A Short History of Mount Vernon

How did the Iowa Territory open for settlement?

As more and more settlers came to the land along the Mississippi River, native tribes were displaced from their ancestral homes. Black Hawk was a Sauk chief who was forced to move with his tribe from Illinois to Iowa in 1831. After a number of skirmishes with Euro Americans in Illinois, Black Hawk was captured. The Black Hawk War, as these incidents were named, required a treaty that ceded a 50 mile strip of land on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River to the US government as partial payment for war damage done by Black Hawk and his band. Mount Vernon would be located on the western boundary of the land.

What were the first steps in developing the Iowa Territory that created the town of Mount Vernon?

The newly opened territory was planning a new capital city along the Iowa River. It was called Iowa City. For easy troop movements throughout the new territory, the US Congress commissioned a trail to be marked from Dubuque, the largest city on the Mississippi at this time, to Iowa City. The trail was marked by the Army Engineers and dug by a man and his ox. This trail known locally as the Military Road (Dillon’s Furrow) became a major transportation artery for settlers by 1838. The trail traversed a small, steep hill north of the Red Cedar River ford. The crest of the hill was an ideal place for travelers to rest their animals and secure supplies or services for their wagons. Thus, Mount Vernon, first known as Pinhook, was born as a resting place or service point along Iowa’s first major highway. At this point in time it was estimated that 55 persons lived in the town then known as Pinhook.

Why did Pinhook thrive while Ivanhoe failed?

A small community named Ivanhoe (south of Mount Vernon near the  present bridge over the Cedar River) was projected to be the growing town. Its location seemed ideal as settlers and commerce traveled up the Cedar River from Muscatine and Burlington which at the time were thriving river towns. Plus, the new Military Road crossed the Cedar River at Ivanhoe. However, as waves of settlers moved westward and new westward roads were developed, the river lost most of its importance for transport, and Ivanhoe declined, while Pinhook grew. By 1846 Pinhook had grown to the point that the settlers planned to establish a town around the hill. Pinhook was named after the wooden pins used by merchants to hang up goods.

How did Pinhook become Mount Vernon?

In 1847, a small group of Pinhook residents got together and decided to rename the community with a more patriotic name. They chose Mount Vernon as a name. Not only was this name a reflection of George Washington’s home but it was also a name well established with America’s past.

How was the original plat map determined?

The first surveyed lots of the town were two blocks west of the Military Road, and located in a one-block area east of the road. The original plat and description of the town (1847) shows the corporate limits as just over three blocks long. The middle was labeled Main Street. (Today this would describe from about Altoona Hall to the old high school parts of North Second and South Second Streets).

Who were the first settlers?

Many of the first settlers in the Mount Vernon area came from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois. A few came from Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina. Many of the first settlers were merchants, leatherworkers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, and innkeepers. They built small wood framed homes or they used local brick. When farm settlers arrived, Mount Vernon became an area trade center for the ever-increasing number of settlers. An unusual visual feature of the town was the number of brick homes on the hilltop before 1850. The availability of clay, sand, and water and a talented mason and brick maker provided small Greek Revival homes, stores, and school buildings along the hill.

How did Iowa’s population growth affect Mount Vernon?

Between 1850 and 1860, Iowa’s population grew dramatically with more than 482,700 people entering the state. This population explosion increased the building of towns and homes.  Sawmills, harness shops, livery barns, the Guild Hotel (1853), general store, and wagon factory all were established in Mount Vernon.  By 1859 the Northwestern Railroad had reached Mount Vernon.  By this time the business district was well established with many stores, shops and a local newspaper. An 1860 census indicated that 760 people were living in Mount Vernon’s town limits. The life of Mount Vernon was dramatically altered when in 1853 the Iowa Conference Male and Female Seminary was established (later to be called Cornell College).

How did Iowa Conference Male and Female Seminary (Cornell College) influence the growth of Mount Vernon?

