Clark Tower in Winterset Iowa's City Park
A castle in...IOWA???
A hub about a part of Winterset City Park that Peggy W and her mother never got to see.
The crenelated tower of a medieval castle is the last thing you'd expect in the middle of Iowa, right?
But that's exactly what awaits you at the end of a narrow one-way road that begins near the Cutler-Donahoe covered bridge in Winterset, Iowa's City Park.
The sign next to the mouth of the road into the heavily wooded area indicates Clark Tower is "thatta way" but not much else except to caution the 1.5 mile trip should only be attempted by hikers or in compact or mid-size passenger cars. Unless great improvements have been made since 1994, you don't have to go far on that glorified cow path to understand the need for that warning.
In my Wild Weekend in...Iowa? hub, you'll find Winterset was not on the original itinerary for a 3-day trip from Topeka, KS to a Billy Joel-Elton John concert in Ames, Iowa. Also, if the neighbor babysitting my children for the weekend hadn't been a huge John Wayne fan, my friend and I would've whizzed right past the billboard announcing Winterset as the Duke's birthplace and thereby missed one of Iowa's prettiest, friendliest small towns.
But we did detour into Winterset, but by the time we found the Duke's boyhood home, museum and souvenir shop, it was already closed for the day. I don't recall anyone recommending Winterset City Park as an alternative. I'm pretty sure we simply came across it while trying to find our way back to downtown Winterset and the Northside Cafe made famous in Robert James Waller's book "The Bridges of Madison County".
Once in the park, after dutifully oohing and ahhing at the pioneer log cabin and covered bridge that had been moved to the park from their original locations, we were about to leave when we spotted the sign to Clark Memorial Tower.
Keep in mind my friend and I grew up in a state that touts a large ball of twine as a Major Tourist Attraction, and as a child, when my parents took me and my little brother to western Kansas each year to visit the aunts, uncles and cousins, my dad never saw a roadside historical marker he wouldn't stop and read. So my friend and I were conditioned almost from birth to explore obscure local landmarks, no matter how "unimportant" or cheesy.
Despite it being only late afternoon on a sunny Friday in August with many hours of daylight left, once we were deep in the woods and out of sight of the main part of the park, very little sunlight penetrated the canopy of trees overhead. The Headless Horseman from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" could've come charging out of the woods at any time and we would've been momentarily startled...but not surprised.
After deftly avoiding low-hanging branches or getting high-centered on the rocky rutted road, we finally came to a clearing on a promontory that overlooks the Middle River Valley. In such a remote location, the "memorial tower" we expected was maybe a forest fire lookout or a TV transmitting tower, not an enchanting "castle" straight out of Medieval England!
A metal plaque announcing the tower was erected in memory of Caleb and Ruth Clark was the only hint to the reason for its existence. In the next two months, I would visit Clark Tower three more times, and I'm ashamed to admit that nearly twenty years would pass before Peggy W's hub would pique my curiosity enough to find out why such a treasure was dedicated to the couple.
So who were Caleb and Ruth?
Coming down from the top and around the outside.
Ruth Ann Clanton was 17 years old when she married Phineas and Charlotte Clark's 27-yr-old son Caleb in Quincy, Illinois on November 3rd, 1835.
After the births in Quincy of daughters Louis Jane and Rachel Charlotte (always known as "Charlotte"), the little family moved to Buchanan County, Missouri, where third child Sarah Ellen was born in 1840, followed by Nancy Elizabeth (always called "Elizabeth), Sintha Ann and (finally, a son!) Rufus. Another daughter, Mary Adeline, would not only be Caleb and Ruth's first child born in Iowa, but the first white child born in Madison County.
Seven more children - Adam, Joshua, Stephen Miles Denman, Martha, Joel, Caleb Franklin (called "Frank") and Tina Belle - would follow Mary, making a total of fourteen. Sadly, Sintha Ann would die in 1855 at the tender age of 12, baby Adam would be stillborn, and Tina Belle wouldn't live to see her fourth birthday.
The remaining eleven children grew to adulthood, and with the exception of Louisa Jane, all married and raised families of their own, most of whom remained in Madison County. Many of Caleb and Ruth's descendants still live in or near Winterset.
Caleb Clark, a native of Allegany County, New York, was a stonemason who plied his trade for half a century before succombing to a paralytic stroke two weeks before his death at age 86 on November 12, 1894. His funeral was held at the local Church of Christ, which he had helped organize shortly after arriving in the area.
"Grandma Clark", as Ruth was known locally, was a native of Indiana and would outlive Caleb by slightly more than six years, dying at the age of 82 in the family home at 814 South Eighth Street, Winterset, on January 10, 1901. Both are buried in the Winterset City Cemetery, as are most of their children and grandchildren.
