In an another post we told you about the long history behind Hubbard Park – the green space located directly south of the Iowa Memorial Union and home to Danforth Chapel. On this page, I’d like to share a handful of stories about some of those good folks who lived on this plot of land – Block 98 as it was first called (see map below) – between the 1840’s and 1920’s – prior to the time when SUI transformed the area into what it is today.
These are stories about rugged individuals – European immigrants, Euro-Americans and African-Americans – most of whom are relatively unknown. Histories of an eclectic group of Iowa City residents who gathered together to make up a small but widely-diverse neighborhood living on less-desirable, flood-prone land near the Iowa River.
The very first map of Iowa City (see below) – drawn up in 1839 – designates Blocks 96 – 99 as lots adjacent to Front Street and The National Road – the location of ferry service across the river. Just to the west of these four blocks was The Promenade – the proposed riverboat landing where incoming and outgoing Iowa River steamboats would dock. Our discussion here focuses on Block 98 – approximately 2.35 acres of land that is the present location of Hubbard Park in Iowa City.
Located at the bottom of the hill on a floodplain along the Iowa River, Block 98 existed largely outside of Iowa City’s popular imaginary. The land was cheap because Iowa Citians avoided the vulnerabilities associated with living on a floodplain, and in many ways, the wealthier city residents forced working and middle class citizens into this neighborhood. From the very beginning (1840’s), the majority of those who lived here worked as general for-hire laborers, painters, carpenters, teamsters, dressmakers, milliners, tinners, and bricklayers. Every morning, they would climb the large hill and walk into the heart of Iowa City and every evening after the day’s labors, they walked back down the hill to their homes by the river.
In an assessment of the Block 98 community, William Whittaker, Research Director with the Office of the State Archaeologist, describes it as…
A humble working class neighborhood, despite its proximity to power and prestige – the state capitol and, after 1847, the State University of Iowa.
Writer Nathaniel Otjen agrees, stating…
While the residents of Block 98 transitioned over the 80 year period (1840-1920), one constant tied everyone together – these folks were a diverse group of hardworking people.
Because of the neighborhood’s vulnerable position, flooding regularly occurred. Only one decade after the first working class residents moved into Block 98, one of Iowa City’s largest floods on record inundated this area. 1851 had been a wet year. Iowa received twice its annual rainfall and the ground was already soaked when the big rains arrived in May. Rain fell almost continuously for forty days and did not stop until July. Block 98 was completely submerged for weeks on end and people were displaced from their homes, which were badly damaged by the floodwaters. An Iowa City newspaper wrote:
The water rose to the state-house yard. There were but few houses on the bottoms, but they were deluged. In one on the second bench, occupied by Mr. T. W. Wilson, the water rose two and a half feet, expelling the family.
From archaeological excavations conducted in 2014, we know the 1851 flood deposited over 5-10 centimeters of yellowish-brown river silt and loam over the entire block. Yards and gardens were covered by water and once the floodwaters receded, they remained buried by silt. Yet records indicate that this determined group of first-generation pioneers moved back into their homes and began tending gardens in the new soil.
Now, allow me to introduce you to some of the Block 98 neighbors…
Zachariah (Zac) & Cynthia Ann (Harris) Scherer were both born in Kentucky in the 1820’s. They moved to Iowa City in 1856 with their children and between 1857 and 1875, Zac worked in Iowa City as a carpenter. He passed away sometime around 1876, and Cynthia moved homes, but chose to stay in Block 98. Cynthia’s son, Archibald, lived near her and owned a shooting gallery in town.
George & Lavinia Tomlin – English immigrants – moved into the neighborhood in the late 1850’s and spent most of their lives with their three children in the Block 98 community. George worked as a local painter for several decades before becoming a custodian at SUI in 1880.
The first Iowa City Directory was established in 1857, and in it, we find some basic information on three people who also lived in the Block 98 neighborhood – William Poland, Thomas Parker and W. Pratt. All three held working-class jobs, with Poland and Parker being carpenters, and Pratt was a farmer. Records also show that a building firm called Allens & Mahanna operated in Block 98 during this time – located on the southeast corner of today’s Hubbard Park.
