New historical marker tells the story of Squirrel Hollow park, one of the prettiest spots in Greene County

By MARY WEAVER

RIPPEY, Iowa, Aug. 24, 2022 — A new informational marker explaining the history of Squirrel Hollow Park and its shelter house is now in place in the park located in the southeast portion of Greene County.

The cement holder and plaque are similar to the original 12 historical markers around the county that the late James H. Andrew developed and had placed in 1976, as the United States celebrated its bicentennial.

Through a grant from the Greene County Community Foundation, and labor provided by the Greene County Secondary Roads crew, this new marker at Squirrel Hollow is sponsored by the Greene County Historical Society.

An informational marker adjacent to the Squirrel Hollow shelter house is pictured with siblings Ces Melson Brunow, and Stephen, “Steve” Melson. Their grandfather, S. J. Melson, Greene County Engineer from 1910-1935, was instrumental in obtaining the property and developing the plan for Squirrel Hollow.

In a document prepared by James H. Andrew in 2006, we learn several events serendipitously occurred — a 1915 flood, the Great Depression influence, leftover funds and the discovery of coal.

The Stagecoach Road from Fort Des Moines to Sioux City had been established on the east side of the Raccoon River, but in 1915 a flood washed away a long stretch of the road, and for nearly 20 years travelers were forced to detour. The discovery of coal a mile south of the present-day shelter house created a desperate need for a road, as 100 trucks with about 4 tons of coal on each one, headed north from the coal mine and an adequate road was sorely needed.

Mary Weaver ProfileIn 1931 the Chautauqua organization of Jefferson was disbanded, but $3000 remained. The funds were used to purchase land and develop the park. The Great Depression had been underway for several years, and a government program CWA, Civil Works Administration, had been created to employ those without work to build roads, sewers, parks, and other facilities to benefit the public.

Under the steady hand of Engineer Melson, along with other community leaders, 60 acres of land was purchased. This was an average cost of $15 per acre.

In 1933, approximately 150 men from around Greene County worked on the project under the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and WPA, (Works Progress Administration). Hundreds of truckloads of rocks from nearby farmers’ rock piles were dumped at the washout created by the flooding of the river. In a description written, it was noted “the first 8-10 loads just disappeared into the mud and water, but slowly a rock shoulder 200 yards long formed a new road higher than any probable future flood.”

Steve Melson recalls his “Pappy” saying the Board of Supervisors wanted to build cabins and the shelter house along the river edge, but because of the previous flood, his grandfather, Engineer Melson recommended establishing the site at the top of the bluff.

Documentation sources vary.  One states Iowa State College, now Iowa State University, designed the shelter house, two latrines, the stone entrances, and five fireplaces. Documents further indicate the stone masonry design of the shelter house was credited to William Bodenstein, a veteran stonemason, and Con McNaught.

When the shelter house was nearing completion S.J. Melson arranged for one of the original millstones from the Coon Valley Mill, originally located about one-half mile south of the park, to be brought and installed into the concrete floor. These millstones remain visible today and it creates a heady feeling to know they were brought by an ox team from Pennsylvania by Josh Locke in 1858 so Greene County’s early pioneers could have corn and flour ground.

Work on the road and park began in 1933 and the dedication was held on May 12, 1935.  But “inclement weather held the crowd to 500 persons.”  Victor Hugo Lovejoy, editor of the Jefferson Bee newspaper, reported that “the massive rock wall along the river, the excellent highway at the foot of the bluff, the drive to the shelter house, the fine timbered upland beauty, all combined together to make this spot a thing of beauty. Its location less than a mile from the site of the cabin of the first settler in Greene County makes it all the more interesting as a spot to be preserved for future generations.”

The stone inscription crafted by Sloan Monument of Jefferson reads:

Squirrel Hollow is a 56-acre county park located above the Raccoon River. It was developed in 1933 and was the second county park in the State of Iowa.  Three farmers sold farmland to form the park.

The Des Moines-Sioux City Stagecoach trail ran on the east side of the Raccoon River, and the tracks remain visible one mile north of this location at the Pleasant Hill Country Church cemetery.

In 1933 this shelter house, a male and female latrine, entrance signs to Squirrel Hollow Park, and two fireplaces were built by the Public Works Administration. The structures were designed by Iowa State College, now Iowa State University. 

These structures were accepted by the National Register of Historic sites in 1991.

The Greene County Community Foundation, the Greene County Conservation Office, and the Greene County Historical Society are pleased to share this historical information.  — October 2021

Due to the COVID pandemic and then supply chain interruptions, the marker was erected in May of 2022. Take a drive over to the park, for a nature hike, a look at the marker, and the millstones in the floor of the shelter house.

The “Hearth & Home” columnist Mary Weaver is a longtime member of the Greene County Historical Society.  She lives on a farm northeast of Rippey.  You can write to her at mweaver235@gmail.com.