Too much Twittering, FBing and texting in American History class must be why the submitter of this vid assumed Caleb was the Clark of Lewis and...
But what was the Clarks' claim to fame??
Well, tradition has it that Caleb and wife Ruth, a Clanton by birth, were the first settlers of Madison County. Histories of the county, however, reveal that's technically not true.
The distiction of "first settler" really belongs to a man named Hiram Hurst who arrived in April, 1846, a month before the Clarks and three of Ruth's Clanton brothers (Joel M., Isaac and Charles Wm.) and their families arrived from Buchanan County, Missouri.
Hurst was accompanied by only a team of horses and a dog when he took a claim in Crawford Twp on land now known as the "old Cason farm". He built a hut, cleared enough land to plant a crop of corn, and after it was harvested, returned to Missouri to collect his wife and three sons and their belongings. They would remain in Madison County for approximately five years before removing to Otoe County, Nebraska, where Hurst died in 1889.
It could be argued that Hurst's brief absence after harvesting that first corn crop negated any claim to "first". But first is first, and the rumor that he was a fugitive from an arson charge in Missouri probably had much to do with allowing the Clarks to instead bask in the notoriety of being first. It's lost to time, however, why Ruth's brothers and their families didn't share the distinction. Indeed, in early histories, all four families were lumped together as the "Clanton contingent" on Clanton's Creek near St. Charles.
I can't find a family connection to the land on which it was built, but money and labor for the 25-ft-high limestone "castle" was definitely a family project.
Like his father, son Joshua Clark had been a stone mason, and before his death in 1915 he had cut the steps for the staircase that goes part way around the outside of the ground level up to the second floor of the tower, which is 12 feet in diameter.
In 1926, four of Caleb and Ruth's grandsons - Delbert Clark, Everett Clark, Henry Wilkinson, and Sam Rogers - constructed the medieval tower to their ancestors' memory.
Back in 1994, after we'd already been out to the tower, my friend and I had to look long and hard to find mention of it, let alone its history, in the free tourism brochures readily available all over Winterset in cafes, motels and gas stations.
If it hasn't been erected already, a historical marker telling about the Clarks' contribution to Winterset and Madison County would be a welcome addition to the grounds around the tower.
Also, more out-of-towners might be inclined to make the trek to this unexpected treasure if it were much higher up on the list of attractions on Madison County's website instead of buried in the "You might also enjoy" section toward the bottom.
Books about Madison County and Winterset...
...and the movie that put them on the big screen
Now that you know the history of Clark Tower, will you be more apt to visit it if you have the chance?See results without voting
More about the places in this hub:
- A Wild Weekend in...IOWA?
What could Elton John, Billy Joel, a cemetery, a 70-something nudist, John Wayne, the Bridges of Madison County, and a tanning salon possibly have in common? Well, they were all part of an unstructured, adventure-packed weekend in IOWA!
- John Wayne ~ Winterset, Iowa Birthplace Photos ~ Iconic Western Film Star
We were amazed at the tiny house in which Marion Morrison best known as John Wayne or "The Duke" was born. We learned many details about his youth in this museum setting. Photos of the house and small town of Winterset, Iowa are shown in this hub as
- Madison County, Iowa - Madison County, Iowa Chamber of Commerce
Discover Madison County, Iowa - Welcome to the birthplace of John Wayne and home of the historic covered bridges popularized by Robert James Waller's novel The Bridges of Madison County and the feature film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.
UPDATE - Clark Tower Needs Help ASAP!
4 June 2012, Aric Beemer said:
Clark Tower needs help ASAP as people have written sharpie messages and some are pretty graphic for kids to view. It needs volunteers to come and clean up around the tower and do some repair work. One of the steps going up to the second floor is loose and could cause someone to get hurt.
So if you live anywhere near Winterset (or will be in the area) and are looking for a worthy weekend activity for yourself or your family, please consider cleaning up and/or repairing Clark Tower.
More by this Author
A mini-tour of Winterset and Madison County, Iowa, of (mostly) uncommon sights you'll never find in postcard kiosks or souvenir shops.
What could Elton John, Billy Joel, a cemetery, a 70-something nudist, John Wayne, the book and movie The Bridges of Madison County, and a tanning salon possibly have in common? They were all part of an unplanned,...
Topeka's Rochester Cemetery has been a favorite of ghost hunters and Halloween thrill seekers since at least 1967. They come here hoping to see the infamous Albino Woman who roams the cemetery as well as the surrounding...