As the Iowa Conference Male and Female Seminary began to grow, the hilltop in Mount Vernon began to fill with buildings. Old Sem (1853) and College Hall (1857) were the first of the buildings to appear. All the brick was made on campus, and sand used for mortar was carried from the Cedar River. Local residents, faculty, and students all participated in the construction projects. In 1855 the Methodist Upper Iowa Conference adopted the official name, Cornell College for the institution.  It was named after William W. Cornell, a distant cousin to Ezra Cornell. By 1860, there were 10 faculty and 407 students in residence.

How did the Civil War impact Mount Vernon?

The call for Union volunteers was well received in Mount Vernon, and many citizens joined the army. In the years 1862-3 only 11 men were enrolled at Cornell College. One local family lost all three sons in the Civil War. Because of the close relationships built in a small town, every casualty and death was a shared sorrow.  A soldier’s monument in the cemetery marks the service and sacrifice of the Mount Vernon men who went to war.

What was Mount Vernon like in the post-Civil War years?

Along with Iowa’s population boom of the 1870s, Mount Vernon expanded economically in the post-war years.  The telegraph was established, a tile factory and furniture manufacturer developed. These businesses along with a pottery works, mills, laundry, and creamery were all a part of the community.  The town of Mount Vernon incorporated under the laws of the state of Iowa in 1869. Sidewalks built of oak or pine were installed in the town.  Main Street was filled with offices of doctors and a lawyer along with a bakery, shoe store, hardware store, and two clothing stores; a bank, bookstore, and meat market rounded out the town. Cornell College served as the center for many community gatherings as it continued to bring business to the town. Even though Mount Vernon exhibited healthy economic growth, the population rose only slightly in the years 1875-85. In a total population of 859, there were only 12 African American citizens noted.

When did Mount Vernon see an increase in its population and its businesses?

After a prior decade of depression, panics, and limited growth throughout the entire country, the 1890s saw Mount Vernon have a surge in population as well as business community growth. The population of the city grew to 1629 by the year 1900. Twenty new houses were built and 12 miles of cement sidewalks were laid in 1893.  After a serious fire destroyed a substantial portion of Main Street, a city water system was developed and increased attention to fire protection commenced.  Town services were expanded so that by 1900 farm residents had rural free delivery, and city dwellers had limited electricity and telephone service. Like other small towns, Mount Vernon had a wealth of clubs, organizations and areas for recreation. Groups ran the list from musical and literary societies to Temperance and Women’s Rights organizations. The Commercial Club was a new venture created by businessmen of the town. The goal of the club was to improve the overall business of Mount Vernon.  By 1910, the central business area of town was much like it is today but for the paved streets.

How did Cornell College contribute to Mount Vernon’s growth in the early 1900s period?

Many Cornell students acquired room and board within the Mount Vernon community, and relationships between town and gown were close. Nearly all large houses built in this era were used as rooming houses at one time or another. An increase in the student body as well as increasing faculty and strong college funding encouraged building by college employees. An occasion such as the dedication of the organ in King’s Chapel (1899)-the largest organ between Denver and Chicago- brought almost the entire town together.  Local history recalls that Cornell had four companies of men called the Military Battalion equipped with two modern cannons. When the Spanish-American War broke out eleven students joined the army.  The cannons were called to war and the unit disbanded.

How did Mount Vernon contribute to World War I?

Both the community and the college contributed to World War I efforts through Liberty Bond Drives, Red Cross work, the conservation of food and fuel, and of course the giving of sons for military service. Cornell College secured a special military training unit that occasionally had parades and celebrations in town. While the war generated a great community effort, it also brought prosperity to the farmers and the town.

What effects did World War I have on Mount Vernon?

