The George B. Hitchcock house is one of those remarkable survivors that are significant not only as architecture but also for their roles in out nation’s history. Hitchcock was a Congregational minister and one of several, prominent abolitionists active in southern Iowa. He used this stone house, which he built in 1856, as a stop on the underground railroad and a hub of abolitionist activity. Not only is the building an outstanding (and rare) example of vernacular architecture from Iowa’s early history, but is a remnant that speaks to the tortuous conflict over slavery that divided the nation before the Civil War.
First, a bit of history. George Beckwith Hitchcock was born January 9, 1812 in Great Barrington, MA. His father David Hitchcock Jr. was a shoemaker, poet and author who was an ardent supporter of education and religion. He migrated with his family to Illinois where his son George studied theology at Illinois College. George moved to Iowa in the early 1840s and farmed briefly in Scott County, IA. Not content with farming, Hitchcock answered his religious vocation and was ordained as a minister in 1844 for the Congregational Church. He subsequently worked as a circuit preacher in western Iowa and eventually settled on a plot located between the early settlements of Indiantown, IA and Lewis, IA in 1853. Hitchcock built a log cabin here in 1853 where he lived until the completion of this stone house in 1856.
Hitchcock was an ardent abolitionist throughout his career. His stone house was one of several houses that served as stops on the Underground Railroad in southern Iowa that sheltered fugitive slaves travelling north from Missouri. His home was known as a hub of abolitionist activity as Hitchcock frequently provided accommodations for ministers and abolitionists. John Brown, who was active in the Bleeding Kansas conflict in the 1850s, was an occasional guest of the Hitchcocks before Brown was arrested following the raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, VA. Hitchcock remained in Lewis until 1865 when he was called by the Congregationalist Church to work in Missouri where he educated and ministered to freed slaves. Two years later Hitchcock moved to Kansas to carry out similar duties. Hitchcock had long suffered from a lung ailment and died in 1872 in Lowell, KS at the age of 60.
The house is located just west of Lewis, IA near two American Indian trails and an early ferry station crossing the Nishnabotna River. The house was built by Hitchcock himself using reddish, roughly finished sandstone quarried about a mile east near the Nishnabotna River. The rectangular house is two stories in height and has a low-pitched, hipped roof. It is a simple, vernacular interpretation of Federal Style homes that Hitchcock would have encountered in the eastern United States. The interior framing consists of a combination of hand-hewn heavy timbers and smaller members that were sawn at a mill located near Indiantown. The symmetrical main facade faces south onto the river valley and is three bays in width. Window openings have heavy stone sills and lintels and the front entry is framed by fashionable sidelights and transom. The house has a full basement that is divided into two rooms by a stone wall. The two rooms are connected by an opening in the center of the dividing wall. According to early accounts, this opening was covered by a hinged cabinet or cupboard that could swing open to provide access to the west room but gave the appearance of a fixed cabinet when closed. Legend has it that Hitchcock built the western room to shelter fugitive slaves. Indeed, the western room has no windows or other openings and can’t be viewed from the exterior.
The house suffered greatly after it was abandoned in the 1960s. In the early 1980s concerned citizens from the town of Lewis and Cass County formed the Hitchcock House Restoration Committee and acquired the building in 1983 and began the restoration. The house was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 2006 and is now operated as a historic house museum. The house can be visited during the summer during regular visitors hours and during special events.