This column started out as a story about an American chestnut tree in West Union, a Fayette County city of 2,500 about 75 miles north of Cedar Rapids. But now it’s about that tree and a murder.
Noel Rose “discovered” the tree in 1957, growing in Linden Park near West Union where he and his wife, the superintendent of the West Union hospital, were living. Rose had a tree service business and knew the 30-foot American chestnut was extremely rare.
American chestnuts had once numbered in the millions before a blight wiped them out. By 1957, fewer than 60 were known to survive.
Rose notified the U.S. Forest Service about his find, hoping its scientists could develop a resistant strain of the species so the majestic trees could again flourish in America.
“The American chestnut is not to be confused with the buckeye or horse chestnut,” The Gazette reported in a 1957 story. “The American chestnut’s nuts are a delicacy, either raw or roasted, while those of the horse chestnut are bitter and inedible.”
It was Col. Jacob W. Bopp who bought the 50-acre farm in West Union in 1901 and who probably planted the American chestnut. Bopp, a man of many interests, developed Linden Park into a horticultural showplace featured in magazines and other publications.
Bopp was about a year old when his family moved from Chicago to a prairie homestead near West Union in 1854. He taught school and took courses at the University of Iowa and Upper Iowa University, earning a law degree.
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He worked as a journalist, a lawyer, a businessman and a financier. He became a colonel while on the staff of Gov. Francis Drake, Iowa’s 16th governor from 1896 to 1898. He then started a successful real estate business in West Union. Two years later he built a two-story stone business building called the “Bopp Block.”
By then, Bopp had toured the landscaped gardens of Europe and recognized the potential of his northeast Iowa farm, located in the “Switzerland of Iowa.” He began to enhance its natural beauty with well-kept lawns and ornamental shrubs and trees, German arches and New England vines.
He imported trees from Siberia, Austria, England and Germany and planted them among native trees. He installed a water system with hydrants. His landscaping options expanded in 1904 when he discovered a rock quarry on his land that would provide plenty of rock for new buildings.
Bopp shared ownership of Linden Park with his friend Frank Whorley and Whorley’s wife. They sold Linden Park in 1919 after Mrs. Whorley’s death. Bopp died in 1924.
Linden Park passed through several owners until Ray Smelzer rented it to the Noel Rose family, leading to Rose’s discovery of the rare tree in 1957. The Gazette story about the discovery was accompanied by a picture of Rose’s two sons — John, 14, and Roy, 3 — posing with the tree.
Three years later, John, now 17, was on trial for murdering his father.
Initially, John told authorities he and his father had been taking turns shooting at sparrows with a .22-caliber rifle on May 24, 1960, when Rose stepped in front of the gun. Rose was taken to the West Union hospital where he died without regaining consciousness.
Authorities soon determined the shot that killed Rose had come from inside the house.
John’s lawyer originally maintained the shooting of Rose was accidental, but prosecution evidence contradicted that. It didn’t help that John had been committed to the Iowa Training School for Boys in 1959 for a string of thefts from Cedar Rapids stores and also had been involved in several violent incidents at school.
The case ended with John pleading guilty to manslaughter and being sentenced to eight years in the prison at Anamosa.
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When he was released, he moved to Chicago. He was found murdered in a ditch a few miles north of Vinton in 1978. The murder was never solved.
TREE CUT DOWN
Today, the remaining 28 acres of Linden Park, at 430 Linden St., are owned by retired dairyman and widower Jim Murphy, who bought the property in 1975.
When he celebrated his 50th year in the dairy business in 2006, Murphy told the Fayette County Union, “It was just what we wanted. The house was on a hill, we had trees, and we had a creek. We couldn’t have found a better place to raise our children.”
Murphy said a previous owner had cut down the American chestnut tree. Preservationists, though, still visited, hoping to find seedlings that might have popped up from the rare old tree.
He also said that most of Bopp’s plantings had long since died out, leaving a natural Iowa landscape. What remains of the old Linden Park is a very old iron and stone gated fence along Linden Street.
The America Chestnut Foundation continues its efforts to develop blight-resistant trees and restore American chestnut forests in Eastern states. This year, a Legacy Tree orchard of blight-resistant trees — 15/16ths American chestnut and 1/16th Chinese chestnut — will be established in Virginia. It is expected the next generation of improved blight-resistant trees is five to 10 years away.
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