Local History

Long-ago summers at Cedar County resort spot, Gray’s Ford


Summer’s about gone, but here’s a bit of little known history about where the generations before us spent their summers.

In the late 19th century, Gray’s Ford in Cedar County was the old time favorite of the local outing spots within reach in the days of horse and buggy. Many celebrations were held at this picturesque place made famous by history and its proximity to the country where John Brown drilled his men prior to his fatal journey to the east.

Ada Gray Smith was the granddaughter of Ebenezer Gray, a pioneer who had settled a few miles north of present-day Rochester on the west side of the Cedar River in 1839.  Gray was the first white settler, and it was he who gave the area the name ‘Gray’s Ford’.

In 1934 Ada wrote, “Ninety-five years ago my grandfather left Ohio with his wife and three children and came to Cedar County, Iowa.  They traveled by boat down the Ohio River, and then up the Mississippi River to Muscatine, at the time known as Bloomington.

“There Grandfather bought a covered wagon and a yoke of oxen. With this outfit they set across the countryside in a northerly direction, looking for a place to settle.”

They came upon Cedar Valley, after having traveled 13 days in total.  That area seemed to be the most attractive to the family, and it’s where they decided to stay.

“In a timber along the Cedar River, near a shallow place where the stream could be forded, they blazed their claim,” Ada wrote.

(It’s interesting to note that Iowa land had been placed in the new Territory of Iowa only a year before, and that’s where it stayed until Iowa became a state in 1846.)

Meeting up with Indian tribe

A group of Sauk and Fox Indians had a camp near where the Grays settled, and eventually one Indian came to call at the Gray’s log cabin.

A friendship came of this encounter.  The Grays came to feel a deep sense of gratitude toward the Indians for all they did to make their life pleasant and more comfortable.

The Indians helped to clear the ground at the Grays. In return  Ebenezer made guns for them, as he was a gunsmith by trade.  Mrs. Gray cooked and baked food to share with the Indians and their children.

The Indians provided wood, and also choice wild game for the family.

Years passed, and slowly more white settlers came to the area.  The Indians were driven further west.  Soon there were no Indians left in Iowa, aside from some who had returned to keep a few acres of their own along the Iowa River in Tama County.

Many, many years later young Ada was visiting her grandparents’ cabin, and a band of Indians came to pay one last visit to Gray’s Ford.  Most of the younger Indians had never been there before, and took great interest in exploring the surrounding woods.

Ada’s story, and that of many other settlers’ families of that time period, demonstrates the friendly and cooperative relationship between the Indians and the people of Iowa.

Sauk warrior Black Hawk had said at his last public speech: ‘I liked my towns, my cornfields, and the home of my people.  I fought for it.  It is now yours. Keep it as we did. It will produce you good crop.’

Quaker society and underground railroad

The first members of the Quaker Society (also called Friends Society) began to immigrate to Iowa from Ohio in the 1840s.  Lawrie Tatum, age 22, was the very first Quaker to settle in Cedar County in the Springdale area, in 1844.

Quakers were abolitionists, opposed to holding slaves.  They were also pacifists, and with some exceptions did not fight in the Civil War that sought to end slavery.  They did, however, engage in some ‘abolitionist activities’. 

Springdale became a center for a chain of Underground Railroad stations — hideouts operated by volunteers who smuggled escaped slaves from the South to ‘free’ states in the North, to Canada.

Tatum was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and routinely transported fugitive slaves by wagon, hidden beneath cargo, from his home north of Springdale across the Cedar River at Gray’s Ford, and onto Mechanicsville, where a station agent helped place the slaves on trains headed to Chicago.

On one of Tatum’s runs, his wagon became mired in the river bottom and he had to go to a nearby stranger’s home for help.  There he explained his predicament, and the stranger suggested he simply unload the wagon.  Tatum replied that it was unnecessary.  The stranger helped Tatum, but asked him ‘What do you have in your wagon?’  As a Quaker, Tatum was forbidden to lie.  He replied ‘Meat and wool’.


William Maxson

Another railroad stop was at the home of William Maxson, also of the Springdale area.  Maxson was not a Quaker, however.  He was a good friend of famed abolitionist leader John Brown, and Brown wintered at the Maxson residence the winter of 1857-58 while he organized and trained his men. 