Patrick & Ellen Fay – both Irish immigrants – lived on Block 98 for over twenty-five years. The Fays first moved to Iowa City between 1852 and 1854, but soon left to farm in Iowa County, Iowa. This venture was unsuccessful, so they returned to Iowa City in 1860 where they remained on Block 98 for over two decades. While living in the neighborhood, Ellen and Patrick had several children, and their son, Philip – born 1859, worked as a laborer alongside his father, and would continue to live on Block 98 for most of his life.
John S. & Mary Ann Fisher – A Pennsylvanian who relocated to Polk County, Iowa when he was twenty-two years old (1848). A farmer, John may have utilized his agricultural knowledge during his family’s residence on Block 98 between 1860 and 1868. The Fishers raised five children during their time here and records indicate that John also earned income as a painter.
James M. & Lydia Rogers – James was born in New York around 1812, and by 1860 had moved to Iowa City’s Block 98 where he worked as a farmer and laborer for a short period of time. The family’s experience must have been positive because after James’ death in the 1890’s, Lydia moved back into Block 98, continuing the family’s farming practices when she returned to the neighborhood.
By 1868, the population of Block 98 had increased significantly and the first African-American family moved here during this time. Martha Harrison, and her daughter Sarah Harrison moved to Iowa City from Missouri sometime after the Civil War. Martha was born in Virginia (early 1830’s) and sometime in her youth, she moved to Missouri where Sarah was born in 1853. Because neither can be located in the 1860 national census, they were most likely former slaves who gained their freedom either during or shortly after the Civil War. As a widow, Martha probably struggled to make a living, so the Harrison’s began to accept boarders to earn extra income. In the 1870 national census, they listed two African-American men who worked as barbers – George Mayweather and Mr. Watterford – as members of their household.
The city directory changed in 1875 and records became even less precise, but it’s believed that Henry & Catharine Bell lived in the northeast corner of today’s Hubbard Park for many years. Henry – also identified as Hal – was an African-American who grew up in South Carolina, while Catharine, born in the early 1830’s in Georgia, was a former slave who gained her freedom during the decade preceding the Civil War. The Bells had five children before coming to Iowa City, and in addition to their large family, Hal’s mother Sina (or Sine) Gwin lived with them as well.
Read more about the accomplishments of these early African-American Iowa City residents here.
Hiram N. Toms is most remembered for his time spent in the Civil War. Toms served as the 5th Corporal in Company G of the Iowa 22nd Infantry Regiment. In the 1864 Battle of Winchester, Virginia, Toms was severely wounded in the arm and head. His left arm had to be amputated. After the Civil War, Toms lived outside of Iowa City, but by 1880 he lived on Block 98 and worked as an implement salesman.
In 1881, thirty years after the devastating floods of 1851, Block 98 was again inundated, damaging homes and displacing most – if not all – of the neighborhood’s inhabitants. An Iowa City newspaper reported: “Fortunately, our city stands high above all possible floods, with only a small part of its homes below the cruel line of inundation. That lower part was covered, driving about twenty families to higher ground.” Just as it was in 1851, flooding accounts published in newspapers wrote from the vantage point of the capitol building. Looking down on the scene, they describe the “cruel line of inundation” and cringe at the damage. Distanced from the wealthier landowners who lived “high above all possible floods,” the residents of Block 98 were left to recover on their own.
According to the 1885 national census, over a dozen families lived on Block 98 in the mid-1880s. Here are some of their names: Joseph Sterett (painter), Hiram Toms (implement salesman), George B. Farrell, Charles Tillotson (tinner), Jacob J. Midelton (laborer), David Emmons (teamster), Peter Boarts (bricklayer), Jefferson Monroe Bright (carpenter), Alvin K. Rogers (laborer), Patrick Fay (laborer), Frank H. Riley (drayman), Leo Meyer (teamster), and Margaret Higgins.
Jacob Jackson Middleton, a popular local figure, lived on Block 98 for only a few years around 1885. Born in Washington County, Iowa in 1841, Middleton became deaf at the age of five “by being held under water” – according to the Cedar Rapids Gazette (1901) – and soon moved to Iowa City to enroll in the School for the Deaf. A decade later (1850’s), Middleton taught deaf students in Connecticut and Iowa. He married Melvina E. Long in the early 1870’s and between 1872 and 1881 they had three children. Middleton’s short stay in Block 98 marked a turning point in his life. Immediately after moving from this neighborhood, Middleton became a Methodist Episcopal pastor and preached using sign language.