Two fun historical events: Friday’s “Trivia Team” challenge, Saturday a free matinee of “Whitcomb’s War” movie made here

The Greene County Historical Society is shifting into some real summer fun for gatherings this Friday, Aug. 5, in Grand Junction and Saturday, Aug. 6, in Jefferson.

Friday’s regular monthly meeting will be at the United Methodist Church in Grand Junction, with a lunch followed by the return of the historical society’s undefeated “Trivia Team” to challenge all members and guests with questions on local history. 

The team of Roger Aegerter, Nancy Hanaman and Chuck Offenburger is 1-0, having baffled the members and guests of the Greene County Farm Bureau at their annual picnic meeting a year ago. However, the team will be without Hanaman on Friday, as she’s recovering from an illness, and she’ll be replaced in the line-up by new board member Denise Harberts.

Aegerter, of Jefferson, the society’s executive director, says he has trivia expertise in “Jefferson history going back 12.2 billion years, art, the Historic Lincoln Highway and other things that are too much, too odd, too nuts.”  Offenburger, of Jefferson, boasts of his knowledge of “Greene County sports — because I know Doug Rieder, Iowa history, politics, journalism, fight songs, and controversies around Cooper.” Harberts will bring expertise the Pleasant Hill community, traditional foods, music and spirituality.

Friday’s RSVP lunch, for $10, is at 12 noon.  The program, which is free, should start about 12:45 p.m.

The historical society’s “Trivia Team” for this Friday’s competition — Chuck Offenburger, Roger Aegerter and Denise Harberts.

Saturday’s event promises especially fun – a free 2 p.m. showing on the big screen of the Sierra Community Theatre in Jefferson of a 1980 movie “Whitcomb’s War,” which was filmed mostly in Jefferson, with a few scenes in Fort Dodge, and then released and shown nationally. 

You’ll see several Greene Countians appearing in small roles in the movie, and a few others had prominent jobs in its filming and production here.  Those you’ll see who are still living include Pauline Borst, Jed Magee, Bob Telleen and Rolfe Blaess.  And Muriel Lehman worked in arranging and delivering props the actors used.

The storyline of the movie, according to one old review, is that “Pastor David Michael Whitcomb is assigned to a church in Harrah, Iowa (think Jefferson), that is dealing with employer Phil Esteem, who changes the work week to Wednesday through Sunday.” Pastor Whitcomb leads a campaign against working on Sunday, and “three comic demons” are “assigned to see that the pastor fails.”

The movie cast included a dozen or more Hollywood stars, led by Patrick Pankhurst, Leon Charles and Bill Morey – all with a long list of credits.  The writer, producer and director was Russell S. Doughten, Jr., a native of Carlisle, Iowa, who lived most of his adult life there while making films across the nation and beyond.  His production credits stretch from 1958 to ’84 after he studied literature and movie making at Drake University and Yale University.

“It was a surprise when it was finally announced that Jefferson was going to be the site of a movie that would bring in these stars and a full production company,” said Jed Magee, then a young attorney in Jefferson, now a retired Iowa District Court judge who moved back to Jefferson in retirement. “We’d all heard rumors earlier, but then sometime in the 1970s, here they came.  It seems like they were here filming, mostly at the Greene County Fairgrounds, for at least a couple months, but maybe as long as a month.”

He said the Hollywood people all stayed at the Redwood Motel on the north side of Jefferson, and ate most of their meals at the Redwood’s fine steakhouse restaurant, visiting with local folks as they did.

He said for the scenes when Pastor Whitcomb’s war is raging with the demons and the devil himself, “they used one of the fairgrounds buildings and made it look like Hell, complete with flashing red lights, smoke and a lot of noise.”

Magee said that while the movie was not a major hit, it did have a good run nationally.  “At the time, most of us here thought it was a really interesting story, with quite a plot.”  It runs 67 minutes.

The idea to show “Whitcomb’s War” here again – more than 40 years after its debut – emerged at a brainstorming session the historical society’s board of directors were having a year ago about what historical incidents in county history should be featured in upcoming programs.

“For some reason, I thought of that old movie and said, ‘Why don’t we see if we can get ‘Whitcomb’s War’ and show it at the Sierra?’ ” said Magee, who is on the board.

Then local movie buffs Mike and Dianne Piepel, who are historical society members, got excited and that led to the scheduling this Saturday.

Magee will lead a brief discussion of the movie at the theatre before it is screened.

Admission for the movie is free.  Concessions will be available for purchase.

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    There have been three courthouses built where the Greene County Courthouse stands today.  Ground was broken on the current courthouse in November of 1915, the cornerstone was set in May 1916 and the new building was dedicated in October of 1917. The centennial celebration of the courthouse is already underway, with events being planned by the “Courthouse 100” committee, with support from the Greene County Historical Society.  You can learn more about the courthouse history and the celebration plans on the Facebook page “Courthouse 100: Greene County, Iowa.”

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