Our Town: Grinnell’s history lies in the railroad tracks

J.B. Grinnell founded the town of Grinnell, Iowa, in the 1850's.
J.B. Grinnell founded the town of Grinnell, Iowa, in the 1850's.(Grinnell Historical Museum)
Published: Jul. 30, 2020 at 9:17 AM CDT
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GRINNELL, Iowa (KCRG) - Many small towns in Iowa got their start from agriculture, but Our Town Grinnell’s history is largely tied to the railroads.

J.B. Grinnell was born into poor, religious family in Vermont in 1821.

Man years later, around 1854, he headed west, looking for a place to live. He went to Missouri, where his wife owned land, but he didn’t approve of the pro-slavery sentiment he found there. So he headed back home.

On his way back to Vermont, Grinnell heard a very good rumor that the east-west railroad and the north-south railroad would cross somewhere in Iowa. It’s that intersection where Grinnell staked his claim.

However, according to the Grinnell Historical Museum, J.B. got some push back on whether or not the area would suffice because there were no trees in the area.

Despite the disagreement, J.B. staked pushed forward. The town was officially organized in 1855 and named ‘Grinnell.’

But the town’s history isn’t just tied to a physical railroad. As an abolitionist, J.B. Grinnell had strong ties to the underground railroad.

“His house was actually on the underground railroad,” said Cheryl Neubert with the Grinnell Historical Society. “He had a sheep barn in the back of his property. The house is no longer here. The slaves were brought here to town in his home, taken to the sheep barn held there, and then moved on at night.”

Grinnell also has a long history of survival. In 1889, sparks from the railroad started a large fire wiping, out much of the downtown area.

“But the town came back,” Neubert said. “The businesses all moved to the Central Park--we don’t have a square, we don’t have a courthouse--just south of the main part of the town. They set up tents and they were going to keep doing business, no matter whether there was a tornado or not. A very resilient group.”

Grinnell’s history, and economy, is also built upon higher education.

“J.B. Grinnell wanted a college, so he virtually had a college for about five years, called Grinnell University,” Neubert said.

In 1859, J.B. convinced Iowa College to move from Davenport to Grinnell. It merged with Grinnell University and, in 1909, became what is presently known as Grinnell College.

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