This article is published in Explore Magazine’s fall & winter 2018 issue, featuring Iowa’s scenic byways. This week, The Gazette will publish articles featuring one byway each day online. You can pick up a hard copy of the magazine at area businesses, convenience stores and grocery stores. You also can pick up a copy at The Gazette.
KEOSAUQUA — Franklin Pearson, a Civil War officer, stonemason and later in life, a Methodist preacher, didn’t document efforts to harbor escaped slaves in the stone cottage he built in 1845 on a bluff overlooking the Des Moines River.
With the threat of imprisonment and a $1,000 fine for assisting fugitive slaves, it’s no wonder.
But Pearson did build into the floor of a back bedroom a trap door to a crawl space just big enough to hide a couple of people.
“Why else would you build a trap door that didn’t go someplace?” said Christie Daugherty, a Pearson House volunteer. “If they had to hide, they could go under the floor.”
Local researchers believe the Pearson House, on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978, was one of several southeast Iowa stops on the Underground Railroad. The belief is perhaps bolstered by a 1935 article J.C. Pearson wrote about his father, Franklin Pearson, in 1935.
“His home ‘latch string was always out’ for a stranger or one in distress,” J.C. Pearson wrote. “Perhaps few did more for ‘down-and-outers’ than he.”
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At the Pearson House museum guests can dig into the history of the Underground Railroad with maps and replica quilt blocks that some historians believe were used to help slaves journey north to Canada. The “tumbling block” quilt pattern told slaves to pack for the trip, while the “drunkard’s path” pattern advised taking a circuitous path, Daugherty said.
“Hidden in plain sight, all these things gave instructions,” she said.
Read more about the Historic Hills Scenic Byway
Pearson’s family history also is told in the two-story cottage, built with a limestone first story, but finished with brick when one of Pearson’s customers paid him in raw materials. A Maryland native, Pearson came to Iowa in 1836. He married Eliza Mullen and they had 10 children, but only four survived childhood, according to the article by J.C. Pearson.
Franklin Pearson built many of the early stone buildings in southeast Iowa including courthouses, jails, schools and houses. One of his major buildings that survives is Old Main on the Iowa Wesleyan University campus in Mount Pleasant.
When the Civil War broke out, Pearson went to Centerville to enlist and was elected a lieutenant in Company G of the 36th Iowa Infantry Regiment. The museum has a framed letter Pearson wrote his son, Amandus, saying he would only endorse his son’s decision to enlist if the younger man joined his father’s unit. Most of the regiment were taken hostage by the Confederate Army at the Battle of Mark’s Mills, in Arkansas, in April 1864, but both father and son escaped.
If you go:
Pearson House, Keosauqua
Open Sundays 1-4 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day and by appointment at (641) 431-0581 or (319) 293-3494
Admission is free, donations accepted
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