Not only was town life changed in the WW I era but also life was changed for the farmer. Land values around Mount Vernon rose from $36 dollars an acre in 1900 to $82 dollars for the same acre in 1910. Over 53% of the cattle shipped to Chicago came from Iowa. The combine, soil conservation and proper drainage along with increased knowledge of how to manage soil and fertilizer, increased farm efficiency. The establishment of better farm-to-market roads and the development of the Iowa State University Extension Service aided farmers too. The war demand for food stimulated agricultural areas and therefore prosperity ran high in the state and in the community. War prosperity along with the ability to mass-produce trucks, cars, and tractors began a decline in horse farming. As a community that served a farm area, new farm implements caused a transition in businesses found along Main Street. The blacksmith shop gave way to the filling station and garage. Trade area expanded as cars and trucks gave easier access from farm to town. In 1923 the town could boast:

“three coal yards, two lumber yards, one grain elevator, three groceries, three bakeries, one dry goods store, four restaurants, two hardware stores, one clothing store, one tailor shop, one furniture store, one neat market, one floral shop, one shop manufacturing cement vaults, one motion picture, two newspapers, two banks”

By the end of the war, Mount Vernon was a self-contained village with Cornell College as the center of much of its business and cultural life.  Agricultural prosperity brought generous benefits to Cornell College and the city.

How did the Lincoln Highway change Mount Vernon?

In the late 1920s the paving of the Lincoln Highway (Rte. 30) between Mount Vernon and Cedar Rapids, put the town on one of the first hard surfaced federal transcontinental roads. The road was the first marked road from New York City to San Francisco.  Travelers along the road needed services, places to stay, and they were enticed to shop by a new method of advertising, the billboard. By 1923 the town council was required to regulate the size and shape of the billboard. There was at least one group of Mount Vernon women who thought that such displays were objectionable and they petitioned the council to eliminate them.   However, the original ordinance remained. A tourist camp was developed near town for overnight stays, and throughout the 1920s filling stations and garages were built. To cope with the increased traffic, parking regulations needed to be established and a traffic police officer had to be hired for Mount Vernon. The car and the paved road made the big city of Cedar Rapids more easily accessible which then exerted a greater influence on the town.

What were the “roaring 20s” like in Mount Vernon?

Something of the Jazz Age mentality came to the Cornell campus. While the church and trustees spoke against drinking, dancing, and card playing, both town and gown managed to practice all three.  Cornell students held an open dance in defiance of the trustees’ prohibition and managed to have the restriction lifted. Once the dancing ban was lifted the Cornell students secured City Hall at a rental price of $15 for their annual dance. Cigarette licenses greatly increased in the town. The threat of a Sunday night movie seemed a direct violation of the observance of Sunday day-of-rest, and the council managed to hold off a change in this ordinance until 1929.  Iowa was a dry state before national prohibition and so was “officially” without liquor. While there are tales of homebrews, there is little evidence to support them. Civic improvements were made during the decade. These included:  extension of the water system, paving and graveling several streets, construction of a new high school (1926). City legislation required that all downtown buildings be made of brick or other fireproof materials. The Air Age reached Mount Vernon when in 1928 the National Aeronautics Association requested that the name of the town be painted on a garage roof to make navigation easier for low flying airmail aircraft.

How did Mount Vernon cope during the Great Depression?

There had been a long period of economic decline after World War I for Iowa and other farm areas of the nation. The Farm Price Index continued a downward trend throughout the decade of the 1920s. Farmers received less for their production. At the same time, the prices for goods and services needed by farmers increased as did taxes for new roads, and freight prices. Long before 1930 the crisis in the economy has been evident to businessmen and farmers in the Mount Vernon area.  The city reduced the tax assessment and managed to cut expenses in many areas of the city’s budget. One local bank went bankrupt and students and citizens alike lost their funds. Yet the city suffered less than many communities of its size in the nation.

