Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Ralph Arnold described a prominent character in Van Buren Countyís history as

"A 1960s beatnik one hundred years before his time." He was referring to Dirty Shirt Dean, who gained his nickname and reputation due to his sloppy dress and appearance.

Mark Twain described him as wearing rundown foxy shoes, an unbuttoned dirty shirt, mismatched socks, worn-out trousers, a coat that didnít fit, and filthy underwear! In spite of looking like a bum, this man was an eloquent speaker and was a popular circuit-riding Methodist preacher. Many times he preached at the Pearson House in Keosauqua.

When Pearsons first settled in the area, they built north of Chequest Creek and named the settlement Rising Sun after the town in Maryland from which they left in 1835. It was the spring of 1836 before Benjamin Franklin Pearson and his brothers Washington and Augustus found their way to Columbus in Van Buren County, settling for awhile at Bentonsport. Eventually by 1837, they staked out their claims along Chequest Creek.

In 1837, Meridiths moved from Bentonsport to Keosauqua. However, while they lived at Bentonsport, Andrew ran a small grocery and restaurant while his wife Nancy kept borders. Stone masons Augustus and Franklin Pearson were among her borders for awhile. Augustus had a pet bear that continually got into so much trouble, that finally Nancy insisted that either Augustus or the bear must go. The bear ended up in the oven for Christmas Dinner.

At the time Pearsons settled at Rising Sun, the community south of Chequest was called Troy. The name was changed to Pittsburgh in the early 1840s. When it was settled that Keosauqua would be the new county seat, Franklin bought property on the edge of town at the end of Dodge Street and began to build, practicing his trade as a brick and stone mason.

Since it was difficult to travel from Pittsburgh during the winter, he purchased a small house at 2nd and Market, where he lived for three years while he was building the larger home. He left a spacious room on the second floor reached by stairways inside and out, as a place of worship for his family and others who wished to join them. It was used as a public meeting place and place of for services by the Methodists, who had previously been meeting at Elijah Purdomís cabin near the river.

Henry Clay Dean was one of the preachers who frequently captivated audiences at the Pearson House. Eliza Ann provided him a table in lieu of a pulpit, and when he spat tobacco on the floor at the end of the table, she placed a slop jar there for him to use. Instead, he spat tobacco on the floor at the other end. She calmly placed another chamber pot at the other end of the table in a sincere effort to keep her floor clean.

The Pearson brothers built factories and mills along the Des Moines River, courthouses, jails, business places, residences, the original part of the Insane Asylum and the first unit of Iowa Wesleyan College in Mt. Pleasant. They were building the Appanoose County Court House when the Civil War broke out.

The Pearsons had been Quakers, which explains their anti-slavery feelings. Dirty Shirt Dean was opposed to the war and preached against both Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Mr. Pearson fought for the Union and took part in several causes for his country, including the Battle of Vicksburg.

He constructed a trap door that led to a hidden cellar where he kept runaway slaves and helped them escape to freedom during the days of the Underground Railroad. It was such a secret activity that even his children did not know about the venture. At least three other houses in Keosauqua were involved in running fugitives up the river or shuffling them along a route to Winchester and Salem. Quakers there hid the blacks and ushered them along the Freedom Trail.

The Pearson House still bears the name of its builder. Dirty Shirt (Henry Clay) Dean moved his family to Putnam County, Missouri in 1871 where he died on his farm called Rebelís Cove. So ended the life of what might have been Van Buren Countyís first beatnik.

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