116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The Lewis family was living in Indiana when the Black Hawk Purchase Treaty of 1832 opened Eastern Iowa for settlement. A few of Levi Lewis' neighbors decided to explore the new territory. When they returned with glowing reports of the land west of the Mississippi, Levi was intrigued.
Ira Lewis, Levi's great-grandson, told a Gazette reporter in 1974, 'Going down the Cedar, they had passed a tract of land with almost perpendicular banks about 15 feet high, which was prairie. The Indians had kept the grass burned off for some reason. It was quite a large tract, some 2,000 acres, surrounded by some of the finest timber in the territory, trees commonly six feet through.
'Levi went for the description and gathered his family together. (Five daughters and four sons, some married and with grown children.)
'They turned their farms into gold and, in January 1837, they started out here with several wagons ... pulled by oxen and horses.
'The Ohio River was the only one with a ferry. When they came to the various streams, they drove out as far as they could, unhitched their horses and swam them across.
'The wagon boxes were all water tight as boats. They pulled out until the box floated off. As they came to shallow water on the other side and the stakes in the wagons would show, they maneuvered them so the boxes settled down over the stakes.”
The family stopped on the east side of the Mississippi River to wait for the big river to freeze enough to make a crossing safe. Levi put in a crop on the Illinois side and settled in.
When winter came, Levi's 30-year-old son, Thomas, moved on to the Cedar Valley, where he met Robert Ellis, who had settled on the west bank of the Cedar River in 1838. Thomas and Ellis became good friends.
Thomas crossed the Cedar River in 1839 on Ellis' ferry at approximately the spot where the First Avenue Bridge crosses it now, and set out to claim land in Fayette Township on the western edge of Linn County.
On March 29, 1839, Thomas became the first of a clan of Lewises to settle in the Cedar River bottoms, about four miles north of Palo, in an area that soon became known as Lewis Bottoms. He put in a crop and immediately acquired his first quarter section (160 acres) of land from the government. Thomas eventually operated one of the richest farms in the county, totaling 620 acres. The Lewis family holdings in Lewis Bottoms grew to 2,000 acres.
A community with children needed a school. The land for the school was bought from H.I. Booth for $30.
The Lewis Bottoms country school was unusual because it was two stories tall. Built by area families in 1876 on about 2 acres, the school's first teacher was believed to be Melissa Richards, sister of Nathan H. Richards, who was elected Linn County schools superintendent for two terms from 1894 to 1898. Nathan and Melissa's parents were Daniel and Sarah Lewis Richards.
Students attended school for three-month terms arranged around the farming community's need for the children's help in the fields in the spring and fall.
When the school closed in May 1947, following consolidation with Palo, it had modern amenities, such as electricity, mixed with old charts and maps and an old bracket kerosene lamp that had been part of the school for nearly half a century. The upstairs hadn't been used in years. It was still furnished with a blackboard made from smooth pine boards painted black, crude benches and two-place seats. Walls still bore the etchings of bored students: 'Teacher's got a man” and 'H.B. loves B.C.”
The last day was celebrated with a picnic.
A community with a school also needed a church.
The first church services, held in either the home of Daniel Richards or in Levi Lewis' log cabin, were led by the Rev. Asbury Collins, who traveled the 70 miles of the Cedar Rapids circuit in 1848.
Dense timber surrounded the Lewis cabin. Levi's granddaughter and Richards' daughter, Elizabeth Richards Blackburn, described it: 'It was a one-story log house, 20-by-24 feet square, situated in dense timber. For windows, single logs, six to eight feet long, were cut out on two sides, the openings being covered with oiled newspaper. The pews were constructed of logs 10 inches in diameter split and faced with an ax, with legs put in them. For heating, in lieu of a furnace, a large open outside fireplace with wood from four to six feet long.”
William Lewis, Thomas' son, donated land to build a church for the community sometime before 1878. Trees donated by area farmers were cut and dragged to the Richards' sawmill, operated by two carpenter brothers who also did the lion's share of the church construction.
Parishioners sat on handmade walnut pews on Sundays in the nondenominational church that eventually affiliated with the Methodists. The Rev. Frank Ward of Cedar Rapids' Sunshine Mission held a big revival there in 1911.
After it was hit by lightning sometime before 1942, use of the church became sporadic. The last service was held in a grove near the church in September 1942.
Three to four generations of the Lewis families had attended the church and school.
When Thomas retired from the farm, he often stayed with his daughter, Mrs. E.H. Clark, who had moved to Cedar Rapids. While there, he visited with his old friends, including Robert Ellis.
When he died in 1909 at the home of his son, Levi, in Shellsburg, he was 99. Two of his sons, John and Thomas C., still farmed in Lewis Bottoms.
Many of the Lewis clan, including Thomas, are buried in the Pleasant Ridge Cemetery, once known as the Lewis Bottoms Cemetery.