In 1932 a local relief committee was organized and efforts were made to hire those who were unemployed to clean streets and alleys. Federal funds from the Federal Aid Relief Fund were made available to the city for the reconstruction of the sewer disposal plant with: “all labor to be paid by the FARF in goods and necessary supplies, and if possible, all persons working to be Mount Vernon needy or unemployed.” Water, street, and other projects that were developed by the Civil Works Administration of the city council were able to employ another 32 men. Cornell gave economic assistance through its rather extensive building program. Pfeiffer Hall was constructed in 1930, Old Sem was remodeled in 1931, additions were made to Bowman in 1934, Merner Hall was started in 1936, and Armstrong Hall was constructed in 1937. These major building projects helped to stabilize the economic situation in Mount Vernon. The Cornell payroll was another factor in the survival of Mount Vernon in this time period. In many years there were no faculty salary raises, and the administration adopted a policy that required the dismissal of a teaching woman faculty member if her husband had a job. Internal adjustments were also made to economize and Cornell managed to meet its obligations. The money basically stayed in circulation in Mount Vernon. Cornell and Mount Vernon came through the thirties in much better condition than the nation as a whole. The unique circumstances of the village and college along with rather good crops in the area (due to escaping the dual calamities of drought and grasshoppers) gave a basis for stability that resulted in a minimum of suffering.

How did Federal support come to the Mount Vernon area in the 1930s?

The Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works offered to supply Mount Vernon with 45% of the cost of constructing a new and larger water tower.  The total cost of the new tower was to be $13, 500.  In a show of confidence that recovery was in sight, Mount Vernon Bank and Trust purchased bonds of $9,075 from the city.  The tower, which still dominates the hill, was completed in 1939.  The Civilian Conservation Corps developed Palisades Park from 1933-36. It built the dam, cabins and roads, and cleared several summer houses that had been leased or owned by local Mount Vernon citizens. Federal financial involvement was not great in the area but it did help many of the unemployed to gain some income. With the repeal of Prohibition, by 1933 the city council began granting beer licenses and taverns began to appear in the town along Main Street.

How did the city’s Cemetery Endowment Fund save the day?

Through the years Mount Vernon had established an endowment fund to maintain the local cemetery. When city improvements were most necessary during the hard economic times of the 30s, it was possible for the city council, acting as a trustee of the fund, to borrow from the Cemetery Fund. This enabled the financing of projects without the sale of bonds, which in the 1930s were hard to sell and often had high interest rates when money was scarce.  The council arranged to borrow money from the Cemetery Fund because the income from the fund was greater than the cost of maintenance. The money was repaid over a period of years with interest, so that both the fund and the city profited from the transaction. This same arrangement was made in later years with the Sewer Fund. A sewer tax was imposed and in some years, the tax revenue exceeded the needs of the sewer system so money was diverted for other programs. This type of management gave the city a distinct advantage in the hard times of the 1930s. It may well be one of the unique features of the history of the town that separates its experiences from those of other towns like it in Iowa.

What roles did Mount Vernon play in World War II?

