hailed from Pella but was Grinnell College president from 1932 to 1940, recalled a similar arrangement at his Pella boyhood home.
Our childhood home is quite clear in my mind...The house was heated by stoves...and lighted by kerosene bathroom, no plumbing, a cistern behind the house for "soft water," a well in front, remote from contamination, for drinking and cooking water...A 'privy' the back yard (John Scholte Nollen, A History of Grinnell College Through 1952 [Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1953], p. 233).
No doubt the pioneers of Grinnell were accustomed to privies, but as the town grew, city fathers looked for ways to eliminate outhouses. Waves of infectious disease like cholera and typhoid—both of which were common in nineteenth-century Iowa—helped drive founding of the Iowa State Board of Health in 1880. The Board of Health, in turn, encouraged Iowa communities to clean up. In Grinnell the first efforts to improve local sanitation came in the 1890s with the installation of the first water lines and the first sanitary sewer.
Before city water arrived in Grinnell, most townsfolk had to find their own water. Many houses boasted cisterns which would collect "soft" rain water. Depending upon where the cistern stood, homeowners could arrange plumbing to bring the water into kitchens or baths. For example, at the Henry Watters house at 334 East Street, the cistern was in the basement. Recalling the house she moved into in 1902, Sara McIlrath Maurer (1890-1973) described the cistern:
It was a large round wooden tank on top of the [basement] floor, and filling the space directly under the kitchen. In the rainy seasons we had to watch and turn the water off outside, lest the tank get too full and run over...In the kitchen above there was a cistern pump worked by hand at the east end of the boxed in, dark cast-iron sink.... (Sara McIlrath Maurer, "334 Elm Street," January 1963, p. 2; Local History Archive, Drake Community Library)
Cisterns were an invaluable source of water that was suitable for bathing and washing. And when rain fell hard, cisterns might fill quickly, as happened in late July 1911 when Grinnell recorded 1.56 inches of rain in one hour (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, August 1, 1911); in June 1913 the town was drenched with 4.75 inches of rain, flooding streets and filling cisterns (ibid., June 7, 1913). So long as rainfall was generous, Grinnell households enjoyed a plentiful supply of rain water, but when drought hit central Iowa, as it did several times in the late nineteenth century, cisterns went dry. A December 1889 article in the Grinnell Herald, for example, reported that "the water [supply] question is again getting serious hereabouts. A great many wells and cisterns are dry and water for stock is scarce" (December 3, 1889).

Missouri Valley Times, December 21, 1899

This circumstance encouraged Grinnell homeowners to drill their own wells; with a high water table, Grinnell wells need not have been deep, but the ubiquity of outhouses in town presented a constant risk to well water. As the authors of the 1912 U.S. Geological Survey paper pointed out,
Shallow dug wells, walled as they generally are by brick or tile, that permit the inflow of water from top to bottom, are usually unsafe in a town or even in the country unless they are well protected from contamination by kitchen or household waste, privies, drainage from stable yards, and all similar sources of pollution...Infectious material is likely to enter it at any time...the undoubtedly in direct proportion to the prevalence of privy vaults, cesspools, badly drained streets, and decaying garbage (W. H. Norton, et al., Underground Water Resources of Iowa [Washington, DC: Government Printing office, 1912], p. 196)
All these considerations drove city officials to commission a city water system that would be immune to surface contaminants.

The first step was to acquire a water source, and in 1892 Grinnell authorized drilling the first of several deep wells that reached into the Jordan (technically, the Cambrian-Ordovician) Aquifer. Dug to a depth of nearly 2000 feet, Grinnell's first well was estimated to produce "150,000 gallons of water suitable for culinary and mechanical use" (Water and Sewage Works 4[1893]:122). Because planners originally figured that a deep well that penetrated below clay and shale need not be cased, the first well had a short life, the walls soon collapsing. A second well was drilled in 1901, the drill bit pushing deeper than 2000 feet (ibid.,  21[1901]:54). A third well was sunk in 1906 (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, November 10, 1906), and a fourth opened in 1910 (ibid., January 25, 1910). These last two wells were both encased with six-inch cast iron pipe (Leonard Fletcher, History of Poweshiek County, 2 vols. [Chicago, 1911], 1:366).  Storage of sufficient water supply was also important, so that, as early as 1903, the city proposed erection of a 116-foot water tower. An innovation was the use of compressed air to pump water from the wells, a development admired by other communities then contemplating new water sources (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, April 9, 1907).

Illustration of the Jordan (Cambrian-Ordovician) Aquifer from which Grinnell gets its water

Once a reliable source of water was established, city officials began the expensive process of laying pipe so that individual properties could connect to the system. In 1894 Grinnell solicited bids on laying "four miles of water mains along with forty-five hydrants, one elevated tower and one surface reservoir" (Water and Sewage Works 6[1894]:93). 

