Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Born in Kentucky on June 16, 1807, Berryman Jennings established himself at Commerce, Illinois when he was twenty years old. The little town of Commerce was later named Nauvoo. Dr. Isaac Galland sought a teacher for his young children, and invited him to cross the river into the unexplored wilderness that was not yet open for settlement, in order to conduct school for three months.

Dr. Galland’s settlement was known as Ahwipetuk by the Indians, and Nashville by the white settlers. A carpenter by trade and a steamboat agent by appointment, Moses Stillwell moved his family across the river from Illinois into what became Lee County in the spring of 1828. They occupied a cabin Stillwell had built the year before.

Although Dr. Samuel Muir’s cabin at Puckeshetuk (Keokuk) in 1820 is considered to be the first permanent home built by white settlers, a good description of this original building is unavailable. It had some elements of permanence, because Isaac Campbell bought the cabin and moved into it eleven years later.

Stillwell built the first credible buildings in Iowa country that are accurately described, and probably was the architect of Iowa’s first school house. The school was opened in October, 1830. Jennings received lodging, fuel, furniture, and board at the Galland home for compensation, as well as the privilege of using the doctor’s medical books.

Like all other buildings in the new country at that time, the schoolhouse was a log cabin built of round logs or poles, notched close and mudded for comfort. Logs were also cut out for doors and windows, and for the fireplace. The jamb back of the fireplace was of packed, dry dirt and the chimney was topped out with sticks and mud. The cabin was covered with clapboards to economize time and nails, which were scarce and far between. There were no stoves, thus the fireplace served as the heat source.

A replica of Iowa’s first schoolhouse indicates that it was only about twelve feet square, and the large chimney at one end was about three feet square at the base. A front door faced to the north, with a small window on each side and a hearth and fireplace at the back of the cabin. Through the brush, the cabin overlooked the Mississippi River.

There were few books. Globes and maps were unheard of, and desks were crude make-shift items fastened against the wall under the windows. This afforded the most light possible for working on assignments. Reading, writing, and arithmetic constituted the curriculum. Children stood in the middle of the floor to recite their lessons. They learned to read and shared a slate board for writing.

It isn’t clear exactly how many children crowded into this tiny cabin in order to be taught by Berryman Jennings, the first pioneer teacher west of the Mississippi in the new Iowa country. How much learning took place is also guesswork, since attendance was not required and was often preempted by weather and necessary farm activities.

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