When the shock of the bombing at Pearl Harbor wore off, various organizations were established in Mount Vernon to aid the war effort. The Red Cross already an active group in town established programs for sewing and knitting. A Civil Defense Corps prepared the town for war emergency work. National appeals for scrap iron, paper, milkweed pods, paper and aluminum were met by various civic groups. Gas, sugar and food rationing books along with Victory Gardens were all a part of city life. In 1942 the city saw an Army Air Corps in action when a B-17 bomber was forced to make an emergency landing north of town. The crew stayed with local citizens for several days while repairs were made and the plane was permitted to take off again. College students, professional men and women, and local boys went forth to active military duty. Two features of town life during the war was the presence of Navy men attending a special program established at Cornell and the demand for labor particularly at Collins Radio Corporation (Rockwell Collins), in Cedar Rapids. The Naval pre-flight school at Cornell brought 600-uniformed men to the town and gave the college a military atmosphere. While in the program the men were permitted time to visit the town.  Local merchants, barbers, merchants and shoe repair shops found the men a boon to business. Churches and the Masonic Lodge sponsored special recreation programs, and by 1944 an official USO club was opened at the Legion Hall with a full program staffed by volunteers. Cornell provided services for the military from 1942-1945. The large demand for labor by Collins and other Cedar Rapids industries marked a distinct change in the life of Mount Vernon. It is estimated that Collins alone employed over 100 Mount Vernon citizens. The housing shortage in Cedar Rapids brought some new resident to town. In the years following the war Collins continued to be one of the principal manufacturers of aircraft communications equipment so many citizens continued to work for the company. This excessive employment by Collins and other Cedar Rapids industries has been cited as the beginning of a commuter pattern that had broken down the self-contained village life that Mount Vernon had enjoyed since its founding. Many Mount Vernon servicemen did not return after the war. The high national mobility and the expanding economy that followed the war created opportunities for personal advancement that could not be found in the confines of a small village. Overall, the war helped restore economic prosperity to the town, resulted in out-migration of many sons and daughters, brought Cedar Rapids into a more prominent place in the development of the city, and brought a greater sense of community consciousness to the town.

What kind of community was Mount Vernon in its centennial year of 1947?

Mount Vernon held pride in the fact that is was an American village at its best- a rural trade village that had demonstrated the viability of free- enterprise on the part of the farmer and the merchant. It would continue to be a community of charm that would provide basic goods and services to meet the immediate needs of the trade area, serve and profit the growing college, and offer the advantages of small town life to new employees of the expanding Cedar Rapids economy. In 1947 the city could boast good schools, adequate city services, a sufficient number of professional services, and adequate housing away from the city yet close enough for commuting to the new forms of employment in Cedar Rapids. The small farm had passed from the scene and larger mechanized farms were the mark of the times.   A strong sense of community prevailed and it provided a business and social structure that kept the town from being a bedroom adjunct of Cedar Rapids. The centennial year saw plans for the expansion of Cornell that provided a larger payroll to keep business and services alive and well. The village that had been once so farm centered now looked more like an attractive suburb complete with the intellectual environment of a college.

What were some of the changes the 1950s and 1960s brought to Mount Vernon?

The 1950s were a time when the budgets of Cornell College and the school system were the dominant sources of income on which Mount Vernon would depend for its tax base and therefore its civic development. As more and more people in Mount Vernon derived their income from employment in Cedar Rapids, the interdependence between Mount Vernon and Cedar Rapids became more evident.  During the 1950s the railroad stopped direct passenger service to the town and the once flourishing depot was turned into a freight station. By 1953 the new Highway 30, formerly routed on Lincoln Highway, was opened along the south edge of the town, and tourists, motor freight and commuters no longer passed through the center of town and by the campus. The commuting patterns that had been established during the war continued to expand and an increasing proportion of Mount Vernon residents worked in the city of Cedar Rapids. Between 1953 and 1957 the college expanded:  The Field House (1953), Olin Hall (1954), Ebersole Health Center (1955), Allee Chapel (1956), and the Library (1957) were built. In the census of 1950, students were counted as a part of the population. So in the centennial year of 1947 the town had a population of 1500 but the 1950 census recorded 2,320 residents.

The college also developed a significant addition to the town when Mr. A. Morrissey allocated nine acres on the far south side for development into faculty housing. While many of these lots and homes were eventually sold to non-college people, the new addition did expand the number of individual homes in the town and contributed to the tax base. In addition to building, the college saw enrollment rise from 719 in 1950 to 998 by 1967. Dormitories, including Dows and Pauley built in 1963, Tarr and Rorem built in 1965, and   The Commons facility providing food service and recreational needs were constructed to meet the growing needs of the college. The development added greatly to the payroll of the college as more teaching staff and other personnel were required. The increasing needs of the college outstripped the ability of small businesses to meet the needs. Large corporations were able to outbid local merchants for many of the college’s necessary items. The million-dollar payroll of the 1950s was doubled by the early 1970s. The enormous increase in payroll, which went entirely to local residents, continued to provide a stable economic base for the town. This great expansion at Cornell in the 1950s and 1960s required capital funds that were not available from local sources so Cornell reached nationally for gifts and support. The close ties of town and college had been gradually loosening as major gifts were required and modern business procedures were employed. The relationship between town and college was essential but it was changing from what it had been in the 19th century.

