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Ancestor, inhabitant share memories of Ranshaw House

This is the second in a three-part series that examines the background, history and future of North Liberty’s historic Samuel Ranshaw House, and those working to bring it back to life.

NORTH LIBERTY– A refined cheer from a small crowd arose in the North Liberty City Council chambers last Thursday, May 3, as supporters of restoring the Ranshaw House celebrated more good news.
The Johnson County Historic Preservation Commission voted to accept a nomination for the home at 515 W. Penn St. to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was another victory in what has become a long campaign to save the historic house from demolition.
The city purchased the property in 2004, originally considered for its potential for expansion of the city’s community and recreation center, but a group of citizens interested in preserving North Liberty’s early history felt the Ranshaw house was well-situated for use as a visitors’ center and small history museum. The cadre officially formed the North Bend Historic Committee, and they have been working to find ways to restore the Ranshaw House and keep it as an important part of the community.
The building has historical significance as the home built by Samuel Ranshaw, the son of English immigrant John Ranshaw, a successful farmer with eight children who settled in Johnson County in the mid-1850s. John Ranshaw purchased land in Madison Township for $1.25 per acre, eventually accumulating upwards of 400 acres on which to grow grain and raise livestock. His son Samuel, born in 1863, learned the industry of farming from his father while obtaining an education at the Iowa City Academy. Samuel later took possession of a quarter section of his father’s homestead and retired to North Liberty as one of the wealthiest and most progressive citizens of Johnson County.
The house itself, a Queen Anne Victorian modified with Colonial Revival style details, was notable even when it was built in 1908. According to the accounts of author Clarence Aurner, in his piece “Leading Events in Johnson County History,” c1913:
“Among the many beautiful homes for which North Liberty, Iowa, is noted, probably the most modem, up-to-date, and complete in every respect is that of Samuel Ranshaw. The house is completely plumbed for hot and cold water, both hard and soft, pumped by gasoline engine, and is also provided throughout with gasoline gas system for lighting. The interior finish is of the latest pattern and in keeping with the splendid exterior. Surely, its owner and his family are to be congratulated upon the possession of such a home as this.”
Local educator and historian Joan Alt Belknap said the house might have been the buzz of the community, for its modern conveniences were uncommon at the time.
“There were quite a few large houses in North Liberty already , but the home’s furnace, the dumbwaiter and those things would have caused a little bit of a stir,” said Belknap.
Belknap said she has seen several historic documents that indicate that the North Liberty area had a relatively well-educated population in the 1900s– her own grandfather’s family also attended the Iowa City Academy, an early secondary school which offered a business course tract– so it might not have been that unusual for a farmer to also possess a businss education, as Samuel Ranshaw had. However, Aurner praised Ranshaw’s spirit of enterprise in his pages of Johnson County’s history.
“Samuel Ranshaw is a farmer with a business education. This, plus native ability of a high order, accounts in part for his success,” Aurner wrote. “That it is the outcome of careful industry and management through years of toil goes without saying, for it is known that such homes do not grow on sluggard hushes nor spring, unhidden like mushrooms, from the soil of inactivity.”
Samuel and Emma Ranshaw’s magnificent house continued to impress generations, and life within its walls has offered lasting memories for many. Harlan Ranshaw, of Chariton, is one of Samuel’s six surviving grandchildren and the last male to carry on the Ranshaw name. Now 86 years old, Harlan recalls spending week-long vacations at his grandparents’ home before he turned 10 years old.
“It had U-shaped driveway up to the big front porch,” he said, the same porch where his parents, S. Raymond Ranshaw and Fern Swisher, met. “Just a little west of the house was a garage and a barn. I remember my grandparents had a really nice 1925 Buick that purred like a sewing machine, purchased same year I was born. I used to ride with them to West Branch, where they traded their eggs for feed and other things. Grandfather had a couple of horses and a big barn, and the street west of the house [what is now Highway 965] was the western edge of the 40 acres.”
Emma Ranshaw died in 1919, and Samuel remarried Rose Boyington in 1921. The second Mrs. Ranshaw passed away in 1936, and that was when the Ranshaw house and a 10-acre parcel on which it stood were sold outside the family.
In 1937, the house was purchased by the Burdick family of Iowa City, to the delight of the young Miss Margaret (Burdick) Morgan.
“My father and mother told the family that we were going to move to big house with a big yard and big barn,” Morgan recounted. She was 12 years old at the time, with a 9-year-old brother and a 4-year-old sister. “We were thrilled about our future, about moving into this great house. It was so beautiful, this big white house with gorgeous trees and a great big front yard and long gravel lane. It was a breathtaking view from the road.”
Margaret and her sister slept in one of the home’s four large upstairs bedrooms, and Margaret, now living in Iowa City, recalls many happy memories of her parents entertaining guests and hosting parties for her schoolmates in the graceful house.
“Dad bought us a pony and he bought us a sleigh,” she said. “I had parties for my friends in school. On Saturday and Sundays we had sleigh rides in the pasture, and mother would cook us lunch afterward.”
Margaret described the home’s parlor as “the most beautiful and elegant room possible. We had antique furniture, and there was a piano we played and sang around.” The home’s etched glass windows, most of which are still intact, were another stylish feature, as well as the columned pass-throughs from parlor to dining room to kitchen. Much of the home’s egg-and-dart style woodwork remains, and– remarkably– has not been painted over. The grand, winding staircase was the staging scene for of all three of Samuel Ranshaw’s daughters’ weddings, who descended the stairs to be married in front the home’s large bay window in order to accommodate all the guests who could not fit inside. The staircase, with its original wood finish, is still an impressive sight.
“I was really enamored,” said Margaret. She and Harlan Ranshaw have both become members of the North Bend Historic Committee and its efforts to bring the Ranshaw House back to its original splendor.
The home’s relegation to nothing but photos and memories now seems unlikely. In 2007, the North Bend Historical Committee petitioned for and received permission from the North Liberty City Council to plan for the home’s eventual restoration and use as a history/welcome center. The city has put a placeholder in its comprehensive plan for future funding of the project for the next several years. In 2010, the city received an $8,000 grant from Iowa’s Great Places program to repair its roof, and in 2011, Great Places awarded another $52,500 in grant funding for renovation and repairs on the structure.
Last Thursday’s decision by the Johnson County Historic Preservation Commission to approve the home’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places is another step toward its future funding, as the designation would make it eligible for additional historic preservation grants. After a June 8 review by the State Nomination Review Committee of the State Historical Society, and another state-level final review, the nomination can pass to the federal level.
It would be a dream-come-true for Harlan Ranshaw and Margaret Morgan to see the lovely home of their childhoods be recognized as a national treasure.
“I kept thinking they were going to tear it down. Then the city took over the land, and this little group of people decided they were going to try to save it. I think it’s fabulous,” Harlan said. “If you tear everything down, there is no memory of what it was like in the old days. I’m really proud of them.”
Margaret Morgan, who says the big tree still stands where her little sister played with dolls in its shade, agrees.
“We thought it was worth something. It was worth saving,” she said.

Next week: It’s back to the future for the Ranshaw House: what it takes to keep history alive in a modern day boomtown.