By Brooke Sherrard, Daily Iowegian
Local historian Enfys McMurry is nearing completion on a history of Centerville and Appanoose County that will narrate local experiences in relation to national and international events.
McMurry has been working on the book, tentatively titled “Centerville: A Saga of Mid-America,” for more than 10 years. It will cover 100 years of Centerville history, starting in 1846 when the town was first platted and ending with the troops returning from World War II.
She has been in talks over the years with the University of Iowa Press, though increasingly university presses are short on money and are not taking on such projects. She said she is currently considering other avenues and also may split the book into two volumes because she is covering so much material.
McMurry became interested in doing historical research on Appanoose County when, as an English instructor at Indian Hills Community College, she was approached about doing an entertaining, non-college-credit historical tour on the Centerville Square.
She started by looking up the year the town was founded: 1846.
“With true European snobbery,” said McMurry, who is Welsh, “I thought, well, this research will take me five minutes.”
But soon, she said, she couldn’t believe what she was finding. She became convinced that Centerville had a unique and important history, in large part because of the coal-mining industry and the immigrants it brought in.
Nine and a half years ago, McMurry quit her job teaching English to devote her time to the book, which she had been working on intermittently before that.
“I think people were shocked I didn’t go out of there in a coffin,” McMurry said.
But, she said, she realized that if she wanted to finish the book, she might have to give up teaching. She might not have time left to do both, a lesson that became even clearer when she survived breast cancer a few years ago. She said she thinks the determination to finish the book helped pull her through.
Some of the many topics McMurry covers in the book are abolition, immigration, the Mafia, the Ku Klux Klan and World War II.
McMurry said one of the most fascinating things she found was that in the 1850s abolitionists purposefully settled Appanoose County because of its proximity to Missouri, a slave-holding state.
At a national level, the Methodist church split over the issue of slavery. Methodists who were against slavery founded a newspaper called “The True Wesleyan.” A letter appeared in this newspaper asking abolitionists to move to Appanoose County.
And they did. Families came on horseback, many from Lee County, which led the Iowa abolitionist movement. They started a newspaper, “The Appanoose Republican.” They went into the log cabin courthouse that sat on the southeast corner of the Centerville Square and purchased land. By studying land records, McMurry determined that the land they purchased was contiguous from the Missouri border to Centerville, then up to Moravia, and then straight east into Davis County. They bought land, it appears, until they had created a safe passageway for African Americans fleeing slavery.
McMurry said she began to figure out the connections between these land purchases and anti-slavery when she read in a high number of obituaries published in the 1870s and 1880s that the deceased person “was very proud that he walked five miles to vote for Fremont.” John C. Fremont was the first presidential nominee for the Republican Party, which was founded in 1854 to stop slavery from moving into Kansas and Nebraska. Fremont carried Iowa, though he lost nationally.
Fremont did not, however, carry Appanoose County. And the county did not go for Abraham Lincoln in his elections either. McMurry said this is not entirely surprising, given that 38 percent of the population were southerners.
But there is one twist in this statistic: McMurry found that the movement for civil rights for African Americans in Centerville came from Civil War veterans when they returned from the war. During Lincoln’s second campaign, when these men were still at war, they voted overwhelmingly for Lincoln. For some reason, the absentee votes from the county’s Civil War soldiers were not included in the final tally. If they had been, Lincoln would have carried Appanoose County.
The 1920 census of Centerville lists 40 countries of national origin. McMurry was so convinced this was an extraordinary statistic that she called Ellis Island to discuss it with the chief archivist there. She said he informed her that this was nothing compared to Peoria, Ill., which is considered the benchmark for diversity at that time.
But she followed up with a call to Peoria, where she was informed that the most diverse census there was not the 1920 one but rather the 1930 one, and that it showed 44 countries of origin, only four more than Centerville in 1920 despite the fact that Peoria was five times bigger at the time.
“It’s not just northern European,” she said. “There were Turks here, and the Jews were from Poland and Russia, and there was a Chinese laundry on the Centerville Square.”
The Mafia was very active in the county. There were even two reported sightings of Al Capone, McMurry said. This past October, she gave a haunted history tour that told the story of Fred Burke, the main gunman in the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, who changed his name, took out a marriage certificate in Appanoose County and got married here (though, she pointed out, he was already married).
There were more illegal stills producing alcohol in Appanoose County than any other Iowa county, McMurry found, at least by the arrest rate. The average number of arrests for counties was 25, and it was 68 here. The stills produced an alcohol called grappi that sold in New York City for $40 a gallon.
A high number of Mafia-related murders occurred here, with the bodies often dragged up onto the railroad tracks. One time, near the present-day post office, the Mafia blew up a house.
The Ku Klux Klan
In response to the Mafia murders, the Ku Klux Klan put an ad in their newspaper asking Klan members to move to Centerville and take it back from the Mafia.
They did so by taking over the local Democratic Party. In 1922, the party was having a meeting to choose representatives for the state convention. In walked between 30 and 40 people, enough to take over the meeting and elect their own representatives.
McMurry said there are many good reasons that local people should be interested in the history of Centerville and Appanoose County. One is that the way their ancestors dealt with the Klan after that was heroic.
“How the people in the town stood up to the KKK, it should be a Stephen Spielberg movie,” she said. “If they knew not just what these people have gone through but the decisions they made—not all of them, some of them were straight racists—but if they knew, it would be a moral guide.”
World War II
For the section on World War II, McMurry interviewed about 45 local veterans, including some who have died since the interviews.
She said that even though she grew up at that time, she has ended up doing most of her background research on World War II. The focus in Britain was on the war in Europe, she said, so she felt she had to educate herself on the war in the Pacific to understand local veterans’ stories. She also feels she has a special obligation to get the section about World War II right.
“I don’t want to let down the men who have opened up to me, because I love them and respect them,” she said.
McMurry said getting veterans to talk about their experiences wasn’t easy at first.
“When you go and talk to them, they say, ‘I did nothing, it’s the guys we left on the battlefield that did something,’” she said.
But McMurry said she has found extraordinary links between local people and world events, including five men who were in the first wave at Normandy and amazingly were not killed.
“Omar Bradley, who was the general in charge of the land troops, said anybody who landed the first day on Omaha Beach is a national hero,” McMurry said. “And they were these people from Centerville, and they don’t tell their stories.”
Lisa Eddy, the curator of the Appanoose County Historical and Coal Mining Museum, has been helping McMurry with research and typing. She said what McMurry is doing is unique.
“It’s one community’s vision of U.S. history as opposed to just the history of one location,” Eddy said.
She agreed with McMurry that the history of coal mining made Appanoose County a special place.
“There are not a lot of people who know how extraordinary Appanoose County is, and if they did I think they’d be more proud to live here,” Eddy said. “I know kids are always trying to grow up and move away, but if they were proud of their hometown they might want to come back and live here again.”
This will be McMurry’s second book. Her first, “Hearst’s Other Castle,” was published in 1999 by a small Welsh publishing house. It was about St. Donat’s, a Welsh castle owned by William Randolph Hearst, who built the Hearst Castle near San Simeon, Calif. McMurry’s father was the electrical engineer for St. Donat’s.