What other community life changes occurred in the 1960s and 1970s?

The Mount Vernon School district grew in size as several smaller districts were incorporated into the system. The district became a community district and the school board was enlarged to provide representation for the newly annexed areas.  The last one-room school (Roger’s Grove) was closed in 1965. Any attempt to unite with Lisbon did not fare well. In 1970 an attempt to unit with Lisbon or Solon to build a new high school was voted down so Mount Vernon proceeded on its own. The new school was completed in 1971. There is a great deal of family continuity in Mount Vernon. Many farms are still in the hands of descendants of pioneer families, some businesses go back more than 50 years, and the population includes several families of pioneers.

From its beginning of incorporation the town has had a mayor- council system of government. Over the years merchants, professors, professional men, craftsmen and laborers have taken seats on the council. On only three occasions in Mount Vernon’s history were the council votes not unanimous. The nature of local political life seems to reflect a type of consensus politics in which the issues were probably discussed outside of the formal council meeting in informal gatherings. When time came for the vote the council was of like mind. This would only happen in a community where the council and mayor were of the people and their daily life presented opportunities to talk over the issues, hash out the problems, and arrive at a compromise when necessary so that the vote action was only ratifying the general community will.

What is Mount Vernon like today?

Today Mount Vernon counts among its residents many commuters who enjoy the benefits and charm of the small city with fine schools and strong cultural life in a rural setting. The growth of the college to nearly 1200 students adds to the economic and cultural health. The combined population of citizens and students stands at over 4522 souls in 2014. The advent of good air transportation has not bypassed the city as it is about 25 minutes from the regional airport and thus closer in time to that facility than many parts of Cedar Rapids.

Among Iowa’s small towns Mount Vernon is listed among the strongest. It still maintains its identity and relative independence from Cedar Rapids. Its historic and present growth has been slow and accommodated without sacrificing its charm and vital community life. Its strong educational system, civic and religious organizations, and alert business community supported by a weekly newspaper all contribute to a remarkable quality of life. Cornell College and Mt Vernon celebrate a long symbiotic relationship in which both have prospered and shared in the successes and disappointments of the other.

Few small towns in the nation can boast three historic districts recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. Cornell College was the first and still one of the few campuses to be listed in its entirety. The establishment of the city Historic Preservation Commission under the Certified Local Government Program in 1987 clearly expresses the intention of the town and college to preserve the historic and architectural heritage of this City on the Hill.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books:

A Centennial History of Mount Vernon, Iowa: 1847-1947. The Centennial Committee, 1948.

The History of One Hundred and Twenty-Five Years of Methodism in this Community:1841-1966. First Methodist Church, Mount Vernon, Iowa.

Goodman, The Rev. J. Paphael, History of St. John’s Church, Lisbon, Iowa:1845-1945. 1949.

Ross, Earle D., Iowa Agriculture, The State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, 1951.

Stancliff, Henry Clay, A Century of Presbyterianism in Mount Vernon: 1843-1943. Press of Mount Vernon Hawkeye Record.

Articles of Interest:

Keyes, Margaret N., “He Left His Legacy in Landmarks,” The IOWAN, Winter, 1964.

Primary Source:

The City of  Mount Vernon, City Council Minutes, 1914-1960.

Research Paper:

Schultis, Gail Ann. “A Survey of the Brick Homes of Mount Vernon, Iowa, Built Prior to 1900,” unpublished paper on file at Cornell College.


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