Crawfordsville news: Underground Railroad went through Crawfordsville

[Editor’s note: This is a continuation of a series on the early history of Crawfordsville.]

The first house in Crawfordsville was built by Walker Neal on Main Street where Bud’s Cafe was later located. Another early dwelling was the “House of All Nations” on the corner of Main and Columbus. It was built in 1851 and was a hotel for many years. It received its name because nearly everyone in town had lived in it at one time or another and was the largest house in town. It was the station for the Underground Railroad.

Runaway slaves were hidden by day and driven by night to Columbus City or Iowa City where they were met by others who helped them on their way north. In later years, this hotel had a restaurant in connection with it. When the Peoples Savings Bank was organized in 1912, the building, which was built in 1851, was torn down to make way for the present building.

Another hotel, the Jackson House located two doors south of the bank was also an Underground Railroad station. It seems as though Crawfordsville had other hotels also.

Groups called Mite Societies met in the House of Nations and families took turns serving 10-cent lunches. The money was used for new boardwalks or for cleaning up the cemetery.

The first death occurred in that very cold winter and it took nearly a week to dig the grave because of the frozen ground. The burial was in what is now known as the old cemetery.

A few anecdotes taken from this book written by the late Mrs. Moorhead were: Adam Ritchey used to play his fiddle for dances, which were very frowned on by the Seceder Church elders. It is stated when the young men wanted to dance they went to his house and there wasn’t any need to take girls, as Adam had nine daughters. Another incident was when someone would tell of seeing falling meteors. This of course, meant the end of the earth and the story went that one man in town went about telling of seeing people rising from their graves as he passed the cemetery. It seems as though what he had really seen was a man climbing out of an open grave he had fallen into. It also states the first bell to be tolled for worship service was at the Congregational Church and many thought it was wrong to make so much noise on a Sunday. It says they finally got used to the noise!

An act was approved in 1839 to locate a Territorial Road from Dubuque to Keosauqua. Different men were appointed to mark the road through the various towns and there was debate about the route south of Iowa City, so Matthew Moorhead met and persuaded them to put the route south through Ainsworth, Crawfordsville and onto Henry County. A little later Congress passed a law allowing the construction. Matthew helped plow the trail marking where the road would go. The paving crew came to town in 1930 to complete the paving which is now 218. Many of the road crew brought their families with them and rented rooms or houses so the town was very lively.

It says the young people always liked home talent plays and old newspapers state that plays were given in the Old Opera House located on the entire top floor on the west side of the brick building on the corner of Main and Columbus. All commencement exercises were held there, as well as movies in more modern times and box suppers and many social gatherings.

In the summer, the highlight of each week was band concerts held on the second story of the House of All Nations.

There was a photography studio in a railroad car and the man and his family lived in it. They came by rail and had the car hauled to a specific location. He stayed for a year and then moved on and then was back again. He later operated a studio in Washington.

The book states there were at least two “Womanless Weddings” and many men in the community took part. It says it was surprising what good looking “ladies” they were!

There were reports of first births and first marriages, but some discrepancies in other parts of the county.

A broom factory operated somewhere south of town between 1850 and 1860. These were the first brooms manufactured west of the Mississippi.

More to come!