Some people’s dreams are long buried in the ghost town of Ivanhoe and others are still being dug up.
On the northeast side of the Cedar River crossing on Highway 1 between Solon and Mount Vernon lies a distant echo of a short lived mid 19th century town known as Ivanhoe. Today all that remains of this once promising place is a small cemetery and a quarry that carries on the namesake.
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The geological features of the Iowa’s driftless area must have presented quite an inviting view, and where the Cedar River passes through it in what is now southern Linn County was apparently so attractive that some of the earliest pioneers heading west decided to stop there and call it home. It held so much promise that in October of 1838 Anson Cowles laid out a new town and named it Ivanhoe after the novel of the same name. His literary reference hinted at his hope to someday build a university there, and drew ironic parallels between the Saxon characters of that novel and the ruffian reputation the late Ivanhoans came to be remembered by.
In 1839 the US government built a “Military Road” from Dubuque, Iowa to the states southern border with Missouri in order to accommodate colonial expansion, commerce and military endeavors in the area. That road crossed the Cedar River a few hundred yards from the fledgling community and later became known as the Ivanhoe Bridge. Lying at the intersection of a river and the longest road in the new territory, as well as an abundance of timber, water and arable land, Ivanhoe seemed destined to become one of the great Iowa cities.
In 1841 it was recognized by government surveyors as lying on the line between sections 29 and 30 of Franklin Township, but was not officially platted as a town, even though a plat had been applied for. It was one of the first three communities in Linn County and was the second to have a store, which was opened by William H. Merritt in the spring of 1839. From 1845 to 1849 there was even a post office.
The 1921 historical publication, The Palimpsest, had this to say of Ivanhoe in its second volume:
On the road to Dubuque it is a little more than a four hour walk from the Old Stone Capitol to the Cedar River where only a small summer shack marks the site of the once flourishing village of Ivanhoe, Iowa. Before the road was surveyed a venturesome trader named William H. Merritt, who pitched his tent on the bank of the river was so deeply impressed by the beautiful scenery and the stillness that “seemed to pervade the whole atmosphere’, that all through his life the village that later developed was held in tender remembrance.
Anson Cowles laid out the town at the intersection of river and highway. It is said that keel boats were built at this point for the shipment of grain down stream in the spring, but Cowles’ visions were not of a commercial metropolis. He planned to establish a great university to be governed by rules of his own devising. One-half of the plat, when the land be- came valuable, he proposed to donate as a permanent foundation. Not far from the campus was to be a large park where he would assemble all kinds of birds and beasts that inhabited Iowa, and teach them to dwell in harmony. His large and magnificent residence was to be by the side of the road where he could entertain strangers and point out the places of interest. In the garb of an Indian chieftain he was to ride in a curious equipage — a chariot built on a marvelous plan, drawn by six elk in trappings of beaded buckskin, each elk to be ridden by an Indian in full native costume. But all of this mental frostwork was dissolved by an untimely death, and nothing is left but tradition to tell of the foibles and virtues of the chivalrous Cowles.
Not all of the Ivanhoe residents were imbued with such lofty ambitions but some of them won recognition in other ways. One of the earliest physicians in Linn County was Dr. Sam Grafton who hung out his shingle in Ivanhoe. George Greene was both lawyer and school master there before he was sent to the legislature and nearly a decade before he became judge of the State Supreme Court.
Wherever the famous old thoroughfare of earlier years intersected a river there a village was founded. Every one of those pioneer settlements is now a prosperous city — with the single exception of Ivanhoe. For some unaccountable reason this crossing was never a popular place. The principal settlers either died or moved to Mount Vernon, Cedar Rapids, or Marion. The timber along the Red Cedar River, as the stream was then called, was a refuge for horse thieves and dealers in counterfeit money. To this day the grandsons of pioneer settlers speak in awed tones of the Ivanhoe ruffians’ rendezvous. But now every vestige of the village is gone. Not one among thousands who traverse the old road ever heard of the village of Ivanhoe and if inquiry were made perhaps few could explain why the Ivanhoe Bridge was so named.
The account here is a bit inconsistent with historical records in regard to a few details, but provides some florid clues about what life was like.
