Abbe Creek School Museum
Abbe Creek School Museum is managed by the Linn County Conservation Board. The Museum is open 6-8 times per year by volunteers for public visits (typically Sunday afternoons) in June, July and August. School groups, youth groups and others interested in using this historic facility are encouraged to call the Linn County Conservation Board.
About the School
Abbe Creek School was first organized in 1844 by pioneer homesteaders: Alison I. Willets; Jesse Holman; and Peter, Henry and Conrad Kepler. They engaged a partner named Lichtenbarger to build the first log school. The school was first called “Sumner” or “Kepler” but later it came to be known affectionately as “Little Brick”.
In pioneer times the school served as the center of community life. It served as a school weekdays and a church on Sundays. Occasionally, a circuit reading preacher from Dubuque would hold services. Once or twice a month the local residents brought their families to sing and practice spelling in the one room school.
Attendance at the school was not required. The farm work came first and in the time left over, the children went to school. Children started to attend school when they were four and rarely finished the full eight grades.
Records in the Linn County assessor’s office indicate that the present schoolhouse was built in 1856 of soft brick thought to have been manufactured locally at Port Stottler brickyard. The building measures 20 by 26 feet and originally faced north. Behind it lay the community cemetery called Sugar Grove, where many early residents, including the first wife of William Abbe and Zimri Davis (1783-1856) and his wife (a daughter of a Revolutionary War veteran) are buried. Two Civil War veterans, Morris Burnett and George Thompson are also buried there. Many graves date from the 1850s, the earliest visible date is 1847.
With the grading and paving of the Lincoln Highway in 1925, the school was moved to face the east and the cemetery was isolated from it by the road. A Lincoln Highway marker still stands on the school grounds. A few hundred feet southeast of the schoolhouse site is a marker honoring William Abbe as the first settler in Linn County.
Also on the grounds is the spring that furnished drinking water for the school. It is the source of a small feeder stream running into Abbe Creek. The original tile used to collect water is still in place.
The doors of Abbe Creek School closed in 1936 after serving the community 92 years. The building was later converted into a private home. The school and yard were purchased from Mr. and Mrs. Eddie Pitlik in 1963 and in 1964 the restored schoolhouse was dedicated as a museum. It is now operated by the Linn County Conservation Board and is occasionally open during the summer.
Original books, slates, lunch buckets and other materials of the 1800s seen in the school have been donated by area residents and the Abbe Creek Questers.
Old school records show that teachers were paid very small salaries at Sumner School. In the 1870s and 1880s, pay ranged from $20 to $30 a month with no holidays allowed. The first teacher of Sumner School, William Willcox, probably received less than that. By 1897, Miss Isabel Cowen, teacher for the winter term, was paid $35 a month and a $10 allowance for the care of the schoolhouse.
About William Abbe
Abbe came to this area by way of Rock Island, Illinois, in the summer of 1836. He followed the Red Cedar River to the site of the present town of Mount Vernon and staked a claim on what is now known as Abbe Creek. He returned to his home in Lorain County, Ohio, to collect his family and they returned to Iowa in the winter of 1837. The Abbe family crossed the Mississippi River on the ice near Davenport in February to avoid the high tariff charged by Col. Daveport and other river ferrymen. Ferry charges were as high as $25 for a man and his horse. Abbe reached his staked claim in April and immediately built a floorless cabin 12 by 14 feet. He covered the cabin with birch bark. Later that fall he built a large double log house with three rooms and an upstairs sleeping loft reached by an inside ladder.
Two years after Abbe and his wife, Olive, homesteaded the land, Olive died. She was buried in an unmarked grave near their farm. This area later became Sugar Grove cemetery. In 1840, Abbe married Mary Wolcott.
For the first two years, Abbe hunted and traded with the Indians to keep food on the table. He liked the Indians and spoke the Winnebago language. Later he acted as an interpreter for them in dealings with white settlers and trappers. Abbe’s children also played with the Winnebagos and spoke the language as well as the Indians.
William Abbe’s cabin was a popular gathering place for the settlers and immigrants of early Linn County. It was the major stop between Iowa City and Dubuque on the old Military Road. Strangers could always find a good meal and a place to stay with William and Mary Abbe. Mrs. Abbe was known for her good cooking and many people would travel out of their way to stop at their cabin. Their daughter, Susan Abbe, became the first teacher in Cedar Rapids. Telling of their pioneer life, she recalled: “Of course we had men come in such as horse thieves, and my father had some of them chained up in one of our rooms for safe-keeping until they could be tried, as there was no jail for some time in Linn County.”
Abbe was one of the best known and educated men in the county. He was an old time Democrat and served as state senator representing Cedar, Linn and Jones counties in the 7th and 8th legislatures in Iowa City. He was a Justice of the Peace and later served a short time as a sheriff of the county. He helped build the first jail in Marion.
Abbe also held government contracts for the delivery of meat and provisions to the Winnebago Agency at Fort Atkinson and to the troops at Prairie Du Chien in Wisconsin. For many years, he was the only person in the county who had a ready supply of money and he loaned it freely to his friends for them to purchase claims.
Physically, Abbe was a big man who stood more than six feet tall. He was slender and stood straight as an arrow. According to this son, “I never saw a horse he could not mount and ride anytime without the least effort.” He was very active and often walked 50 miles in one day through the unbroken prairies and forests.
When gold was discovered in California, Abbe left his family in 1849 for the gold fields where he was a land speculator and teamster. He came back to Iowa in 1851, but left again for California with his son the next year. In 1854, before he could return to Iowa to bring his family to California, Abbe died at age 54. His widow, Mary, continued to live in Marion until her death in 1861.