Peaceful Valley Off Beaten Path
As northeast Iowa's dramatic color pageant kindles bonfires of red and orange among the maple-clad hills here, venturesome tourists leave the beaten paths to seek out the more secluded displays. Here in "Peacefull Valley" - a narrow cut in the steep bluffs along the meandering course of Waterloo creek - nestles the picturesque old village of Dorchester.
Several sturdy, time-tested stone buildings, constructed more than a century ago, add an aura of antiquity to the quiet main street. In the village, and down the road a few miles in an old farmhouse, live three people to whom Dorchester is far more than a name. There are others too, but Thomas J. Burke, Mrs. Nathan Kumpf and Chris Teff are especially steeped in the history and lore of the area. When anyone mentions Dorchester, their eyes light up. Memories and legends fill their heads.
At 85, farmer Burke, who has lived since his birth on the same farm in the same house about four miles south of Dorchester, is considered by other residents to be a reliable source of information about the community. Burke's thoughts are full of strange - sometimes humorous and sometimes tragic - incidents. Some occurred during his lifetime. Details of others, occurring many years before his birth, he learned from his parents and grandparents.
The hills and valleys of the Upper Iowa river country in which the Burke home stands are beautiful. The Burke place in northern Allamakee county is six miles south of the Minnesota border and 15 miles west of the Mississippi. Burke was born here Sept. 3, 1890. At 83, his wife, the former Lucille Kingsley and once a rural school teacher, keeps house for him and their son, Gerald. In 1952, Gerald took over operation of the farm and now is the third generation Berke to hold title to it.
Trees in Dorchester - giant pines, spruces and arborvitaes - are very special for Thomas Burke. As a boy of 16 he helped his father, James, and a neighbor, Henry Teff, plant them. The elder Burke and Teff were trustees of St. Mary's Catholic church and had been entrusted with the tree-planting project. "Holes had to be dug in a very rocky soil." Thomas Burke recalls. "I dug those holes while onlookers belittled our efforts, saying those little evergreen saplings would never survive in the rock. Now look at them."
Mrs. Burke and Gerald frequently jog the senior Burke's memory of incidents of interest in the history of Dorchester. The Burke farm has been the scene or near the scene of numerous bizarre happenings. "One of the strangest situations in the history of this community," Burke recalls, "was the problem that developed for the Glen Clarks. Their house stood on the line between Waterloo and Hanover townships. That raised a question about where they should vote. Were they residents of Waterloo or Hanover township?" There were differing viewpoints and arguments. An investigation disclosed the Clarks ate their meals in the Hanover township side of the house, but slept in Waterloo township. "Finally it was decided the matter should be settled by determining where in the house they spent the most time. It turned out that, while in the house, they spent more time in bed than anywhere else, so the official decision was the Clarks were residents of Waterloo township and should vote in the Waterloo township precinct."
A legend related to the New Ulm Indian massacre still lives in Burke family reminiscences. "My grandfather, Thomas Danaher, lived on the Upper Iowa about six miles south of where we now live," Burke relates. "When news of the New Ulm uprising got out, people all around here assembled at the Clark place, about a quarter mile from here, to unite in whatever they might have to do to protect their lives in case the Indians swung south. The settlers gathered at the Clark place because it was the biggest and best house around at that time. The Charlie McGlenns, who lived nearby but who were on the outs with some of the other settlers, didn't join their neighbors at the Clark house." After a dreadful night of sleeplessness and fear, the settlers were further frightened the next morning by an object moving across the open bottom land toward them. At first, because of the distance, the settlers couldn't make out whether the advancing object was a human or a wild animal. Soon, though, they could see it was a person wearing a shawl. Because of the shawl, everyone was satisfied the Indians had come. Soon though, it became apparent the visitor was a woman. Then, almost as fast as their fears had been kindled by the incident, they were dispelled when several of those present recognized the uninvited guest. "It was Mrs. McGlenn," Burke explains. "She had become so frightened she decided to leave her husband and join the others."
Another lesser known historical fact about Dorchester, sometimes mentioned by Burke relates to the village's name. According to him, the village was originally named Waterloo. "When the post office was opened here, the name had to be changed to avoid confusion arising from the fact there was another Waterloo in Iowa. Several early settlers had come from dorchester, Mass., and decided to honor their old hometown in this way."
Human existence in the hills of northern Allamakee county was fraught with physical hardship in the days of Tom Burke's youth and during the lives of his parents and grandparetns. Stories handed down to him emphasize this. For example, there was Lyman Wolstrum, who, as a young boy, accompanied his parents and other members of the family when they migrated here from Erie, Pa.Wolstrum often told of the extreme hardships suffered by those who spent weeks blazing their own trails through timber and prairie in covered wagons. "I'll never forget this account of taking his turn at staying up through the nights to keep the wolves away from sleeping members of the family." Burke says.
One of the strangest controversies in the annals of Allamakee county history, according to Burke, was caused by a pumpkin. "Two farmers in the English Bench area not far from the Burke farm came to loggerheads over ownership of the pumpkin, a large, prize specimen. The man who planted it claimed it, as did the neighbor on whose ground the pumpkin grew. The controversy was prompted by the fact that the vine wandered through the fence onto the neighbor's ground. He argued it was his by rights of possession. The grower argued the pumpkin was his because he had furnished the seed, prepared the ground in which it was planted and cultivated the plant as it grew. He further argued the fruit of contention took all its sustenance from his soil. There were threats of lawsuits by both parties, but Burke says the dispute was settled amicably at last, although he is not quite sure how. "I know the children of the feuding neighbors became good friends and continued to be down through the years."