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Another account from History of Linn County Iowa by Luther Albertus Brewer and Barthinius L. Wick discussed the sometimes tenuous relations with native populations:
The Sioux very seldom came into this part of Iowa. William Abbe and Robert Ellis were the agents for the government in supplying the Winnebago Indians at Ft. Atkinson with food, thus these men were well acquainted with the Winnebagoes, who, in turn, were on terms of friendship with the Sacs and Foxes. The Winnebagoes, like the other tribes, became addicted to the use of fire water to such an extent that they would sell their guns and ammunition for whiskey. One of the early experiences of W. H. Merritt as a young store keeper at Ivanhoe was to clean out the store single-handed of a crowd of drunken Indians who intended to take possession of the store for a sufficient length of time at least till they could consume the large quantity of whiskey stored therein, but they had not figured on the courage of the young man who later distinguished himself during the Civil war. Young Mr. Merritt drove out the intruders and saved the store, as well as the property of the company for which he worked.
Not much else survives by way of a narrative of Ivanhoe, but there are historical records of some of its most prominent members.
[Wolfe] came to Iowa in 1840 and settled in Franklin township, Linn county, where he engaged in farming and also ran a ferry boat on the Cedar river at Ivanhoe for many years. He held numerous public offices in his township and was postmaster of Ivanhoe for a number of years. He was an industrious, energetic and progressive man, who was upright and honorable in all his deals, and commanded the respect of all with whom he came in contact. His death occurred on his farm in Franklin township in 1848, when he was forty-one years of age. His wife survived him a number of years and died at the age of sixty-two. They had eleven children.
In the practice of law, in financial circles and in railroad building Judge Greene attained such success and prominence that his activities in any one of those fields would alone entitle him to representation among the men whose life work has conferred honor and dignity upon the history of Linn county. Moreover, his name is inseparably interwoven with the annals of Cedar Rapids in that he was one of the founders of the city and remained thereafter until his death one of the most helpful factors in its progress and improvement.
The year 1838 witnessed the arrival of Judge Greene in Iowa. He proceeded to Davenport, where he entered the employ of David J. Owen, who was making a geological survey of the state, and six months were devoted by Mr. Greene to surveying. This brought him a broad knowledge of the country and at the same time he was paid a liberal salary, from which he saved a considerable sum. He then made his way to Ivanhoe, Linn county, where he continued his law studies while teaching school, and in 1840 he was admitted to the bar at Iowa City.
One of the old settlers of Ivanhoe was Dr. S. Grafton, who arrived there in 1843 and travelled horseback up and down the Cedar and Iowa river valleys as far as Jones or as far northeast as half way to Dubuque in the practice of his profession. He was born in Ohio in 1800, and died during the typhoid epidemic in 1845 and 1847. He was one of the best known of the early physicians, a gentleman, a scholar, and a man who did, perhaps, more during the few years of his practice to help the poor and the needy than any other of the early settlers. He was married to Isabelle Patterson… He got caught with the gold fever and emigrated to California in 1850, returning to Ivanhoe within a few years. It is said that he made more money in California seining for fish, which he had learned in Denmark, than he did in digging gold. He died in 1880 at the age of sixty-two years. The widow died January 11, 1897, at the advanced age of eighty years, and is buried at Mount Vernon.
One of the best known men in the state in an early date was Col. William H. Merritt. Mr. Merritt was born in New York city September 12, 1820, and received a fair education at Lima Seminary. At the age of eighteen he was compelled to rely on his own resources and sought the west, settling in Rock Island, Illinois, where he obtained a clerkship. Through government officials and others he was sent to Ivanhoe on the Red Cedar river in 1839 to take charge of an Indian trading depot. Ivanhoe was a squatter town, being staked out in October, 1838, by Anson Cowles. To this place, which was expected to become a large trading center, came also at the same time George Greene, who taught school in the vicinity during the winter of 1839. Mr. Merritt ran the store with considerable ability, and long before the Civil war showed his presence of mind and bravery. At this time, like in all other stores of its kind, whiskey, tobacco, and groceries were sold over the same counter, and one day a number of Indians came, insisting on buying “goody toss,” designated in English as whiskey. Mr. Merritt refused, as he had such orders from his employers, but the Indians insisted and began to take possession of the store, and intended to drive the young clerk out. A few pioneer hangers-on fled, but not so the young clerk in charge of the goods and the store. He got hold of an axe and with this he cleaned out single handed a whole squad of Indians, who left as quickly as they had made their appearance, much to the surprise of the white settlers, who up to this time had always fled when the redskins outnumbered them ten to one.
