Charles S. Rogers, “Mt. Pleasant News”, Wednesday, September 5, 1945

Some time ago we wrote some notes regarding Reverend Henry Clay Dean, a former member of the old Iowa conference of the Methodist church and stationed at a number of Methodist charges in southeastern Iowa; for a time chaplain of the United State senate; opposed to slavery, but also opposed to the war between the states over the slavery question; a public speaker in the pulpit and on the platform with perhaps few, if any, equals in the great middlewest, and for some years a resident of Mt. Pleasant.

Dean was all of that stated above, but he was something more. He was in a sense a Dr. Jekyll and a Mr. Hyde. For besides his great gifts, he possessed moral and spiritual defects of the gravest character. In his personal habits he was slovenly, filthy, utterly lacking in all decencies, was mobbed during the Civil war, his life threatened by men and women who were outraged by his attitude toward the war and tirades against the North and northern opinion. He died disgraced and despised, and still, owing to his remarkable mixtures of good and evil, greatness and meanness, he was and still is the storm center of literary controversy. The cumulative indexes of Iowa, his oracle literature refer to him many times, and thousands of pages have been printed concerning him.

A short time ago we visited our old friend of half a century, Honorable, and we use the term in its full flavor, Charles Jackman of our neighboring community Lowell. Mr. Jackman remembers Henry Clay Dean well, and particularly his son, Charles. Dean often visited Lowell, at the time humming with industry, mills on either side of the river. Dean, according to Mr. Jackman, would spend much time going from home to home just visiting, but just what he was up to or his business, no one seemed to know. Mrs. Jackman also well remembers that Fourth of July of long ago, with the celebration held in the Lowell Park, and where Henry Clay Dean was the orator of the day. She also testified as to his eloquence and its effect on the large crowd, which was spellbound under the oratory of this strange man. Mr. Jackman has one of the few complete copies of Dean’s book into the chapters of which he poured forth all the eloquence, all of the vitriol, all of the beauty of diction and the violence of expression at his command. We were permitted to leaf over the volume, but under no circumstances take it from the sight of Mr. Jackman. We enjoyed our visit with Mr. and Mrs. Jackman. The disturbing feature was the physical suffering of Mrs. Jackman, who about two years ago fell and fractured a hip. The injury was not fatal, as usual, with people of advanced years and she sits in her chair fairly comfortable, but cannot get about the house except to a very limited extent. Yet she is enjoying the golden sunset of a long and useful life, cheerful, mind as clear as in youth, and she looks back down the long avenue of the years, with little regret and much pleasure and satisfaction. And by her side is always found her Charles, vastly interested in men and things, bubbling over with interesting recollections, and re-established events and adventures which have punctuated and emphasized his long years of service. A grand old couple, that Jackman family, contented in that old home on the banks of the river.

Civil Engineer W. A. Griffith is another of our friends who is well fortified with Henry Clay Dean lore. Indeed, Mr. Griffith’s parents and Mrs. Dean’s mother, were rural neighbors down in Lee County. Mr. Griffith has a number of books from Dean’s famous library. In going over the county records, Mr. Griffith has discovered that Dean, while living in Mt. Pleasant, indulged to some extent at least, in the real estate business. The records show that he bought a tract of land south of the old city cemetery and later sold it at a handsome profit. Several real estate deals are noted. Mr. Griffith is quite sure that Mrs. Dean, for a time lived in New London, as he often heard his mother tell of her visits there with her former neighbor, Mrs. Dean. Mr. Griffith, whose major is civil engineering, seems to have as his minor collecting valuable old editions, some of which are indeed rare.

Our old and valued friend of many years, Dr. John Willits, now living at Muskegon, Mich., in a letter printed below gives some more certainly interesting gossip concerning Henry Clay Dean. There are also many references in the letter to people and places of this community. The old home farm is still owned by a Willits. Miss Ruth Willits, a niece. How well we remember Uncle Charlie Willits and his good helpmate, and the time we tried to initiate a candidate into our frat with the use of Uncle Charlie’s mean dispositioned Shropshire ram and whose refusal to be regimented upset the old lantern and nearly caused the loss of the barn by fire. A great family that Willits family.

Reference is made in Dr. Willits’ letter to Scott’s Grove north of Mt. Pleasant and the Methodist camp meetings held there. The camp meeting ground was on the east side of the present U. S. Highway 218, and in the low-level space on the south side of the creek, and now a pasture. The part of 218 between town and the creek was, and is still known as “Scott’s Lane”. A man named Scott lived at the point where the Trenton Road turns to the west. Scott was the only fatality of the great storm of 1882, and he was buried in a little cemetery across the road to the east. When we first knew the little burying ground, there were signs of quite a few graves, and perhaps a dozen tombstones still standing. The last time we visited the little space, the plow had relentlessly bitten into the sacred soil until little was left, and most of the tombstones were gathered in a pile. We understand that the whole space is now under the plow and the identity of those interred there is forever lost.

Dr. John Willits’ Letter

Dear Charlie, I intended to write these notes ever since the issue of the “Free Press” of Aug. 9th reached me. The pressure of pastoral duties has prevented it, but today I have a few minutes of leisure, and will follow an inclination. I address you concerning the Henry Clay Dean article in the “Free Press”. Personally, I did not know Dean, and am not sure I ever saw him but once. I entered Iowa Wesleyan in January of 1882. It was at the commencement in June following that Dean delivered the annual address for the literary societies in the old Union Hall located on the north side of the square, on the 3rd floor over the E. L. Penn Dry goods store.

As I recall, the Student Committee was John Murphy for the Hamlines and I believe Dan Helmick for the Philos. Dean came late as usual, confessing to my father that he had not had time to prepare an address. As I recall, the effect of the address was electric. The hall was packed. I am sure that I never saw him again.

In the fall of 1894, I was assigned the pastorate of the First Methodist church in Ft. Madison and continued there until the fall of 1899. During those years a Mrs. Dean, with a son (it seems to me his name was Charles) came to Ft. Madison to live and united with our church. They came from Missouri and she died during my pastorate and we buried her somewhere in Missouri and she died during my pastorate and we buried her somewhere in Missouri. For years I have been under the impression she was the widow of Henry Clay Dean.

During my childhood, stories concerning the character of Henry Clay Dean were often told. Among many are two that are outstanding in memory. One was, during the years of my mother’s maidenhood, he called at her father’s home while riding across the prairie northwest of Mt. Pleasant and asked if they would wash a shirt for him, and being assured it would be done, he asked for a room where he might sleep while work was being done. After it was washed, dried and ironed, he dressed and remained for dinner and then went on his trip.

From 75 to 80 years ago there was a camp ground north of Mt. Pleasant on Big Creek known as Scotts’ Grove. I recall it as a place where we used to have our church Sunday school picnics.

In my childhood days, it was to me a wonderful resort. Well, upon a certain occasion a Methodist camp meeting was in progress and the preachers for one Sunday were advertised as: Morning, Rev. Henry Clay Dean of Washington D. C. Afternoon, Rev. James Harlan (Senator Harlan).

A great crowd gathered and I suppose Dean was at his best. At any rate, his fame followed for many years. When the hour came for Rev. Harlan in the afternoon, Harlan was gone. The report that followed for years was that Harlan was not willing to risk his reputation after the masterful effort of Dean’s morning effort. Harlan was found the next day at his home in Mt. Pleasant.

I remember hearing Judge Babb tell the following incident as to Dean: He had just arrived from Washington and was in his humble home in Mt. Pleasant. On a Sunday afternoon Judge Babb and Dr. Berry, the president of Wesleyan, decided to call upon Dean. Knocking at the door, Dean’s voice bade them enter, whereupon Dean said, “I was just thinking of my last prayer before the U. S. Senate” and asked “Would you like to have an outline of it?” And upon being assured it would be a pleasure, Dean said “Be seated”. There was no place to sit except on the floor, as Dean occupied the only chair in the room, so they sat down on the floor. Dean began, after he rose, and for one hour and thirty minutes delivered to those two, an “outline” of his prayer. As the men scrambled to their feet, he turned to President Berry and asked: “There Berry, what do you think of it?” He left the room and brought in two chairs and apologized and added, “I did not notice you did not have chairs.”

My understanding is that he died a miserable death. He became dissipated in the extreme. Surely, he must have had elements of great strength, but poor fellow, like many another man who has gone to Washington, he fell. His ‘face about’ on the slavery issue has never been explained, so far as I ever heard.

I am busy these days serving a two-point circuit, preaching three times each Sunday, and frankly to growing congregations and that at 81 years of age. I keep very well and refuse to live in the past, but rather try to keep abreast of the times. It keeps me busy; I assure you. There is no better tonic for an aging man than “KEEP BUSY.”
Very truly,
John C. Willits.

Resource provided by Henry County Heritage Trust; transcription done by Alex Olson, University of Northern Iowa Public History Field Experience Class, Fall 2022.

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