From the moment that the surveyor set down his tools in 1846 to the instant that the Flying Farmers crossed the sky at the centennial celebration, the history of Centerville, Iowa, has gifted us with a unique insight into the mid-American experience. Though the population never exceeded 8,600, immigrants from more than forty different countries created a community that was both melting pot and crucible—just like the nation at large.
The town forged an identity through the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, race relations, education debates and World Wars I and II. In a definitive history, Enfys McMurry captures both the particular feelings of Centerville’s citizens and how they reflected and participated in the larger American story. Read on to learn how our conversation about Centerville led to the dark history of Prohibition, crime, the Ku Klux Klan, the Mafia and the Depression.
Q: How did you come to live in southern Iowa and write a book on American history?
A: Multiple paths led me to Centerville, and when I did research to lead an historic tour of the town, I could hardly believe the town’s extraordinary history.
Q: Was there a distinct point during research when you knew Centerville’s story was remarkable?
A: There were so many! The first chronologically was the Underground Railroad. Centerville is nine miles from the Missouri border. Missouri was a slave state. Iowa, “the bright radical star,” was not. I found land records of local abolitionists with a coordinated pattern creating a safe path for escaping slaves from the Missouri border across Appanoose County.
Q: Was there a period that stood out in the town’s extraordinary history?
A: The 1920s. Immigrants arrived to work in the county’s coalmines. The 1920 Census shows over forty countries of national origin. This is the pattern of America, but over 40 in a city of 8,600? Saturday nights on Centerville Square must have been something! Stores stayed open late. Sidewalks teemed with life. People greeted their friends in their native languages. It was happening all across America. Centerville was a microcosm of the whole.
Q: How was Centerville affected by World War I?
A: When Germany invaded Belgium and then France, immigrants from those countries were frantic. They clustered around the local newspaper office hearing AP dispatches before they appeared in that day’s edition. Forty-four immigrants refused to register for the draft. Two who continued to refuse were deported. Representatives of the Italian and British governments arrived to return to their countries all immigrants who were not yet American citizens.
Q: After the war there was an outbreak of crime across the country. Was this the pattern in Centerville?
A: In Centerville morality was in free fall! At one stage it was known as the murder capital of Iowa. Murder was common, and so was extortion in the form of “the Black Hand,” an early name for the Mafia.
Q: Prohibition became the law of the land in 1920. Did this play into the wave of crime?
A: Immigrants from Italy, Sicily and Greece, for example, all enjoyed a glass of wine as part of their life styles. Prohibition didn’t stop them. Illegal stills were everywhere–some of them highly sophisticated. The average number of arrests in Iowa per county for illegal stills in 1921 was twenty to twenty-five. In Appanoose County, it was sixty-three. The quality of the local grappi (wine) was so superior, a gallon of it sold in New York City for forty dollars. The economic incentive was obvious.
Q: Was organized crime involved in this area?
A: There were sightings of Al Capone; “Pretty Boy” Floyd who had relatives in the area; “Baby Face” Nelson; and Bonnie and Clyde. Fred Burke the chief gunman at the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, hid out twenty miles south of Centervillle, went into the Appanoose County Courthouse on Centerville Square, took out a marriage license under an assumed name and was married by Centerville’s Lutheran minister at the church parsonage on East Walsh Street.
Q: You wrote about when the KKK arrived in town. What did you discover?
A: They arrived in 1922. Their initial agenda was to clean up crime, and in this they convinced many people to join. Then their real agenda appeared. They denounced Catholics, Jews, African Americans, Orientals, bootleggers, pacifists, Socialists, immigrants from non-Nordic nations and anyone who supported the Theory of Evolution. Their language was so vitriolic, dissension divided the community for decades. But the KKK hadn’t reckoned with a group of townspeople who opposed and finally defeated them. Their victory and how it was planned and carried out moved me to tears.
Q: Is it true that the last twenty-eight chapters of your book deal with World War II?
A. It is–there were three wars for the people of Centerville: the one in Europe, the one in the Pacific and the one at home. It was a time of enormous cohesion. People were united in one direction: to win that war.
Q: Was there anything in your research that totally shocked you?
A. Yes. It was a trial in 1909, a change of venue trial from Ottumwa. A white woman there was murdered by an African American. It’s horrible to read the racist language used with impunity by John Junkin’s (the man accused) own attorney and by an alienist (psychiatrist) giving evidence. But then it’s wonderful to see how far our nation has come and how that language would now be unthinkable.
Iowa’s contribution in this process is its greatest story. In 1868, Iowa led the nation in votes for integrating African Americans in its schools and in admitting women to the bar. And it was the first state in the nation to nominate the first African American as president. What a state. What a country!
About the author
Author of Centerville: A Mid-American Saga, Enfys McMurry taught English, Aesthetics and Civilization, World Literature and related subjects at Indian Hills Community College. She is a longtime member of the Appanoose County Historical Society, Wayne County Historical Society and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Read the Des Moines Register’s feature on Enfys and her new book: Writer tells all about one Iowa county.
CORYDON, IA. — She buzzes around southern Iowa in a perpetual whirlwind of conversation.
Enfys McMurry, a 76-year-old Welsh writer and retired college teacher, tends to be the most animated, gregarious person in any room.
“Tell me to shut up if this is totally unrelated, because it probably is,” she kept apologizing when I stopped by her house in Corydon this week for a long chat over a perfectly brewed cup of working-class British tea (complete with milk and sugar).
This is a woman who can talk for 15 minutes about why she named her cat Hypatia, after the Greek mathematician, librarian and prototypical feminist in Alexandria who nearly two millennia ago was skinned and quartered by a mob.