Peter Boarts (above), the son of a German-born brick and stone mason, lived in Iowa City for over forty years. Born in Pennsylvania during the mid-1840s, he moved to Iowa City with his family when he was about ten years old (1850’s). After serving as a sergeant in the Civil War from 1862-65, Boarts began working full-time as a brick and stone mason, learning the trade from his father. He spent nearly all of his life in Block 98 and died in 1891.
Joseph & Josephine Rinella moved to Iowa City from Sicily around 1895 to join three of Josephine’s brothers who had settled here a decade prior. Their local grocery store (see pic above) became a prominent neighborhood business during the turn of the century. As a matter of fact, because of this store’s popularity, some today refer to Blocks 96-98 as the Rinella Neighborhood.
In 1891 – Bertha Horack – the future wife of Iowa City historian Benjamin F. Shambaugh – was taking a number of photographs around town for a series of shots she called “General Outdoor” photographs. When she reached Block 98 – she decided to take the iconic photograph below – Paul and Rachel Ward standing outside of their dilapidated home located on Lot 5 of Block 98.
Paul and Rachel Ward were an African-American couple who lived in the Block 98 neighborhood from the late 1880’s to the early 1890’s. Paul Ward was born (ca.1817) in either Virginia or Tennessee, probably began his life in slavery, and was freed sometime during the Civil War. Rachel (Haskett) Ward (born ca. 1837) was the daughter of William P. and Margaret Haskett – a free black millwright from North Carolina. Rachel’s family moved to Georgia sometime in the late 1840’s and then came to Johnson County a decade later in the 1850’s. Paul and Rachel met each other in Johnson County – marrying in 1865 – and records indicate that Paul adopted Rachel’s two children – Sarah Ann and Amanda – who were born prior their marriage, and together, the couple had four more children – Margaret, Anaka, Rachel J. and Paul Jr.
On the back of Bertha Horack’s 1891 photograph, her mother – Katherine – wrote the following…
According to what Katherine Horack wrote, the Wards finally abandoned their home due to Rachel’s illness, and it’s believed that relocation happened around 1893 – with the family moving to a home on the far south edge of town – 326 First Street – near the corner of today’s South Gilbert St. and Kirkwood Avenue.
From a Fred W. Kent photograph (see above) of the Block 98 neighborhood – taken in 1916 – we see an empty lot where the Ward home once stood. It’s believed that the city demolished the house on Lot 5 soon after Wards moved in 1893.
As we report on another post, by 1920 – most all of these remaining homes & businesses in the neighborhood had been removed, as SUI made room for the new Iowa Memorial Student Union.
As for the Wards, apparently, after only a few years of living on their own, Paul and Rachel Ward moved in with John W. McNeil – their son-in-law – with the county Board of Supervisors paying McNeil one dollar per week for taking in the couple. This arrangement was short lived, however, and by 1900, the Wards sporadically changed homes, trying to find an affordable place to stay. Rachel passed away on January 5, 1906 and Paul died shortly after. Sadly, we’ve been unable to locate their gravestones in the Iowa City area.
Godspeed, Rachel & Paul – Godspeed!
Click here to access our list of stories of those who have made a difference in this call for Unity Through Diversity…
Click here to access our Rich Stories of Diversity Timeline…
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Special thanks to Nathaniel Otjen and William Whittaker for their amazing insights in the article – Hubbard Park. So much of the biographical information on this webpage has come from their historical research.
Hubbard Park, Nathaniel Otjen, Iowa City Parks, University of Iowa Library
William E. Whittaker, Research Director, The Office of the State Archaeologist, University of Iowa
Thanks to William E. Whittaker for providing us with the reference material that fills in all the detail behind the Paul & Rachel Ward story and their Iowa City home in Block 98 – Lot 5. Read the reports here.
Photos from: Finials – A View of Downtown Iowa City, Marybeth Slonneger, pp 97-98
Hubbard Park, Iowa Memorial Union, University of Iowa
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