Linn County Iowa


Coe College - Cedar Rapids, Iowa

photo from early post card

The Beginnings of the First Presbyterian Church
and Coe College
(originally named Cedar Rapids Collegiate Institute).

Includes a biography of Rev. Williston Jones

The following is a description of the beginning of Coe College in Cedar Rapids as recorded in the book: Pioneer Life In and Around Cedar Rapids, Iowa from 1839 to 1849. By Rev. George R. Carroll. 1895. Times Printing and Binding House, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Pages 177-187.

In the religious and educational interests of our town in its early history, there is perhaps no man that deserves greater credit nor occupies a higher place than the Rev. Williston Jones

He was born in Holland, Erie County, New York, February 6, 1814. He was a graduate of Illinois College and of Lane Theological seminary. 

In 1846 he was married in the city of St. Louis to Miss Elizabeth H. Shearer whose experiences in Cedar Rapids in 1844-5 are elsewhere related. They came to this place in the autumn of 1848, Mr. Jones having received a call to become pastor of the First Presbyterian Church then in its infancy, having been organized but one year before. He was a man of great energy and untiring zeal in the high and holy calling, to which he had devoted his life. He possessed the true missionary spirit in every sense of the word. In his Christian sympathy and prayers and efforts he embraced the whole world, but in doing this he did not neglect, as is too often done, the great spiritual harvest field that immediately surrounded him.  Every home and every community for miles around felt the inspiring influence of his intensely active Christian life. He soon undertook the task of erecting a church for his congregation, although membership was so small in numbers and so weak in financial ability.  The work however was pushed to its completion, and in January 1851, the first church building ever erected in Cedar Rapids was dedicated to the worship of God. The walls were composed of lime mortar and the thin cobble stones quarried from the ground near the Milwaukee depot. 

The dark colored mortar gave the walls the appearance of mud walls, and hence some one in a playful spirit named it “The Little Muddy,” an appellation that always clung to it while it stood. The ground on which it stood is the same as that occupied at present by the splendid building erected by the United States Government for the Post office.

If the latter building is the means of doing any more lasting good than its predecessor, “The Little Muddy,” I am sure that no one will ever have cause to regret its erection. Certain it is that the former humble structure was the means of very great good to the community, and its influence extended to remote parts of the state, nor will that influence end while time shall last.

Mr. Jones continued his labors here for eight years with unflagging zeal and success. During that period he saw and felt deeply the need of the establishment of schools of a higher order in the new and rapidly developing west. He had persuaded one young man, the writer of this sketch, to devote his life to the gospel ministry, but there was no school here in which he could begin his studies.  At last the zealous pastor decided to undertake himself the task of preparing that young man for college.

Meantime other young men heard of the arrangement and besought Mr. Jones to admit them also to the same privileges of the aforesaid young man.

The result was the formation of a class of sixteen or eighteen young men who occupied the unfinished parlor in the pastor’s house which was temporarily fitted up for the purpose. One of the number was chosen to act as monitor each week and Mr. and Mrs. Jones came in at different hours of the day to hear the recitations in the various branches of study pursued. The branches studied were reading, writing, geography, arithmetic, Latin and Greek.

This school continued its regular sessions for about six months, and was successfully wound up with a public exhibition under the shade trees in front of the pastor’s residence on the hill near the Milwaukee depot.


The following young men were among the students of that first school:

George Weare, John Stoney, Cyrus E. Ferguson, Murray S. Davis, Amos Ferguson, Isaac W. Carrol, Mortimer A. Higley, William E. Earl, William J. Wood, Edwin Kennedy, George R. Carroll, James L. Bever and George W. Bever.

The remaining four or five that composed the school cannot now be recalled.

This school was continued two or three years after, under the name of “Cedar Rapids Collegiate Institute,” Mr. David Blakely, a recent graduate of Knox College, having been procured by Mr. Jones to act as principal.

In the second stage of its existence the school found shelter in the “Little Muddy Church” where its sessions were held.

Out of this humble beginning, Coe College, an institution which at present is the pride of our city, has grown. Mr. Jones procured from Mr. Daniel B. Coe, in New York, money sufficient to purchase the eighty acres of land, a part of which now constitutes the college campus. A part of the money was invested in the lots which are now occupied by the First Presbyterian church and chapel, and also those occupied by St. Paul’s M. E. church and parsonage.

After passing through various changes of form and name, and having a history in which there has been some sunshine, and a great deal of shadow, Coe College was incorporated, under the laws of the State of Iowa, in 1881, and the Rev. Stephen Phelps, D. D., was made its first President, in which relation he continued until 1887.

Although the foundation upon which Coe College has been built up was not laid till 1851, which is at a period later than that of which I have been writing, yet it will be seen that the pioneers of the forties were the principal workers who inaugurated the great enterprise.

Rev. Williston Jones, Judge Greene, Dr. Ely, William Greene, Dr. Carpenter, Judge Cook and John L. Shearer, whose names are indissolubly connected with the enterprise from its earliest conception, were all numbered among the early settlers of that period which this record is designed to cover.

It is with pleasure, therefore, that the accompanying illustration, which shows Coe College as it now stands, is here presented.

Under the able administration of Rev. James Marshall, D. D., with a faculty well qualified to fill the various professorships; with apparatus and appliances for study unexcelled by many older institutions of learning; with its fine list of students, and with its admirable constituency, composed of some of our best citizens here and in other parts of the state, Coe College has a bright outlook and a promising future, such as to make her friends rejoice.

To Rev. Williston Jones belongs the honor of founding this noble institution.

Mr. Jones afterwards lived for several years at Iowa Falls, continuing his labors with a zeal and energy, such as is seldom witnessed in this world.

His death occurred at Rolla, Missouri, November 20, 1865, where he had resided but a short time.

His accomplished and devoted wife, who has also been untiring in various branches of Christian work, still survives, and is a resident of Wellesley, Massachusetts.

On the ground where once stood the Little Muddy church now stands the magnificent United States Post office and Court House, which was erected under the superintendency of Mr. H. S. Josselyn, at a cost, including grounds, of one hundred and twenty thousand dollars. It is a solid structure, built of brick and stone, and in its architectural style and proportions, it is one of the most splendid ornaments of the city.

But with all its  imposing grandeur and stateliness, it has never cost the self-denial, the days of toil and anxiety that were endured by the builders of that first little church, whose walls were reared in those early days when the men were so few and money so scarce and the materials so hard to procure.

Bio and Announcement of College President Rev. Dr. James Marshall's Death in 1896

Information that Western College in Linn County may have eventually merged with Coe

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