Maxson and his family had accompanied Ebenezer Gray’s family from Ohio to Iowa years before, and it’s believed they may have been related.  Maxson owned land in Cedar County, but in 1866 after the Civil War, he sold that and moved to just outside West Liberty.  He bought 40 acres or so in West Liberty, and sold that in small lots.

Maxson was “a man long to be remembered. He loved his fellowman, not alone in word, but in-deed, being a liberal contributor to every enterprise which he considered worthy.

“In the days of slavery, and when the oppressed sought freedom in the Far North, they found his house a station on the celebrated underground, and there they were cared for and sent on their way, rejoicing.’

Brown’s men left Springdale in 1858.  Brown met his demise at Harper’s Ferry the following year.


On the Cedar and Iowa Rivers in the 1850s-60s a ferry was typically a flat boat or a raft manipulated by cables.  In the 1850s, a popular Cedar River crossing was Gower’s Ferry (later named Cedar Bluff), near Rochester.

Ferry fees were: pedestrian, five cents; wagon and two horses, 25 cents; horse and rider, 15 cents; cattle, 10 cents each; sheep and swine, two cents each; one horse and buggy, 20 cents; team of four horses, oxen or mules, 40 cents.

Teams crossing over and back the same day were charged only once.

The ferries at Rochester and Cedar Bluff likely suffered business losses due to Gray’s Ford, which laid between them. After all, why pay to cross on the ferry when you could walk across the ford?

The ferry business on the Iowa and the Cedar faded with the advent of rail and road bridges.  In 1877 a bridge was built at Cedar Bluff, and in 1880 a bridge went up at Rochester.

Picnics, camping and More

In the late 1800s people ‘took to the woods’ and began to enjoy camping and picnicking along the banks of the placid Cedar River at Gray’s Ford.  Not surprisingly, this low area of the river had been a recreation spot for the Indians before them also.

A July 1879 newspaper account said the area was located about 12 miles north of West Liberty on the Old Tipton Road (present-day Garfield).  It said both sides of the river had caves.

Another 1879 newspaper account said the Farmers Club met at Gray’s Ford, having a picnic supper under the elms and evergreens. 

In 1881 a two-day reunion of Civil War veterans and their friends was held at Gray’s Ford.

In 1882, a clipping indicates “HK Maxson will supply ice, tents, stabling and forage for a charge.  Shooting and kindred annoyances will not be allowed this year.” (HK was Helna Kirts Maxson, son of William Maxson.)

In 1886, a Fourth of July celebration was held.  “On Saturday most of our people spent the day near the river.  Some at the lake, about two miles below Rochester, and some about a mile above Rochester at Gray’s Ford.  They picnicked that afternoon, and enjoyed fireworks in the evening.”  The event included speakers, music and other entertainment.

In 1893, Attorney Tillman Todd of Springdale took ownership of the Gray’s land, but camping and picnicking continued.

By May of 1894, “picnics were in season and as usual Gray’s Ford is a favorite resort.”

In 1919, “Gray’s Ford is full of campers from town.”

At Gray’s Ford there were “no long car rides ending in a jam of fashionable people at some high-toned hotel, but the quiet seclusion of the grassy knolls and the silent vastness of God’s first temples are yours in which to rest, sleep all day if you wish, or gather wildflowers, and do as you please in fetterless abandon.”

In 1927, the newspaper read “Gray’s Ford, which was a favorite camping ground a good many years ago, has been brought back to popularity by the Iowa City Boy Scouts, who have decided to have their camp there this year.  They leased 125 acres for their camping site.  There will probably be a good many scouts from West Liberty attending.”

In 1932, the West Liberty Index reported Cecil Bowie and the West Liberty football team camped at Gray’s Ford in the fall, right before school started.  In 1934, the freshman class held an end-of-year picnic there, and in 1935 the junior class picnic was also at Gray’s Ford.  Also in 1935, there was mention of a large group of campers from Iowa City. 

Gray’s Ford, which to this day has always been private property, ended as a recreation area in the 1930s.

Gray’s Ford was undoubtedly Cedar County’s most delightful summer re-sort of its time.