1898 Grinnell Sanborn Map depiction of Grinnell Water Works, 2nd & Main

Some of the earliest water hook-ups in Grinnell occurred along Broad, Park, and High streets. For example, in November 1894 the city connected residences at 1011 and 1127 Broad, at 833 and 904 High, and at 1019 Park Street. Every year thereafter more and more Grinnell homes joined the city water system. A 1914 city ordinance required any properties possessing a "water closet" to join the city system (and pay the city for the water). Some factories resisted initially, claiming that their use of the Arbor Lake soft water relieved them of the need to connect to the city system, but the courts ruled otherwise (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, May 27, 1914). 
Chicago Hall, built 1883; razed 1958

With a supply of water at hand, the next step was to provide a city sewer system that would eliminate the many Grinnell outhouses and their nasty cousins, "dry closets," which collected body waste until someone emptied them. Waldo Walker's 1997 timeline of Grinnell College buildings reported that in 1895-96 the college treasurer told trustees that "if the contemplated city sewer is put in this summer, we can rid ourselves of the intolerable stench of Chicago Hall which accompanies the dry closets on the second and third floors" (, p. 13). Exactly when Chicago Hall joined the city sewer system is unclear, but its neighbor, Blair Hall, was connected to the city sewer only in 1903 (Scarlet and Black, April 18, 1903).

In 1895 the city moved forward with plans for installing a sanitary sewer. Opposition to the sewer emerged immediately, opponents going to court to restrain the city "council from assessing the cost of constructing the sewer to the abutting property" (Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, August 10, 1895). Litigation slowed construction, but by 1902 the city could report having made 279 connections to its new sanitary sewer. Nevertheless, there were serious problems. Because the city had "no natural drainage system," planners opened the discharge into Little Bear Creek, which flowed east away from Grinnell, making its way to Malcom. After a rather dry year, "the collection of sewage along the banks of this stream has become most offensive," a Grinnell correspondent reported to the Marshalltown newspaper (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, April 19, 1902). Several farmers with property along the Little Bear Creek (among them William Vogt, Jacob Wisecarver, Herman Speth, and Henry Rohr) sued the city, seeking to prevent Grinnell from dumping sewage in the creek. City fathers debated how to proceed; for openers, council members visited Marshalltown to inspect its disposal plant (ibid., May 1, 1902). Soon thereafter Grinnell contracted with O. P. Herrick of Des Moines to construct a large multi-chambered concrete septic tank to retain the solids emerging from the newly-constructed 18-inch sewer outlet on Grinnell's east side (A. Marston, "The New Sewage Disposal Plant at Grinnell, Iowa," The Iowa Engineer 2[1902]:51-55). With more than 10.5 miles of sanitary sewer, these changes might have been sufficient, so long as plenty of water accompanied the sludge through the pipes. However, farmers downstream remained dissatisfied, and sued again.

Compounding the problem of sewage discharge was the city's intention of expanding the sewer.  Spring 1907 the council asked the college's Samuel Buck to investigate how the sewer might run through the west side of town (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, March 2, 1907). The first bids for a sewer in west Grinnell proved too high (ibid., August 8, 1907), obliging the council to reconsider. The following year, however, the city accepted bids for another 19,000 feet of sewer pipes in east Grinnell (ibid., May 6, 1908). Work on west Grinnell's sewer began in earnest only in summer 1915. Rainy weather and the depth of some of the excavations (up to 50 feet in places) delayed the project, the central tunnel of which ran along 2nd Avenue. By April 1917 the entire system was in operation, a new tunnel directing the entire flow across the city, from east to west, emptying all the city's sewage into septic tanks and filter beds two miles west of town (ibid., April 25, 1917). State inspectors pronounced the new disposal plant a success (ibid., April 25, 1917; ibid., March 25, 1919).

With a satisfactory solution to treating city sewage and with sewer connections established over most of the town, the city was positioned to eliminate outhouses from Grinnell. An August 1st, 1917 ordinance declared that 
no building or portion of building within the fire limits of the city of Grinnell...may be rented, leased or occupied...which is not provided with at least one water closet connected to the sanitary sewer...and no cesspool, privy vault or manure pit shall be maintained or used with the same area (Charles B. Bell, The Government of the City of Grinnell, Iowa [Iowa City, 1917], p. 44).
Grinnell outhouses ceased to exist.
It is easy to see how much dirtier was early Grinnell than today's city, despite the subsequent doubling of town population. The city's unpaved streets, littered with horse manure, were dusty in dry weather and mucky cesspools in the rain. The men and women who traversed the wooden sidewalks or dared cross the muddy streets inevitably collected the city's ambient dirt on shoes and clothing. At home and at work, they did their private business in outhouses whose summertime odors attracted hordes of flies (along with wasps and hornets). In winter the outdoor, unheated privies presented a serious obstacle to performing nature's most basic tasks.
Advertisement for a Flush Toilet from Grinnell store in Marshalltown Newspaper
(Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, August 27, 1900)

The arrival of city water and a sanitary sewer dramatically altered this world. By 1917 the city had obliged all homeowners to connect to the sanitary sewer, thereby dooming the town's outhouses. Flush toilets, for sale in Grinnell since at least 1900, began to replace backyard privies. Likewise, the gradual reach of city water to all Grinnell homes made baths more comfortable, more accessible, and more frequent. The washing machine—many of which were being manufactured in downtown Grinnell—connected to these new water sources, generated cleaner clothes to cover the cleaner bodies. Cement sidewalks (ibid., May 6, 1908) and street-paving, which began in earnest in Grinnell in 1909 (ibid.April 20, 1909) and followed much of the sewer and water main excavations (ibid., July 16, 1914), added to the considerable improvements occasioned by the provision of city water and a sanitary sewer. 

The result of all this civic improvement was a very different Grinnell. Not only were noisome outhouses missing from the town's topography, but even the smell of human sweat diminished, giving Grinnell residents a sharply different olfactory experience, and a much healthier world in which to live.