Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday February 14, 2004 

Saturday Postcard 231: Close Family Triumph & Tragedy

Close mansion (right) along South Gilbert Street in Iowa City as it appeared about 1920 is joined by 
(clockwise from upper left) the 1870s Close paper mill at the dam in Coralville, owner Chalmer Close 
and the University of Iowa’s 1890 Close Hall. The collage was created by the author.

By Bob Hibbs


The Close family name elicits visions of triumphant economic success during 19th century Iowa City, coupled with perhaps the greatest industrial tragedy in county history.

Two structures bespeak economic success – the existing Close mansion at 538 S. Gilbert St. and the University of Iowa’s non-extant Close Hall. Tragedy visited when the Close paper mill located at the dam in Coralville exploded on July 23, 1875, killing six men.

An irony: the now restored mansion served as the county orphanage for a decade beginning during the 1930s, and served as the county welfare office from about 1949 through 1979, which included the congregate meals and senior center programs during the 1970s. They now are housed in the former post office at 28 S. Linn St.

The mansion’s last resident family was Hal & Emma Close Stewart during the early 1920s. Hal and son Marc operated Stewart & Son shoes at 125 (later 121) E. Washington St., and later sold insurance. Acacia Fraternity bought the mansion in 1923, but used it less than a decade before the county began renting, then bought it in 1941.

The county sold in 1980 to Charles Skaugstad Sr., who after restoration opened a furniture sales and interior design studio. Art gallery showings now add flare to the businesses. It cost $15,000 to build in 1874.

Brothers Chalmer and M.T. Close arrived in Iowa City in 1854 while Old Capitol served as the statehouse. During subsequent decades they partnered in several manufacturing enterprises, including a highly successful linseed oil mill opened in 1861 across Gilbert Street from the mansion. It employed as many as 30.

Chalmer managed the linseed mill.

The brothers also opened the first local ice house, started a candle factory in 1856 which they expanded two years later to supply lard and soap, as well as opening the state’s first printing paper mill in 1866. Managed by M.S., it employed as many as 50 workers, and provided extra income to farmers who had little other use for straw.

The mill was operated around the clock six days a week producing six tons of paper daily. Disaster struck when a 6,000-pound chemical reducing tank located near the center of the plant exploded, sending the tank so high in the air that a witness said it appeared no larger than a barrel. It landed in the river.

The plant was rebuilt and resumed production. The structure burned in 1899 while in use by subsequent owner Iowa City Electric Light Co. Later fires also consumed both the neighboring Pearl and Coral mills.

The brothers were born in upstate New York of English-Scotch parents. Contemporaries described them as honest, conscientious, whose word “was as good as gold.”

Chalmer, 1832-1890, served as a city councilman in 1875, was a director of the Burlington Northern Railroad, vice president of Johnson County Savings Bank, and vice president of National Linseed Oil Co. of Chicago.

Older brother M.T., 1829-1903, served as a council member during 1865 and 1871, and on the school board. The brothers partnered in his name for three decades, but by 1887, Chalmer had purchased the interests of his elder brother, and the company name was changed to C.D. Close & Co.

Chalmer’s widow Helen funded a $10,000 memorial at the University of Iowa toward construction of a local YM/YWCA named Close Hall located on the northwest quadrant of the Iowa Avenue intersection with Dubuque Street, a site now serving Biology Annex.

The Close name survives in Iowa City with seven Close families in today’s telephone directory.

Next Saturday: Slave sale, black girls kidnapped and John Brown escapes a mob, all in Iowa City.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them. 

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