J.B. Grinnell : Abolitionist, minister, land speculator
J.B. Grinnell is a towering figure in the history of Grinnell, Iowa. Josiah Bushnell Grinnell -- better known as J.B. -- was born in Vermont in 1821. He grew up a farm boy, working in the fields in the spring and summer and attending school only in the winter. He learned quickly and began teaching in a one-room schoolhouse by the age of 16. After spending a few years teaching, he left Vermont to attend Oneida Institute in New York, a radical institution that opposed slavery.
It was there that Grinnell became a staunch abolitionist. He would remain vocally opposed to slavery for his whole life -- even founding the town of Grinnell based on this tenet. He once hosted abolitionist John Brown in Grinnell as Brown was bringing several freed slaves along the Underground Railroad to Canada.
After leaving Oneida, Grinnell cycled through many jobs. He studied with a physician and considered a medical career, but then decided to head into the Wisconsin Territory to discover and survey new tracts of land. He went west with the American Tract Society, a religious organization, and while working with this group, he decided to go into the ministry.
Returning east, Grinnell settled in Washington, D.C., after being ordained in New York. He started the First Congregationalist Church there and gave the first anti-slavery sermon the city had ever heard. Most people in Washington were strong supporters of slavery at the time, and Grinnell was forced to leave the city because of his opinions.
Although the story may be apocryphal, it is said that Grinnell heeded the famous advice to "Go west young man," delivered to him by politician and friend Horace Greeley. At any rate, Grinnell did set out again for uncharted territory. He enlisted the help of Homer Hamlin, a minister; Henry Hamilton, a surveyor; and Dr. Thomas Holyoke to find a location for a new settlement. They looked at different locations in the Midwest, including Minnesota and Missouri, but decided on the divide between the Iowa and Skunk rivers, where the east/west and north/south Rock Island railways were set to cross. On this site, the city of Grinnell was founded.
J.B. Grinnell and his three companions commenced building the settlement in 1854 with three temporary log cabins. They began to sell land for $1.62 an acre, and the town quickly grew. The one stipulation on all the deeds sold was that alcohol could never be sold or consumed on any of the properties, as Grinnell strongly opposed the use of alcohol. This rule was upheld for many years, until a court overruled it.
With the founding of the town, Grinnell also founded "Grinnell University," although it was a university only in name. He created a board of trustees and listed all the members of town as professors. No buildings were ever built, nor classes held, but after J.B. Grinnell persuaded Iowa College to move to Grinnell from Davenport, Iowa, all of Grinnell University was signed over to the Trustees of Iowa College.
Grinnell went on to serve in Congress, where his abolitionist stance often put his life in danger. After winning re-election twice, he lost a third bid and moved back to Grinnell. He remained there until his death in 1891 from bronchitis and asthma after a trip through Texas into Mexico.
This was originally published in The Grinnell Magazine, Fall 2009 edition