Go to: Home Page * History Index *

Harrison County Iowa History
Early Mormon Settlement
"Tennessee Hollow"

Group of Mormons Built Homes in Nearly Forgotten Neighborhood in 1848
(source: old newspaper clipping, perhaps from the Missouri Valley Times News, undated)

    Recent discoveries in the glacial wash of a deeply eroded canyon down "Tennessee Hollow," that trends north from the south line of Harrison County of what are apparently stumps a thousand years old, call to the minds of a few remaining old timers that historical activities of that particular spot are about to be shrouded in about the same gloom as the glacial stumps.
    Tennessee Hollow, a valley about a half mile wide and several miles long, debouches on the Boyer river valley three miles southeast of Missouri Valley, and just above where the Boyer River valley joins the broad Missouri River valley.
    It was settled in 1848 by a group of Mormons, who left the main body of immigrants on their way west, during their winter stop at Kanesville, now Council Bluffs. There were a dozen or so families, headed by Elder Stevens, whom tradition declares had an even dozen wives.
    The valley, down which this eroded ditch runs, now 75 feet deep and in places twice that wide, was in the boyhood days of Harvey Kirkland, who now owns the farm his father bought from the Mormons in 1855, a beautiful, fertile valley, with a clear stream fed by springs and whose banks were only a few feet high.
    He remembers that famous log tabernacle and the street of Mormon houses that constituted the settlement, and has heard at first hand from his parents the stories of those early days. The farm bought by his father, J.A. Kirkland, has remained in the family since 1855, and is now farmed by Walter, a nephew of Harvey Kirkland.
    On the high ridge that divides Tennessee Hollow from the Missouri River valley are the remains of what early settlers declare is the old Mormon burial ground. The graves, a dozen or so in number are now empty, the bodies having been moved to Oak Grove cemetery a mile east across the Hollow to another high hill. However, there are the remains here of what constituted a "legal fence" in those territorial days. It was a ditch, four feet wide and four feet deep.
    This "fence" was dug by G. H. Cotton, probably the first food fadist of western Iowa. Cotton preached, in season and out, that the way to longevity was through the simple expedient of eating the fruits and vegetables nature provided, and to eat them uncooked. He practiced what he preached too and declared that any person who followed this practice could live to be a hundred years old or longer if he desired.
    Something apparently went wrong with the system, Kirkland declared, for Cotton died when he was thirty years old.
    Across on the west slope of the Hollow stands a gnarled old apple tree, all that is left of the first nursery of fruit trees set out in Harrison County. This was started in the late fifties.
    Early in the fifties the Mormons began to scatter, some of them joined in the belated trek to Utah. Elder Stevens left his dozen wives and returned to Tennessee, ostensibly on a marital recruiting expedition. He never returned and the wives it is said were divided up among the neighbors.
    Joseph A. Deal came from Putnam County, Indiana in 1852. He bought a Mormon claim, as did Kirkland, and gradually the original Mormon settlers moved away, and a thriving little settlement became farm lands and the log houses began to rot down and the village street that once swarmed with children disappeared.
    Today all that is left to mark village is an occasional shard of the bright crockery they used in the early days, turned up in the spring time when the farmer plows or exposed in the crumbling bank of that eroded canyon, that has now dug its way down to the glacial drift and exposed stumps here and there that geologist claim are a thousand years old.
    With the disappearance of the Tennessee Hollow settlement another town sprang into existence, a mile north and at the point where the creek emptied into the Boyer river. That town flourished, had a post office, general stores, a pioneer physician or rather two, Dr. Robert McGavren and Dr. Coit, held its brief sway and then some years later when the North Western Railroad came down the west side of the valley, folded up and moved across to the new town of Missouri Valley.
    It was platted in 1857 as St. Johns and the site -- for that is about all there is left -- is called Old Town.
    John Deal, pioneer blacksmith of St. Johns, who bought the first land from the Mormons, and who donated the cemetery plot for Oak Grove and the St. Johns townsite, is generally credited with being responsible for its disappearance. The story is that when the North Western surveyed down the Boyer they wanted to come down the east side and approached Deal for right of way and a certain number of town lots in St. Johns.
    It is said the blacksmith refused to treat with them, insisting that they were rich and powerful and that he had "nothing to give them." The changed their survey, came down the west side of the Boyer and the disciple of Tubal Cain saw his thriving little village pack up and move across the valley to the new town on the railroad (Missouri Valley).
    And so another historical point in Harrison County closed up. Not however with the completeness that marked the passing of Tennessee Hollow. Most of the history of that is tradition. It is even claimed that Calhoune, once the county seat and now obliterated to the same point as St. Johns, was the first settlement in the county. This is disputed by early settlers, who claim that distinction for "Mormon Hollow" as they call it.
    They point to the spot where two members of congress once lived; Charles William Fulton, senator from Oregon from 1903 to 1909 and his brother Elmer Lincoln Fulton who served from an Oklahoma district from 1907 to 1909. Elmer was born in the Hollow, his older brother, the senator, came there with his parents in 1855.
    And then there are traditions about St. Johns. One is that the James boys and their gang in their raid on the bank at Northfield, Minn in the late sixties, stopped all night at the St. Johns hotel run by one Noah Harris, on their way north on what proved to be a disastrous raid.
    On the very top of the high hill back of S. Johns that divides the Hollow from the Missouri river bottom, stands the twisted and shattered remains of what was once a giant cottonwood tree. It was one of three, a hundred feet apart standing in a row from southwest to northeast, as was used by settlers from the Harris Grove settlement to get their bearings on their trips to Kanesville. They could be seen for fifteen miles.
    Just south along the edge of that hill lies Loveland, another village, sleeping by the concrete highway, once a bustling town and the site of a grist mill that ground the flour contractors used to feed the gangs that built the Union Pacific railroad across Nebraska.
    But as Kipling once said, that is another story.

Return to the Harrison County History page.
Harrison County Iowa History
Tennessee Hollow - Early Mormon Settlement
Contributed by Janette Lager