Brush College – Murray, IA

Mona and I were visiting Murray, Iowa for their sesquicentennial, or its 150th birthday. Murray has a jamboree every year to celebrate its founding featuring a parade and community fair. But this year was particularly special and included three full days of events.

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One event was the opportunity to tour Brush College, a historical schoolhouse just off the main street. The main street in downtown is not large and most of the buildings are no longer in use. There continues to be a fire station, post office, and library and the railroad tracks that first gave the Murray its life are still in frequent use.

The white one-room schoolhouse is near the fire station with a log cabin built beside it. The school was a real school, though the cabin was built as a historical replica.  During the jamboree, a volunteer dressed in a period costume played games with the younger children like our nieces. We wandered around the small schoolhouse with Mona’s family and examined the displayed antiques.

The college was in active use until the mid-twentieth century. Searching online for stories about Brush College when it was a functioning school, I found an interesting anecdote about teacher Alice Edwards. Edwards lived in Murray but taught at Brush College in Madison. To get to school every day, she would ride a pony. It was not an unusual method of transportation at the time.  Mona’s grandmother, Shirley, told me she had also ridden a horse to class and the schoolhouse had a stable attached to accommodate them. Those who did not ride horses would walk until bicycles and eventually cars became more popular.

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What amused me about Alice Edwards though was a bit of irony. She had to travel from Murray to Madison to get to Brush College. If only she could have waited a hundred years, then she could have just walked down the street.

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The schoolhouse was originally located in the town of Madison, about five miles north of Murray. It was relocated in 1996 through the extensive efforts of the community. Mona told me she and her classmates collected aluminum cans to help fund the project. I asked Mona and her family why it was moved but they didn’t know of any official reason other than making it more convenient to visit. When I asked volunteer standing in as the schoolteacher, she gave the same answer. So in absence of any official statement, I agree that it’s the most likely reason.

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Before the school was moved, it was discovered the building had extensive damage including rotten support beams and a sunken floor. Replacement beams were taken from a 100-year-old Baptist Church that had been town down, preserving the historical character of the building and keeping the porch in place.

The repairs continued once the building was in its new location. The shingles were replaced and electricity installed, though the schoolhouse continues to be decorated with a wood burning stove and old kerosene lamps.

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One of the reasons the school has been preserved is because it is located on the Mormon Pioneer Trail, which passes through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Utah, and Wyoming. It is a 1,300-mile national historic trail tracing the route of Mormons fleeing Nauvoo, Illinois to the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1846 and 1847.

After fleeing Missouri in 1838, Joseph Smith and his followers established a community in Illinois along the Mississippi River. He named the town Nauvoo, meaning beautiful place in Hebrew. Converts flocked to Nauvoo and it quickly became the largest town in Illinois.

Initially, neighbors tolerated the Mormons but that changed when Joseph Smith began to introduce polygamy to his followers. A local newspaper accused the church leaders of polygamy and Smith ordered the press be destroyed in retribution. Smith and several others were arrested. Vigilantes attacked the jail where they were held and murdered Smith. Others attacked Mormon homesteads to drive his followers from Nauvoo. 

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To escape the violence, Brigham Young began to lead the Mormons west. Five hundred wagons began crossing the frozen prairie of Iowa on March 1, 1846. The Mormon Pioneer Trail follows much of the same route as the Oregon Trail and California Trail from Council Bluffs, Iowa to Fort Bridger, Iowa. Together, these trails are knows as the Emigrant Trail. An estimated half a million people used these trails to travel westward between 1843 and 1869.

The Mormon Pioneer Trail was established as part of the National Trails System on November 10, 1978. However, most of it is located on private land and no longer visible. In Murray, there is Brush College and the Seven-Mile Creek campsite, where original wagon road crosses can be seen. While Brush College is open to the public, the campsite is on private land. The owner has built a platform for viewing but visitors are cautioned not to enter the property without the express permission of the owner.

I’ll admit, when I heard there was a trail my first thought was, “Can I hike it?” But because most of it is on private land, those interested in learning more about the Mormon Pioneer Trail will find it much easier to stick to the highway. The National Park Service offers an interpretive auto guide for interesting sites along the way. Brush College is one of the featured stops, though it is described only as a “one-room school/museum.”

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I love visiting places like Brush College for the convergence between local and national histories. The schoolhouse is significant to the residents of Murray and each person I spoke with had a personal story about their connection to Brush College. But it is also part of a larger narrative and the history Western expansion in America. No matter how small a place may seem, you can still find interesting stories waiting to be heard.