Mrs. Burke is quick to point out to visitors in the Dorchester community that the people of the village and its trade area have a strong sense of community pride. "The town may be little," she says, "but feeling for the place is big. We're close-knit here by intermarriage's among longtime families. And there are many names that have been associated with our community for many years. For any community project, the people here feel that if they don't have money to give, they can give time and labor." That they do can be seen in the more than $2,000 members and friends of St. Mary's Catholic church raised through the second annual bazaar recently. The money came almost entirely from needlework, baked goods and other articles turned out by hand by Dorchester area residents. The ruins of Dorchester's first St. Mary's Catholic church overlook the community from a timbered hillside. Built in 1865, the stone church was destroyed by fire before the turn of the century. The church was replaced with a new, native stone building in 1914.
Among attributes of the community which Mrs. Burke and her friends take pride are the aesthetic old stone buildings, the town's inspirational setting among hills and valleys and the fine trout fishing in Waterloo creek and other nearby streams. "And the spirit of neighborliness. It's genuine here and deep. Women of the Dorchester area get together regularly for sewing. We've done that for years. And I've never heard a word of criticism of anyone." she observed.
An incident from the early days of Dorchester that often wells up in Mrs. Burke's thoughts involves the color of a horse and how this led to the embarrassment of the horse's owner. The well-known early-day Dorchester farmer was accustomed, as were most of the men in the village trade area, to riding down to the general merchandise store in the evening to play cards or to visit and get the latest news. Latest developments in these parts in settlement in the tri-state area, and in distand seats of government filtered slowly to the little circle huddled together in the country store. So it was, on one chilly autumn night, the well-known farmer tied his black horse to the hitchrack in front of the Dorchester store and spent the evening with friends. You can imagine his surprise and concern, upon leaving the store in the shadows of the night, to discover his black charger was missing. "The report handed down from one generation to another," according to Mrs. Burke, "is that the unfortunate fellow had to walk several miles home through the night only to learn from friends the next morning that his fine steed was still standing at the hitchrack down in the village. Some pranksters had painted the horse whilte, a detail the owner could not detect in the darkness."
Gerald Burke, who is one of Dorchester's best-versed students of local history, collaborates with his father and mother in telling a tale of bootleg activitiy involving an operation by the Capone gang near the Burke place. "Owners of the farm here," Gerald says, "rented the house on the farm to the Capones. The gang wanted it because of its inaccessibility. It provided ideal seclusion for operating a still in prohibition days. It was just over the hog's back from our farm. The house was on a dead-end, dug road on the side of a bluff beside the Upper Iowa. Water from an artesian well was piped into a barn. Waste mash from the still was piped into the river. Some local men and women were hired to perform the more menial tasks under the supervision of professionals from Chicago. The only entrance to the hideout was a road gate. Quite a distance below the house, the gate was guarded by an Oriental with whom natives found it practically impossible to communicate. A barnstorming pilot of northeast Iowa was engaged by the Capones to haul the bootleg liquor out of Dorchester hills to some of the gang's distribution points." One cold night in October, according to Gerald Burke, federal agents came to the area and raided the illegal still. "The only escape for the local people was to swim down the river. They then took to the chilly water and fled in the darkness - all but one. The local woman who served as cook for the gang rand through the brush, climbed the steep hill and made her way into a neighbor's cornfield where she hid, shivering through the night."
The 'feds', as the Burke's refer to the government agents, are reported to have smashed the still and everything connected with it, but it is not believed any arrests were made. According to the Burkes, there were more bootleggers to the Dorchester area than in most parts of the country because of the many secluded nooks among the heavily-forested hills where those engaged in such illegal pursuits could hide from the law.
Mrs. Nathan Kumpf, Dorchester postmistress since 1951, keeps numerous historical records of the community. Her records show running the post office here has been something of a family affair. From 1914 to 1921, Tom Danaher was postmaster. From 1921 until 1927, his wife, Helen, held the job; from 1937 until 1951, their son, Bert was the town's postal chief, and since 1951, Bert's remarried widow, Mrs. Kumpf, has been postmistress.
Mrs. Kumpf pints out the old stone house in which she lives - and which she owns, in which one room serves as post office - was originally built as a residence, but later became the Kelly hotel. Her records show a two-story, stone structure built from native limestone in 1865 by Louis Coppersmith - present home of the J.C. supper club - was operated as a store by three generations of Coppersmiths. From the time the store was built until it was sold in 1945 by the last Coppersmith to run it, the Coppersmiths did not alter the interior or the exterior in any way. they had firm convictions about this. It was their theory they wouldn't do any more business in a new building with new equipment. Further, they reasoned, if they spent money for improvements, part of the cost would have to be passed to the customers in higher prices. "Give the cusomer what he wants at the lowest possible price," the Coppersmiths believed, "and the country store will maintain its place in the economy of the community."
Chris Teff, retired farmer operating a gasoline station in Dorchester, believes "Life here is better than it used to be. We've had several changes for the better. With modern conveniences, it's more pleasant to live in a little place like this. and our consolidated school with its modern facilities and programs affords our boys and girls an enriched educational experience and an opportunity to prepare themselves for occupational competition." One change Teff agrees probably has not been for the better is the shift in commerce that makes it necessary for residents of a village like Dorchester to seek employment elsewhere. "At one time," Teff says, "Dorchester supported a flour mill, a brewery, blacksmith shops, a millinery, besides the general merchandise store, a hotel and other service places which made a lot of jobs for residents of the area. Today our grocery store is getting ready to close and business places have been reduced to a supper club, tavern, gas station and an antique shop. Most people go to larger nearby towns to work."
~Cedar Rapids Gazette, October 12, 1975; written by Dale Ahern
~transcribed by S. Ferrall
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