If you ever happen to be driving along Highway 34 through Adams County, Iowa, you’ll eventually pass a cemetery along the right-hand side of the road. While mostly unobtrusive, there is one stone that definitely stands out.
Standing nearly ten feet tall, it’s an elaborate monument, topped by a beautiful woman carved from marble. She’s sitting, her face resting on her delicate hand as she…waits? Contemplates?
Or perhaps, she’s remembering the life of one of Adams County’s most successful citizens.
Henry Reese looked west from his rooms in Chicago, Illinois, wrestling with a potentially life-changing decision. It hadn’t been that long ago when he had been in this same situation.
A German-born immigrant, he had come to America in 1850, just a few short years before. America was the land of promise and opportunity. He had a good life in the Old Country, but he wanted more for himself and, one day, his family. It had not been a move without risk.
First, he had to get enough money to pay for the trip. But he had to be careful. There were people on both sides of the ocean who made plenty of money off the unwary. Some would sell would-be immigrants tickets with fake dates on them, giving them passage on some ship six months down the road. This forced them to wait for a trip indefinitely, very likely spending the money that they had saved for their journey.
Others would lure people in with the promise of a great place to live once they had come to America. There were plenty of pamphlets, letters, and books coming out of America that extolled the virtues of the new nation. Mostly, they told the truth.
But there were some immigrants who came to different parts of America finding that the great land they had travelled so far to claim was nothing but a swamp. The traveler had to be careful.
The voyage itself was also dangerous. While it was relatively common for ships to travel back and forth across the Atlantic at regular intervals, it didn’t make it any easier.
Storms could wreck your ship, or you could contract illness from another passenger.
When you arrived in America, you still had to build from virtually nothing. Whether you lived in a city or had land of your own, no one was going to come and do it for you. Essentially, you had journeyed so far from everything that you knew to have the opportunity to build bigger and better than you could in your home country.
Reese had already survived all of these perils. He had taken the risk and won.
But, while he was doing well for himself in Chicago, Reese wanted more.
And so, in 1852, Henry found himself wrestling with the old decision of whether to go or not.
A few years before, gold had been found in California, and not just a little, but millions of dollars’ worth. Some of the first to find it tried their best to keep it a secret, but others saw more opportunity in spreading the word.
In the beginning, people back east thought the newspaper reports were exaggerating. What they were saying couldn’t possibly be true.
But soon, there was so much gold and so many people talking about it that the truth of it started to sink in.
Hundreds of people flocked to the West Coast. People left everything that they had built, including their wives and children in some cases, to go find gold in the hills and rivers of California.
The California Gold Rush had begun.
Millions upon millions of dollars had flooded into the rest of the nation, and Reese decided that he wanted to get some for himself.
For the second time in his life, he set out on a perilous journey to seek his fortunes in a new land.
Unfortunately for Reese, the bulk of easily-found surface and river gold in California was gone by the time he showed up. By 1852, companies had formed or moved into the region and were seeking the rich gold reserves that still lay under the ground. Much of the gold mining had turned into wage labor.
Henry stayed for a time, but this wasn’t’ what he had come for. After six months, he was done. Boarding a ship, he set out for New York.
In 1853, the Panama Canal didn’t exist. To get back to the east coast of America, you had to sail all the way around the southern tip of South America, and then sail all the way back up. It took six months for Henry to get to New York, but he took the opportunity to take in the sights and smells of several cities along the way as his ship set into different ports to resupply on the journey.
Eventually, he arrived at his destination. But he didn’t stay long.
He had decided to set out and seize a new opportunity that had sweeping the young nation almost from its very inception. Reese was going to head west and get land of his own.
A Place of His Own
Reese went as far west as he dared, arriving in Council Bluffs, Iowa later that year.
Then, he started walking back east, and then turned sharply south. He had a little money from working in Chicago and California, and he was determined to find a great piece of land that he could build on.
Eventually, he came to a plot of land in the southwest portion of the state that he liked. He bought around 200 acres of land, and then went back east to Chicago.
Reese had land, but he would still need money for all of his start up equipment and materials. Chicago wasn’t that far away, and he had done well for himself there before.
For the next few years, Reese worked hard in Illinois. But this time it was different. He had land of his own. He had walked on it, surveyed it. This time, his dream was waiting for him.
By 1856, Reese had acquired enough money to go back. But more than that, he had met a woman named Sophia Linneman, whom he had fallen deeply in love with. They married in Chicago, and then set out to Western Iowa to build their dream.
Taming the Frontier
While Iowa had achieved statehood in 1846, it hadn’t been entirely settled yet. As a matter of fact, Adams County was still very much part of the frontier in the 1850’s.
Wolves and bear could still be found there, not yet having been pushed out of the region as they had elsewhere. The railroad hadn’t found its way into the area yet, either. Settlers had to travel long distances to reach civilization. For most, this usually meant St. Joseph, Missouri, nearly 90 miles away.
But the settlers didn’t let that stop them. They grew to know one another and relied on each other for help and company. While there may not have been much cash on hand, the settlers had no problems bartering with each other for what they needed.
Eventually, the county became more and more civilized. Small settlements grew into towns, and the railroad made its inevitable push through the county.
Log cabins on farms with only rough lean-tos for the livestock gave way to wooden frame houses with glass windows and large barns.
Through it all, Henry and Sophia toiled and struggled to improve their farm. They, too improved their home and outbuildings. They had eight children together, but sadly two passed away. The other six kept them good company however, and also helped around the farm.
As time passed, Henry had taken the money that he made from his farming operations and invested it in land. Like single drops eventually filling a dishpan, Henry was able to move from having 200 acres to 4000 acres of prime Iowa farm ground.
This had made him very, very wealthy, and by far one of the richest men in the county, if not that section of the state.
But Henry remained humble. He preferred to spend time with his wife and children. He adored them, and they returned his affection.
Occasionally, Henry and Sophia would travel, including trips to Europe.
On one of these visits, the couple saw a grave marker in Italy that they fell in love with. It was several feet tall and topped by a beautiful woman carved from marble. She was sitting and…contemplating? Waiting? Or perhaps, remembering.
Henry and Sophia were getting elderly. They had to have known they wouldn’t live forever. And if you’re wealthy and looking at your last days, why not have a grave stone made to look like this one?
In January of 1901, Henry got sick. A specialist from nearby Omaha, Nebraska, was sent for. The doctor examined him, but there was nothing that he could do. On February 1, Henry Reese died.
As per his wishes, he was buried in Stringtown Cemetery in Adams County, mourned by family and friends. The family had the Italian grave marker that he and Sophia had seen reconstructed in the rural Iowa cemetery from imported Italian marble.
The graves of two children that Henry and Sophia had lost were also incorporated into the plot, and when Sophia died in 1915, she was also interred there.
So, if you’re ever travelling down Highway 34 in Adams County, Iowa, take a moment to look over and see the grave marker of Henry and Sophia Reese. It’ll be hard not to see, as it stands out from the rest of the cemetery.
The marble lady is still there, high atop her elaborate perch, still…waiting? Contemplating?
Or perhaps, remembering the life of Henry Reese, a German immigrant who braved many dangers to come to rural Iowa and claim a piece of the American dream.
‘Henry Reese Dead.’ Adams County Free Press, 2/7/1901
‘Monograph of Allan A. Rawson, M.D.‘ The Murphy Company; Red Oak, 1900
‘Adams County History’