Mr. Merritt was related to George Greene by marriage, and the two men were much together from this time on.
A letter written by Merritt in May 1948 describes his time in Ivanhoe:
In 1838, when I first pitched my tent at Ivanhoe, Linn county had but few white inhabitants, possessed but few attractions for one accustomed to the society of one of the old Federal colonies, and was entirely destitute of political or judicial organization. Everything that the eye could behold appeared in a rude state of nature. Vast prairies which extended for miles presented no evidences of civilization, no familiar sound like that of the woodman’s axe appeared to interrupt the solemn stillness of an uninhabited wilderness. The marks of wild beasts and wild men were now and then visible and the similitude was striking between the two, as though both were born to the same sphere of action and subject to the same laws of being. A sort of wildness and sacred stillness seemed to pervade the whole atmosphere. Reclining upon a buffalo robe in my tent, reflecting upon the varied scenery without and quietly listening to the solemn murmurs of the Cedar, I[Pg 60] thought I could perceive visions of earthly happiness for the man of true genius nowhere else to be found. The longer I remained upon the spot, the more it endeared itself to my affections, and the less I thought of cultivated society and the dazzling beauties of wealth, and its primeval companion, aristocracy. Nature seemed to be decked in her nuptial dress and wild beasts danced to and fro with a festive heart to the harmonious notes of a troop of forest birds.
“Circumstances forced me to leave that consecrated spot after a year’s residence, and once more become a victim to the cold restraints and relentless laws of civilization. For five years was I bound by stern necessity to a habitation worse than a prison, and associated with men as little to be admired for their social qualities of character as the cannibals of old. To be engaged in merchandising among a people whose only article of faith was ‘cheat and grow rich,’ and whose friendship could be secured only by corrupting the morals and lacerating the heart of the innocent, was a pursuit little to be desired by one whose heart had been consecrated to a different field of enterprise and nourished by the sacred impulses of the West. Be assured I escaped from this thralldom as soon as I could, and never to this hour has my mind enjoyed that repose that it did when seated upon the banks of the Cedar and surrounded by the beautiful scenery of Ivanhoe. I experienced a kind of maternal affection for the spot, a mystic tie instinctively chains my mind to its early history, and a magic like that which bound Blennerhasset to his favorite island in the Ohio seems to pervade every recollection connected with its name and its founder.
Ivanhoe was never platted, but was only a squatter town founded by Cowles. Colonel Merritt kept the first store at Ivanhoe for parties in Rock Island. This town had better prospects of becoming a great city than any other town in the county. It had a good river frontage, a rich country around it, plenty of timber and good water, and had the government road besides. For some unknown cause the place seems to have been ignored when Marion and Cedar Rapids began to flourish. This is true, that Ivanhoe and Westport were laid out expecting the river to be the means of communicating with the outside world. The railroads, mills, dams and other things changed conditions, and the Indian trading villages came to naught.
Just nineteen years after it had been a promising settlement, an act of state legislation declared the Ivanhoe dream officially over.
There are only three remnants of Ivanhoe 160 years later. The first of which is the bridge, which replaced an older bridge that replaced an even older bridge that probably replaced the original bridge and ferry system used for crossing.
John Wolfe, Died Feb. 3, 1848, Aged 41 years
Mary, Wife of B. Phillips, died June 22, 1847, aged 23 years (?)
J. W. (nothing else readable)
In Memory of Rhoda A. (unreadable), who died (unreadable)
In Memory of Simon Briney, May 14, 1815, Aged 61 ys. (unreadable)
The photos below were taken at the cemetery and in the general area around it. The areas next to the river are populated with private homes and a sign warning you not to trespass, and river folk are generally well-armed and uptight about such things, so I did not, and neither should you. Although there is not much to see, if you decide to visit you can also check out the nearby Historic Sutliff Bridge and the scenic landscape of Palisades-Kepler State Park.