Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

The Athens of Iowa

Southeast Iowa has pioneered education from the beginning. A school operated in Lee County in 1829, before Iowa was open for settlement, and the first institution that claimed to be a college existed in Des Moines County in 1836, when Iowa was still Wisconsin Territory. Academies were established in Van Buren, Lee, Henry, and Des Moines Counties as early as 1838 for teaching science and literature, as prescribed and advocated by the new legislature of Iowa Territory.

It has never been proven, but circumstantial evidence suggests that the Pearson House in Keosauqua was involved in funneling slaves from the south to freedom before the Civil War. Whispers of this activity are abundant, and a hidden cellar below a trap door in one of the bedrooms nourishes the legend. Nearby Salem, in Henry County, the first Quaker settlement west of the Mississippi, was a key station in this secretive operation now known as the Underground Railroad.

After the 1838 Territorial Legislature chose Mt. Pleasant as a possible site for an academy, the town blossomed into a hub for educational institutions and earned a reputation as the "Athens of Iowa." In close proximity, three four-year colleges were in operation simultaneously: Whittier College in Salem; Iowa Wesleyan College in Mt. Pleasant; and German College in Mt. Pleasant. In addition, Mt. Pleasant operated a female seminary, a Catholic School and a public school system.

Henry County provided leadership in many human rights issues. The first woman to earn a graduating degree was Lucy Kilpatrick Byrkit in 1859. Susan Mosely Grandison in 1885 was the first African-American woman to graduate, and in 1869 Arabella Mansfield, an Iowa Wesleyan coed, was the first woman in the US to pass the bar exam.

In 1870 the first state Women’s Rights Convention was held in Mt. Pleasant. The PEO Sisterhood (a national women’s group) was organized by seven Iowa Wesleyan coeds in 1869, and still continues.

After the thinkers of this community built the state’s first major hard surfaced road....a plank road to Burlington in 1851, they secured the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad in 1856. Farmers could then say they were really "getting out of the mud."

Dating back to 1842, Iowa Wesleyan is the oldest coeducational degree granting institution in Iowa and has an excellent drama department famous for its theatrical skills. With beautiful facilities available, this modern Athens attracted more than 16,000 visitors for conferences, camps, and stage performances in 2003.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick