Iowa History Project


The Quakers of Iowa




Louis Thomas Jones


Part IV


Benevolent and Educational Enterprises





White’s Iowa Manual Labor Institute


            In the fall of 1850 Josiah White, the founder of the famous Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company and the chief pioneer promoter of the rich beds of anthracite coal in Pennsylvania, visited the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends with the thought in mind of founding somewhere in the West a manual training school where “poor children, white, colored, and Indian” might receive a religious education in accordance with the teachings of the Friends. Short of stature, corpulent in build, and dressed in the full Quaker garb, Josiah White was much in evidence at this annual gathering.(305)

            When the purpose of White’s visit was made known, every inducement was brought to bear to persuade him to lend his aid to the Yearly Meeting Boarding School (Earlham College) which was then struggling for existence; but all to no avail. His mind was fixed, and nothing now could turn him from his course. More than satisfied with what he had seen and heard of the western country, he retuned at once to Philadelphia, his home, and included in his written will an endowment of $40,000 for the establishment and maintenance of two schools under the care of the Indiana Yearly Meeting, directing that “the land for these schools be bought where I am now in negotiation to purchase, if they can be, viz: a tract one and a half miles square in the Indian Reserve, Indiana”.(306)

            Such a generous sum seemed for a time to disconcert the western Friends; and it was with some hesitancy that they accepted the trust with its attendant responsibilities. Two committees were appointed—one for each of the schools—and in 1851, in the heart of the growing Quaker settlement about Salem, 1440 acres of prairie land were purchased in a single tract in the northwest corner of Lee County as a site for what was to be called “White’s Iowa Manual Labor Institute”.


Early Years


            The purchase having been made, the Indiana Yearly Meeting appointed a board of trustees, with Joseph D. Hoag as president, to look after the interests of the school. Fortune seemed to smile upon the project in the opening days, for in his second annual report (for the year 1853-1854) Hoag informed the Yearly Meeting that five hundred acres of the prairie sod had been broken and enclosed, and an orchard of six or seven hundred apple trees had been set out on that part of the tract designed for the school buildings; while arrangements had been made for having five eighty-acre farms with good dwelling houses ready to rent by March 1, 1855.(307) Thus, at the outset the prospects were bright; but hardly had fortune smiled until disaster followed. With an abundance of fertile lands to be had on every hand almost for the asking, satisfactory renters were not easily found; drouths caused a failure of crops; and the panic of 1857 brought about a shortage of funds for building. Finally, in 1864 the Indiana Yearly Meeting proposed to the newly established Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends that the latter take over this important trust, an dafter due consideration it was so arranged.(308)

            A new board of trustees now took control. The $8400 worth of building materials and the $2600 in funds collected by the former trustees were put to use and the construction of a two-story brick school building seventy-four by thirty-five and one-half feet in size was begun in the spring of 1866.(309) As the walls rose to completion and materials were needed for roofing it became clear that unless some source of revenue other than the income from the farm were secured the building could not be completed for want of means. In this predicament the board laid the situation before the Yearly Meeting in 1867 in the following statement:

            Owing to the extreme high prices of labor and material, the cost of thus enclosing the building will so far exceed original estimates, as to incur an indebtedness of $1500, or $2000, which is a source of deep regret to us, and we earnestly hope that Friends generally may feel the necessity of carrying on the work so nobly begun by our late dear friend Josiah White, and cast in their several mites into the treasury towards the completion of the structure.(310)

            But it so happened that at this time most of the Iowa Friends were more concerned in casting “their several mites” into the treasury for the erection of a new $16,000 yearly meeting-house, and in consequence paid little attention to the appeal from the trustees of White’s Institute. The trustees soon reached the limit of their credit, and then, rather than see the entire project fail, they turned to means little contemplated in their appointment by the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends or in the will of Josiah White.


White’s Institute Under State Control


            With an accumulated debt of nearly $3200, and with no available funds with which either to complete the building or open the school as contemplated by the donor, the trustees of White’s Institute appealed to the State legislature in 1868 for assistance.(311) For ten years or more the Iowa State Teachers’ Association had urgently called the attention of the legislature to the need of some sort of a school for juvenile offenders in the State.(312) When the appeal for aid came from the trustees of White’s Institute, it was suggested that the State lease the property and there conduct such a school—thus fulfilling, in a way, the will of Josiah White.

            In consequence, on January 17, 1868, Senator John A. Parvin introduced “A Bill for an act to establish and organize a State Reform School for juvenile offenders”;(313) and on January 25th Representative Charles Dudley introduced a similar bill in the House of Representatives.(314) Thorough investigation of the subject was made; and on March 31st the subject was made; and on March 31st the proposed measure received its final approval and was published as required by law. By the provisions of this act the State of Iowa was to lease from the trustees appointed by the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends the buildings and grounds of White’s Iowa Manual Labor Institute for a period of ten years or less for use as a reform school, and an appropriation was made amounting to $15,000, of which $2,500 was to be applied in liquidating the debt already incurred by the Institute. A board of trustees appointed by the State was to open the new institution as soon as practicable.(315)

            In accordance with the provisions of the act the trustees met and organized on April 28, 1868. The board chose Senator Parvin as its president, M. A. Dashiell as secretary, and Isaac T. Gibson of Salem as treasurer. A formal lease was entered into with the Quaker trustees of the institution, and plans were made for completing the necessary construction work as rapidly as possible. So marked was the progress that on September 21st the board announced through the newspapers of the State that the Iowa Reform School was ready to open its doors; and on the seventh day of October the first boy to be committed to the institution came from Jasper County.(316)

            In his first annual report to the Board of Trustees (for the year 1868-1869) Joseph McCarty, the Superintendent of the Reform School, reported that there had been committed to the institution during the year forty-six youths, ranging from nine to eighteen years of age and coming from twenty-two of the counties of the State. Among the causes for commitment, twenty-five were for larceny, five for incorrigibility, five for vagrancy, three for burglary. Furthermore, the facts showed that seventeen of these youths came from homes where neither father nor mother was living, and five from families where the parents had separated.(317)

            The rules inaugurated to govern this group of juvenile offenders were neither harsh nor rigid. An honor system prevailed, and in so far as possible the principle of “family” was maintained. Aside from the mental and moral training obtained in the regular school work, every evening the boys were required to attend assembly where the scriptures were read and prayer was offered. A Sunday school was conducted with organized classes; and during the year ten thousand texts were committed to memory by the boys. Regular preaching services were conducted by ministers from the surrounding country or by officers of the school. “Many of the boys”, said the Superintendent, “have very fine voices for singing, and take great delight in these exercises.”

            Though the joint committee appointed by the legislature to visit and inspect the Reform School reported in 1870 unanimously that the institution is no longer an experiment; that its adoption, as one of the permanent institutions of the State, is not only wise but an absolute necessity for the public good”,(318) it early became apparent that the site of White’s Institute was not well adapted to the ends which the State had in view. As pointed out by Senator Parvin, it seemed unwise for Iowa to make permanent improvements on land which the State could not own, the Friends having no power to convey title to any part of the property. The Superintendent also pointed out the fact that the school was not only “down in one corner of the State”, but that the “nearest railroad point now is about fourteen miles distant, Fort Madison, twenty-five miles, and Burlington and Keokuk, thirty-five miles. To all these points the roads are quite rough, and during a great portion of the year very disagreeable.”(319)

            Notwithstanding these disadvantages commitments to the school increased, the number for the two years from 1869 to 1871 reaching ninety-one. Of the conditions then existing Superintendent McCarty said: “We have but one family building, and its capacity will accommodate comfortably about fifty inmates. Into it are now crowded eighty-five boys, and still they are coming.” He further called attention to the fact that “the law under which the school was organized, provides just as much for the reception of girls as it does for boys; yet for want of accommodations, we have been compelled not to receive them when brought to our door.”(320)

            Thus it was apparent that the need for extension was imperative; and so, in 1872 the legislature passed an act carrying an appropriation of $45,000 for a new and more centrally located reform school for the boys, to be owned by the State, and another appropriation of $5,000 for organizing a school for the girls where the boys were then kept.(321) The commission charged with carrying the new arrangement into effect, early located the boys school at Eldora, in Hardin County, where it still remains; and in April, 1873, they opened the girls’ school on the White’s Institute farm, with L. D. Lewelling and wife, Quakers of Salem, as Superintendent and Matron.(322)

            In his report of November, 1875, Superintendent Lewelling states that since the opening of the girls’ department forty-seven girls had been committed to his care, under the following charges: incorrigibility, fifteen; vagrancy, thirteen; prostitution, seven; larceny, six; immoral conduct, four; manslaughter, one. Of these forty-one girls, the Superintendent declared that “only eight are of families living in normal conditions.” “One little girl of fourteen years old with a sweet face and gentle manners” was brought to the institution as a “common prostitute”. The parents had separated and the girl was an outcast.(323) Firmly, and yet with tender care and affection these girls were taken in hand, everything that was possible being done to turn them back into the healthful channels of society. The far-reaching results of this important work, in all probability, will never be known.

            During the years that the State thus held control of the Institute, little was known of the work in detail by the Iowa Friends at large, the annual report of the trustees to the Yearly Meeting concerning itself only with the gradually accumulating indebtedness. As the lease drew to a close, however, and the State applied for a short extension, a new interest was awakened among the Friends. During the early years of occupation by the State extensive improvements were made and the land was well tilled; but when the boys were removed to Eldora less acreage was needed and the farm, with little consideration, was rented and the property allowed to run down. When the Yearly Meeting’s trustees assembled at the Institute in the fall of 1877 to consider the proposed extension of the lease, they “found the buildings  and fences very much out of repair, and the farm grown up to weeds”. Instead of again turning it over to the State they “determined to ask an appropriation from the State Legislature of a sum sufficient to put the farm in as good repair as it was when leased.”(324) In consequence, early in the spring of 1878 the girl’s department of the State Reform School was transferred to a location about one mile west of Mt. Pleasant,(325) where it remained until May 25, 1880, when it was moved to its permanent location at Mitchellville in Polk County.(326) It now became necessary, therefore, for the Friends to make new arrangements for the conduct of White’s Manual Labor Institute.


White’s Institute As An Indian School


            As soon as the control of the Institute property reverted to the trustees appointed by the Yearly Meeting.(327) they had the articles of incorporation renewed and amended, and then set about to bring the farm out of the dilapidated and thriftless condition into which it had been allowed to fall while leased by the Sate. During the year 1879-1880 about a mile of new barbed wire fence was built; some five hundred rods of hedge fence, “which had been long neglected”, was trimmed; and an orchard of one hundred and fifty apple trees, thirty cherry trees, and fifty grape vines was set out. In addition, the trustees paid off the debt that had been hanging over the institution for more than a decade, and in 1880 reported to the Yearly Meeting that they would “soon be in a condition to start a school on a small scale in accordance with the will of the founder.”(328) It was not until a year later that the funds at hand warranted the opening of the school. With John and Abigail M. Fry as Superintendent and Matron, the institution started on its new career on the first day of October, 1881.

            Two years passed by with small though encouraging results, when there came an unexpected turn of affairs. Benjamin and Elizabeth B. Miles, who had long been in charge of the Indian “Government Boarding School” at the Osage Agency, resigned their positions, and in 1881, “with the approval and encouragement of the officers, of the Indian Department [Bureau]”, they opened up, at a cost to themselves of some $8,000 a “Training School for Indian Children” at West Branch, Iowa. The project was an immediate success, the government paying to Mr. and Mrs. Miles the sum of $167 per year for the keep of each Indian boy or girl sent to the school. Soon the requests for admission outnumbered the capacity of their buildings, and in consequence they turned to the trustees of White’s Institute with a request to be allowed to lease that property. So thoroughly in accord with the will of Josiah White was the request, that the trustees unhesitatingly leased to Benjamin Miles and his wife for a term of three years form November 1, 1883, the Institute “school building, barn, and 480 acres of land”, with the understanding that the lessees were “to board, clothe, and educate the eleven white children for the use of said building and land.”(329)

            The West Branch school was speedily moved to Lee County; and the rooms and halls of the large building, which ten years before were filled with the juvenile wards of the State, were now turned over to Indian children. The results were indeed pleasing, for to the Yearly Meeting in 1886 Mr. and Mrs. Miles were able to report that seventy-five Indians and thirteen white children were enrolled I the school, and that of this number forty-eight had made application and been received into the membership of the Society of Friends.(330)

            It was in the midst of such success that there came a disaster from which the institution has not yet recovered. On May 27, 1887, in some unknown manner the main building caught fire and was completely destroyed. Every effort was put forth to hold the students together until arrangements could be made to continue the work; but within a month after the fire there came an order from Washington, directing that all but three of the Indian children be sent to Haskell, the government Indian school at Lawrence, Kansas. This having been done, Isaac N. Miles and wife took charge of the twelve white children remaining, and in a small frame building on the farm continued the school; while Benjamin Miles and his wife Elizabeth, broken in health, retired from the work.(331)


An Attempt To Fulfill White’s Will


            Not since the disastrous fire of 1887 has White’s Iowa Manual Labor Institute given promise of any real success until within the last few years. What with the continuous wrangle of certain local persons interested alone in selfish gain, the distance from convenient markets, and the rise in recent years of first-class public schools and charitable institutions, the school has had a hard struggle to maintain its place.

            Immediately after the Indian school broke up, the trustees set to work to erect a new building. By an extended lease of 960 acres of the farm to Charles and Matthew Lowder, they received in advance $3,500 with which to begin. Isaac N. Miles and his wife remained in one of the cottages on the farm with the twelve white children belonging to the Institute, holding the school together as best they could while the new quarters were being constructed. The new building, a two-story brick structure, though not completely finished, was opened in the fall of 1888, with Silas and Mary T. Taylor as Superintendent and Matron.(332) But the success of former years did not seem now to attend the enterprise. Gradually the number of pupils increased from twelve in 1888 to twenty-five in 1896. Then came a steady decline until 1903, when but eight children could be reported as belonging to the institution.

            To devote a fourteen hundred acre farm to the maintenance of so small a school seemed indeed preposterous; and so, in their desire to administer to the best advantage the trust confided to them, the trustees closed the doors of the Institute and during the year 1903-1904 applied $1,365.60 of the proceeds from the farm in helping needy students to attend other Friends’ schools as follows: “five at New Providence Academy, three at Penn College, twenty-three at Whittier College and six at Central City, Nebraska.”(333) But certain disaffected persons had watched with jealous eye this attempt to utilize the income from the Institute farm in other schools; and with the avowed purpose of blocking the plan they brought suit at law to have the trust taken from the Yearly Meeting. In connection with the annual report of the trustees, submitted in 1904, the following “Original Notice” confronted the Iowa Friends:

You [the trustees] are hereby notified that there will be on file September 26th, 1904, in the office of the Clerk of the District Court of Lee County, State of Iowa, at Fort Madison, a petition of… (names of petitioners)… , claiming of you that you as Trustees, Superintendent and Manager of White’s Iowa Manual Labor Institute… created by the last will and testament of Josiah White, deceased, and claiming that you are violating and wholly disregarding the trust created by said will and asking that you be removed as Trustees… And that the management of said trust fund and institution, be taken out of your hands and management, and out of the hands and management of the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends.(334)

            Much as the Friends have disliked to engage in legal proceedings, it was apparent that a contest was inevitable; and so the trustees were instructed “to take such steps as may be necessary to safeguard the interests of the heirs of Josiah White, the donor, and of the Yearly Meetings.” On the grounds that the plaintiffs were members of the Yearly Meeting, and in consequence could not sue the body to which they belonged, the attorneys for the Yearly Meeting demurred; but the plaintiffs were sustained, and the case came to trial in the District Court at Fort Madison in June, 1908. Upon the hearings in the case the court gave as its finding “that it was the intention of Josiah White, deceased, to establish and maintain perpetually a manual labor school on the farm… in controversy”; “that it is a diversion of the funds of said trust, and contrary to the intent of said Josiah White… that any of the income of said farm should be used for the purpose of paying the tuition of pupils while attending or entering at any other school or institution of learning”; and “that the defendants should [again] start said school upon said farm as soon as practicable and as soon as pupils may be obtained, after the buildings have been put in the proper condition to receive them”.(335)

            It was now made clear that the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends must, if it expected long to retain control of White’s Institute, administer the trust both in accord with the terms of the will and to some practical effect. That the investment was sufficient for the purposes intended was apparent, for during the year 1906-1907 the rents from the farm alone amounted to $4,947.47; while during the seven years from 1902-1909, when Newton Branson served as the managing member of the board of trustees, the funds which accumulated, over and above all current expenses, amounted to $12,879.90. To save permanently this important trust, now valued at nearly $175,000, it was apparent that the Yearly Meeting must awaken to its responsibility in the matter, for the court had spoken in no uncertain terms.

            Fortunately, at this critical juncture James B. Bruff, a prominent Quaker attorney living at Atlantic, Iowa, was appointed a member of the Board of Trustees in 1908. Bruff appreciated the seriousness of the situation, was appointed president of the board, and took hold of things in a business-like manner. With a full treasury at hand he first set to work clearing away the rubbish about the institution, and putting the buildings, schoolhouse, and farm into good condition. The main brick building, so inadequate and ill-adapted for housing both boys and girls, was remodeled, and in addition a contract was let for a new and up-to-date dormitory for the girls, which was rapidly pushed to completion. For a time the money in the treasury rapidly dwindled, the disbursements for the two years from 1909 to 1911 amounting to over $21,000. Then, abandoning his lucrative practice in Atlantic and with a determination to make the project succeed, James Bruff and his wife Jessie moved to the Institute and assumed personal control as Superintendent and Matron. In this capacity their first annual report to the Yearly Meeting stated that “a school on the Institute premises” had been successfully conducted during the year just passed with twenty-four students enrolled, and that there was “a surplus on hand after paying the year’s obligations, of something over $1,500.”(336)

            After many years of ups and downs, White’s Iowa Manual Labor Institute now gives evidence of approaching that usefulness and efficiency so long maintained by its twin sister institution in Indiana. Thirty-eight students were enrolled during the last school year, 1912-1913. Ten of these were day pupils from the surrounding country; three were enrolled as resident students, paying for the year’s board and tuition $100 each; and twenty-five were children under written contract by parent or guardian to remain in the entire custody of the institution until of legal age. Of these latter no fee of any kind is charged. They are made to feel that the services rendered during the latter years of their stay will be ample compensation for their care and keep while young; and, says the Superintendent, “this thought thoroughly pervades the children.” Here all work together on a common plane, the drudgery of labor being lost in the pleasantness with which tasks are assigned and done. In this, again says Superintendent Bruff, “we have thus far admirably succeeded.”(337)

            To-day the fourteen hundred and forty acres are dotted here and there with fields of grain and browsing cattle. Cosy farm cottages and a little Quaker church nestle among the groves and orchards; while in the center of the broad expanse stand the large school buildings. The voices of happy children are heard I this healthful country home, where under the kindly influence of those strong and healthy manhood and womanhood. Surely now, if ever, Josiah White’s hopes are being realized.




305- Quoted in the Friends’ Review, Vol. IV, 1850, p. 174. See also Coffin’s Philanthropy of Josiah White in Western Work, Vol. XVIII, July, 1909, pp. 4, 5.


306- Quoted in the Friends’ Review, Vol. IV, 1850, p. 175.


307- Minutes of Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1854, pp. 35, 36.


308- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1864, pp. 4-6, 21.


309- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1866, pp. 22, 23.


310- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1867, p. 21.


311- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1868, p. 7.


312- The Iowa Instructor, Vol. I, p. 377.


313- Iowa Senate Journal, 1868, p. 55.


314- Iowa House Journal, 1868, p. 121.


315- Laws of Iowa, 1868, Ch. 59, pp. 71-77.


316- Report of the Iowa Reform School in Iowa Documents, 1870, Vol. II, pp. 3, 4.


317- Report of the Iowa Reform School in Iowa Documents, 1870, Vol. II, pp. 12-14.


318- Report of the Joint Committee to Visit the State Reform School in Iowa Documents, Vol. II, p. 3.


319- Report of the Iowa Reform School in Iowa Documents, 1870, Vol. II, pp. 23, 24.


320- Report of the Iowa Reform School in Iowa Documents, 1872, Vol. II, pp. 5, 19, 21.


321- Laws of Iowa (General and Public), 1872, Chapter 77, p. 79.


322- Report of the Iowa Reform School in Iowa Documents, 1874, Vol. II, p. 25.


323- Report of the Iowa Reform School in Iowa Documents, 1876, Vol. III, pp. 46, 48, 49.


324- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1878, p. 15.


325- Report of the Joint Committee to Visit the Girls’ Department of the State Reform School in Iowa Documents, 1880, Vol. IV, p. 3.


326- Report of the Joint Committee to Visit the Girls’ Department of the State Reform School in Iowa Documents, 1882, Vol. IV, p. 3.


327- The trustees at this time were Clarkson T. Penrose of West Branch, Benjamin C. Andrews of Pleasant Plain, and Henry Dorland of Salem, Iowa.


328- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1880, pp. 10, 11.


329- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1882, p. 17; 1883, p. 13; 1884, p. 18. It should also be noted that in the spring of 1884 the trustees leased the remaining 960 acres of the farm for five years to Charles and Mathew Loweder, the profits to be divided equally.


330- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1886, pp. 30, 31.


331- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1887, p. 6.


332- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1889, p. 8.


333- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1904, p. 28.


334- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1904, pp. 29, 30.


335- Quoted from a copy of Judge Bank’s decision in the District Corut of the State of Iowa, at Fort Madison, July 30th, 1908.


336- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1907, p. 40; 1912, p. 34.


337- Personal letter from James B. Bruff to the writer, July 28, 1913.



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