Elia Peattie, an Uncommon Woman

 

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Tabor, Iowa

Mosquitoes, floods, and malaria nearly destroyed the dreams of George Gaston, S.A. Adams, and Reverend John Todd when they first came to western Iowa in 1852 to found a Christian College. They moved to higher ground, however, and established their city, naming it after Mount Tabor near Nazareth where Jesus grew to manhood. After establishing themselves each on a quarter of land, the following year the men constructed a building to house a church and school: the Tabor Literary Institute to be modeled after the Christian College in Oberlin, Ohio. The object of their school was "to harmoniously develop the moral, mental, and physical powers of those who enjoy its privileges. The privileges of the Institution shall be alike free to both sexes and all classes." [1] In 1860 the Chapel became the first official building on campus, and in 1886 the Institute was renamed Tabor College.

As with all colleges on the frontier, money problems plagued the institution, and Gaston, Tabor, and the faculty all pledged everything they had in addition to teaching three years without salaries. By the summer of 1869, the college secured enough funds to build its first dormitory and begin offering courses in three departments: classical, scientific, and literary. Gaston Hall, built in 1887, furnished students with classrooms, a library, and offices for teachers and administration. A Music Conservatory was added in 1898 and a gymnasium in 1911; however, the college continued to struggle financially, and it closed in 1927 after the spring graduation ceremony. [2]

Another of Tabor's claims to fame is the construction of the world's shortest standard-gauge railroad. To increase the enrollment at the college and the population of the town, the Dean, Professor Thomas McClelland, proposed that Tabor build a railroad spur to the Burlington tracks about eight hilly miles north in Malvern. The Tabor & Northern served the farmers, merchants, and students well for 39 years. [3]

Tabor's founders had hoped to make a name for themselves in the field of higher education, but, ironically, the town became famous for the role it played in supporting abolitionists. Although "Bleeding Kansas" became the battleground for the nation-wide conflict over the spread of slavery into the western territories, Iowa, as the nearest free state to slaves escaping Missouri, served as a major station for the Underground Railroad in the transportation of slaves to freedom in Canada, in the release of free blacks wrongfully arrested, and as a stronghold for John Brown, who made at least four trips to Tabor between 1955 and 1859.

Although aware that he was disobeying the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Reverend Todd, who expressed his strong anti-slavery views in his sermons, not only calling upon Biblical reference to support the cause but also the Declaration of Independence, strongly supported the underground movement. The general route of the Underground Railway in Iowa ran from Tabor through Lewis, Fontenelle, Winterset, Lynville, and Grinell to Iowa City and then to the crossing of the Mississippi River at Clinton. [4] Todd's parsonage, a two-story, clapboard home, today a National Historical site, harboured runaway slaves in the attic, which had two small windows to serve as lookouts points. He also stored clothing, ammunition, and two hundred Sharp's rifles in his cellar, and his barn and wagon shed hid brass cannons. [5]

Todd had no knowledge that these arms would be used in the notorious raid on Harper's Ferry in Virginia. When Brown and his men stopped in Tabor to drill and load the rifles into their wagons, Todd believed that the men were going to Kansas; instead they traveled northeast to plan their invasion into Virgina where Brown intended free the slaves single-handedly. No slaves showed up, but soldiers did, capturing Brown and hanging him and his brother for treason. [6]

Elia Peattie was obviously charmed by the almost utopian nature of Tabor, with its dedication to learning and its spiritual ideals, as well as with the inhabitants who unselfishly took matters into their own hands to build the college, the city, and the railroad without help from outsiders. That they supported human rights and participated in the underground railroad and the anti-slavery movement was a bonus that not only added glamour to their history but helped make it a good story.


Read Peattie's Writings


References

Cole, Cyrenus. Iowa Through the Years. Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1940.

Haek, Herbert V. Iowa Inside Out. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1967.

Sage, Leland L. A History of Iowa. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1974.

Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa: The Middle Land. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1996.

Shull, Carol. "Todd House." Aboard the Underground Railroad. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, in cooperation with the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers. 7 October 2007 http://www.nps.gov/history/NR/travel/underground/ia1.htm.

"Tabor College." Tabor Iowa Historical Society. 8 October 2007 http://community.heartland.net/tabor-library/historical.htm.

"Tabor and Northern Railroad." Tabor Iowa Historical Society. 8 October 2007 http://community.heartland.net/tabor-library/historical.htm.

Todd, Rev. John. Early Settlement and Growth of Western Iowa, or Reminiscences. Des Moines: Historical Department of Iowa, 1906.


Illustrations

"John Todd." From Todd, Rev. John. Early Settlement and Growth of Western Iowa. Des Moines: Historical Department of Iowa, 1906. Courtesy Tabor Historical Society.

"Todd House." Courtesy National Park Service. from Aboard the Underground Railroad. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, in cooperation with the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers. 7 October 2007 http://www.nps.gov/history/NR/travel/underground/ia1.htm. Permission granted from the National Park Service.

"Tabor College." Tabor Iowa Historical Society. http://community.heartland.net/tabor-library/historical.htm. Courtesy Tabor Historical Society.


Notes

1 "Tabor College."   [back to text]
2 "Tabor College." The college briefly housed German prisoners of war during World War II, but today only Adams Hall remains, serving as an apartment house.   [back to text]
3 "Tabor & Northern Railroad."   [back to text]
4 Schwieder, 69-70.   [back to text]
6 Hake, 140-142.   [back to text]

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